Research indicates rethink on how we learn to read

University of Otago education researcher Associate Prof Claire Fletcher-Flinn and young reader Emilie Keach (5) share a story book. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
University of Otago education researcher Associate Prof Claire Fletcher-Flinn and young reader Emilie Keach (5) share a story book. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
It is ''time for a rethink'' about how children learn to read, University of Otago education researcher Associate Prof Claire Fletcher-Flinn believes.

And the findings of her research, just published in the journal, Frontiers in Psychology, could lead to a new way of thinking about how to do that.

In her research, Prof Fletcher-Flinn considered the idea that children were geared towards learning to read through storing words in the brain.

Her previous research with other colleagues showed that children started out learning to read in this way, but it had been unclear if this changed as they became proficient readers, she said.

Reading theories that advocated phonics - ''sounding out'' individual letters in words - claimed that children made significant changes over time in how they read new or unfamiliar words, but this had not been significantly tested, she said.

She had examined the further development of a young reader, named Maxine, whose early development from the age of 3 to 5 has been extensively described in a series of publications.

Prof Fletcher-Flinn found that along with an increase in accuracy and speed, Maxine's pattern of learning new or unfamiliar words was unchanged from a reading age of 8 to adult levels of performance.

Maxine had not learnt how to ''sound out'' words, so she did not use this method of reading.

The research suggested that once some words were stored in the child's brain, the brain's own sense of pattern-finding within words contributed to later reading-related learning. The results are consistent with her previous research showing that children who were progressing normally did not need to have the full set of phonics skills associated with ''sounding out'' in order to learn to read.

It now appeared that ''sounding out'' was not necessary, and if this approach was taught, it could even be a disadvantage and contribute to the mispronunciation errors that phonics-taught children, and adults, made when reading new or unfamiliar words that did not follow letter-sound correspondences as they were usually taught, she said.

Lots of reading and helpful feedback from Maxine's parents about a word's pronunciation and meaning had contributed to Maxine's progress in becoming an advanced reader, she said.

Kelly Keach, who has a postgraduate diploma in teaching from Otago University, said she was interested in the Otago research, and said that she and her husband, Chris, had read to their daughter, Emilie, throughout her life.

Emilie, who started school this week, is already a keen reader.

- john.gibb@odt.co.nz