Recently, I had the opportunity and pleasure to interview the esteemed Dr. Truch of the Reading Foundation. Similar to Dr. Bowers, Dr. Truch shared the criticism of traditional phonics instruction being too focused on the sounds letters make. As both Dr. Truch and Dr. Bowers point out the English language often has multiple letters and letter combinations that can make the same sounds. While Dr. Bowers has focused his instructional strategies on the meanings associated with different sounds/letter combinations (morphology) Dr. Truch has focused his instruction on teaching sounds before letters, an approach referred to in the literature as linguistic phonics. So for example, rather than teaching the letter F and its correlated sound, Dr. Truch would teach the F sound and the associated letters/digraphs that can make this sound. Whereas, Dr. Bowers would teach the meaning/context behind each letter combination that makes the F sound. I have to admit, the linguistic phonics approach made a lot of intuitive sense to me, and appears easier for teachers to learn/implement.
So I decided to examine the meta-analysis evidence within the NRP study on the topic. Well admittedly, the NRP meta-analysis did not specifically look at linguistic phonics, it did look at the effect sizes of several popular phonics programs, 3 of which Dr. Truch identified as linguistic phonics programs: Jolly Phonics, the Orton-Gillingham program, and the Lovett Direct Instruction program. I went back into the NRP data and extracted this information to create a secondary meta-analysis of this topic. Next, I looked for some more recent studies on Linguistic Phonics to add to my meta-analysis in order to bolster the power of my research. However, I was only able to find one study that met my criteria, by Hurford et al. I ultimately decided not to include the study, as it would be overweight, when compared to the primary meta-analyses included. Lastly, I compared the results, with the overall effect size of both phonics and morphology instruction.
Unfortunately, the results were less impressive than I would have hoped. Linguistic phonics did underperform, both phonics overall and morphology overall. That being said, I do think there are some significant limitations with this research. For starters, these meta-analysis effect sizes are powered by a small number of studies, compared to phonics overall. Whereas the phonics overall effect size is powered by over a 1000 studies, my secondary meta-analysis effect size for Linguistic Phonics is powered only by 16 studies. Additionally, as Dr. Truch pointed out in my interview, while the effect sizes were not impressive, the mean differences were on average much higher, meaning that these differences were brought down by high standard deviation calculations,when calculated into an effect size. Dr. Truch argues that the statistical difference or the raw mean impact of an intervention is actually more important than the calculated effect size. While I'm not sure that I agree with Dr. Truch on this point, I do find his approach conceptually very compelling.
Ultimately, I think we can see a continuum of difficulty and conceptual accuracy with the different types of phonological instruction types. Whereas analytic phonics requires the least direct instruction and expertise, and phonological instruction that includes morphological instruction likely requires the most expertise and direct instruction. Additionally, I think it is fair to say that the types of instruction that require more expertise, are also more conceptually accurate. That being said, this inevitably provides a trade off, between ease of implementation and conceptual accuracy. I think linguistic phonics on its surface appears to offer a good trade off between these two factors and therefore, could prove to be pedagogically valuable. That being said, the statistical evidence does not support my hypothesis. However, given the conceptual value of the idea and the very limited number of studies, I would very much like to see more research on this topic.
-NRP. (2001). Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence Based Assessment of the Scientific Literature on Reading Instruction. United States Government. Retrieved from <https://www.nichd.nih.gov/sites/default/files/publications/pubs/nrp/Documents/report.pdf>.
-Hurford, D. P., Lasater, K. A., McMahon, A. B., Kiesling, N. E., Carter, M. L., & Hurford, T. E. (2013). The Results of a Scripted Linguistic Phonics Reading Curriculum Implemented by Kindergarten Teachers. Journal of Educational Research & Policy Studies, 13(3), 33–50.