Linnea Ehri


“Ok. Um Linnea Ehri. L-I-N-N-E-A E-H-R-I. I’m at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
“CUNY. Well people say it both ways but I think CUNY is… (Laughs)

“Hmm. Um u…k. Um in describing the uh components of literacy acquisition uh in a broad way um you need to begin with the early years uh before students even begin school. Um what happens to children uh in the home is uh important. Um the two best predictors of how well a child will learn to read are uh letter knowledge and phonemic awareness which involves uh the ability to focus on and manipulate sounds in words. So a uh a foundation can be established before children uh begin kindergarten. Um also it’s important for children to enter school with an adequate uh knowledge of English. If their learning to read in English they need a uh especially a vocabulary uh in English um a…and vocabulary means understanding uh the meanings of words as well as the pronunciations um how the words work in sentences um and understanding sentences requires background knowledge. So uh..uh in short children need knowledge of English. (Laughs). Um but because the process of learning to read uh is uh heavily focused on word learning, on building a lexicon of of words that children can recognize uh by sight. It’s especially important for them to have a spoken vocabulary uh so that when they see written words, the written words get bonded to the pronunciations of words and meanings of words in memory. That’s a key ingredient in learning to read uh during those early years. Uh so that’s why there’s a focus on oral language development uh as well as knowledge of print and uh how the writing system works. Um reading to children uh during those early years is important for helping to build a vocabulary and a knowledge of language uh that familiarizes them with the kinds of sentences they encounter in written language and books. Um so uh preparation in terms of hearing stories uh is part of literacy acquisition in those early years. Um then once children enter kindergarten uh it’s essential that they learn to identify, name, write, remember the shapes and sounds of letters. Um it begins with usually typically with uh naming letters and then um uh exercises to uh help them apply their letter knowledge in in simple kinds of tasks. Um but as I said phonemic awareness and letter knowledge are important to uh uh teach children during that during the kindergarten uh year so that this presumes that they begin learning to read in first grade. So uh preparation uh occurs during the kindergarten year. Also reading to children, developing their vocabulary uh all of that is important during their kindergarten year. Uh and then when children begin first grade uh typically formal reading instruction begins. Um it’s important to recognize that uh there’s no single key to success in learning to read. Uh there are multiple components and all of these need to be addressed in instruction in order for children to develop skill as a a reader. And so uh at the first grade level, um developing knowledge of the alphabetic system is uh especially important. Um learning uh letter sound relations, learning to apply those in reading words um in writing words. Uh in terms of writing children first begin by inventing um sound spellings of words. So they hear the sounds in words and then they write letters uh for the sounds. They learn how to use their letter knowledge to do that. Um they begin to build a sight vocabulary. They learn how to decode words. Um and then uh children u…of course need experience reading text where they apply the skills that they’re acquiring. Um boy, (laughs saying) it’s a com…there’s a there’s a lot involved in reading and uh uhhh I hate to see people oversimplify it by saying it’s this or it’s that. You know it’s a lot. And uh all of those things have to be taken into account. Uh linguistic factors, um uh e know…background knowledge just the meanings of of words. Uh how the language works. Um (pause)…

“Well um this assumes that children have developed normally as readers so they have uh their reading uh they’ve built a a lexicon of s…uh sight words. They they have um grade level knowledge of sight words. Um they can uh decode words that are unfamiliar when they encounter them in text. So it assumes that. Um (pause) what’s important as you move up in the grades is uh of course being able to read and comprehend the text that you’re reading. Um so various uh programs various techniques are available for teachers to teach um uh the use of comprehension strategies that uh enable those children who might be struggling uh to understand especially expository text is more difficult. And as you move up in the grades more of your reading deals not with fiction narrative but non-narrative text where the concepts might be unfamiliar. You’ve go to learn the material from your reading uh not from listening to the teacher. Um often o…h hopefully teachers will supplement uh written information with oral, um previewing of information, explaining difficult concepts and all. But children are expected to acquire new information from reading in the upper grades. So uh teachers who teach comprehension strategies um enable children to do a better job. And comprehension strategies involve monitoring uh the meaning of what you’re reading. Um sensing when e…something doesn’t fit. When you have to go back and reread something. Encountering a new word. Recognizing this is a new word. I better figure out what it means from the context or I better as the teacher or look up up in the dictionary. But something especially if the word is critical f…for the meaning of the text you’re reading. Um uh let’s see, um (pause) um… Calling on uh background knowledge that you have when you’re reading a text um is important to help elaborate uh the information. Um often texts are maybe sparse in how much uh information is included. The author may expect the reader to know something and the reader uh is so so the reader has to recruit that knowledge from their what they already know to continue to get meaning from the text. So there are a number of these uh comprehension strategies that teachers can that a...and it’s important t…for teachers to model these strategies uh for children to show them how how it works when they’re reading. And then to have children um do think alouds as they’re reading uh so that the teacher can see that the children are incorporating the strategies that they’ve taught the children. Um and e…you know those are somewhat comple…complex uh processes to uh address in the upper grades but i…it’s really essential, especially with the more difficult text; es…expository text that um uh children are gonna have trouble with.

