Monday, April 19, 2010

What Research Says About Using Phonics to Improve Adult and Adolescent Literacy

I wrote an article for a research packet provided by Reading Horizons available online, and I included it below. The article highlights some of the key problems associated with the lack of sufficient literacy skills in adolescents and adults, and the role that phonics plays in addressing these issues.
“As the key that allows access to many forms of knowledge and information, reading literacy is perhaps the skill most critical to learning” (emphasis added). --The National Assessment of Educational Progress

As summarized in the preceding quote, reading is a crucial skill. Because reading is so important, the discipline of reading has captured the attention of many researchers. The best approaches to teaching reading have been investigated, including those put forth by the National Reading Panel (2000). Educators, in turn, seek the most appropriate methods to teach reading. Reading is a complex process that requires the ability to appropriately orchestrate several different processes in order to achieve the ultimate goal of reading—comprehension. Struggling readers, however, often lack the foundational skills required to comprehend what they read. Without appropriate intervention, these readers experience alarming consequences as illustrated in data collected for adolescent and adult readers.
A Profile of the Problem
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which tests the reading ability of America’s fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-grade students, over eight million students struggle with the reading and writing tasks required of them in school (2002). In addition, the National Education Goals Panel (1995) reported that only 28% of eighth graders and 34% of twelfth graders attain proficient reading levels. Furthermore, just over one-third of high school seniors read proficiently (NEA, 2007). When literacy needs are left unaddressed, there are serious consequences.
Poor literacy is the number one risk indicator for students’ dropping out of school. Deficient readers are far more likely than skilled readers to drop out. In their report, To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) (2007) reports that one-half of adolescents in America that are below a basic reading level and one-third of readers who read at a basic reading level drop out of high school. In addition, only 70% of high school students earn a diploma on time.
Poor literacy skills affect the ultimate educational level attained by students. Many students lack the literacy skills needed to continue their education. It is estimated that only one-third of high school students graduate with the literacy skills that are needed to do well in college (Deshler, et. al., 2006).
Today, almost 40% of high school graduates lack the reading and writing skills that employers seek, and almost one-third of high school graduates who do enroll in college require remediation. (Deshler, et. al., 2006) Additionally, 38% of employers observe that high school graduates are deficient in reading comprehension, and one in five U.S. workers read at a lower skill level than what is required by their job (NEA, 2007). This results in serious economic consequences for individuals, state governments, and the nation.
Factors that Contribute to the Literacy Deficit
What contributes to this literacy deficit? Three contributors to the deficit in adolescent and adult reading proficiency levels include: 1) the presence of learning disabilities; 2) the fact that reading is a declining activity among teenagers and adults; and 3) secondary teachers receive limited training in adolescent literacy instruction. Each factor is discussed in more detail below.
Learning disabilities are common sources of reading problems. The most common and carefully studied learning disability is dyslexia, which affects five to 17 percent of the school-aged population, and affects 80 percent of individuals who are characterized as having a learning disability (Shaywitz & Shaywitz, 2001). Dyslexia affects reader’s ability to convert visual information into sounds, which makes it difficult to decode words and identify them. Fortunately, however, research has shown that the brain can be “rewired” to learn these relationships with intensive phonics training (Shaywitz, S., 2003). It is important to identify and address these deficits. Shaywitz & Shaywitz (2001) assert that “both dyslexic and non-impaired readers improve their reading scores as they get older, but studies show that the gap between the dyslexic and the non-impaired readers remains” (p. 3). In addition, Archer, et. al. (2003) report that, “74% of students identified with reading disabilities in third grade continue to have significant reading challenges in ninth grade (p. 89),” which illustrates the importance of providing appropriate intervention in intensive, systematic phonics training to struggling readers.
A second contributing factor to low literacy skills is the fact that reading is declining as an activity among teenagers. Less than one-third of 13-year-olds in America read daily, and fifteen- to 24-year-olds spend 7-10 minutes a day reading voluntarily (NEA, 2007). When reading does occur, it often competes with other forms of media, which suggests “less focused engagement with a text” (p. 10). Struggling readers are less often engaged in text because they are less motivated to read (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). Consequently, as the complexity of text increases, students fall further behind.
