Review of Early Literacy Foundations (ELF) program

February 14th, 2012

The Early Literacy Foundations (ELF; UQ, 2006) program is produced by the Speech Pathology and Occupational Therapy faculties at the University of Queensland. It is designed for “boosting a range of literacy skills in year one students” (p. 8). The program uses the term ‘literacy’ in a broad sense to encompass the skills of reading (at the word-level), spelling and handwriting. It is designed as a withdrawal program for small groups. This feature will be sure to grab the attention of cash strapped learning support co-ordinators. The aim of the program is to “provide students with strategies to boost their literacy, including listening, spelling, reading, handwriting, and a range of the motor skills important for school participation” (p. 9).

The program consists of a resource manual and a theme book that provides instructions and student materials. The teacher instructions are clear and could be followed by a paraprofessional. Being largely developed by speech pathologists it is unsurprising that there is a strong emphasis on phonological awareness. There is also a strong emphasis on postural, sensory and motor skills and here’s where the first problem arises. It is true that motor coordination weaknesses co-exist with learning difficulties (e.g., Kaplan, Wilson, Dewey, & Crawford, 1998). However, far from 100% of students with reading difficulties have motor weaknesses and there is no evidence that motor weaknesses are causal in the reading difficulties. It is therefore strange that a literacy program would include a motor component. In this author’s opinion, motor activities have no place in a reading program and it would be far better to select the students who have motor disorders for a separate program. The rest of this review will ignore the motor component of the program and focus on the ‘literacy’.

Teaching is preceded by a screening test that consists of various phonological awareness activities, a spelling task and a nonword spelling task from the SPAT. I like the author’s suggestion to rank order scores and select all students who score below the mean for intervention. This is unlikely to occur in the real-world but it shows the right intent.

The program has 12 “themes”. Each theme consists of a number of activities. Together, the activities in each theme take approximately 1-1.5 hours to administer.  If true, this means that students will receive a maximum of 18 hours of instruction. In reality, the amount of reading instruction will be even less as a large part of the program involves motor skill activities. This seems light for an intervention program.

The phonological awareness part of ELF progresses through the developmental stages of this metalinguistic skill (e.g., Adams, 1990; Yopp, 1992). Themes 1 and 2 consist of rhyming, segmenting sentences into words and syllabification activities. Themes 3 and 4 focuses on onset-rime activities while later themes focus on phoneme-level activities. Here’s the next problem.

There is certainly evidence suggesting that phonological awareness is correlated with reading and many draw the inference that it is involved in learning to read (e.g, Foorman, Francis, Novy & Liberman, 1991; Hatcher, Hulme & Ellis, 1994; see Snowling, 2000 for review) but the case is far from proven (see Castles & Coltheart, 2004 for review). There are cases of reading difficulties in which no phonological problems are present (Castles, 1996; Zoccolotti & Friedmann, 2010) and, despite popular belief, there is actually limited evidence showing that teaching phonological awareness has any additional benefit above and beyond teaching letter-sound conversion rules.

Even if one accepts that phonological awareness is a skill required for learning to read, the question becomes how much phonological awareness is required? Many people agree that being able to segment and blend words of 4-5 phonemes is sufficient. This makes the phoneme manipulation, deletion and substitution activities in the later Themes of ELF somewhat redundant. It should be noted that the major concern is not that these activities are bad, but that they are unnecessary. Reading programs need to target reading and spelling skills, not distal factors like phonological awareness. Students need as many repetitions of letter-sound conversion rules and decoding and spelling attempts using the letter-sound rules as teachers can possibly give them; excessive teaching of phonological awareness distracts from this essential requirement.

A positive is that ELF teaches letter sounds. The letter sequence is t, f, j, g, m, n, h, v, w, y, sh, th, ch, k, p, b, d, i, a, u, o, e, r, l, s and z. However, the sequence is somewhat odd with easily confused letters (e.g., p, d and b) taught together and low-frequency letter-sounds (e.g., v, w, y and z) taught before more frequently occurring letter-sound conversion rules.

It is not until Theme 5 that students begin spelling nonsense words using the letter-sound conversion rules. It is worth noting that the reading and spelling activities provide a limited number of repetitions compared to other intervention programs (e.g., Understanding Words and Minilit).

So I have a few problems with the program, but does it work? The answer is that we don’t know. There are no published peer-reviewed studies on effectiveness.

Finally, I was surprised to read that the authors recommended using the program in semester 2 of Grade 1 or even in Grade 2. They claim that this will give students the opportunity for 6-months of classroom instruction and gain some exposure to both phonics (a dangerous assumption) and handwriting. They provide no evidence for this suggestion and it seems an odd one. They are almost recommending a wait-and-see-who-fails approach.  Surely an early literacy foundations program should target Prep/Kinder students or at least from the very start of Grade 1?

Conflict of Interest:

Craig Wright is the author of the Understanding Words reading intervention program.

 


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