Preservice teacher knowledge of basic language constructs
in Canada, England, New Zealand, and the USA
Erin K. Washburn
&Emily S. Binks-Cantrell
R. Malatesha Joshi
Received: 6 February 2015 / Accepted: 26 August 2015 /Published online: 8 October 2015
#The International Dyslexia Association 2016
Abstract The present study examined preservice teachers’(PSTs) knowledge of basic lan-
guage constructs across four different English-speaking teacher preparations programs. A
standardized survey was administered to participants from Canada (n= 80), England (n=
55), New Zealand (n= 26), and the USA (n= 118). All participants were enrolled in under-
graduate university programs that led to teacher certification for general education in the
primary grades. Our data reveal that preservice teachers from all four countries show patterns
of relative strength in areas that were targeted to be crucial within their national initiatives.
Nevertheless, in general, PSTs demonstrated a lack of knowledge of certain constructs needed
to teach early reading skills. The results are discussed in relation to research reports and
initiatives regarding beginning reading instruction from each of the four countries.
Keywords Language .Literacy.Teacher education .Teacher knowledge
It has been estimated that 15–20 % of children in English-speaking countries experience
difficulty learning to read (British Dyslexia Association [BDA], n.d.; International Dyslexia
[IDA], 2012; Lyon, Shaywitz, & Shaywitz, 2003). Moreover, research has suggested that
children who have difficulty early on are likely to struggle with reading as they progress
through school (Francis, Shaywitz, Stuebing, Shaywitz, & Fletcher, 1996; Juel, 1988).
Ann. of Dyslexia (2016) 66:7–26
*Erin K. Washburn
Literacy Education, Graduate School of Education, Binghamton University, Binghamton, NY, USA
Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, USA
Concordia University, Montreal, Canada
Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand
However, there is also agreement among researchers that teachers have the potential to prevent
reading failure with effective instruction (Denton & Mathes, 2003; Moats, 1994; Taylor,
Pearson, Clark, & Walpole, 1999; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). The report on early reading
instruction by The National Research Council concluded that Bquality classroom instruction in
kindergarten and the primary grades is the single best weapon against reading failure^(Snow
et al., 1998, p. 343), yet they also argued that poor classroom instruction lies at the root of
many reading difficulties. Thus, classroom reading instruction and teacher effectiveness have
been the focus of much research over the past two decades. As part of the broader research
context on teacher effectiveness, a growing body of research on teacher content knowledge
and its relationship to student reading performance has emerged.
Teacher content knowledge, or the basic understanding of concepts needed for teaching a
specific content area (Shulman, 1986,1987), has been widely explored in various subjects
such as math (Ball & Bass, 2000,2003), science (Carlsen, 1991; Van Driel, Verloop, & de Vos,
1998), and, more recently, reading (Phelps & Schilling, 2004). Though it has been argued that
teachers need Bseveral kinds of knowledge^to be effective (Darling-Hammond, 2008,p.92),
researchers agree that content knowledge is one of them (Ball, Thames, & Phelps, 2008;
Darling-Hammond & Berry, 2006; Shulman & Grossman, 1988). Even though reading
instruction has been widely debated in the USA and across other English-speaking countries
(Chall, 1983;Goodman,1986,2005), research reports have highlighted the need for teachers
to have content knowledge of both bottom-up skills related to reading acquisition at the word
level (i.e., phonemic awareness and the alphabetic principle/phonics generalizations) and top-
down processes (i.e., comprehension) (National Institute of Child Health and Human
Development, NICHD, 2000;IDA,2012; International Reading Association [IRA], 2010;
Pressley, 2006;Rose,2006; Snow et al., 1998,2005).
While we acknowledge the importance of both types of reading-related content knowledge,
the focus of the current investigation is on the bottom-up skills associated with reading
acquisition. This specific set of literacy skills has been referred to as basic language constructs
(Joshi et al., 2009a). Basic language constructs comprise the conceptual knowledge and skills
related to understanding the structure of the English language. These include phonological and
phonemic awareness, the alphabetic principle and phonics instruction, and morphology and
morpheme awareness. Phonological awareness encompasses an understanding of the different
ways in which spoken language can be broken down and manipulated. Phonological aware-
ness skills include: sentence segmentation, syllable segmentation, onset-rime manipulation,
rhyming, alliteration, and phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is a subcomponent of
phonological awareness and is characterized by the ability to notice, think about, or manipulate
the individual sounds in spoken words (phonemes). The alphabetic principle is an understand-
ing of how written letters are systematically and predictably linked to spoken sounds (pho-
nemes), and phonics is the understanding of how to apply that knowledge for the purposes of
decoding and reading. Morphology is an understanding of the smallest meaningful word parts
(affixes, base words, and derivatives) for decoding and reading instruction. Morphemic
awareness is the ability or skill to manipulate individual morphemes in a written word.
As teacher educators from Canada, England, New Zealand, and the USA who are respon-
sible for preparing future reading teachers, we acknowledge the need for teachers to have an
accurate understanding of basic language constructs. Collectively, our beliefs on this matter are
based on findings from scientifically based reading research (SBRR, see Stanovich &
Stanovich  for a definition) and are noted in standards set forth by guiding organizations
in the fields of literacy, such as the Standards for Reading Professionals set forth by the
8 E.K. Washburn et al.
International Literacy Association (formerly the International Reading Association) (IRA,
2010) and the Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers from the International
Dyslexia Association (IDA, 2010). Therefore, the purpose of this exploratory study was to
examine what preservice teachers in our countries know about basic language constructs. In
the paragraphs to follow, we provide three reasons why we focused this exploratory investi-
gation on preservice teacher knowledge of basic language constructs.
