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EFFECTS OF SUPPLEMENTAL SMALL GROUP PHONICS INSTRUCTION ON KINDERGARTNERS' WORD RECOGNITION PERFORMANCE.

A substantial number of children enter and exit kindergarten at risk of not acquiring basic literacy skills (Foster & Miller, 2007). In the U.S.A., this is especially the case for children living in poverty. Research suggests that children living in poverty do not learn as much in their kindergarten year (Xue & Meisels, 2004). Without sufficient early reading instruction, the reading gap between disadvantaged low performing readers and their advantaged peers widens over the years (Allington, 2002; Torgesen, 2000).

It has been suggested that explicit instruction of basic reading skills should begin in kindergarten, especially for those children who are at risk of failing to develop reading skills (Adams, 1990). This includes teaching children to make letter-sound correspondences with basic decodable words such as those containing consonant-vowel-consonant patterns. Learning to make letter-sound correspondences facilitates children's attempts to read and spell words unknown to them when they enter the primary grades (Adams, 1990). Additionally, phonemic awareness skills (i.e., alertness to and manipulation of sounds in spoken words) are enhanced when children learn to associate letters with their respective sounds (National Reading Panel, 2000).

Indeed, there is substantial evidence that providing early and intensive literacy instruction to kindergartners at risk of reading failure greatly improves their reading achievement outcomes in the primary grades (e.g., Bus & Vanljzendoorn, 1999). Children who enter kindergarten with low literacy skills are especially in need of appropriate types and sufficient amounts of instruction (Al Otaiba et al., 2008). Thus, early reading instruction that is high in quality and quantity can prevent children from experiencing significant delays. For instance, it has been suggested that the identification of reading disabilities could be reduced substantially if explicit, systematic instruction in phonological awareness and word decoding was provided to young children (Torgesen, 2000). Explicit and systematic phonics instruction has the greatest impact on reading achievement for kindergartners; its influence decreases for older primary grade children (National Reading Panel, 2000). In fact, a positive trajectory of developing early reading skills is observed in at-risk kindergartners when explicit systematic phonics instruction is implemented (Coyne, Kame'enui, Simmons, & Ham, 2004). For instance, when children are taught letter-sound correspondences, they learn that spoken words and objects in their environment can be represented with written words (de Graaff, Bosman, Hasselman, & Verhoeven, 2009).

Supplemental Small Group Instruction

For young children who are struggling to acquire basic literacy skills, large group classroom instruction may be too rapid; may not be provided at sufficient intensity levels; may not incorporate sufficient opportunities for practice and feedback; and may not be targeted for meeting specific needs (Smith et al., 2001). Struggling learners who are not responding favorably to large group instruction may need supplemental small group instruction targeted at meeting their basic literacy needs (Cooke, Kretlow, & Helf, 2010). Researchers have found that supplemental small group instruction can address the specific needs of kindergartners who are at risk of failing to develop basic literacy skills in ways that are not addressed through general classroom instruction (e.g., Kamps et al., 2008; Musti-Rao & Cartledge, 2007; Schuele, Justice, Cabell, Knighton, & Kingery, 2008). Delivering supplemental instruction to small groups of children (e.g., two to four children) can be just as effective as providing one to one instruction (Vadasy & Sanders, 2008; Vaughn et al., 2003). This makes small group instruction a more efficient alternative to one-on-one instruction as instruction can be delivered to more students within an allocated time frame.

Flashcard Drill and Practice

In addition to supplementing whole class with small group instruction, educators need to also consider selecting evidence-based supplemental techniques that are efficient for helping children who are behind their peers. Instructionally efficient techniques are those that require no more time and resources than necessary to achieve desired learning outcomes for students (Konrad, Helf, & Joseph, 2011). One such technique is flashcard drill and practice. Flashcard drill and practice method provides students with many opportunities to practice skills with corrective feedback so that rate at performing those skills increases. These methods have been used to teach struggling readers to read words rapidly and repeatedly until correct responses are produced effortlessly or with automaticity (Barbetta, Heward, Bradley, & Miller, 1994; Bijl, Alant, & Lloyd, 2006; Joseph & Nist, 2006; Nist & Joseph, 2008; O'Connor & Padeliadu, 2002; Rohena, Jitendra, & Browder, 2002; Tan & Nicholson, 1997; Valleley, Evans, & Allen, 2002).

