APS Paper


Paper Presented at the 11th Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Society, Denver, CO, June 3-6, 1999.

Instructional method, phonological awareness, and letter knowledge separately influence literacy acquisition in kindergarten

Ricki Korey Birnbaum, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY
Vincent J. Samar, National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Rochester, NY

Phonological awareness is a necessary but not sufficient condition for learning to read (Tunmer & Nesdale, 1985). Other factors that influence literacy acquisition include the specific method of instruction used and the availability of letter knowledge (letter sounds and names).

Experiment 1 compared three methods of early literacy instruction in kindergarten, one based on a sampling of separate phonological awareness instructional tasks recommended in the literature (suggestions from the literature, SFL), one idiosyncratically formulated by an experienced kindergarten teacher (teacher specific instruction, TSI), and one explicitly designed to integrate phonological awareness and letter knowledge instruction in a hierarchical (scaffolded) lesson sequence that incorporated continuous teacher modeling ( scaffolded modeled instruction, SMI).Each of the three methods: a) was strong in phonological awareness content, b) explicitly trained sound-symbol association, and c) was administered in 36 lessons over the school year.

Participants were 46 non-reading, native English speaking kindergarten children attending three regular kindergarten classrooms in a relatively diverse middle class suburb matched on age and verbal IQ. They were pretested on 7 phonological awareness tasks, and a letter knowledge task including names and sounds. They were post tested on these tasks and on tests of reading (bigrams and trigrams) and spelling. Reading (Woodcock-Johnson Achievement Test) and spelling were re-assessed at the end of first grade.

ANOVA's on age, verbal IQ, and the pretests of letter knowledge and phonological awareness showed that the groups were well matched at the beginning of kindergarten. By the end of kindergarten, all methods produced equivalent significant gains in phonological awareness. However, the SMI method improved letter knowledge significantly more than the other methods, and reading and spelling in the SMI group developed at twice the rate of the other methods.

Furthermore, the SMI method in kindergarten produced effects that lasted through the end of first grade for reading (word recognition and reading comprehension) and spelling despite the discontinuation of SMI instruction after kindergarten.

Multiple regression and covariance analyses controlling for IQ showed that the effect of method was independent of the separate effects of phonological awareness and of letter knowledge. Distributional and contingency table analyses showed that phonological awareness and letter knowledge were necessary but not sufficient, either alone or jointly, for the development of reading skills. Curve fitting analysis showed that the relationship between reading at the end of kindergarten and reading at the end of first grade was characterized by a Matthew effect; that is, children who were reading well at the end of kindergarten, predominantly children in the SMI group, showed the greatest rate of improvement in reading skill by the end of first grade.

Experiment 2 replicated Experiment 1 on 88 new children with the TSI teacher reassigned to the SMI method. The results replicated the primary findings of Experiment 1 and statistical analyses demonstrated that the SMI method, not the teaching skill of the specific SMI teacher was responsible for the method effect of Experiment 1. Experiments 3 to 5 replicated the basic results of Experiments 1 and 2 with new teachers and a demographically diverse sample of 200+ children (inner city, bilingual, and suburban groups).

Our results show that the effects of instructional method on the development of literacy are not due to the improvement of phonological awareness alone. Impressive and apparently lasting gains in reading and spelling, not directly due to phonological awareness, are achieved by an instruction method that contains systematic, interactive instructional features involving scaffolded lessons and teacher modeling.

Tunmer, W. E., & Nesdale, A. R. (1985). Phonemic segmentation skill and beginning reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 77, 417-427.

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