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E801: Action 1.9: Ehri's model of learning to read

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E801: Action 1.9: Ehri's model of learning to read

Beech, J. R. (2009) 'Ehri's model of phases of learning to read: a brief critique' in Soler, J., Fletcher-Campbell, F. & Reid, G. (eds.) Understanding Difficulties in Literacy Development: Issues and Concepts, London, Sage.


Based on Frith's model

Pre-alphabetic phase (=Frith's logographic stage)

  • Connection between'cues' (visual features) and pronunciation/semantic representation
  • Strong visual element
  • Example: word recognised as part of advertising feature

Partial alphabetic phase/Novice alphabetic phase/phonic cue reading

  • Recognise some letters e.g. first and last
  • Phonological information is important feature

Full alphabetic phase / mature alphabetic/cipher reading

  • Map graphemes to phonemes of 'sight words'
  • Blending
  • Note silent letters

Consolidated alphabetic phase (=Frith's orthographic stage)

  • E.g. chest recognised as 'ch' and 'est'
  • Reduces memory load

Ehri does not state whether progressive, but may indicate it
No mention of how teaching style interacts
No mention of underlying cognitive structures required or age norms
No strict definitions for researchers to investigate
'Sight word reading' is not rote memorisation

1998 paper: reading and spelling have interactive reciprocal relationship i.e. memorising words helps spelling and writing develops reading

2002 paper: each stage not pre-requisite for following stage; word reading does not contribute to later processing through alphabetic stages; proposes parallel processing of alphabetic stages

My Thoughts on Younger Learners
My thoughts on this come from helping my own children to read when they were ready. I home educated them and followed their needs. Two of them followed this model very closely. They initially recognised words with great help from the context e.g. name associated with picture on wellie peg! They built up a large vocabulary of 'sight words' and enjoyed reading and listening to others read. They moved on to decoding new words by playing with letter sounds in words that they knew as sight words and quickly moved through the stages.

o   My eldest was deaf and was keen to read at the age of three when she had a limited spoken vocabulary of mainly nouns. She ended up learning to read new nouns and also adjectives and conjunctions that she was not yet using in speech and then introducing them to her speech. As her mother, I was at an advantage as I knew her speech patterns intimately and so always knew when she was encountering new words. Having consulted with a teacher of the deaf, I realise that this is a much more difficult process between a teacher and a deaf child. By the age of 4 years she was fluently reading Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton and gaining much of her general knowledge from reading.

o   My second was keen to read like her sister and actually it was her sister who introduced her first sight words. She progressed rapidly through the same stages and was reading fluently and rapidly at the age of 3 years which gave me problems in finding suitable books. She attended nursery school for a while at 4 years and confounded the teacher by insisting on doing her own research, happily using indexes and the encyclopaedia.

o   My third child was also desperate to read by the age of 3 years but was frustrated when he could not remember words. With a very small vocabulary of sight words, he found it much easier to try to use his knowledge of phonics to try to decode. It was very difficult to help him to increase his knowledge of phonics with his short-term memory problems until we looked at Letterland. The concentration on fun stories with constant repetition of the sounds helped move the information into long term memory and he started to progress more rapidly. Looking at Ehri's model, he had a much shorter version of the Partial Alphabetic stage due to short term memory problems but he still progressed through the same stages as his siblings although at a slower pace as he fought much harder to move things to long term memory.

If these stages are progressive and do rely on underlying cognitive structures, both of which are not mentioned by Ehri, then the teaching style could have a major effect on literacy development. Forcing young children to progress at a faster rate than their brain is ready for, could cause problems. As could concentrating on areas they have already mastered as this will increase boredom and encourage them to 'switch off' at school.

In her 1998 paper she suggests that reading and spelling have interactive reciprocal relationship i.e. memorising words helps spelling and writing develops reading. With the limited evidence available to me, I do agree that writing develops reading. Unfortunately the short term memory problems experienced by my son meant that he also had problems memorising letter formation. Trying to work at both writing and reading at the same time produced cognitive overload and stress. Eventually we reduced all emphasis on writing and concentrated on reading first; writing followed later.

In her 2002 paper, Ehri suggests that word reading does not contribute to later processing through alphabetic stages but I am not convinced about this. All three children used their knowledge of sight words and how these related to phonemes to help them analyse other words. The elder two children had a large bank of sight words to help them in this task. My son had a much smaller bank and this contributed to his difficulties.


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