Many of the aforementioned studies involved using flashcard drill procedures to teach first graders and older children to read words as a whole. There has been limited number of published studies that used flashcard drill procedures to teach kindergarteners' reading decoding skills. For instance, we were able to locate only one study (i.e., Agramonte & Befiore, 2002) that taught kindergartners to make letter-sound correspondences using a flashcard drill and practice procedure. The flashcards consisted of the presentation of 21 consonant letters, each integrated into a picture. After students received training on how to perform the tasks, they were presented with the flashcards until mastery was achieved. A multiple baseline design was used to evaluate the effects of this intervention, and findings revealed that all students improved greatly over baseline conditions. In this study, students were taught in a one to one instruction format.

More research needs to explore the effectiveness of providing supplemental reading instruction methods to kindergartners in a small group context. This is particularly the case for culturally and racially diverse samples of kindergarten students (Musti-Rao & Cartledge, 2007). The purpose of our study was to extend past flashcard drill and practice research and examine the effectiveness of using this technique to teach decoding skills to kindergartners, in a small group context. Importantly, we also wanted to focus on examining the effects of this method with an underserved sample of kindergartners (i.e., African-American kindergarteners) who were nominated as being at risk of failing to develop basic reading decoding skills.

The research questions addressed through this study included:

1) Was the phonics flashcard drill and practice intervention effective at improving the number of words read correctly immediately following each instructional session?

2) Were the words read correctly after each drill and practice session retained at a one-week follow-up assessment?

Methods

Participants and Setting

The participants in this study were enrolled in kindergarten at a primary school in a metropolitan district bordering a large city in the Midwest U.S.A. Nearly 60% of the student population at the school is classified as Economically Disadvantaged. In addition, slightly over 60% of the students are African American, with the remaining students identifying as Hispanic, White, or Multi-Racial. Finally approximately 15% of the student population is classified as being Limited English Proficient, with roughly the same percentage being identified as having a disability.

Classroom teachers identified 11 students as potential participants due to their low emergent reading skills. Consent forms were sent home to the parents of all 11 children. Seven signed letters were returned, for a response rate of 63.4%. One child left the study due to a switch to a different educational setting before the experimental conditions began. The average age of the participants was 6.0 years (range = 5 years, 7 months to 6 years, 3 months). Of the seven children for which parent permission to participate was granted, two were African American boys and four were African American girls who were not formally identified as receiving special education services. The participants were randomly assigned to one of two experimental groups. Please see Table 1 for available demographic information and group assignment for each participant.

Materials

All instructional words used in this study were selected from a list in a reading textbook by McCormick (1999). All words were orthographically regular according to phonics rules. For example, consonant-vowel (CV), CVC, CVCC, CVCe, and CVVC words were used. The complete list of 466 words was narrowed down to 270, after words rated as inappropriate in content (e.g., stab) or beyond the comprehension level of the typical kindergartner (e.g., dwell) were eliminated. The list of 270 words was randomized using a random numbers table. The words were printed in black ink on 8.5 x 11 inch white cardstock in size 150 Geneva font so that they were easily visible to all participants in each group.

Dependent Variables

The dependent variables in the study were: (1) number of words retained following each instructional session, (2) number of words retained at one week, and (3) number of control words read correctly. Immediately after the session and again one week after instruction, each participant's recall was individually assessed for the six words taught during instruction. The six control words were also assessed once per week. Participants were given three seconds to read each word.

Independent Variable

The independent variable was the instructional approach (i.e., phonics or control condition). The phonics method consisted of presenting a card to the group, pronouncing the individual sounds of the words and then blending them together and reading them as a whole word. For example, for the word "clap" the experimenter would say, "This is the word clap. This letter [pointing] makes the /k/ sound. Can you all say /k/? (Children respond). Good, /k/. (Continue for each sound). Now let's say the sounds again. (The experimenter points to each phonogram as it is pronounced chorally by herself and the students). Now let s blend them together " (The experimenter slides her finger under the word as the phonograms are pronounced). Now it's your turn--can you each read the word?" All six words were presented in this way. Then the cards were shuffled and the children were asked to read the words again using the same procedures. Because of differences in ability and the lack of opportunities to respond for the lowest students, individual children were called on (in a systematic fashion) to read the presented word. Students were given three seconds to respond to each request. After all words were presented once, they were presented repeatedly using this procedure until 10 minutes had elapsed. Words were shuffled after each round to ensure that each individual was called on to read different words and so that the children would not merely memorize the order of presentation.