Why examine preservice teachers’knowledge of basic language constructs?
First, strong research evidence exists that all young children, when learning to read the English
language, can benefit from explicit and systematic instruction in each of the basic language
concepts. For example, phonemic awareness in young children has been reported to be a strong
predictor of later reading success (Ehri, 1984; Melby-Lervåg, Lyster, & Hulme, 2012).
Therefore, researchers have reported that young readers, particularly those who are struggling,
can benefit from explicit and systematic instruction in phonological and phonemic awareness in
the early years (Adams, 1990;Griffith&Olson,1992; Torgesen et al., 1999). Moreover,
research supports the use of systematic synthetic phonics instruction as a method for teaching
young readers to Bbreak the code^of the English language and consequently improve decoding,
word reading, text comprehension, and spelling (Ehri, Nunes, Stahl, & Willows,2001; Hatcher,
Hulme, & Snowling, 2004). Researchers have also reported teaching morphology as a success-
ful method in supporting young (and older) readers’decoding, vocabulary development, text
comprehension, and spelling (Carlisle, 2003;Reed,2008). However, as noted by Moats (1994,
2009), teachers cannot provide necessary instruction to young and struggling readers if they
themselves do not have an explicit understanding of these constructs.
Second, researchers have found positive correlations between teacher knowledge and
optimal classroom practices. In short, teachers who know more about the structure of the
English language are more likely to teach it (Moats, 1994,2014; Piasta, Connor McDonald,
Fishman, & Morrison, 2009; Spear-Swerling & Sternberg, 2001). For example, Moats (2004)
reported that teachers, who understand how phonemes are distinct from letters (graphemes) and
letter names, are more capable of demonstrating this knowledge in their classrooms than
teachers who do not have such understanding. Similarly, understanding irregular spellings is
particularly important because many high frequency words in the English language fail to
conform to the typical letter-sound conventions and cannot be decoded (e.g., Bsaid,^Bof,^
Bone,^Btwo^). Therefore, teachers who can recognize irregularly spelled words are more likely
to choose appropriate exemplars during lessons (Spear-Swerling & Brucker, 2003). To illus-
trate, a teacher with moreknowledge is more likely to use the word Bgave^rather than Bgive^as
an example of Bmagic letter e^during classroom activities. A teacher with superior knowledge
would also be able to explain why the Bmagic letter e^pattern does not apply in the word give.
Because English does not share the one-to-one phoneme/grapheme correspondence that
other languages do (e.g., Finnish, Spanish), Moats (2009) claimed that it is vital that teachers
have an understanding of phoneme/grapheme (sound/symbol) correspondences to be able to
give systematic phonics instruction. Snow et al. (2005) further noted support for teacher
knowledge of orthography and morphology by stating: Bto move beyond the basic limitations
WordsinEnglishdonotendintheletter‘v’therefore, words like ‘love’and ‘give’have a final letter ‘e’
although it does not alter the pronunciation of the short/lax vowel.
Preservice teacher knowledge 9
of phonics instruction, teachers must be able to appreciate and explain the morphemic structure
of words^(p. 81). Wong-Fillmore and Snow (2000) also extended the notion of teaching basic
language concepts to pre-service teachers, particularly to those involved in teaching early
literacy skills. They contended that teachers must know that spoken language is made up of
units of different sizes, including the phoneme (smallest unit of sound), the morpheme
(smallest unit of distinct meaning), words, sentences, and discourses.
Third, the USA, England, Canada, and New Zealand have a shared history with regard to
influential research reviews and/or government initiatives aimed at improving beginning
reading instruction in our prospective countries. Though each review and/or initiative dis-
cusses various aspects of beginning reading instruction, all point to the need for children to
have literacy skills related to or dependent upon basic language constructs. For example, in the
USA, the National Reading Panel (NRP, [NICHD] 2000), a panel of reading research and
teaching experts, was assembled by the US Congress to Bassess the status of research-based
knowledge, including the effectiveness of various approaches to teaching children to read^
(NRP, [NICHD] 2000, p. 1). The NRP, building upon the previous work of the National
Research Council (Snow et al. 1998), concluded, after a 2-year meta-analysis of reading
research, that all children can benefit from explicit, systematic, and sequential instruction in
the areas of (1) phonemic awareness, (2) phonics, (3) fluency, (4) vocabulary, and (5) text
comprehension. The executive summary stated the following:
…effective reading instruction includes teaching children to break apart and manipulate
the sounds in words (phonemic awareness), teaching them that these sounds are
represented by letters of the alphabet which can then be blended together to form words
(phonics), having them practice what they have learned by reading aloud with guidance
and feedback (guided oral reading), and applying reading comprehension strategies to
guide and improve reading comprehension. (p. 2)
As noted in the executive summary, the NRP highlighted the need for teachers to include
the explicit and systematic teaching of phonemic awareness and phonics in the early reading
classroom. The NRP did not specifically address teacher preparation and education, other than
a call for further research. However, it has nevertheless influenced policy changes, federal and
state initiatives (e.g., Reading First; US Department of Education, 2002), and in the profes-
sional standards for reading teachers (IDA, 2010; IRA, 2010). In addition, it has served as a
basis for evaluating teacher preparation programs (Greenberg, McKee, & Walsh, 2013; Walsh,
Glaser & Wilcox, 2006) and textbooks used in educating future teachers (Dixon et al., 2014;
Joshi et al., 2009b).
