Preventing negative Matthew effects in at-risk readers: A retrospective study

Publication Details

This study is part of the project "An Investigation of Language-Related and Cognitive-Motivational Factors in Beginning Literacy Achievement". Data were collected from students during 1996 and 1997, and compared with the performances of students from the same schools involved in an earlier longitudinal study that ran from 1993 to 1995. Author: William Tunmer, James Chapman and Jane Prochnow Published: June 2002

Author(s): William Tunmer, James Chapman and Jane Prochnow, Massey University. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: June 2002

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Executive Summary

We began this report by drawing attention to some puzzling findings. Despite having a very homogenous education system with a uniform approach to reading instruction and intervention, New Zealand has for several years now consistently shown comparatively high levels of variability in the test scores from international surveys of literacy achievement. Three strategies have been proposed for reducing the unacceptably large amount of disparity between New Zealand readers and preventing reading failure: (I) "doing more of the same" (but better); (2) accommodating cultural differences; and (3) changing the method of teaching reading. On the basis of an analysis of the arguments and evidence in support of each of these positions, we concluded that the third strategy is most supportable. We hypothesized that New Zealand's relatively large spread of scores in international studies of literacy achievement is largely the result of Matthew effects triggered by a mainstream constructivist (i.e., whole language) orientation to teaching reading that fails to respond adequately to differences in essential reading-related (especially phonologically-based) skills and knowledge at school entry that stem primarily from social class differences in home literacy environment.

Two predictions were derived from this hypothesis. First, incorporating into beginning literacy programs supplementary materials and procedures designed to help children develop awareness of the sound components of spoken words and make greater use of letter-sound patterns in reading unfamiliar words should produce significantly greater gains in reading achievement than the standard whole language approach to literacy instruction. Second, the use of these materials and teaching strategies should reduce the gap in beginning reading achievement between Maori and Pakeha (i.e., European) children. To test these predictions a retrospective study was carried out in which a representative sample of seven schools was selected from 22 schools that three years earlier had participated in a longitudinal study of beginning literacy development. The target children in the program modification schools were tested at four of the same testing points (beginning, middle and end of Year 1 and end of Year 2) as the children in the original longitudinal study with tests that assessed phonological processing skills and literacy achievement.

Components of three commercially available literacy instruction packages were used by the Year 1 teachers in the seven target schools over the course of a four-term school year. Sound Foundations (Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1991) was used during the first term, Rhyme and Analogy (Goswami, 1996) during the second term, and Jolly Phonics (Lloyd, 1992) during the third and fourth terms. The selection of the three packages was based on the assumption that the degree of explicitness and detail with which phonologically-related knowledge, skills, and strategies are taught is particularly important. Although a naturalistic, informal, whole language approach to beginning literacy instruction (in which word analysis activities arise incidentally from the child's responses during text reading) may be suitable for many children (mainly those with an abundance of literate cultural capital at school entry), other children (especially those at risk) appear to require a more highly structured, systematic approach with particular attention focussed on the development of phonologically-based skills and strategies.

Two major findings from the study supported these suggestions. First, incorporating into existing classroom literacy programs materials and procedures designed to increase beginning readers' phonological awareness and alphabetic coding skills resulted in an average difference in reading age of 14 months over standard literacy programs by the end of Year 2. Second, the use of the supplementary materials and teaching strategies eliminated the gap in beginning reading achievement between Maori and Pakeha children by the end of the second year of schooling. These findings suggest that relatively small changes to the predominant approach to teaching literacy in New Zealand will greatly increase the overall effectiveness of beginning reading instruction and substantially reduce the number of reading failures, especially among Maori children.

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