Phonics Dance an effective teaching tool, researcher says

Incorporating student chanting and movement into language instruction may help children learn words faster.

An innovative phonics instruction program created by an Ohio first-grade teacher in 1999 compared favorably to a popular, more traditional program in recent research conducted by Dr. Amy Mullins, assistant professor of education at Bluffton University.

While the 74 participating first-graders from two northwest Ohio elementary schools improved in four assessed areas regardless of the program used, the group taught with The Phonics Dance showed a slightly higher average increase in word identification skills, Mullins found.

The first-year Bluffton faculty member presented her doctoral research results during a campus colloquium March 14. She earned her Ph.D. in educational curriculum and instruction from the University of Toledo last year.

Calling phonics “the most debated aspect of reading instruction for several decades,” Mullins said the term “phonics” alone is confusing to many people, maybe because it has multiple meanings. It is “a system for encoding speech sounds into written words,” she said, but also “a method of teaching learners relationships between letters and sounds and how to apply the code to recognize words.”

The Phonics Dance is a daily 20-minute lesson during which children chant, rhyme and write, as well as move, while learning word recognition skills. Ginny Dowd devised the program “after teaching first grade for several years and observing that some of her students had difficulty decoding words,” Mullins explained. “She was inspired to create an engaging approach to learning strategies to sound out words.”

Educators nationwide have purchased and implemented The Phonics Dance, whose components include alphabet sound review; word association; “hunk and chunks” (a way of learning parts of letter patterns); and “monster” (confusing or tricky to spell) words, each of which has a specific chant.

In the program, letter names and letter sounds are reviewed every day, and letter patterns are introduced beginning in the third week of school and continuing until Christmas. “With the basal phonics program,” she noted, “letter patterns are introduced, but later, and they are not all covered until the end of the school year.”

“Students can decode many words without knowledge of letter patterns. However, students are able to decode words with automaticity if they know letter patterns,” she added.

In her research, Mullins assessed the first-graders’ letter naming skills, identification of letter sounds and nonsense words, and phoneme segmentation—ability to break words down into individual sounds. She did her work at their rural, public schools during the first week of classes, after eight weeks of school and again after eight more weeks.

The former elementary teacher said she wanted to study The Phonics Dance because, while many people have bought the program, there has been little research about its effectiveness. The school where she tested The Phonics Dance had a higher percentage of students considered socioeconomically disadvantaged—a factor that would normally correlate with students having more difficulty learning reading skills, she pointed out. 

While phonics should be a small part of an overall reading program, Mullins added, research has indicated that systematic phonics instruction is beneficial for children. Teacher candidates are required to take a phonics course while in Bluffton’s teacher education program.