From Teacher, to Researcher, to Zoo-phonics Proponent: Scott Griffith of E3 Research Witnesses Consistent Compelling Data

By Crystal Nay

Teachers, administrators, heads of educational departments, and school board members are firm believers in educational studies because the results give them pertinent information to help them make classroom decisions. In order for the study to have integrity, it has to have a large enough student sample and must be able to demonstrate reliability in order to generalize to a greater population. One of the most important tests that studies go through (or should) is the t-test. The hope of the t-test is to show that the results of the study were not found by chance and the study can be replicated with assurance.

The “not by chance” concept is a measure of probability and is expressed as the level of statistical significance (p).  The common level is expressed as >.05, or less than 5%.  This means that there is a less than 5% chance that the number is a result of chance.  So statistically speaking, if the number, say on a t-test is less than .05, it is accepted as statistically significant or “did not occur by chance,” which is the hope of every researcher.

Every day, in educational blogs and articles, one can see the interest and sway that research (even non-scientific) has on educators and educational stake-holders. However, it is rare that we hear the perspective of the researcher. The reason for this is that researchers must stay unbiased. Or, at least, the bias has to be stated up front. (It is rare that a researcher has no opinions on his/her study subject.) Today, you will read the personal view of one researcher and why he felt compelled to share it.

Dr. Scott Griffith has a different story than most researchers. He was once a second-grade teacher who desperately needed a teaching strategy for his low-skilled students, including second-language learners and special needs students.  He noticed that those with prior Zoo-phonics language arts instruction did exceptionally better in his class than those who hadn’t learned through Zoo-phonics. They were more prepared for more challenging instruction. Because of this, he began to use Zoo-phonics in his own classroom.

“In every classroom, there are always kids with various rates of literacy,” says Griffith, “but once I started using Zoo-phonics, my entire class had gone through the entire second grade reader by Christmas. By the end of second grade, most were reading at the fourth-grade level.” Griffith measured his students’ end-of-the-year reading scores against other second grade classrooms and found that whereas other classes grew by three trimesters in the year, Griffith’s second grade class grew by four trimesters.

What did he attribute to Zoo-phonics’ success with children? “Zoo-phonics is mnemonic, physical, and multisensory in its approach to language arts. It seems to appeal to children of all ages, abilities, language, and learning styles. And, its fun for teachers!” stated Griffith.

After gaining his doctorate, Griffith left elementary school teaching and joined a university staff working with doctoral students who were working on their dissertations. Within this time-frame, he established his E3 Research Company and chose to first study a topic about which he was most curious. What is the efficacy of the Zoo-phonics Mnemonic and Multisensory Program for preschool and kindergarten children? He knew what he saw in his classroom but could Zoo-phonics hold up under even closer scrutiny, testing a larger group of students from various demographics?

Griffith put out an open call to schools around the United States, and over the years, received a series of volunteer private and public preschool, kindergarten and first grade classrooms. In some studies, teachers were already trained in Zoo-phonics and had been using the Program in their classrooms. For those who were not yet trained, they were trained by a certified Zoo-phonics trainer and Zoo-phonics curriculum was given.

In each study, data were collected at the beginning of the school year, and depending on the study, often at the end of the first trimester, but always at the end of the school year. “These two or three assessments allowed us to monitor student growth, in order to see the speed and longevity of any gains,” explains Griffith.

The early studies only really took note of students’ mastery (and lack there-of) of upper- and lowercase alphabets: letter shapes, sounds, and names. The process has since expanded into thoroughly covering kindergarten literacy skills, with special emphasis on kids three to six years of age.

And his findings? “With the pre-test at the beginning of the year, even for kindergartners, we see a sketchy understanding of letter information. But by the end-of-the year tests, after Zoo-phonics instruction, most three-year-olds will typically have the lowercase letters and letter sounds down,” says Griffith, having witnessed this consistently through the data. “Four-year-olds will know most or all uppercase and lowercase letters and letter sounds. We’re talking fifty out of fifty-two letters (shapes, sounds, letter names, lower- and uppercase). That’s on the pre-reading level, and for some, the basic reading level, by the time these kids leave preschool. Consistently.”