“Well typically…you mean in the primary grades? Uh typically the um text that children read uh in first, second grade um uh need to be uh uh the the meaning needs to be uh easily processed, transparent. Um and the kind of text that children are most familiar with involve narrative stories. So um the majority of the materials that beginners are given to read uh will involve uh simple stories uh because uh decoding is such um a problem for children that when you add on uh i…i conceptual difficulty in terms of the meaning then the children are gonna struggle even more in their reading. So typically children don’t read uh expository text during the early grades. However there’s um growing interest in in developing text that children will be able to read and understand. Uh so more more of the expository forms of um infor…written information are being developed. But um for the most part um children deal with narratives. that what you…? (Laughs)

“Well uh narrative texts are more engaging for children. Um uh children have heard stor…your typical uh beginner has heard stories read by the teacher, by a preschool teacher, a first grade teacher, parent so they’re more familiar with that uh genre. Um it’s easier then for them to assimilate the information uh into a a story grammar a a th…forms. They they know what to expect. Um especially there’s been some research, not my research, but other research suggesting that that stories that uh uh continue for example the Har…Harry Potter is uh for a slightly older child but but stories that build on the sa…around the that are built around the same character um uh are uh easier for children to comprehend and uh or or easy to read in…greater int…interest to children and help them develop their reading skills. Um so I guess the uh reason why narrative is more popular early on is because conceptually it’s easier to understand. Children are familiar with that genre. Um uh the w…the the words that children wo…word reading is central. Um that’s the key feature that makes text easy or difficult and so it’s easier to develop uh text around uh the narrative text, around the sight words that children have already learned to read or the the words are decodable. When you get into expository text you’re s…you’re dealing with new concepts uh and often new words. Uh so that makes the text harder to read and complicates the comprehension process for young children.

“Ok. Um I was a member of the National Reading Panel and I was uh Chair of the Alphabetic Subgroup of that uh report. The purpose of the report was to review uh what research had to say about effective reading instruction. Uh we were directed to look at scientifically valid evidence, uh it was a evidence based report, uh so experiments are the strongest form of scientific evidence. Be…they allow researchers to draw inference about cause, uh what types of instruction produced, um uh superior uh acquisition of of reading skills. So as Chair of the Alphabetic Subgroup um at uh… committee and I decided to focus on uh phonemic awareness instruction and also phonics instruction. Um there’ve been a number of studies conducted uh number of experiments conducted of both types of instruction. And uh so in one of our reports we examined um the effectiveness of phonemic awareness instruction on uh learning to read during the early grades. Um now phonemic, well, do do you want me to go on about the reports? (Laughs) Ok. Ok. Ok. Um phonemic awareness refers to the ability to segment words into sounds. For example bed has three sounds: (sounds out b-e-d) buh-eeh-duh. Um stop has four sounds: (sounds out s-t-o-p) sss-tuh-awh-puh. Um there are various types of phonemic awareness. You can ask children…you can teach children to to uh blend sounds to form words like (sounds out b-e-d) buh-eeh-duh. What word is that? Bed. Um or you can teach children to segment words into the sounds. Se…tell me the sounds in stop. Some children would go sss-tuh-awh-puh. Um you can uh supplement phonemic awareness instruction with letters so that in addition to having children identify the sounds in words you can have them identify the letters that correspond to those sounds. Likewise with blending. You can show them uh three letters and have them say the sounds and then blend the sounds. Um so uh various studies have been conducted to examine the effectiveness of this type of instruction on how well children will learn to read. And results suggest that um there are very strong effects uh that result from this type of instruction. Um uh the effects are especially strong at the kindergarten preschool level. Um they’re still significant but slightly diminished first. Uh s…second grade most of the studies done at the upper grade level, second grade and beyond, were done with uh poor readers, children st…that are struggling to read. And uh certainly there are uh effects that this type of uh instruction does help disabled readers improve in their reading. But their effects aren’t quite as strong as they are among uh younger children. The size of the effect uh on reading ability uh is influenced by uh several factors. Um uh let’s see (laughs) uh the size of the group uh it turns out makes a difference. Uh small group instruction is is especially effective for teaching phonemic awareness. It’s it’s as effective if not more effective than one on one instruction um which is nice for teachers because (laughs saying) they can work more easily with small groups. Uh teachers are effective at teaching phonemic awareness. Uh certainly that was a concern of the Panel to show to find out whether teachers could do this or whether it was only something that a specialist could do. And the research shows that teachers are effective. Um they’ve a…and these studies uh researchers have come in and taught teachers how to teach phonemic awareness and um results of these studies show that that the children do better under these circumstances. Um phonemic awareness instruction doesn’t have to last uh a long time. Uh results of these studies show that uh less than twenty hours on instruction is effective in teaching children phonemic awareness so that it transfers to reading and also spelling development. Uh and then in terms of phonics instruction we did a meta-analysis of the studies looking at effect size that results from um uh the impact of phonics instruction. We had various kinds of phonics instruction. Uh one type involves synthetic phonics where you teach children to sound out and blend uh individual letters. Uh so dealing at the letter sound level um in terms of graphemes and phonemes other studies uh added larger uh subsyllabic units such as onsets and rhymes. And so some studies focused on that as the unit uh to teach children how to uh read words. Now all of these studies involved systematic phonics instruction of one or another sort. Uh so it wasn’t casual as needed. It was all uh programmed by the materials. And uh results suggested that that phonics instruction was more effective forms of causal as needed uh instruction or whole word instruction. Um (pause) we looked at several kinds of control groups, whole whole word control groups, whole language control groups, uh and phonics instruction was superior to all those alternative forms um to teach children reading skills, reading and also comprehension skills. Uh this phonics instruction uh facilitated uh comprehension.