Similar to the NRP, Sir Jim Rose, in England, conducted an independent review of research
related to beginning reading instruction as well as reading difficulties and published the Rose
(2006). In his report, a strong emphasis was placed on the Simple View of Reading (Hoover &
Gough, 1990), highlighting word recognition and language comprehension as distinct and
important components of effective reading instruction. One of the key emphases of the Rose
Review is Bhigh quality phonics work,^in which Rose recommends introducing grapheme–
phoneme correspondences in a clearly defined, incremental sequence. Rose noted that students
should be able to apply the highly important skill of blending phonemes in the order in which they
occur, all through a word to read it (i.e., synthetic phonics) and to apply the skills of segmenting
words into their constituent phonemes to spell, as blending and segmenting are reversible
processes. Further, a multisensory approach (e.g., manipulating magnetic or other solid letters
to build words, or activities involving physical movement to copy letter shapes) is also
10 E.K. Washburn et al.
emphasized as being an effective strategy for high quality phonics instruction and that success in
reading is Bgenerally achieved as a result of direct instruction^(p. 3). The sequential stages of
teaching beginning reading recommended by Rose include: (1) introduction of grapheme-
phoneme correspondences, (2) reading and spelling simple regular words, (3) introduction of
sounds that are represented by more than one letter, (4) introduction of alternative grapheme-
phoneme correspondences, and (5) introduction of Btricky^words. The Rose Review became
incorporated into the revised Primary Framework for literacy and the National Curriculum.
The Rose Review did not address teacher preparation but did address the need for schools to
support Bpractitioners’subject knowledge and skills (related to reading^(Rose, 2006,p.50).
Therefore, as part of the implementation of the Rose Review, the Teacher Development Agency
provided optional training for teacher educators, which became mandatory during the 2009–2010
school year. The Rose Review was also influential in the revision of Teachers’Standards by the
Department for Education (DfE-00066-2011, 2011) that guide the training and professional
development of Newly Qualified Teachers (NQTs). Specifically, standard 3 outlines the expec-
tation that teachers Bdemonstrate good subject and curriculum knowledge^and Bif teaching early
reading, demonstrate a clear understanding of systematic synthetic phonics^(p. 11).
In Canada, The Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network (CLLRNET), was
formed by a group of education, literacy, and public interest organizations to coordinate efforts
to improve literacy skills in Canadian youth. CLLRNET’s report entitled the National Strategy
for Early Literacy ((NSEL) acknowledged the importance of effective classroom instruction
and suggests fundamental activities include:
…balanced teaching of skills, literature, and writing; scaffolding and matching demands
to student competence/ encouragement of student’s abilities; self-regulatory learning
(i.e., students actively monitor their learning); cross curricular connections (e.g., reading
and writing instruction in all subjects); and lessons that are broken down into clearly
related components (CLLRN, 2009,p.30).
The report and recommendations published by the NSEL were also heavily influenced by the
Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children (Griffin, Burns, & Snow,
1998), prepared by leading academics in the USA. As such, the CLLRNET also endorses that
Canadian teachers focus on B1) print awareness; 2) decoding which includes letter knowledge,
phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and understanding the alphabetic principle, 3)
vocabulary; 4) reading comprehension; and 5) fluency^(CLLRN, 2009, p 31). However, explicit
recommendations regarding teacher preparation were not included in the report.
In New Zealand, a government committee was formed inresponse to what was considered to
be widespread concern over literacy standards (New Zealand House of Representatives, 2001).
To support this committee, a literacy taskforce was also set up by the Ministry of Education,
consisting of teachers, school principals, and consultants. A Literacy Experts group of
university-based academics was also co-opted to provide theoretical and research guidance to
the taskforce. Prior to this committee report, the teaching of reading was based on handbooks
for teaching reading (Department of Education, 1985;MinistryofEducation,1996)inwhich
the teaching of phonic knowledge and word decoding strategies were de-emphasized and
context cues were given preference for word recognition , for example Btrying to ‘learn’to
read printed words out of context, where their meaning is not clear, can be confusing for
students^(MinistryofEducation,1996,p.43),andBusing grapho-phonic cues, therefore, as the
first method of dealing with a problem often interferes with understanding …It is better that
children predict meaning from other cues at the outset^(Department of Education, 1985,p.48).
Preservice teacher knowledge 11
The taskforce itself did not make specific suggestions regarding teacher knowledge of
phonics, but more generally suggested that the teaching of reading should be better, and that
teacher education entry standards should be higher (Literacy Taskforce, 1999). The select
committee report was more specific in its recommendations that phonics instruction be
included in teacher education programs and be implemented by inservice teachers.
Following those recommendations, the Ministry of Education has provided increased reference
to phonic knowledge use as a strategy for identifying unknown words and as a form of
knowledge that children should use, and be taught, as they develop as readers (Ministry of
Education, 2007). However, there is little specific guidance on what should be taught and even
less on how to teach it, relying on a patchwork of private professional development providers
to supply it if a school decides to use it.
As noted previously, each initiative does not specifically address or mandate what or how
teacher preparation programs should teach. However, that is not to say that the initiatives have
not been influential in the preparation and professional development of teachers. Further, we
argue that the recommendations set forth by each country’s initiative(s) have implications for
teacher content knowledge. Because the development of teacher content knowledge typically
begins during teacher preparation (Darling-Hammond, 2000), these implications may also be
made for the preparation of future reading teachers.