A third factor that contributes to the challenges of appropriately addressing adolescent literacy deficits is the fact that secondary teachers receive limited training in adolescent literacy instruction. All secondary teachers are not expected to be trained in teaching foundational literacy skills; however, if content teachers were familiar with some of the literacy strategies used by the reading specialist or special education teacher, they could pre-teach difficult vocabulary and their class could decode difficult words together (NIFL, 2008). In addition, secondary teachers are often frustrated that remediation services are less available and less effective for their struggling adolescent students than they are for struggling young readers and that fewer resources are directed to secondary schools for literacy. Reading and literacy specialists, administrators, and teachers are all important resources to systematically address struggling readers’ needs (NIFL, 2008).
What Should Be Taught?
Snow, Burns, and Griffin (1998) assert that if three areas of reading were appropriately addressed, reading difficulties would be prevented. These three areas include: 1) knowledge of the alphabetic principle; 2) fluency; and 3) comprehension. The alphabetic principle, through further review by the National Reading Panel, has been elaborated to include phonemic awareness (the ability to manipulate sounds) and phonics (the knowledge of letter and sound correspondence). Phonemic awareness and phonics provide the necessary foundation for achieving fluency and comprehension; therefore, these foundational skills must be addressed.
Most children gather some level of phonemic awareness in their younger years. However, if phonemic awareness has not been fully developed and implemented, middle school and high school students may have difficulty when they encounter unfamiliar words. The National Institute for Literacy (2008) reports that “research has found that instruction in decoding, word recognition, and spelling help improve phonemic awareness for students who have difficulty understanding how to blend sounds to articulate unfamiliar words (p. 1). In addition, “phonics helps students to recognize familiar words and decode new ones, providing these students a predictable, rules-based system for reading” (p. 1).
Researchers estimate that one out of 10 adolescents have serious struggles with word identification (Curtis and Longo, 1999), which is a problem that usually stems from difficulties with phonological word analysis (Kamil, 2006; NIFL, 2008). In a study conducted with 346 adolescent readers, Deshler, et. al. (2005) investigated which reading skills adolescents had mastered, and which skills they had not. After analyzing several reading assessments, the researchers found that struggling adolescent readers who performed at or below the 40th percentile “need intensive word-level interventions in addition to comprehension interventions” (p. 2), including decoding and word recognition. Further investigation reveals that over half of the struggling adolescents in urban schools struggle with word-level reading (Hock, et. al., 2009). They conclude that adequate skills in word level reading, as suggested by the National Reading Panel (2000), must be addressed if proficient reading is to be achieved.
Word recognition is “the foundational process of reading and is needed to support vocabulary attainment and reading comprehension” (Archer, et. al, 2003, p. 90). The ultimate goal of reading is comprehension. In order to achieve this goal of comprehension, students must have the necessary foundation of phonological decoding skills at the word level to allow them to read individual words and strings of words fluently (Archer, et. al., 2003; Hudson, et. al., 2005; NIFL, 2008). Phonological decoding at the word level is a stepping stone to fluency and comprehension.
Difficulties with word-level reading have been found to be a major influence on reading comprehension (Jenkins et al., 2003; Stanovich, 1991). Slow, belabored decoding overloads short-term memory and impedes comprehension. Readers must learn to process words so automatically and effortlessly that they have the mental energy and capacity left to construct and reflect on meaning and message. There are many effective approaches that can be used to increase fluency and comprehension, but the fact remains that decoding skills must precede fluency. Decoding skills must be developed to the point that decoding occurs effortlessly, known as automaticity. While this ability comes easily for some students, for others, it takes a great deal of decoding practice to master this skill.
Phonics for English Speakers of Other Languages
Phonics instruction is also effective in English for Speakers of Other Language (ESOL) classrooms. Although phonics has historically not been an area of emphasis in second language reading, several researchers and educators suggest that the teaching of phonics skills is an effective approach to teaching the foundational skills necessary for literacy development (Birch, 2007; Eskey, 1998; Jones, 1996; Fish, et. al., 2007). Jones (1996) asserts that “the question should no longer be whether to teach phonics as a part of adult ESL instruction, but how this might be done most effectively” (p. 2). (For more information on phonics for ESOL students, click here.)

