Phonics Hooks Kids Into Better Reading

Computer that 'learns' to read suggests phonics are key

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WEDNESDAY, July 14, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Teaching phonics to young children makes it easier for them to learn to read and to become faster, better readers, claims a study by two researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Stanford University.

The researchers designed a computer model that mimics the ways in which children learn to read. They used the model to determine whether phonics -- teaching children the relationship between sounds and word spellings -- produced better readers.

"It's very clear that in the early stages of beginning to read, the model -- and child -- learns more rapidly if the connections between spelling and sound and meaning are established," study co-author Mark Seidenberg, UW-Madison psychology professor, said in a prepared statement.

Once the computer model absorbed more words and spellings, it began to rely more on the visual method, which requires one less step than the phonics method. By the end of the study, the computer model had 'learned' more than 6,000 words.

But, "you can't go straight to that end point," Seidenberg said. "Learning to read words visually is hard -- it takes a lot of practice because the mapping between spelling and meaning is almost arbitrary," he said, pointing to confusing English homonyms such as 'plane' and 'plain.'

"Sounding things out gradually strengthens the visual process until it become more efficient and does more of the work," he said.

The study appears in the July issue of the Psychological Review.

More information:

The American Academy of Pediatrics has more about learning to read.

SOURCE: University of Wisconsin-Madison, news release, July 6, 2004

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