When it comes to teaching children how to speak, we like to take it slow, going one step at a time. But scientists at the University of Iowa conducted an intensive research that concluded that increasing the tempo may hasten learning.
It was always believed that certain small variations in words help early readers learn better. In this study it was found that when children see the same phonics regularly, embedded in words with more variation, they may learn these crucial reading skills better. What might appear to make learning a more difficult task actually leads to better learning.
This study published in Developmental Psychology is so clear cut that it refutes the belief of many pedagogues that when words differ on only one sound, early readers can learn the rules of phonics by focusing on what is different between the words.
Based on the Varied Practice Model, which helps children master early reading skills like phonics, the research team used Access Code, an online supplementary curriculum, to conduct the study directly in the classroom first-grade students over a period of three months.
During the study, one group of students learned using lists of words with a small, less variable set of consonants, such as maid, mad, paid, and pad. This is close to conventional phonics instruction, which uses similar words to help illustrate the rules and, presumably, simplify the problem for learners. A second group of students learned using a list of words that was more variable, such as bait, sad, hair, and gap, but which embodied the same rules.
After three or four days of training on phonics skills, partaking in activities such as spelling and matching letters, the students from both groups were tested to see if they could read words that they had never seen before, read novel non-words, and apply their newly-learned skills to tasks they hadn’t done before. The research conducted stunned even the research team. It uncovered an important implication that variation led to much better learning. The research team identified that variability was good not only for low as well as high performing students but also for the words and non-words. By contrast, student who weren’t exposed to variation struggled the most. This could provide some additional guidance not just to teachers and those preparing the curriculum but also to parents, since in the early years almost half the learning happens at home.