Laying the Foundations
One teacher's journey
I recently came across an article that claimed ‘Phonics is not a panacea for all struggling readers’. This opinion piece, originally published in The Atlantic Journal-Constitution and then reposted on the Reading Recovery website, is a strange concoction of arguments. The authors seem to be arguing against phonics instruction while simultaneously claiming that phonics plays an important role in learning to read. The evidence that they draw on leaves readers completing bizarre mental gymnastics to try and discern the logic.
The authors open with discussion about recent funds in Georgia and New York that are being allocated so that teachers can better support students with dyslexia. There is an acknowledgement that dyslexia potentially affects 20% of students. This is a decent opening before it launches us to an uneven parallel.
Apparently, the real issue we should be focusing on to address reading is not what happens in our classrooms. Rather we should instead be concerned with the nutrition of our students. There seems to be an argument that we cannot teach children to read because they are hungry. Or maybe it is suggesting that we can only be concerned about one thing at a time. Either way this is an attempt to place blame for poor reading rates at the feet of families. The cry that families of dyslexic students hear all too often to “just read more” has been altered to “just feed more”.
I have taught in a school where we have provided school meals. Too often students turned up to breakfast having not eaten since the lunch we had provided the day before. I am acutely aware of how hunger impacts on learning. To suggest that teachers are trying to meet the nutritional needs of students by teaching them how to read is absurd and demeaning. Teachers pride themselves on meeting the needs of our students. Teachers also recognise what is within our control. Whether a child receives the full nourishment that they need at home is simply not within the direct influence of schools.
Claiming that hunger prevents teachers from delivering meaningful instruction underestimates the abilities of our educators. Teachers are amazing at meeting and understanding the needs of our students, within the scope of our training. While nobody wants a child to be hungry, we can still teach them when they are.
Continuing to shift blame, the idea that proficient readers tend to read more than weaker readers is explored. This tendency causes the gap between them to continue to expand- sometimes referred to as the Matthew Effect. The cause of this gap is apparently to do with ‘reading habits’. This seems peculiar because I would have assumed that a fair chunk of this difference actually is to do with whether the child has the skills required to read. Someone who doesn’t know how to read is not likely to want to read! We need to ensure that we incorporate systematic phonics into our teaching of reading so that all students know how to read.
Phonics is again questioned as the Orton-Gillingham program is considered. The fact that this program is not included in What Works Clearinghouse seems to be enough evidence for it to be ineffective. I will remind you that this article was republished on Reading Recoveries website and if you have missed the irony then please read this policy paper or this article.
Having besmirched phonics, the ability of professionals to accurately diagnose dyslexia is called into question. Apparently, our children are being misdiagnosed and this has led to too much phonics. This completely ignores the fact that the instruction that best meets the needs of dyslexic students is the same instruction that best meets the needs of ALL our students.
After criticising phonics, the importance of phonics is finally asserted. It turns out that the criticism has only been about ONLY teaching phonics. Which would be fine if such a school existed. Such a place does not exist. This article seems positioned to perpetuate this myths and further deepen a dichotomy that is not helpful.
Phonics is not a panacea, but it is essential. It would not be enough to just eat iron, but it is an absolutely necessary part of our diet. Many people get enough iron in their regular diet. Some people need to take iron supplements. Some people learn to read without phonics instruction, but far too many do not. Enhancing reading instruction with phonics is vital for our children, with no side-effects.
The Science of Reading does not support solely teaching phonics. Rather than pretending that phonics is an issue, we need to focus on how phonics instruction can support more of our children to become proficient readers. Our children, and their families, deserve to be taught how to read.
It is Education Week in Victoria. Many schools have Open Days to try and attract prospective students for next year. As a smaller school, we need to be mindful of how we are appealing to future families. I want families to select our school because I know how hard we work to support their child. More importantly, I want families to be able to make an informed decision about the education they are choosing for their child.