Teacher knowledge of basic language constructs
Unfortunately, researchers over the past two decades have reported that teachers, both preser-
vice and inservice, generally demonstrate limited knowledge of basic language constructs
(Bos, Mather, Dickson, Podhajski, & Chard, 2001; Cunningham, Perry, Stanovich, &
Stanovich, 2004;Moats,1994; Washburn, Joshi, & Binks, 2011a,b). In one of the first and
well-noted studies, Moats (1994) using the Informal Survey of Linguistic Knowledge,assessed
teachers’knowledge of terminology and skills related to phonemic awareness, letter-sound
correspondences, and morphemes. Findings revealed that teachers displayed very little knowl-
edge about conceptual terminology, such as phonemic awareness, blends, and digraphs.
Teachers also demonstrated a lack of skills related to phonemic awareness, such as phoneme
identification and counting. Similar results have been reported in several studies (Bos et al.,
2001;Cunninghametal.,2004; Moats & Foorman, 2003) including more recent work (Binks-
Cantrell, Washburn, Joshi, & Hougan, 2012; Carreker, Joshi, & Boulware-Gooden, 2010;
Cheesman, McGuire, Shankweiler, & Coyne, 2009; Martinussen, Ferrari, Aitken, & Willows,
2015;Washburnetal.,2011a; b). For example, Cheesman et al. (2009) in a study of preservice
teacher knowledge and skills related to phonemic awareness (PA) reported that 94 % of
preservice teachers acknowledged the need for PA instruction in kindergarten and first grade,
but only 56 % understood the purpose ofPA instruction. Additionally, the preservice teachers in
the sample of Cheesman et al. demonstrated difficulty in PA skill or performance related items
with ~50 % of preservice teachers able to correctly segment the word Bgrape.^Washburn et al.,
(2011a) found that 91 % of preservice teachers in the study could correctly identify the number
of syllables in a variety of words, but only 58 % could correctly identify the correct definition of
phonological awareness. Washburn and colleagues also reported preservice teachers’mean
percent correct scores for items tapping knowledge about and skills related to phonics and
morphology to be below 50 %. Consequently, the more recent research findings reinforce
Moats’(1994) notion that being a skilled reader is necessary, but not sufficient, to teach reading.
12 E.K. Washburn et al.
Studies have also shown that when teachers are explicitly taught basic language constructs
in either the context of preservice teacher education or inservice teacher professional devel-
opment, teacher knowledge increases (Moats & Foorman, 2003; Spear-Swerling & Brucker,
2003,2004; Spear-Swerling, 2009). Encouragingly, improvement in teacher knowledge has
been correlated with improved student reading achievement (Al Otaiba & Lake, 2007;
McCutchen et al., 2002; Piasta et al., 2009; Spear-Swerling & Brucker, 2003,2004). For
example, Spear-Swerling and Brucker (2003,2004), in a series of studies with preservice
teachers, found that teachers made gains on a Tes t o f Word -Structure Knowledge after 6 h of
coursework specifically aimed at building content knowledge related to the phonological,
orthographical, and morphemic structure of the English language. Al Otaiba and Lake (2007)
also examined the effectiveness of teacher preparation that integrated both the explicit teaching
of word structure concepts and skills to preservice teachers and the application of those skills
with struggling readers in a one-on-one tutoring context. The preservice teachers made
significant growth on a measure of knowledge of word structure and their tutees’reading
fluency improved. Finally, McCutchen et al. (2009) found significantly improved teacher
knowledge as the result of a 10-day professional development intervention focused on growing
teachers’linguistic knowledge. McCutchen and her colleagues reported that struggling readers
taught by teachers who had participated in the professional development had significantly
higher scores in decoding, word reading, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension than those
who were taught by teachers who did not participate. Similar findings were reported for
struggling readers who had teachers with higher linguistic knowledge.
The findings from the studies reviewed previously are promising and further highlight the
need for teachers to have knowledge of basic language constructs. However, the vast majority
of this research has occurred in the USA. In an attempt to expand the research base on teacher
knowledge to other English speaking countries, we conducted the present exploratory study.
The present study
The purpose of the present study was to examine preservice teachers’(PSTs) knowledge about
basic language constructs and perceptions to teach such constructs from four university-based
teacher preparation programs in four English-speaking countries. To guide the study, the
following research questions were constructed: (a) What knowledge and ability of basic
language constructs do Canadian, English, New Zealander, and US preservice teachers pos-
sess? and (b) What, if any, patterns exist in and across groups of preservice teachers?
Two hundred seventy-nine PSTs from four university-based teacher preparation programs in
four English-speaking countries participated in the study (one university per country). The
sample was a convenience sample. Eighty participants were from Canada, 55 from England,
26 from New Zealand, and 118 from the USA. All participants were undergraduates in
preparation to teach general education students in the primary grades. However, all had
different requirements in their preparation programs.
Canadian PSTs (n= 80) were enrolled in an Early Childhood and Elementary Education
(ECEE) certification program from an urban University in eastern Canada. Within this 4-year
program, all students are required to complete two half-year literacy courses. On average,
Preservice teacher knowledge 13
Canadian PSTs had completed a total of 1.52 (SD = 0.53) literacy-related education courses.
