Mary Bryne emailed me an article about a Stanford University brain study that literally shows phonics is better for early reading instruction.
In the study, released this month in the journal Brain and Language, the researchers devised a new written language and contrasted whether words were taught using a letter-to-sound instruction method or a whole-word association method. After learning multiple words under both approaches, the newly learned words were presented in a reading test while brainwaves were monitored.
McCandliss’s team used a brain mapping technique that allowed them to capture brain responses to the newly learned words that are literally faster than the blink of an eye.
Remarkably, the researchers said, these very rapid brain responses to the newly learned words were influenced by how they were learned.
Words learned through the letter-sound instruction elicited neural activity biased toward the left side of the brain, which encompasses visual and language regions. In contrast, words learned via whole-word association showed activity biased toward right hemisphere processing.
McCandliss noted that this strong left hemisphere engagement during early word recognition is a hallmark of skilled readers, and is characteristically lacking in children and adults who are struggling with reading.
In addition, the study’s participants were subsequently able to read new words they had never seen before, as long as they followed the same letter-sound patterns they were taught to focus on. Within a split second, the process of deciphering a new word triggered the left hemisphere processes.
“Ideally, that is the brain circuitry we are hoping to activate in beginner readers,” McCandliss said.
By comparison, when the same participants memorized whole-word associations, the study found that they learned sufficiently to recognize those particular words on the reading test, but the underlying brain circuitry differed, eliciting electrophysiological responses that were biased toward right hemisphere processes.
“These contrasting teaching approaches are likely having such different impact on early brain responses because they encourage the learner to focus their attention in different ways,” McCandliss said. “It’s like shifting the gears of the mind – when you focus your attention on different information associated with a word, you amplify different brain circuits.”
A blast from the past from an article in EdWeek about the debate over prereading, they show the K-2 publishers criteria for Common Core does not match up with a focus on phonics.
The K-2 criteria echo those themes and allow for scaffolding “when necessary,” “prior to and during the first read” that focuses on “words and concepts that are essential to a basic understanding and that students are not likely to know or be able to determine from context.”
This critique of the Common Core came early and Sam Bluemenfeld pointed out at The New American.
The Core does deal with phonemic awareness but in the most complicated way possible. Simple intensive systematic phonics is nowhere to be found. This is basically a whole-language approach with phonemic awareness thrown in to give the impression that it is really teaching letter-sound equivalents. A glance over the bibliography shows references to university studies of reading that are as opaque as the Common Core Standards themselves.