Learning to read is the most important skill that children acquire at school. Since 2006, UK schools have been legally required to teach children phonics knowledge – the links between letters and sounds – “fast and first”. However, despite the apparent efficacy of phonics, this prescriptive approach to literacy education remains controversial.
With funding from the ESRC, researchers at the CBU, working with colleagues at Royal Holloway and UCL have used a laboratory model of reading acquisition to compare different teaching methods for learning to read. A study published in 2017 trained adults to read a new language, printed in unfamiliar symbols, and then measured their learning with reading tests and functional MRI brain scans. This research showed clear advantages of phonics teaching compared to other, whole-word teaching methods. Training focused on the meanings of words did not lead to better reading comprehension. Whereas, reading that is taught using phonics led to equally good comprehension and significantly better performance at reading aloud. fMRI scans revealed that phonics reading led to reduced processing effort in the same brain systems used for reading English orthography. This paper was awarded the 2018 Cognitive Section award from the British Psychological Society.
Follow-on research from the same team published in 2019 used fMRI to map the processing stages in ventral occipitotemporal cortex that support the translation of visual symbols into the sounds and meanings of words. In a further study published in 2021, they compared readers that are required to ‘discover’ spelling-to-sound and spelling-to-meaning regularities solely through experience, and learners who received explicit instruction (similar to phonics) on these regularities. In addition to more rapid learning, this study showed dramatic improvements in generalisation – the ability to read and understand new words – in learners taught with explicit, phonics-style instruction compared to discovery learning.
In combination, these findings help explain the benefits of explicit, phonics instruction for beginning readers. This work reinforces the important of evidence-based teaching methods in ensuring that all pupils have the opportunity to develop strong reading skills in their first years at school.
Published papers on these studies are as follows:
Taylor, J.S.H, Davis, M.H., Rastle, K. (2017) Comparing and validating methods of reading instruction using behavioural and neural findings in an artificial orthography. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146(6), 826-858
Taylor, J.S.H. Davis, M.H., & Rastle, K. (2019) Informing methods of reading instruction with cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience. BPS Cognitive Psychology Bulletin, Issue 4, Spring 2019
Taylor, J.S.H., Davis, M.H., Rastle, K. (2019) Mapping visual symbols onto spoken language along the ventral visual stream. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: USA, 116(36), 17723-17728
Rastle, K., Lally, C., Davis, M.H., Taylor, J.S.H (2021) The dramatic impact of explicit instruction on learning to read in a new writing system. Psychological Science, 32(4), 471-484