Goswami and Onset-rime theories

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Susan Godsland

Goswami and Onset-rime theories

Post by Susan Godsland »

Posted by Jenny Chew, Sat Mar 11, 2006 on the 'TES: Synthetic phonics? Not alone thanks.' string.

Maizie –

I will try to answer your questions, but as is so often the case, answers are not dead simple.

In a sense the research on onset-rime can be said to emanate from Goswami, though she was actually preceded in the field in the late 1970s and early 1980s by her Oxford professor (Peter Bryant) and an earlier doctoral student of his (Lynette Bradley). An often-cited paper of Bryant and Bradley’s was published in ‘Nature’ in 1983, and a book written by the two of them appeared in 1985. The 3 of them are sometimes referred to as ‘the Oxford group. Goswami and Bryant published an influential book in 1990. Goswami, however, seems to have ended up making the onset-rime field more her own than the others – e.g. she produced a ‘Rhyme and Analogy Teacher’s Guide’ for OUP (published in 1996).

Reading between the lines of what they have written, I deduce that all the research they conducted was with children taught by whole-word and whole-language methods, with little or no phonics. I believe that they DID find what they said they found (that children who had better pre-school rhyming skills became better readers), so in that sense the findings were research-based. But they didn’t take into account the likelihood that the issue might be affected by the way these children had been taught – if children are not taught systematically about the alphabetic code, those who are the most sensitive to sounds at onset-rime level will probably be the most successful at working some of it out by themselves. So this WAS research, and it DID show a connection between early rhyming ability and later reading ability, but only among children taught in a certain way - but as that was the way virtually all children were taught at the time, it seems not to have occurred to the researchers that different teaching might change the picture, or, indeed, that different teaching was even possible. Mona and Sue L. were writing to them way back in the 1980s saying this, but they got no response. Although phonics has come a bit more to the fore since then, we are basically still in a similar position in that most people still think in terms of children being taught sight-words and whole-language strategies (e.g. guessing from context etc.). A bit of onset-rime teaching thrown into that mix probably WILL raise standards a bit, and that’s good enough for many people – what they don’t realise is that good phonics teaching would raise standards far more.

I think that the whole-word theories and the onset-rime theories have actually fed off each other. As far as I know, the idea that children start by recognising words as wholes was not based on any serious research – in fact I think it started with people thinking that children got more quickly into reading meaningful sentences by being taught whole words, and then gradually transmogrified into the theory that they were programmed by nature to do this. The unquestioning acceptance of whole-word teaching by Oxford academics in the 1980s, however, probably gave it a new lease of life, making others even less likely to question it than they had previously been. The Oxford group were also saying very firmly that children found it very hard to analyse words into phonemes, which was grist to the whole-word mill. In 1994, Goswami said the following in print in the UKRA’s (now UKLA) ‘Reading’: ‘If we think in terms of the phonological knowledge that the average child brings into the classroom on the first day of school, then we can see that at least one method of teaching reading would pose unnecessary difficulties for this child, method relying on tradition “phonics”. In traditional “phonics”, children are taught the spelling-sound correspondences for all of the phonemes in spoken English. The rationale is that once children know the “rules” for sounding out the different letters in words, then they can “build up” the pronunciation of any word that they meet by applying these rules. This logic is impeccable. The problem is that for most children, learning about individual spelling-sound correspondences is a rather difficult way into reading, as they cannot hear these individual sounds in the words that they are trying to decode’ (p. 33). I found this quite breathtaking: Goswami gave a pretty good account of what would now be called ‘synthetic phonics’ but at the end of it failed to realise that no hearing of the individual sounds in the words they were trying to decode was necessary apart from that which occurred as children sounded out the letters – unaccountably, she seemed to be thinking in terms of the children at that point hearing the whole spoken word and having to analyse it into phonemes. But she went from saying this, in 1994, to saying, in 2002, that a letter-sound approach was probably the easiest for beginners, and this WAS a change. That’s why I said that she now seemed to realise that a phonemic approach was easier than she had hitherto thought.

Anyway, the 1990s were a period in which onset-rime theories became very prominent: people were convinced that once children had started by recognising words as wholes, the most realistic way for them to start breaking them down was into onset and rime. In 1999, Goswami stated in print that children needed a good sight-vocabulary in order to use onset-rime strategies effectively (‘Reading development and the Teaching of Reading’, eds. Oakhill and Beard, p. 184).

I could go on and on, but had better not. It must be hard for relative newcomers on the scene to understand the way that past history has affected the picture as it now is. I think, though, that we still face the problem of people being sufficiently wedded to whole-word and whole-language teaching, with a bit of breaking-down of words after they have been identified, for phonics first, fast and only to seem quite a foreign concept. And as I see it, there is no simple way of dismissing the onset-rime approach as not based on research - it IS based on research, but research making too many wrong assumptions and incorporating some logical fallacies. Incidentally, even someone as high-powered as Marilyn Jager Adams has been impressed by it and has gone down the related track of believing that one has to train children in phonemic awareness before teaching them to decode phonemically. She may be excellent on the three-cueing system, but she doesn't get everything right. This can be a huge problem with research - people can get some things right and some things wrong, and it's very difficult to unpick it in a way that everyone can understand.

Sorry this is so long - it's been a hobbyhorse of mine since the early 1990s.