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Variety helps students learn to read

NSF Award:

Scaling learning theory to multiple pathways: Early reading as a model system  (University of Iowa)

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When children learn to read, they learn to recognize vowels much more easily and quickly when they encounter the vowels in many different consonant environments (for example, surrounded at different times by all the stop consonants in American English ("t", "d", "p", "b", "k" and "g") than when the same vowels are surrounded by a restricted set of consonants such as only "b" and "p." 

NSF-funded researchers Bob McMurray and Eliot Hazeltine made this observation after conducting a study involving over 220 first graders in the West Des Moines community schools. For the study, the children learned six different phonics rules over about five days. While all of the children showed some evidence of learning, children exposed to a large number of consonant contexts learned more about the phonics rules than did children exposed to only a small number of consonant contexts.

These results offer a clear principle of learning, namely, variability aids mastery, which researchers can apply to almost any pedagogical approach. The researchers also demonstrated how theoretical principles from the lab can make an impact on practical problems like learning to read.

Images (1 of )

  • a teacher helps a child learn to read
  • image shows vowels occurring in different consonant contexts
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