“Oh! (Laughs) (Long pause) Well clearly teachers are not researchers and uh however um I think they a…they as consumers of uh reading materials um u…they should ask about the research um basis for materials that they’re that they use. They should uh expect publishers of reading materials to document uh evidence to pro…provide at s…identify at least studies that show the effectiveness of of these materials. I think in the past um uh other factors have influenced uh how materials get into the hands of teachers. And uh I think the National Reading Panel report and other reports have have uh e…shown the importance of finding evidence for the practices that teachers use. So although teachers can’t be expected to do research themselves they can ask for research. And then they can um use their own experience to determine whether what they’re given teach really is effective. And uh I think that in doing that teachers need to think of they need to understand the processes that children are acquiring when they learn to read. Um they need to understand the relationship between the instructional practices that they’re using and the processes that children are expected to acquire. And then they need to have observational tools that they can use to see whether children are are acquiring those processes like decoding skills, phonemic awareness, um uh oral reading of text, comprehension. There are various um uh l…tools that child…that teachers can use to uh make sure that children are making progress. Uh and so they need to use these to uh verify that the materials that they’re using are effective. Um uh of the various e…uh my interest is especially in uh acquisition of reading during first grade and phonemic awareness, inventive spellings, learning the alphabetic system is especially important during that period. So um uh teachers should be aware of the value of uh phonemic awareness tasks where children are asked to uh write sound spellings of words. You get the best picture of how much children know about the alphabetic system when they’re asked to generate uh letters for the sounds and words. Um so that e…e (laughs) I forget what the question was but let’s see…what teachers can take away from the report.

“Ok. Ok. Um it a…it’s important to think of phonemic awareness uh in terms of levels of difficulty. Uh so it would be easiest for children to identify the first sounds in words. That that’s a relatively easy phonemic awareness task. Um it’s oral so what’s the first sound in boy? (Sounds out b) Buh. Um then there’s slightly harder phonemic awareness tasks which would ask children to segment boy into it’s sounds so they might go (sounds out b-o-y) buh-oooy or buh-ooy (laughs) I guess um uh or buh-at uh but that’s done orally. And then slightly harder than that would be to use your letter knowledge to represent those sounds um with letters. So for uh um (pause) beach for example they might pull out a B and then an H. Um now why would they pick an H? Because the name of the letter H has ch in the in it’s name and that’s the sound you hear at the end of beach. So um children use their knowledge of letter names to represent the sounds that they hear in words. Um so uh phonemic awareness uh…uh uh can be done simply by just identifying single sounds in words or multiple sounds um or using letters to represent those sounds. Um and what was the rest of the question? (Laughs) Oh oh, ok. So the spelling side…actually inventing spellings of words is a form of phonemic awareness where you identi…you segment sounds of words and then you uh identify letters that represent those sounds. And it’s very important for children to reach a point where they can u…produce complete sound spellings of words. The vowels are especially hard in English. Um and so children need to u…learn what those vowel letter sound associations are and then use that knowledge to invent spellings of words. To listen to the sounds in unfamiliar words and then pick out the letters that represent those sounds. If they can do that they’ve move um…e very close to e…uh processes that are central in in learning to read. Uh…(Laughs)

