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Introduction: Contemporary perspectives on reading and spelling
ByCLARE WOOD, VINCENT CONNELLY
Pages 4

There are many good texts that offer a comprehensive overview of theoretical ideas in reading and writing. It is easy to assume from such excellent accounts that although there are some areas that are still contested, much of the evidence regarding how children learn to read and write fits together reasonably well. This volume, whilst not seeking to underplay the significance of existing theories, argues that the work into written language acquisition is far from done. The current models of reading and spelling development only take us so far in understanding these highly complex and interrelated processes, and interventions developed on these models therefore only offer a partial solution to written language difficulties. The book is organised into three main parts. Part 1 is concerned with overarching

issues about the nature of reading and spelling processes. The purpose of this part is to open up a discussion of existing accounts of reading and spelling acquisition. That is, our favoured models focus on the development of segmental phonological awareness and the skills of decoding and recoding text by learning and applying phonemegrapheme correspondences. Such discussions primarily focus on the constituents of single syllables, with the assumption that polysyllabic word reading is a relatively simple matter of decoding each syllable in turn, and spelling is about acquiring grapheme-phoneme correspondences and learning exceptional spellings. However, this conceptualisation of reading and spelling may be seen as problematic for a number of reasons. The first issue with this type of model is that it is somewhat light on the detail of

where segmental phonological awareness comes from. That is, although it has been argued and assumed that phonemic awareness at least is the result of explicit tuition in the alphabetic principle this claim is not universally agreed, and there is evidence that phonological awareness can develop independently of and prior to reading tuition. Whether or not we accept that such development is possible, the fact remains that many children fail to acquire phonological awareness despite years of tuition in phonics. Why? What is distinctive about these children? The first three chapters in this book suggest that the answer to this question might

lie in the skills that developmentally precede phonological awareness. According to Thomson in Chapter 2, it may be that these children have difficulties in auditory processing, whereas in Chapter 1, Wood, Wade-Woolley and Holliman argue more specifically that such children may have a relative insensitivity to speech rhythm. The idea of speech rhythm being implicated in reading development is not a new one, insofar as it has been linked to reading comprehension and reading fluency in the

past. However, the idea of suprasegmental phonology underpinning the acquisition of segmental forms is more novel and offers the beginnings of a model for understanding multisyllabic word reading, something that Lynne Duncan in Chapter 3 develops further and argues is essential to the development of a model that can explain reading development in alphabetic languages. In Chapter 4, Kate Cain discusses the characteristics, causes and correlates of poor

reading comprehension, providing an enlightening account of this group of children who are now beginning to receive more research attention, thanks to her work and that of others central to this area. The chapters on spelling in this part also highlight issues around existing models. For example in Chapter 5, Nenagh Kemp shows us that while children are very sensitive to orthographic and morphological information from an earlier age than we might have thought, adults, on the other hand, appear not to have developed a full understanding of the more complex relations and conventions in spelling. Critten and Pine in Chapter 6 also address the theme of children’s competence at spelling and relate this competence to more general theories of cognition. By situating spelling as another cognitive domain and using methods that reflect this approach the authors argue that they have gained more access to the underlying cognitive mechanisms in spelling. Bahr, Silliman and Berninger in Chapter 7 illustrate a new way to classify and use misspellings using a linguistically based approach to inform theory and practice. Part 2 moves to a discussion of the research evidence which relates to our under-

standing of reading and spelling in languages other than English. That is, the models of reading and spelling that dominate are primarily based on research that has been conducted with children learning to read English. However, as both Babayig˘it and Lehtonen observe (in chapters 8 and 9, respectively), the significance of phoneme awareness in accounts of literacy development and reading failure is open to debate, as this will be influenced by the transparency of the orthography and other variables, such as print experience. The issue of bilingualism is also raised in this part in Chapter 10 by Goetry, Kolinsky and Mousty, who examine the impact of being schooled in a language that is very different to the one that you speak, and considers whether knowledge of different languages is compartmentalised or integrated. In Chapter 11, MacLean decribes a novel approach to studying understanding of spelling ‘rules’ in two different languages: picking up on some of the ideas about the significance of children’s self-reports as a means of understanding their spelling strategies, MacLean describes work that she and colleagues have done using the children’s game ‘hangman’ as a basis for interrogating the children’s understandings. Then in Chapter 12, Tong, Liu and McBride-Chang broaden the discussion to encompass learning to read and writing in a symbolic script, which has other features that make it distinct from English as well. They describe work comparing children learning to read in Hong Kong with those learning on mainland China, which introduces the theme for the third and final part of the book: the impact of teaching methods on what is learned. Approaches to teaching reading and spelling is a controversial and highly political

