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Variability in Learning Phonic Skills

2012-11-07

Many educators have long believed that when words differ on only one sound, early readers can learn the rules of phonics by focusing on what is different between the words. This is thought to be a critical gateway to reading words and sentences. But scientists at the University of Iowa are turning that thinking on its head.

A recent study published in Developmental Psychology shows certain kinds of variation in words may help early readers learn better. When children see the same phonics regularities, embedded in words with more variation, they may learn these crucial early reading skills better. What might appear to make learning a more difficult task – learning about letter-sound relationships from words with more variation – actually leads to better learning.

Doctoral student Keith Apfelbaum and associate professors Bob McMurray and Eliot Hazeltine of the Department of Psychology in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) studied 224 first-grade students in the West Des Moines, Iowa school system over a period of three months. The group used a version of an online supplementary curriculum called Access Code.

Access Code was developed by Foundations in Learning, a company founded by Carolyn Brown and Jerry Zimmermann. Brown and Zimmermann earned their doctorates from and are now adjunct faculty in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, also in CLAS. Based on the Varied Practice Model, which helps children master early reading skills like phonics, the research team used Access Code to conduct the study directly in the classroom.

During the study that targeted grapheme-phoneme-correspondence of vowels, one group of students learned using lists of words with a small, less variable set of consonants, such as maid, mad, paid, and pad. This is close to traditional phonics instruction, which uses similar words to help illustrate the rules and, presumably, simplify the problem for learners. A second group of students learned using a list of words that was more variable, such as bait, sad, hair, and gap, but which embodied the same rules.

After three or four days of training on phonics skills, partaking in activities such as spelling and matching letters, the students from both groups were tested to see if they could read words that they had never seen before, read novel non-words, and apply their newly-learned skills to tasks they hadn’t done before.

Results showed that variation led to much better learning. Students experiencing more variation in words showed better learning when tested on the words and tasks they encountered in training. More importantly, it helped them generalize these new skills to new words, and to new tasks. Variability improved reading skills for low-perfoming as well as high-performing students. On the other hand, struggling students exposed to the word list using similar words did not show any learning at all.

According to the researchers, the results suggest that the principles of Varied Practice also apply to early reading skills. Varied practice is a method in which the content or context is varied during the practice trials opposed to block practice, which focuses on the same skill or context.


Text adapted with courtesy of Iowa Now.

 
 

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