Eagle Forum Legislative Alerts

Friday, June 15, 2012

Teach phonics, do not mimic baboons

Here is some research in teaching baboons to read:
Dan the baboon sits in front of a computer screen. The letters BRRU pop up. With a quick and almost dismissive tap, the monkey signals it's not a word. Correct. Next comes, ITCS. Again, not a word. Finally KITE comes up.

He pauses and hits a green oval to show it's a word. In the space of just a few seconds, Dan has demonstrated a mastery of what some experts say is a form of pre-reading and walks away rewarded with a treat of dried wheat.

Dan is part of new research that shows baboons are able to pick up the first step in reading – identifying recurring patterns and determining which four-letter combinations are words and which are just gobbledygook.
The research journal suggested that maybe this shows that we ought to teach kids to read using the whole language method, since that seems to work in baboons.

That is nonsense, of course, as the baboons are not reading and do not know what the words mean.

AAAS Science published a rebuttal letter, explaining:
Grainger et al. cite neurobiological evidence that skilled readers use a cortical visual pathway to recognize words. Not mentioned, however, is evidence that the path to becoming a skilled reader involves developing the cortical substrate necessary to recognize letter-sound relationships before developing the fast-mapping visual circuit (2, 3). The implication that learning to read can be successful without acquiring the letter-sound relationship runs counter to the great bulk of scientific evidence collected over the past few decades (4, 5).

1. J. Grainger, S. Dufau, M. Montant, J. C. Ziegler, J. Fagot Science 336, 245 (2012).
2. K. R. Pugh et al., J. Cognit. Neurosci. 20, 1146 (2008).
3. B. A. Shaywitz et al., Biol. Psychiat. 55, 926 (2004).
4. K. Rayner, B. R. Foorman, C. A. Perfetti, D. Pesetsky, M. S. Seidenberg, Psychol. Sci. Public
Interest (suppl. to Psychol. Sci.) 12, 31 (2001).
5. S. A. Brady, D. Braze, C. A. Fowler, Eds., Explaining Individual Differences in Reading:
Theory and Evidence (Psychology Press, New York, 2011).
In other words, there is still overwhelming scientific evidence that learning to read by phonics is superior. We recommend First Reader.

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