area. For example, the high-profile media presence of international comparisons of literacy achievement such as PISA and PIRLS and local but influential pressure groups has made many governments look again at the Teaching of Reading. In 2005 the UK Parliament instituted an inquiry into teaching children to read (House of Commons Education and Skills Committee, 2005) that led to changes in the UK

literacy curriculum which were directly influenced by recent psychological studies, including research reported in Chapter 13 by Rhona Johnston and colleagues. In Australia a similar inquiry was also concluded (DEST, 2005). These pressures have led to an ever-growing influence of psychological theories on classroom interventions. The political pressures surrounding the teaching of reading to special populations

of children who are diagnosed with dyslexia or who have severe learning difficulties are even more acute. Here, as well, psychological theories of reading are being applied to the design of interventions in the classroom across the globe. Some see this trend as a welcome change in the role of psychology in the classroom (National Reading Panel, 2000). Others are less convinced (Allington, 2002). However, it is acknowledged that difficulties in learning to read are likely to be strongly associated with individual difficulties in responding to methods of teaching reading in the classroom (Vellutino et al., 2004). Therefore, it is increasingly important that we take stock of some of the issues

raised by psychological research about teaching reading to children and particularly for those children with written language difficulties. Johnston, Watson and Logan tackle the debates about synthetic phonics teaching by detailing their work on their recent synthetic phonics interventions. The authors take a strong stand for the benefits of their programmes and extend their recent reported work by providing additional data on attitudes to reading and reading comprehension. This extension, according to the authors, provides a riposte to the claims that synthetic phonics does not provide more general benefits to readers beyond word recognition. The Johnston et al. work has been highly cited and influential. However, psy-

chologists are generally less successful at incorporating the teaching of reading into models or accounts of the development of reading. Given that we now acknowledge the differences that teaching programmes can make in the speed of acquisition of key reading skills, it is interesting that little research has been conducted into how reading teaching may influence the reading of words itself. Chapter 14 by Connelly and colleagues reports on this area and details some surprising effects. For instance, they comment on recent work showing that skilled adult readers make pronunciations of unknown words based on how they originally were taught to read. This challenges some current models of how children learn to read and indeed adult models of reading skill. The authors also report on studies that challenge assumptions made about the way instruction may influence reading progress. For example, in one of the studies summarised it is reported that the quantity of children’s ‘sounding out’ in the classroom is not directly related to success in pronouncing words while frequent exposure in print to whole words in one method of instruction is directly related to success at reading sub word components. It is clear from this research that models of reading development need to consider how a child is being taught in order to fully capture how children learn to read. This aspect of the external environment does influence not just speed of reading progress but may also influence reading strategies. The final two chapters in this part deal with psychological theory and psychologi-

cally derived interventions for children with dyslexia and severe learning difficulties. Chapter 15, by Irannejad and Savage, deals with the cerebellar deficit theory of developmental dyslexia and whether such a deficit can be addressed through programmes of remediation. The authors provide an overview of this account of

developmental dyslexia and show how influential this unique theory has been in recent years. They then provide a critique of various aspects of the theory while acknowledging its originality and its close links with other theories of developmental dyslexia. The authors conclude that there is not enough current evidence for a cerebellar deficit directly contributing to the development of dyslexia and therefore caution should be used in developing interventions based on the theory. The book concludes with a discussion of an area of research which really challenges

the way in which teaching reading is frequently approached; that is, when teaching children with severe learning difficulties (SLD, i.e. children with very low IQ – we use the term ‘learning difficulties’ in the UK sense, rather than as the North American term for dyslexic-type difficulties). The final chapter (16) details an approach to teaching reading to children with SLD that builds on the local feature hypothesis of early word recognition. Sheehy and Holliman show that applying principles from psychology allows these children who can struggle to read any words at all to make some progress. However, there is room for considerably more research in this area and the authors leave us with many questions about how we can help these children progress beyond reading just a few words. Overall, the book raises a number of themes including: what can we learn about

reading and spelling by locating them in their proper developmental context? What does reading and spelling in other languages tell us about the acquisition process? Does the way in which you are taught to read really matter? How do young readers acquire multisyllabic word reading? What methodological approaches might help us to better understand reading and spelling development? We hope that you agree that this collection offers some challenging points for reflection about how we as a discipline approach the study of written language skills.