The first course focuses on the requisite skills needed to teach word identification skills in
grades K-2. For example, PSTs learn the symbol system for the International Phonemic
Alphabet, which helps them with phonemic segmentation, and identifying irregularly spelled
words. They also learn about the six syllable types, which help them understand some of the
spelling patterns originating from the Anglo-Saxon layer. The second course focuses more
heavily on the content knowledge necessary to teach comprehension skills in grades 3-6; PSTs
learn about comprehension strategies, the importance of Print Exposure, inferencing, and
fluency. The overarching goal of both courses is for PSTs to acquire the content knowledge
required to be able to develop stimulating and age-appropriate language arts programs for
children in grades K-6. The ECEE program also includes three full-time placements in
kindergarten to grade 6. During each placement, PSTs work with supervising teachers in
elementary classrooms for 8 weeks. Each placement is accompanied by a seminar course.
PSTs from England (n= 55) consisted primary teaching majors from a university teacher
education programs with an Ofsted Grade 1 rating
(Ofsted, 2008) in northeastern England.
The core subjects, including English or literacy, are emphasized in the first 2 years of the
degree in courses that aim to provide the subject knowledge and skills necessary to become a
highly effective teacher. For example, students take two courses that are designed to familiarize
them with current initiatives aimed at raising standards in schools and building knowledge of
teaching reading. Therefore, coursework is aimed at teaching preservice teachers how to teach
reading using a systematic, synthetic phonic approach and how to use children’s literature in
the classroom. Students also have multiple field placements that range from 1 day a week for
7 weeks in the first year of the program to 5 days a week for 8 and 9 weeks in the second and
third years of the program. The purpose of the field placements is to first observe good practice
in schools and then to work alongside school-based mentors who are expected to share their
subject expertise and provide PSTs with teaching opportunities.
PSTs from New Zealand (n= 26) were education students in 3 or 4-year bachelor degree
programs qualifying them to teach in junior primary or primary school education or 1-year
graduate programs for those with a bachelor degree in any major. Students are required to take at
least one course in literacy or primary level English. On average, NZ PSTs had completed a total
of 2.95 (SD = 1.65) literacy or primary level English education courses. The courses include
content knowledge for teaching literacy, approaches for reading instruction, approaches for
teaching writing, literacy assessment, children’s literature, and teaching for diversity and differ-
entiation. New Zealand teacher education students also have multiple, non-subject specific, field
placements that progress from 1 day a week observation in the first year of the program to student
teaching or taking full control of all aspects of a classroom by the end of the third year for
bachelor students and the end of the year for graduate program students. Survey participants were
at the end of their program studies from three different University education faculties.
PSTs from the USA (n= 118) were enrolled in an Early Childhood to 4th grade (EC-4)
general education certification program from a university-based teacher preparation program in
a state in the Southwest USA. The university-based program is one of the two largest programs
in the state and has consistently been ranked by NCTQ (Walsh et al., 2006)asoneofthetop
Ofsted is the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills in the United Kingdom. Ofsted
inspects and regulates services that care for children and young people, and services providing education and
skills for learners of all ages. Ofsted gives education organizations, such as teacher preparatory institutions, a
rating (1 [Outstanding], 2 [Good], 3 [Requires Improvement], or 4 [Inadequate]) basedon the quality of teaching,
learning and assessment.
14 E.K. Washburn et al.
elementary teaching programs in the state. On average, US participants had completed a total
of 2.68 (SD = 1.45) literacy education courses. There are four required literacy education
courses in the EC-4 certification program. The courses include a variety of topics pertaining to
elementary reading instruction in which there is an emphasis on the five NRP components and
building student understanding of phonological and phonemic awareness, the alphabetic
principle, analytic and synthetic phonics instruction, fluency, vocabulary instruction, listening
and text comprehension, elementary reading assessment, writing instruction, children’s liter-
ature, and teaching English language learners. During coursework, preservice teachers are also
involved in various field placements in elementary schools. As with the PSTs from England
and New Zealand, the duration and expectations of the placements vary and increase in both
time and expectation as the PST progresses to the final year of their program. In the final year
of their program, PSTs student teach for a semester (~five months).
The Survey of Basic Language Constructs was used to measure content knowledge and teacher
ability of constructs related to phonology, phonics, and morphology. The survey has been used in
previous research studies (Binks-Cantrell et al., 2012; Washburn et al., 2011a) and was constructed
based upon the work of previous researchers in the field (Bos et al., 2001; Cunningham et al., 2004;
McCutchen et al., 2002;Moats,1994). It has 46 items in total, including 38 items that are designed
to measure content knowledge and ability. The remaining 8 items are self-perception items;
however, these items were not included in the analysis as the aim of this exploratory study was
to examine preservice teacher knowledge of basic language constructs. Knowledge items were
multiple choice questions that asked participants to identify the correct definition of a specific
construct (i.e., What is phonemic awareness?). Ability-based items required participants to dem-
onstrate their own ability to complete a construct-related task. For example, participants were asked
to count the number of sounds or phonemes in a word, such as Bbox,^as well as count or segment
the number of syllables and morphemes in words, such as Bspinster^and Bteacher.^Ability items
were based on skills deemed to yield particularly significant results in surveys developed by Moats
(1994) and McCutchen et al. (2002). Reliability was measured with Cronbach’s alpha at 0.90, with
no deleted item resulting in a higher alpha. In terms of item difficulty, 14 of the 38 knowledge items
fall within 0.10 of the optimal 0.66 difficulty coefficient, with μ= 0.63 (0.23). In item discrimi-
nation, 30 of the 38 knowledge items have discrimination indices ranging from 0.30 to 1.00 (good
range) (see Binks-Cantrell et al., 2012 for more details concerning the survey).