According to Griffith, studies have shown that for incoming kindergartners who had no previous experience with Zoo-phonics, it took less than a trimester (3 months) for these new 5-year-olds to learn all of the lower- and uppercase letters, including their letter shapes and sounds. Having this foundation, they were able, early in the second trimester, to begin the reading, spelling and writing process.

What was the difference in the approach of this language arts program verses more traditional language arts programs?  First, Zoo-phonics teaches the letter sounds before letter names; it teaches lowercase letters before capital letters (lowercase letters are used 95% of the time in text). It also uses cute and inviting animal cartoon characters that exactly fit the shape of the lowercase letters. (The same animals are used to “lean” on the capital letters for an associative effect.).

Instead of sitting at desks mundanely reciting and writing the “A-B-C’s” over and over, children were up and out of their seats, playfully using gestures (called Body Signals) and movement to match each letter of the alphabet. Once mastering the alphabet, children could then string these letters together, still using the same gestures, to form words and sentences. Kids giggled as they wiggled. And they work together, enjoying social interaction rather than sitting alone at desks. Animal letters, alliterative animal names (bubba bear), and body gestures become the mnemonics that glue letter shapes to their sounds. “Remember how abstract letters are. They are symbols that represent sounds that really have no real connection,” stated Griffith.

Griffith studied over 3,000 students over six years, from Head Start programs, preschools, kindergarten, and first grade classes; from rural areas like Ohio County, Kentucky, and Franklin County, Tennessee, to suburban neighborhoods like Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and California; special education classrooms in California; and inner-city YMCA programs in Los Angeles. He sees the same patterns and outcomes just about everywhere, regardless of family income, gender, nationality, language, and other demographics.

Says Griffith, “When you look at all of the t-tests that we’ve run, they almost always show a p-factor of .000.  Over all of the studies, the results have demonstrated a consistent message that the gains made are not only significant, they did not happen by chance. This was demonstrated in two ways.  First, we have studied over 3000 students with the same results and that the significance level for nearly all the t-test (differences between mean scores such as pre- and post-tests) is .000, not even .05. There is no doubt that for mastery of the alphabet, Zoo-phonics works.  The PALS and STAR test results bear this out as well.”

“As a researcher, I’ve been impressed with the consistency of the data with that many kids,” says Griffith. “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, all students performed with the same proficiency. Kids who are without initial literacy skills come out of their first trimester know needed alphabetic information and were quickly into the pre-reading/pre-writing stage and beyond,” expressed Griffith.

Aside from his research on the Zoo-phonics Program, Griffith has outside validation for the results of his studies. STAR (Standardized Test for Assessment in Reading), a nationally administered assessment, shows the same patterns and results from across the county, confirming the results from E3’s research. The same is true for the PALS Assessment Test (Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening), another nationally-normed test.

“Throughout all these studies, the gains that were made year after year, item after item, are statistically significant,” says Griffith. In terms of the alphabet, the children who used the Zoo-phonics Program, including special education and ESL students, regularly outperformed most their peers who weren’t taught through the Zoo-phonics Program.  “And, this is measured against national norms, tested by national tests, using all programs.”

For Griffith, the combination of his teaching experience and his research involving the Zoo-phonics Mnemonic and Multisensory Language Arts Program is the revelation of what it really means to teach. Capturing and keeping children’s attention and removing the hindrances of abstract reading barriers opens up a new world for both students and teachers.

“It really allows teachers to teach, because they can go further than the typical literacy programs allow, and that’s where the real teaching begins, since most programs don’t have a ‘one-size-fits-all’ curriculum as Zoo-phonics does,” says Griffith. He attributes part of the success to the nuances that appear in the Zoo-phonics Program, which is why children learn it, know it, and have something to fall back on if they forget a piece of the alphabet puzzle. States Griffith, “The animal letters, alliterative animal names, and body gestures as mnemonics are particularly effective for recall. In learning through this curriculum and methodology, these kids are using the natural learning approaches they would use in other life-situations.”

Griffith also likes to stress the fact that the data from all these studies is based on average students not primarily gifted and talented students. “When data demonstrates that three-year-old students, on average, know 24 out of 26 letters, it means a significant number of 3-year-olds are doing even better than the average child at this age,” explained Griffith.  “I’ve done the research. I’ve seen the results personally. I’ve been a teacher, and I’ve used Zoo-phonics with my own students, and my grandkids,” says Griffith. “The numbers are compelling.”