The control condition involved assessing the students on six control words (i.e., words that were not taught as part of any instructional sessions).

Design

This study used a modified alternating treatments single-subject design. An alternating treatments design allows for the comparison of the effectiveness of two or more interventions (Alberto & Troutman, 2003). As part of this design, the phonics approach was compared to a control condition. This design was selected because it enabled us to compare the efficiency of the phonics approach versus a control condition for each student within a relatively minimal number of sessions, an advantage that makes it well suited for actual practice in time-limited school settings.

Procedure

First, each participant was assessed individually to establish a list of words unknown by all participants in each group. The words used in this pre-assessment were those that were selected from the McCormick (1999) textbook as described in the "Materials" section. The words used in this pre-assessment (and all subsequent pre-assessments) were presented in a randomized order. The participants were shown a card, prompted to read the word aloud, and were given three seconds to respond. No response and incorrect responses were counted as "unknown" while correct responses were counted as "known", eliminating the word from the list of those to be taught. Allowances were made for incorrect pronunciations due to accent and speech patterns. At the time of the initial assessment, the children were asked to read 20 words in addition to a group of six control words. This pre-assessment was conducted at the beginning of each week before the instructional sessions.

After a set of common unknown words was found, small group phonics instruction took place. The children were taught in groups of three. Each instructional session was timed and audiotaped. The timing began in each instructional condition with the presentation of the first word and ended after ten minutes elapsed. Immediately after the session and again one week after instruction, the assessments were conducted to determine the number of words retained (see "Dependent Variables" section for more details).

Instructional phonics sessions took place once a week for five weeks. The control sessions also took place once per week. At the beginning of the week, the participants were again asked to read the six control words and 20 words to determine the unknown words that would be taught that week.

Procedural Integrity

In order to determine the extent to which the procedures of the study were implemented as planned, a procedural integrity checklist was created. The checklist was created to reflect the essential components of the phonics condition. For example, checklist items included, "The experimenter clearly articulates all phonemes of words," "the student pronounces phonemes," and "the experimenter blends phonemes together." In addition to the items designed to assess procedural integrity, the checklist also included space to record the words used, number of repetitions of each word, length of session, and type of instructional approach.

An undergraduate student was trained to listen to the audio files and indicate which steps were completed, the total time of the session, and the number of repetitions for each word. This student completed the integrity checklists for a random sample of approximately 33% of the sessions and 100% procedural integrity was found across all steps for each instructional condition.

Assessment Integrity

An independent rater listened to 36 individual assessment items, or 10% of the total words assessed. She independently scored the responses on each item. Her scores were compared to the experimenter's scores on the assessments. There was interrater agreement for 35, or 97.2% of the items.

Analyses

Data were analyzed to reveal individual and aggregate trends. Visual analysis, comparison of means, and qualitative observations were used to assess whether the phonics condition was more effective than the control condition and pre-test word mastery in terms of (a) number of words recalled immediately following the session, and (b) number of words recalled one week following the session.

Results

Effects on Immediate Word Recognition

None of the six participants could correctly identify any of the treatment words prior to each session. Additionally, the mean number of control words per session recalled across all six participants was quite close to zero (M = 0.20 words, SD = 0.645). Based on visual analysis of the individual student graphs (see Figures 1 -6) and group graphs (see Figures 7 and 8), it appears that the phonics treatment resulted in gains in the number of words recalled compared to the number of pre-test and control words read correctly for all participants. In fact, after the sessions, the mean number of treatment words recalled per session during the phonics condition was 4.20 (SD = 1.555) out of a possible score of 6.

Despite these overall positive effects, it is important to mention that individual student performance varied, with some participants benefitting more from the phonics instruction than others. For example, Hope and Deborah evidenced the strongest summative improvements whereas Nancy and Sandra evidenced the weakest (see Figure 9). In addition, participants experienced different formative trajectories. For example, John (see Figure 3) and Nancy (see Figure 5) evidenced an upward trend, improving their performance throughout the duration of the study. In contrast, Hope's (see Figure 2) trend was downward, although she continued to recall five out of six words during the final session.

