Dr. Philip MacMillan* wrote the following post for the Senco forum in response to someone asking for suggestions for 'phonics software for secondary school students'. I found it so interesting that I asked if we could have it for the RRF message board. He kindly agreed - and added a lot more detail. Thank you Philip.
Computers are fine for practice but if your students have still not acquired facility with phonological analysis and synthesis by age 11/12 then you might be better off using a competent adult who can direct attention to the articulatory process and how it relates to reading, it will also help establish connections between letters and sounds if writing (by hand) is a part of the process. The kinaesthetic activity involved in writing integrates visual, oral and aural activities, keyboarding is less effective as it uses a different part of the brain and is less fine grained. For the close to last three millennia reading has been taught hand in hand with writing. WE should stick with it.
In those with significant difficulties learning is best mediated by another more competent human being as a large component of learning involves social processes. Despite the noise around genetics and neurological investigations of reading difficulties as yet there are no genetic or neurological methods of addressing the problem. The answers lie in the cognitive realm.
The existence of mirror neurons in the human brain is now well established. Much of human learning involves ‘monkey see monkey do’, ask any old time apprentice . Expecting all to re –invent the wheel is nonsensical. Large numbers of mirror neurons seem to lie within the areas involved in the production and perception of speech. It is the areas involved in speech that light up when you read, even silently. So paying attention to speech is crucial in the learning to read process. Speech is perceived through the mechanisms of its production, that is, analysis by synthesis. In other words the listener tries to work out what he/ she would have to do to match the incoming sound. This is done at the speech motor level with speech output suppressed else it would be far too slow. Despite the huge variation in speech pitch between individuals male/ female/ young/ old/ regional accent we all (almost all) make the same sounds in the same way in the same place. The invariance in speech resides in the articulatory processes not in the frequency and pitch parameters, mother nature is always economical. If we were to match incoming voices against our own in internal models on the basis of frequency and pitch matching it would be very difficult to deal with a new voice as we would have nothing to match it against and the process would make huge demands on cognitive capacity. The incoming sound contains the information on where and how the sound was produced. Children learn to speak by listening to adult models, we seldom have to provide spoken instructions on how to form the sounds and how many would actually be able to do this? Not many.
We all lip read when listening to speech if the face is visible and in circumstances where there is ambiguity in the incoming speech signal lip reading will assist with extracting the sounds. An example of lip reading is that most of us can tell when the sound is even 50-100 ms out of sync with the mouth movements. In those with undeveloped or faulty phonological analysis, for whatever reason, there needs to be as many sources of input as possible, a disembodied voice will provide less information than a human face visible to the listener. I have yet to meet a computer that can respond to the mood state of the individual and attempt to alter it, a perceptive human will do just this and amend how they respond accordingly. Educational systems throughout the English speaking world and I can only speak of these, have expended billions in an attempt to mechanize the learning of reading via computers but to little avail as Brooks (2002, 2006) has pointed out. There are some useful ICT tools out there that can motivate some individuals but they are few and far between. There is no substitute for a competent pair of feet''
Greg Brooks (2002) What Works for Children with Literacy Difficulties? The Effectiveness of Intervention Schemes.
DfES Research Report RR380
G Brooks, JNV Miles, CJ Torgerson & DJ Torgerson (2006): Is an intervention using computer software effective in literacy learning? A randomised controlled trial, Educational
Studies, 32:2, 133-143
*Philip MacMillan is currently a Hon Research Fellow at Exeter Uni Grad School of Ed.