Background information, such as gender, race, location, and number of reading courses
previously taken, was collected for each participant. Surveys were adapted to include language
that is reflective of the education jargon in each perspective country. For example, in the
survey tailored for the English preservice teachers, Belementary education major^was changed
to Bprimary teacher certification.^
Participants were recruited by contacting teacher educators in each country. Five teacher
educators agreed to distribute the survey: one teacher educator from Canada, one from New
Zealand, one from England, and two from the USA. Teacher educators who agreed to
Preservice teacher knowledge 15
distribute the survey worked with the first two authors on a timeline for distribution and
approval from each institutional review board (or country equivalent) was obtained. The goal
was to measure knowledge in the middle or at the end of coursework, thus to gauge what PSTs
were learning or had learned in their teacher education programs as opposed to what they knew
prior to coursework. Therefore, survey distribution took place after PSTs had taken at least one
reading-related course. Paper surveys were distributed to preservice teachers in Canada,
England, and the USA. An online version of the survey was created using Qualtrics for
New Zealand PSTs. In both instances, PSTs completed the surveys in 30 min or less.
In earlier studies using the survey (Binks-Cantrell et al., 2012; Joshi et al., 2009a,b), an
exploratory factor analysis (EFA) was conducted to identify any underlying factors. Six
factors were identified and included syllable counting ability, basic phonemic awareness
knowledge and ability, advanced phonemic awareness knowledge and ability, phonics
terminology, phonics rules knowledge, and morphology knowledge and ability. Only five
items on the survey did not fit into any of the above six factors (see Binks-Cantrell et al.,
2012 for more detailed explanation). Tables 1,2,3,and4display the survey items
included in each of the four factors. For purposes of data analysis in the present study,
we condensed the six factors and five non-factor items into four descriptive categories by
grouping like items: (a) phonological items (with the exclusion of items related to
phonemic awareness), (b) phonemic items, (c) phonics items, and (d) morphological
items. Prior to statistical analysis, all items were scored either correct or incorrect. A
correct item was given a 1 and an incorrect item a 0. Next, mean percentage correct
scores were calculated for: (a) total survey (all items), (b) all knowledge items, (c) all
ability items, (d) all phonological items, (e) phonemic items, (f) phonics items, and (g)
morphological items. For purposes of interpretation and discussion, we deemed any mean
percentage correct score under 70 % to be of concern. This criterion was set in relation to
Tabl e 1 Phonological knowledge
and ability items 18. For each of the words below, determine the number of syllables:
a. Disassemble (4)
b. Heaven (2)
c. Observer (3)
d. Salamander (4)
e. Bookkeeper (3)
f. Frogs (1)
e. Teacher (2)
22. Phonological awareness is:
a. The ability to use letter-sound correspondences to decode
b. The understanding of how spoken language is broken down and
c. A teaching method for decoding skills
d. The same as phonics
e. No idea
16 E.K. Washburn et al.
grading procedures used in our teacher preparation programs: a score below 70 % would
constitute a failing grade.
Tabl e 2 Phonemic knowledge and
ability items 9. A phoneme refers to:
a. A single letter
b. A single speech sound
c. A single unit of meaning
d. A grapheme
e. No idea
12. How many speech sounds are in the following words?
a. Ship (3)
b. Grass (4)
c. Box (4)
d. Moon (3)
e. Brush (4)
f. Knee (2)
g. Through (3)
13. What type of task would the following be? BSay the word ‘cat’.
Now say the word without the /k/ sound?^
e. No idea
15. Identify the pair of words that begins with the same sound:
e. No idea
The next 2 items involve saying a word and then revering the order
of the sounds.
For example, the word Bback^would be Bcab^.
16. If you say the word and then reverse the order of the sounds,
e. No idea
17. If you say the word, and then reverse the sounds, Benough^
e. No idea
Preservice teacher knowledge 17
Tab l e 3 Phonics knowledge and ability items
10. If Btife^is a word, the letter Bi^would probably sound like Bi^in:
f. No idea
11. A combination of two or three consonants pronounced so that each letter keeps its own identity is called:
a. Silent consonant
b. Consonant digraph
d. Consonant blend
e. No idea
13. A Bsoft c^is in the word:
e. None of the above
f. No idea
18. All of the nonsense words have a silent letter, except:
b. Wri n
f. No idea
20. Which of the following words has 2 closed syllables?
e. None of the above
f. No idea
21. Which of the following words contains an open syllable?
e. None of the above
f. No idea
30. What is the rule that governs the use of ‘c’in the initial position for /k/?
a. ‘c’is used for /k/ in the initial position before e, i, or y
b. The use of ‘c’for /k/ in the initial position is random and must be memorized
c. ‘c’is used for /k/in the initial position before a,o,u,or any consonant
18 E.K. Washburn et al.
Group mean percent correct scores and standard deviation scores for knowledge, ability, and
total survey for all participants and for each group of participants are displayed in Table 5.All
group mean percent correct scores on the total survey fell below 70 % and ranged between 49
and 67 % with Canadian PSTs having the highest mean score, English PSTs scoring the
lowest, and USA and NZ PSTs scoring between the two. On items that tapped explicit
knowledge of a construct, all groups of PSTs performed below 70 % with English and US
PSTs scoring the lowest at 37 and 40 %, respectively. A similar pattern of performance was
observed across the groups on items that assessed ability.
Group mean percent correct scores and standard deviations for all participants and each
individual group of participants on the four categories are also displayed in Table 5.
Phonological items assessed the ability to count syllables in a variety of words and explicit
knowledge of the definition of phonological awareness but excluded items related to phonemic
awareness. PSTs from three of the four countries (Canada, NZ, and USA) scored higher on
items related to phonological knowledge and ability than any other basic language construct.