Word Retention at One Week

Much weaker effects for the interventions on word reading at one week post-test emerged. For example, the mean number of words recalled at one week across all sessions was 1.24 (SD = 1.30), compared to the mean of 4.20 from the immediate post-test. Visual analysis suggested that effects were still present when compared to pre-test and control words; however, they were much less pronounced. Again, these findings differed by participant. For example, Sandra and John recalled few to no words one week later (see Figures 6 and 3), whereas Deborah and Hope recalled an average of 3.3 and 2.7 words respectively (see Figures 1 and 2).

Qualitative Observations

Although all children had been nominated as "at risk" by their teachers, there were noticeable differences in ability across the three children in both groups. Both groups included one child who learned most words after the first teaching exposure and rarely made mistakes. Children who were most delayed in literacy skills in both groups appeared more sensitive to failure to read a word correctly during practice. These children needed repeated practice before learning a word. This led at times to boredom for the two children who had a higher skill level. It should be noted, however, that neither child with a higher skill level was able to read any of the control words, until near the end of the study. In other words, the heterogeneity of the group--although not drastic--made it more difficult to ensure the similar levels of engagement of all children.

The small group format and flashcard drill procedures posed other issues educators must consider when planning interventions for kindergarten-age children. While being in a small group allowed more opportunities to respond than in a large class, it may not have been as conducive to intensive instruction as a one-to-one arrangement. The drill procedures were not inherently engaging for all of the participants, and students' interest in the tasks fluctuated considerably over the course of a 10-minute session. The lack of one-on-one attention, combined with the tedium of drill, seemed, at times, to contribute to distracting side conversations and reluctance or refusal to pay attention (e.g. by turning around in one's seat or putting one's head between knees). It was difficult to control these behaviors without detracting from instruction.

Discussion

This study was designed to examine the effects of supplemental small group flash-card drill and practice phonics instruction for improving kindergartner's early reading skills. In addition, we hoped to determine whether the phonics instruction had an effect on whether word gains were evident immediately following the instructional period and maintained one week after instruction ended. These are particularly salient issues for African American students, given the potential for early intervention to reduce the widely documented reading "achievement gap" between African American and White students (e.g., Haycock, Jerald, & Huang, 2001) in the U.S.A. Harry (2011) suggested the need for reading intervention research with diverse populations when she noted, "... evidence-based practices are very important, however, we're not always sure whether the groups on which those practices were developed were necessarily inclusive of the full range of diversity that we are going to be seeing in our classrooms (p.l)." We recognize the small sample size and limited ability to generalize the results; however, these findings suggest that kindergartners may derive some benefit from small group instruction on decoding words, with certain caveats.

Results of the study indicated that the phonics instruction was effective at improving words recalled immediately following the instructional period compared to pre-test and control word performance. This suggests that children as young as kindergarten can learn to read words in brief, small group drill and practice sessions that allow for frequent modeling, opportunities to respond, and feedback. This is consistent with recent studies that examined the effects of drill and practice procedures on primary grade children's reading performance (Joseph & Nist, 2006; Nist & Joseph, 2008; & Schmidgall & Joseph, 2007).

However, notably, many gains were lost by the one-week recall assessment. Two 10 minute sessions per week resulted in virtually no meaningful maintenance gains without additional practice and reinforcement of skills. Given the time constraints of schools, coupled with the limited attentional capacities of very young children, we deliberately wanted to see if gains could be reaped from such a brief intervention. Although brevity is viewed as an asset in the previously mentioned regards, these brief sessions would ideally occur many more times each week for reading gains to be maintained. For instance, it has been suggested that supplemental intensive small group instruction be delivered three to five times per week for 20 to 40 minutes to groups of three to four children who are performing at similar skill levels (Gersten et al., 2009). In addition, research suggests that phonics instruction is most effective when coupled with integrated language arts instruction (e.g., Xue & Meisels, 2004). Therefore, we would expect that students would be provided with multiple contexts to practice decoding words (e.g., guided storybook reading, games). Moreover, consistent with research documenting a link between parent-child reading interactions and increased achievement (e.g., Lynch, Anderson, Anderson, & Shapiro, 2008), we also would anticipate reaping the greatest rewards from phonics instruction when the skills are concurrently reinforced in the home setting.

