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Home Ask A REL What does the research say about the effectiveness of using a systematic phonics approach to teaching reading?

What does the research say about the effectiveness of using a systematic phonics approach to teaching reading?

Northeast & Islands | May 01, 2020

Following an established REL Northeast & Islands research protocol, we conducted a search for recent research on phonics approaches to teaching reading. We focused on identifying resources that specifically addressed research on systematic phonics approaches to teaching reading. The sources searched included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, academic research databases, and general Internet search engines (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response and we offer them only for your reference. Because our search for references is based on the most commonly used resources of research, it is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist.

Research References

  1. Henry, E. (2020). A Systematic Multisensory Phonics Intervention for Older Struggling Readers: Action Research Study. Networks: An Online Journal for Teacher Research, 22(1).
    From the abstract: “Upper elementary readers who persist with reading difficulties face both academic and emotional challenges when they do not make reading gains equal to their peers. Decades of research has shown that persistent treatment resisters respond positively to a systematic multisensory phonics intervention. In my action research study, I examined how 5th and 6th grade struggling readers responded to a multisensory phonics intervention. Following the eight-week intervention, students made gains in word reading accuracy and demonstrated increased confidence in word reading skills. Implications of the study bolster the importance of providing phonics instruction to older struggling readers.”
  2. Martínez, A. M. (2011). Explicit and Differentiated Phonics Instruction as a Tool to Improve Literacy Skills for Children Learning English as a Foreign Language. GIST Education and Learning Research Journal, 5, 25-49 Nov.
    From the abstract: “Explicit systematic phonics instruction is more effective for native English-speaking children learning to read and write than non-explicit phonics instruction (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). This study goes beyond native speakers and explores the effects that systematic and explicit phonics instruction has on young students learning English as a Foreign Language (EFL). Moreover, phonics instruction for EFL students was differentiated: the instructional time, instructional sequence and phonics vocabulary were adapted to meet EFL students' needs. The findings show that, not only does explicit and differentiated phonics instruction have a positive effect for EFL learners in reading comprehension, but also that the differentiation of it has a considerable impact on EFL students' literacy skills in general.”
  3. Robinson, J. (2018). Evaluation of Teaching Methods to Improve Reading Performance of English Language Learners. Journal for the Advancement of Educational Research International, 12(1), 25-33.
    From the abstract: “This paper presents an evaluation of two reading methods, phonics-based instruction and whole language learning, for English Language Learners (ELLs) and discusses the learning theories, behaviorism and constructivism that are associated with each method, respectively. The study took place in a K-12 international school, with 110 Grade 1 subjects and 83 Grade 2 students. The author's earlier preliminary investigation of ELL reading teaching methods in the same international school, during the previous year, prompted this paper's follow-up analysis. At issue was a significant decrease in reading achievement of Grade 2 classes after changing the Grade 1 reading curriculum from a phonics-based approach to one of whole language learning. In the year following the whole language in reading classes, the phonics program returned. For purposes of this study, three Grade 1 classes were observed to observe reading achievement based on the different reading methods, including comparisons of whole language with two intensities of phonics instruction. The measurement of reading performance included standardized tests for reading achievement. Statistical analysis used t-tests and one-way ANOVA. The study found that students in Grade 1 profited significantly from having intensive phonics-based instruction as a major part of the reading program. Also, Grade 2 students with accommodating teaching methods in the early years of schooling can make important gains after significant setbacks.”
  4. Sitthitikul, P. (2014). Theoretical Review of Phonics Instruction for Struggling/Beginning Readers of English. PASAA: Journal of Language Teaching and Learning in Thailand, 48, 113-126.
    From the abstract: “Learning to read is a complex task for beginners of English. They must coordinate many cognitive processes to read accurately and fluently, including recognizing words, constructing the meanings of sentences and text, and retaining the information read in memory. An essential part of the process for beginners involves learning the alphabetic system, including, letter-sound correspondences and spelling patterns, and learning how to apply this knowledge in their reading (National Reading Panel, 2000). Systematic phonics instruction is a way of teaching reading that stresses the acquisition of letter-sound correspondences and their use to read and spell words (Harris & Hodges, 1995). Although phonics instruction is primarily designed for L1 beginners in the primary grades and for children having difficulty learning to read, it can be applied to L2 learners to make use of sound-symbol, vocabulary, and meaning to decode and comprehend texts (Bernhardt, 2000). This paper reviews critical notions in regard to phonics instruction in order to provide sufficient background information for those new in this topic. Some useful pedagogical instructions are also presented, which could be applied to L2 learners.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

What Works Clearinghouse (WWC).
From the website: “The What Works Clearinghouse is an investment of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) within the U.S. Department of Education that was established in 2002. The work of the WWC is managed by a team of staff at IES and conducted under a set of contracts held by several leading firms with expertise in education, research methodology, and the dissemination of education research. Follow the links to find more information about the key staff from American Institutes for Research, Mathematica Policy Research, Abt Associates, and Development Services Group, Inc who contribute to the WWC investment. For details about the staff who conduct study reviews under specific topic areas, see the WWC review teams.”

Selected reference:

U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, What Works Clearinghouse. (2017, September). Leveled Literacy Intervention. What Works Clearinghouse Intervention Report.
From the abstract: “Leveled Literacy Intervention" ("LLI") is a short-term, supplementary, small-group literacy intervention designed to help struggling readers achieve grade-level competency. The intervention provides explicit instruction in phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, reading comprehension, oral language skills, and writing. "LLI" helps teachers match students with texts of progressing difficulty and deliver systematic lessons targeted to a student's reading ability. The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) identified two studies of "LLI" that fall within the scope of the Beginning Reading topic area and meet WWC group design standards. Two studies meet WWC group design standards without reservations, and no studies meet WWC group design standards with reservations. Together, these studies included 747 students in grades K-2 in 22 schools in three school districts across three states. "LLI" had positive effects on general reading achievement, potentially positive effects on reading fluency, and no discernible effects on alphabetics for beginning readers.”

U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, What Works Clearinghouse. (2014, December). Academy of READING®. What Works Clearinghouse Intervention Report
From the abstract: “"Academy of READING"® is an online program that aims to improve students' reading skills using a structured and sequential approach to learning in five core areas--phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) identified 38 studies of "Academy of READING"® for adolescent readers that were published or released between 1989 and 2013. Only one of the studies met the WWC criteria for an eligible sample and research design, as described in the Adolescent Literacy review protocol. This study does not meet WWC group design standards. Therefore, more research is needed to determine the impacts of "Academy of READING"® on adolescent readers. A glossary of terms is included.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

systematic phonics approach reading

Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and PsychInfo.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of the publication: References and resources published for last 9 years, from 2011 to present, were included in the search and review.

Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, academic databases, including WWC, ERIC, and NCEE.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types – randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, etc., generally in this order; (b) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected, etc.), study duration, etc.; (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, etc.

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