However, for English PSTs, the phonological category was their second to lowest mean
percent correct score at 45 % with the phonemic category being their lowest score (24 %).
Like the phonological category, the phonemic category was comprised of knowledge and
Tab l e 3 (continued)
d. None of the above
e. No idea
31. What is the rule that governs the use of ‘k’in the initial position for /k/?
a. ‘k’is used for /k/in the initial position before e,i,or y
b. The use of ‘k’for /k/ in the initial position is random and must be memorized
c. ‘k’is used for /k/ in the initial position before a, o, u, or any consonant
d. None of the above
e. No idea
Tabl e 4 Morphological knowl-
edge and ability items 19. For each of the words below,
Determine the number of morphemes:
a. Disassemble (3)
b. Heaven (1)
c. Observer (3)
d. Salamander (1)
e. Bookkeeper (3)
f. Frogs (2)
e. Teacher (2)
27. A morpheme refers to:
a. A single letter
b. A single speech sound
c. A single unit of meaning
d. A grapheme
e. No idea
Preservice teacher knowledge 19
ability items with the majority of items requiring PSTs to identify the number of speech sounds
in a variety of words. As with the phonological category, Canadian PSTs had the highest mean
percent correct score on phonemic items at 69 % and NZ and US PSTs’had the second and
third highest scores at 63 and 53 %, respectively. English PSTs had the lowest mean percent
score at 24 % which was consequently their lowest categorical score.
Phonics items were designed to assess knowledge of two high utility phonics generaliza-
tions, syllable types (i.e., closed, final stable syllable), and common terminology related to
phonics instruction (i.e., blend, digraph). English PSTs had the highest mean percent correct
score at 80 % scoring followed by Canadian, NZ, and US PSTs respectively. The English PSTs
phonics score was the highest mean percent correct score on any category for any of the four
groups. Further, English PSTs mean percent correct score was 17 points higher than the next
highest scoring group (Canadians) and 42 points higher than the lowest scoring group (USA).
Morphological items were designed to tap both ability and knowledge. Ability items
required PSTs to determine the number of morphemes in a variety of words and identify
prefixes, root words, and suffixes in a second set of words. There were two knowledge items
that asked PSTs to identify the definition of morpheme analysis and etymology. Mean percent
correct scores on morphological items ranged from 20 to 49 %. English PSTs had the highest
mean percent correct score, US PSTs had the lowest and Canadian, and NZ PSTs’mean scores
were in between England and the USA. For the US, NZ, and Canadian PSTs, this was the
lowest mean percent correct score in any of the four categories.
The primary objective of the present study was to examine what PSTs in four English-speaking
countries know about certain basic language concepts and skills, as measured in the Survey of
Basic Language Constructs. The secondary objective was to examine any patterns that may
exist in and across the four groups. Thus, the findings from this study are discussed in relation
to previously published research as well as research reviews, reports, and initiatives about
beginning reading instruction from each perspective country as well as the content covered in
Overall, PSTs did not demonstrate strong content knowledge of basic language constructs
as measured in this study. Mean percent correct scores on the total survey were all below 70 %
Tab l e 5 Mean percent correct scores and standard deviations for total survey, knowledge, ability and categorical
(number of items)
CAN (n= 80) ENG (n= 55) NZ (n=26) USA (n= 118) All participants (n= 278)
M SD M SD M SD M SD M SD
Total survey (38) 0.67 (0.45) 0.49 (0.12) 0.56 (0.50) 0.50 (0.49) 0.56 (.08)
Total knowledge (12) 0.64 (0.46) 0.37 (0.48) 0.52 (0.44) 0.40 (0.48) 0.48 (12)
Total ability (26) 0.68 (0.45) 0.55 (0.50) 0.58 (0.50) 0.54 (0.49) 0.59 (.64)
Phonological (8) q 0.45 (0.48) 0.63 (0.42) 0.73 (0.36) 0.63 (0.13)
Phonemic (13) 0.69 (0.43) 0.24 (0.41) 0.63 (0.44) 0.53 (0.48) 0.52 (.20)
Phonics k(9) 0.63 (0.46) 0.80 (0.34) 0.50 (0.42) 0.38 (0.46) 0.58 (0.18)
Morphological (8) 0.46 (0.43) 0.49 (0.50) 0.33 (0.47) 0.20 (0.30) 0.37 (.13)
20 E.K. Washburn et al.
and ranged from 49 to 67 %. The group that had the highest total survey score, Canadian PSTs,
were also the group who was exposed to coursework that included focused instruction in basic
language constructs. Upon analysis of all knowledge and all ability items, we found that all
four groups scored higher on items that were designed to assess ability compared to those
designed to assess knowledge. One possible explanation for this is that the survey contains
more ability items than knowledge items. An additional explanation may be that knowledge
items required PSTs to have explicit understanding of terms and concepts, whereas certain
ability items, such as syllable counting, required only awareness. It can also be noted that when
ability items are disaggregated into categorical groups, the majority of PSTs in this study
scored highest on items related to phonological ability (i.e., syllable counting) and lowest on
items related to morphological ability such as morpheme counting and identification.
When examining PSTs knowledge and ability across the four categorical groups, some
notable and interesting patterns were observed. Phonological awareness items yielded the
highest mean percent correct scores for PSTs from New Zealand, Canada, and the USA, with
Canadian and US PSTs scoring above 70 % on these items, yet this was one of the lowest
scores for English PSTs. Phonemic items, however, yielded lower scores for all groups except
NZ PSTs who had the same mean percent correct score on phonological and phonemic items.