Limitations and Directions for Future Research

There were several limitations of this study that warrant cautious interpretation of the results. First, the small sample size greatly limits the external validity of the findings. Replication is needed with additional samples in future work. In addition, the interventions lasted for only five weeks and occurred only twice per week for 10 minute sessions; this represents a very time-limited intervention. Future research should seek to implement more frequent sessions and also continue the intervention over longer periods to see if the trend of phonics being more effective in the last few sessions continues. Future research also should build in review sessions to focus on maintaining the words originally mastered. The group format also presented unique challenges. For example, it was impossible to ensure that every child was engaged and responded correctly to every word at all times. Future research may explore the effects of alternating choral responding with individual responding (taking turns) during small group instruction (e.g., Pullen, Tuckwiller, Konold, Maynard, & Coyne, 2010). Research should also continue to explore the cultural appropriateness of different instructional approaches for different student populations. Finally, we did not assess generalization. Future investigations should assess whether or not the skills learned in the sessions transfer to the classroom setting.

Implications for Practitioners

Despite these limitations, several implications seem relevant for early childhood educators. Reading problems are the most frequently reported academic problem in school, with research suggesting they account for over 50% of all student referrals for suspected learning disabilties (Bramlett, Murphy, Johnson, Wallingsford, & Hall, 2002). Thus, there is no question that teachers will be confronted with children having difficulty reading words. And with increasingly sophisticated and widely used universal screening tools, students' needs are being targeted earlier than ever before.

Teachers may find success in implementing brief intervention sessions in consideration of young children's attentional capabilities. However, to maximize effectiveness and retention, it is suggested that these brief sessions should occur more frequently than in this study (even up to multiple times per day, broken up throughout the day). Also, when implementing such interventions teachers should consider the need to reinforce the taught words repeatedly over time until they are mastered. In our study, the lack of maintenance effects can likely be directly attributed to the lack of reinforcement of the words after each session ended. Such maintenance can be fostered through simple activities including booster sessions, incrementally rehearsing the words over time, reinforcing words learned using guided storybook activities, games or other practice activities, posting words in the classroom and drawing children's attention to them throughout the week, and sending the word lists home for continued practice. Our study suggests that small group phonics instruction resulted in better gains than no instruction on immediate word acquisition. However, some of the students who did not respond as well may have needed more intensive instruction and instruction over a longer period of time, with frequent reinforcement and review of previously learned skills. For instance, Cooke, Kretlow, and Helf (2010) found that low achieving kindergartners benefited most when supplemental instruction was implemented over the course of a school year than for one semester. Progress should be monitored frequently and decision rules applied to individual students determine if more intensive instruction is needed. However, researchers have suggested that applying uniform decision rules may be inappropriate for young children due to the individualized and uneven nature of their development, and teachers may need to combine what the data reveal with their own impressions of the child (e.g., Gettinger & Stoiber, 2008). Whatever decision criteria are used, kindergarten students who do not respond sufficiently to such an intervention should be considered for additional and/or alternative instruction and may be considered for extended supplemental instruction in the first grade (Coyne et al., 2004).

Finally, this study demonstrated a relatively easy method educators can use to compare the effectiveness of two interventions using a modified alternating treatments design. Teachers may consider using this design to quickly and efficiently assess what might be a good initial choice for an intervention. For example, although we only compared a phonics approach with a control condition, early childhood educators could compare a phonics-based approach with a traditional drill approach using this type of design. However, it is important to emphasize the importance of a well-balanced early reading curriculum. Identifying such an effective intervention merely using this design serves a starting point to help children acquire an initial word bank that will help them progress; however, it should not be viewed as the only strategy that will work for a student. Students need to continue to receive both explicit and incidental instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. This instruction should be developmentally appropriate, considering the unique needs of young learners. For example, phonics instruction could be embedded in to naturally engaging activities that are appropriate for children of this age.

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AMITY L. NOLTEMEYER

Miami University

LAURICE M. JOSEPH

The Ohio State University

CLAIRE E. KUNESH

Miami University
Table 1. Demographic Characteristics of Participants

Participant (*)  Age (as of the     Gender  Group Number
                 start of the
                 study)

Hope             6 years, 3 months  Female  1
John             5 years, 9 months  Male    1
Nancy            6 years, 0 months  Female  1
Lyle             5 years, 7 months  Male    2
Sandra           6 year, 1 month    Female  2
Deborah          6 year, 1 month    Female  2

(*) Pseudonyms are used to protect the identity of participants
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Author:Noltemeyer, Amity L.; Joseph, Laurice M.; Kunesh, Claire E.
Publication:Reading Improvement
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Date:Sep 22, 2019
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