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Variation on Traditional Phonics Helps Early Readers, Study Says

Teaching a variation of traditional phonics can help early readers learn better, a new study says.

Researchers at the University of Iowa found that by providing students with variations in words instead of the traditional use of similar-sounding words with less variable consonants led to "much better learning," according to a university news release. The study was recently published in Developmental Psychology

"Variability was good for the low-performing students; it was good for the high-performing students. It was good for the boys; it was good for the girls," said Keith Apfelbaum, a university doctoral student and the lead author on the report. "Among the students who struggled the most, the kids who weren't exposed to variation didn't show any learning at all, while the kids who were exposed to variation did."

For three months, researchers studied 224 1st-graders attending west Des Moines schools. The students were broken into two groups: One learned using a traditional phonics method of studying words that had few variables in consonants, such as "maid, mad, paid and pad," while the other group learned words with more variables, such as "bait, sad, hair, and gap." Both sets of words embodied similar rules of phonics, though previous thinking held that the use of words with very similar sounds helped simplify learning, researchers said.

After several days of studying phonics skills, the students were tested "to see if they could read words that they had never seen before, read novel nonwords, and apply their newly learned skills to tasks they hadn't done before," according to the news release.

The results surprised researchers, who learned that using variation helped students learn better than using similar words did. And using variation helped the students apply their new reading skills to new words and tasks. Educators say the results could mean changes in approaches to learning across the board.

"If we really look at what happened with the research, there is a multitude of applications that could go forward with this," said Principal Robert Davis, whose school, Hillside Elementary, participated in the study. "We could certainly look at varied practice as a method for learning new vocabulary, as a new method for learning basic math facts, maybe even something involved with music. As educators, we need to figure out how to take that model and apply it to the umbrella of learning for a variety of things that kids struggle with."

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