Again, Canadian PSTs had the highest mean percent correct score (69 %) and English PSTs
having the lowest score (24 %). In relation to research reports, the phonological and phonemic
findings are rather interesting. For example, the NRP addressed phonemic awareness as one of
the five essential components of reading instruction and the NSEL endorsed a teaching focus
on phonological and phonemic awareness whereas the Rose Report in England placed a
greater emphasis on phonetic work or phonics instruction than on phonemic awareness.
Though we cannot say whether or not PSTs scores are related to or indicative of these
initiatives, we do know that the initiatives have had some influence on literacy-related
coursework in the teacher preparation programs from which our sample came. Specifically,
Canadian PSTs came from a program in which there was an explicit emphasis on teaching
phonological and phonemic awareness instruction, and US PSTs were also exposed to
phonemic awareness and assessment of phonemic awareness in their courses.
English PSTs scored the highest on items related to the alphabetic principle and phonics
instruction. In fact, English PSTs not only scored the highest of all three groups, but this was also
their highest categorical score by 31 points. One possible explanation for this high score may be
the importance placed on phonetic work in the Rose Report and the recommendations thereof for
teacher preparation coursework to include instruction on systematic, synthetic phonics instruc-
tion. In the teacher preparation program from which the English sample came from there was a
specific emphasis on teaching systematic and synthetic phonics instruction for beginning reading
instruction in the two required literacy courses. On the flip side, US PSTs scored the lowest on
phonics-related items. Though US PSTs findings in this study are commensurate with findings
from other PST knowledge research conducted in the USA (Bos et al., 2001; Spear-Swerling,
2009; Washburn et al., 2011a), the low mean score for US PSTs on phonics items was still
surprising, given that the US PSTs in this study were required to take five literacy-related courses
in which there was a focus on the five components of the NRP. However, this does not necessarily
mean that the coursework focused on phonics included instruction on the aspects, such as phonics
generalizations, that were assessed in this study. The performance of NZ PSTs on phonics items
(50 %) was not necessarily surprising as, historically, there has not been an emphasis placed on
phonics instruction in beginning reading instruction or for teachers to be prepared to explicitly
teach letter-sound correspondences (McLachlan & Arrow, 2011).
Preservice teacher knowledge 21
Low scores on morphological items may reflect less emphasis placed on teaching mor-
phology in beginning reading instruction. Though discussed by researchers, as a building
block for vocabulary instruction (Bowers & Kirby, 2010; Carlisle, 2007;Nagy,2007)and
essential to word level reading across grade levels (McCutchen, Logan, & Biangardi Orpe,
2009;Reed,2008), morphology is not explicitly addressed in any of the research reviews or
reports from any of the four countries nor was it explicitly highlighted in the literacy courses
taken by the majority of PSTs. Therefore, it is not surprising that all groups of PSTs, on
average, had difficulty with morphological items.
Overall, the findings from this study are fairly consistent with previously published reports
of PST reading-related knowledge in English-speaking countries (Binks-Cantrell et al., 2012;
Bos et al., 2001; Cheesman et al., 2009; Spear-Swerling, 2009; Spear-Swerling, Brucker, &
Alfano, 2005; Washburn et al., 2011a). However, there are notable differences. Though these
findings are exploratory, they may be indicative of vague or the lack of explicit recommen-
dations or guidance for teacher education with regard to research-informed reading instruction
for young children and the variance of coursework. Moreover, the findings may also be
characteristic of differing philosophical approaches to teaching reading by teacher educators
Limitations and concluding thoughts
The limitations of the present study included the small number of PSTs which may provide a
limited view from each country. Future research should include not only a larger sample of
PSTs but also a sample that is inclusive of PSTs from a variety of teacher preparation
institutions in each country. Additionally, there is a need to expand investigations into PST
knowledge to cover the other important components of effective reading instruction, such as
fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and even text complexity and dyslexia as addressed in
even more recent initiatives (e.g., Common Core State Standards, [CCSS]; National Governors
Association Center for Best Practices [NGA] & Council of Chief State School Officers
[CCSO]; Rose, 2009). Additionally, the present research can be expanded to include in-
service teachers and teacher educators. PSTs cannot know the important information about
language and literacy constructs if they are not provided by teacher educators as outlined in the
BPeter Effect^paper (Binks-Cantrell et al., 2012).
Though small and exploratory, this study can be seen as a springboard for further research
of teacher knowledge across English-speaking countries. Therefore, future research across
countries might include a larger and more representative sample from each country as well as
the inclusion of other English speaking countries (e.g., Australia). Additionally, researchers
may even want to replicate studies of teacher knowledge that have been conducted in the USA
(Binks-Cantrell et al., 2012; Joshi et al., 2009a) but do so with a more global perspective. For
example, future research investigations may include the examination of teacher preparation
materials (e.g., textbooks, learning materials) in each country and the assessment of teacher
In summary, as all four countries move forward with their research, initiatives, and
efforts to improve reading instruction and teacher preparation, we believe we can learn
from one another. We all share similar scores (Canada, 548; England, 552; New Zealand,
531; USA, 556) on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (IEA, 2011)and
report 10–20 % rates of dyslexia (BDA, n.d; Canadian Dyslexia Association, CDA, n.d:
IDA, 2012; Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand, DFNZ, n.d.). As teacher educators, we
22 E.K. Washburn et al.
propose that each country’s individual initiative to improve reading instruction (i.e., Rose
Report, NRP, CLLRNET) can only be successful when more attention is devoted to what
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