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Richard Doty

Charles Watson
Speech & Hearing Sciences

Last modified: Monday, April 22, 2002

Children's academic success or failure subject of landmark IU research project

The abilities or deficits that determine children's academic success or failure in the early years of elementary school are the subject of a landmark research project at Indiana University. Early results clearly favor the phonics approach over the controversial whole-language method of early reading instruction.

One of the project coordinators, Charles Watson, a psychologist and emeritus professor of speech and hearing sciences, said the unusual scope of the project has been attracting considerable attention at scientific meetings in this country and in Europe. There are a great many proposed explanations for the failure of more than 5 percent of all children to learn to read, or to succeed in other academic areas, in the first few years of elementary school, Watson explained, but no previous study has addressed the full range of the suspected causes of failure, both longitudinally and in the total population of a school system.

The IU project was initiated when the Benton County School District near Lafayette, Ind., approached IU in 1995 to request help in identifying children entering first grade who were likely to have special problems in learning to read. The request happened to coincide with ongoing discussions of those same issues among a group of about a dozen IU faculty investigators.

These investigators told Glenn Kruger, superintendent of the Benton County Schools, that a large array of possible causes of failure had been implicated, including deficits in vision and hearing, language development, cognitive skills, overall intellectual ability, ability to maintain attention, and socio-economic status. Kruger was told that looking at all of these variables in a total population would be necessary if the relative impact of each of them were to be determined, as well as the consequences of multiple deficits. In addition, a proper study would measure all of these variables at the time of children's entry to school and again later, when the children had learned to read or had failed to do so.

The faculty investigators explained that such studies had not been conducted because of the expense and resources required, the prolonged timetable, and the great difficulty in convincing any school system to allow such a disruptive activity to invade their halls for several years. But when Kruger still expressed enthusiasm for the project, Watson said that 10 faculty members agreed to undertake it, because it was an opportunity that might not occur again in any of their careers to conduct a study of this magnitude that was bound to yield important knowledge.

After six and a half years, these investigators, from the fields of optometry, audiology, clinical and experimental psychology, language development, speech pathology, special education and cognitive science, have completed the first stage of the project. Almost all of the children entering first grade in the four elementary schools of Benton County for three consecutive years were given an eight-hour battery of tests. Testing was done by the faculty investigators, assisted by their graduate students. A similar, age-appropriate test battery was then administered when the children reached fourth grade.

The test results, together with hundreds of measures of academic achievement for each of the 472 Benton County children, have now been entered into a computer database. Watson said the complete analysis of the results may require several years. But although it will take quite a long time to extract all of the information of value from these data, the initial results are already confirming some popular notions and rejecting others.

For example, he said the Benton results provide very clear evidence favoring the phonics approach over the whole-language method of early reading instruction. From the first look at the data it was evident that, whatever other strengths or weaknesses a child might have, his or her appreciation of the breakdown of words into component sounds, and the relation between sounds and letters, is the single strongest predictor of success or failure in early reading.

The early results also cast serious doubt on another popular idea, that poor understanding of spoken language, especially under difficult listening conditions, is a major cause of many language and reading problems. Watson said, "To our surprise, multiple tests showed the children's ability to understand spoken English to be virtually unrelated to any areas of academic achievement, although reading success could be accurately predicted from a number of other measures. We are advising against therapies that assume ear training to be an appropriate remedial approach to reading and language disorders."

Watson said the findings in this study can be used to develop ways to reach children in the early years through corrective actions to increase their chance for academic success. "By identifying the skills that are essential for successful reading, and the children most deficient in those skills, it may be possible to initiate appropriate remedial methods before those children have fallen so far behind that they will never catch up," he said.

Watson emphasized that, although he and Professor Douglas Horner in the IU School of Optometry were serving as coordinators, the entire team of investigators participated in the design of the study and in the interpretation of the data, as did an advisory group from several other universities in the United States and England. This research team is currently attempting to obtain federal funding to continue the study of the Benton school population through the eighth grade. With so much effort already spent on documenting the strengths and weaknesses that the children had when they entered elementary school, Watson said, the investigators believe that it would be a great waste to fail to follow them through the later grades.