“ You mean in a re…so you’re talking about reading now. Um um e…u well um a mature form of processing print involves using alphabetic knowledge. Uh this means knowing letter sound relations but being able to apply those in reading words so um children might decode words which would involve translating the letters into sounds and then blending those sounds to form words. That’s a process of reading words that typically occurs with unfamiliar words. However, sight word reading is the uh is the essential component of of reading that needs to develop. That’s how readers in English uh read words. Uh sight word reading involves well at a in a mature forms if we’re talking about a first grade reader uh who knows most of the letter sound relations when they come across a new word they need to understand how the letters in the word correspond to sounds in the pronunciation of the word. Um if they can they need to form those connections by drawing on their alphabetic knowledge and then by processing the connections for specific words um and reading the words a few times in that way the words are retained in memory as sight words. So this is involves connecting the letters and spelling with the phonemes and the pronunciation of words. And that’s why the phonemic awareness is so critical so children can detect the sounds in the words and then connect the letters to the sounds. Uh when they do that then they retain that word in memory. When they see the word again then they can read it from memory rather than trying to sound out the word. And and that’s the critical step that children need to um uh reach in developing a sight vocabulary where… But e…uh people often have a mi…misconception about sight words that they’re somehow memorized visually. It’s not a visual process. It’s a graphophonemic and alphabetic process where children are analyzing the spellings of words as they represent sounds, retaining those in memory and then reading the words using that knowledge. So um spell…what was the question again? (Laughs) The spell…uh… Ok what’s essential for processing print and I would say what’s essential is heal…h…having alphabetic knowledge so that you can decode unfamiliar words and that you can build a lexicon of sight words so that you can read those words spontaneously, immediately upon seeing them because you’ve stored them in memory.

“Four phases. (Laughs) (Laughs) Um well uh (pause) the four phases of development uh are s…built around children’s knowledge of the alphabetic system and their ability to use it to read words. So the first phase is called the pre-alphabetic phase. When children um uh lack knowledge of the alphabetic system um however they still may be able to read some print. Uh well how do they do that? They use salient visual cues um in a word. For example in environmental print uh we did a study where we uh selected children who were able to look at signs in the environment and say that says McDonald’s, that says milk, uh that says Pepsi. And uh then we examined how much children knew about the letters in those words. So we removed the signs from the environment and said ok read this. Well most of these children, these were preschoolers, uh they didn’t know the alphabet and th…they didn’t know how to read they couldn’t read the words because they weren’t paying attention to the letters in the words. So they were using uh environmental cues such as in McDonald’s the um arches. Um so that’s the pre-alphabetic phase. The and and children read words by default. They don’t know the alphabet so they find other cues that help them remember how to read words. Well the partial alphabetic phase uh emerges once children learn something about the alphabet. They learn typically they might know when they first begin this phase they might know the names of the alphabet letters. Um they might not even be able to read uh very much but if they know the names of the letters we’ve been able to show in our research that if you give them some words that um are spelled with those letters and the names contain the sounds in the letters such as the name B has buh. If you teach them to read a set of words they can do that. They can remember how to read those words and they do it by forming partial connections. Maybe just the initial letter of the word will allow them to store uh that connection in memory to read boy or um whatever. So that’s the the partial alphabetic phase. There are t…but a…as children children uh advance in their ability to read words during this phase but what we find is that they’re only processing partial cues in the words, um maybe the first and the final letter. Typically they don’t know vowels, vowel letter sound relations. So they’re just using parts of the words to remember how to read it. Um they’re not very good at decoding because they don’t have any vowel knowledge. So it…when they are given new words to read they’ll misread them as words they already know: house or horse, quiet, quick. When you see children mixing up those words you can suspect that they’re partial alphabetic readers. Um then when children acquire full knowledge of the alphabetic system they move into the full alphabetic phase. And that’s uh when they can use their alphabetic knowledge to fully analyze uh letter sound connections within words. Um uh the become much better at decoding unfamiliar words. They and the critical thing is knowing those vowel letter sound relations. Now in English there are about at least fourteen different vowels so it’s not an easy task to learn vowel letter sound relations especially when you’re coming from a language like Spanish where there may only be five vowels. Here they have to expand their knowledge to fourteen vowels. So that you know that’s a big task. So at the full alphabetic phase children know your major letter sound relations, they can segment words into phonemes. Um they can blend phonemes to form words. Um but at this phase their operating basically with letter sound unit. Um so the next phase is I call the consolidated alphabetic phase where um as a result of experience working with letter sound relations uh some of those letter sounds recur in clusters in different words like there might be nest and best and test so the common parts of those words get consolidated into units. And children no longer need to sound out nest as (sounds out n-e-s-t) nn-eeh-sss-tuh. Um they learn est as a a unit. So in the consolidated phase that’s when they can operate with these larger graphophonemic units. And this uh makes it much easier to read multisyllabic words which have um if you had to sound out all ten letters in a word like interesting that would be very difficult but if you can break it up into its chunks um and then you just have to pronounce three or four chunks you’re you know much more successful at reading uh longer words.
“That’s it! (Laughs)”