In summary, students need to be trained in hearing sounds and joining them into words, accurate decoding is required for skilled reading, and automatic recognition of words improves comprehension. Although more research is needed in the area of phonemic awareness and phonics with adolescents (NIFL, 2008), existing research is promising. As Kamil (2003) states, “We do know enough about adolescent literacy to make positive changes today” (29).

Archer, A., M. Gleason, and V. Vachon (2003). Decoding and fluency: Foundational skills for struggling older readers. Learning Disability Quarterly, 26, 89-101.

Birch, B. M, (2002). English L2 Reading: Getting to the Bottom. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Curtis, M. E., & Longo, A. M. (1999). When adolescents can’t read: Methods and materials that work. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.

Deshler, D., Hock, M. & Catts, H. (2006). Enhancing outcomes for struggling adolescent readers. Perspectives, 32, 21-25.
Eskey, D. (1993). Holding in the bottom: An interactive approach to the language problems of second language readers. In P. Carrell, J. Devine, & D. Eskey (Eds.), Interactive approaches to second language reading. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Fish, B. Knell, E., & Buchanan, H. (2007). Teaching literacy to preliterate adults: The top and the bottom. AEIS 5(2). Available at
Hock, M.F., Brasseur, I.F., Deshler, D.D., Catts, H.W., Mark, C., & Marquis, J.G. (2009). What is the reading component skill profile of adolescent struggling readers in urban schools? Learning Disability Quarterly, 32(1), 21-39.

Hudson, O., Lane, P., & Pullen, V. (2005). Reading fluency assessment and instruction: What, why, and how? The Reading Teacher, 58, 702-713.
Jenkins, J. R., Fuchs, L.S., van den Broek, P. Espin, C. & Deno, S. L. (2003). Sources of individual differences in reading comprehension and reading fluency. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 719-729.
Kamil, M. L. (2003). Adolescents and literacy: Reading for the 21st century. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.
Jones, M. L. (1996). Phonics in ESL literacy instruction: Functional or not? Proceedings of the 1996 World Conference on Literacy. Philadelphia, PA: International Literacy Institute.

National Assessment of Educational Progress (2002). The nation’s report card: Reading. National Center for Education Statistics, US Department of Education: Washington, DC. Retrieved March 8, 2010 from
National Endowment for the Arts. (2007). To Read or Not to Read: A question of national consequence. Research Report #47. Retrieved March 10, 2010 from /.
National Education Goals Panel. (1995) National education goals report: Building a nation of learners. Washington, DC: Author.
National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Reports of the subgroups. Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
National Institute for Literacy (NIFL). (2008). Key literacy component: Decoding. Retrieved March 8, 2010 from
Shaywitz, S., & Shaywitz, B. (2001). The neurobiology of reading and dyslexia. In Focus on Basics, Volume 5, Issue A, August 2001. Retrieved on March 8, 2010 from
Shaywitz, S. E. (2005). Overcoming Dyslexia: A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level . New York: Vintage Books.

Snow, C. E., Burns, M. S., & Griffin, P. (Eds.) (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children.Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Stanovich, K. E. (1991). Word recognition: Changing perspectives. In R. Barr, M. L. Kamil, P. Mosenthal, & P. D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (Volume 2, pp. 418-452). New York: Longman.


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