When my brother was looking for a school for his daughter, I remember him raving about the Music, Drama and Art programs schools offered, as well as the camps and excursions. When I asked him about how the school would teach Reading or Mathematics he vaguely replied, "I suppose they teach those too."
It is easy to focus on the shiny and attractive things, but something should alarm us when after a school tour prospective families understand more about the half hour music class than about the 15 hours/week their child will spend receiving literacy (reading & writing) and numeracy (mathematics) instruction. You need to make sure that the cake is good before worrying about the decorative icing.
Unfortunately, we can't just assume that schools will teach your child to read, write and do maths. I know that they will try to do so, but there are schools that use ineffective programs. You need to ask questions to make sure that your child will get the best education that they can. This post outlines the process that I followed to choose a school for my daughter. I am aware of the privilege I have that allowed me to select a school for her, and of the inside-knowledge that I have as a teacher to help me make that decision.
1. Do the background research
This is your chance to live out any spy fantasy you might have. Take your time to research the school and find out any and all information about it that you can.
2. Get a school tour
Your child is going to be spending about 30 hours/week at school. This environment will mould and shape them. It is important that you visit to get an understanding of the school environment. I strongly recommend organising the tour during school hours. If the school is unwilling to show you around while they have students present, then alarm bells should start ringing.
Some things to consider about the school environment as you tour:
3. Ask questions
Ideally you will meet with the principal or another member of the leadership team. They should be able to answer most of your questions in detail, not just in fluffy grandiose statements.
I would love to hear your stories of why you chose the school you did for your child. Please tell me in the comments below. I have also chosen not to mention particular commercial programs but if you want my point of view, please reach out via the contact page or on twitter.
As I was scrolling through Facebook I had the surreal experience of seeing a tweet of mine being shared. I am still getting used to the idea that my comments are able to provoke discussion about how we can provide our children with a great education. The tweet focused on how our school’s data is indicating that our reading intervention program is effective.
One response that I glimpsed challenged me to share how we are using data to come to this conclusion. This is an important question given that education seems to be a world where everything is claiming to be ‘evidence-based’.
I will start with NAPLAN, the national assessment program for grades 3, 5, 7 and 9. After a hiatus in 2020, it returned in 2021. Our students in grade 3 & 5 participated and I was eager to see the results. I see NAPLAN as a snapshot that allows schools to keep the finger on the pulse of how we are tracking. It certainly has limits (the turnaround time of three months before getting results has been one). A smaller school like mine also acknowledges that the results can be cohort driven.
Why was I keen for results? Well, the Grade 3 cohort were all students of mine when they were in Grade 1. I taught half of them again when they were in Grade 2, while the other half were being taught by a Graduate Teacher whom I was mentoring.
A common misconception is that NAPLAN is a reflection on the Grade 3 & 5 teachers. The reality is that NAPLAN is much more an assessment of the learning in the years prior. Therefore the results of our Grade 3 students were going to be a pretty clear measure of the impact of my teaching.
One way to view students’ results is through the band they are in. At Grade 3 there are 6 bands. If a student is in the bottom band then they are below the national minimum standard. If a student is in the second band then they are at the national minimum standard. Students in the middle 2 and top 2 bands are above the national minimum standard.
In 2021, 100% of our Grade 3 students were above the national minimum standard for Reading.
In 2021, 82% of our Grade 3 students achieved results in the top 2 bands for Reading.
These results are worth celebrating!
The joy of teaching is that there are always ways to improve. In 2021 we started using DIBELS 8th Edition to assess our students in reading. Prior to NAPLAN, DIBELS had identified the 18% who achieved results in the middle 2 bands as ‘at some risk’ in reading. Two of these students had not previously been picked up through our previous formal assessments. Our NAPLAN results validated that DIBELS was providing more accurate data.
Not only was DIBELS providing more accurate data, it was meaningful. In the middle of last year I assessed my Foundation students. One area of initial concern was Letter Naming Fluency (LNF). LNF assesses how many letters students can name in one minute. The letters are jumbled up and are (seemingly) randomly capitals or lowercase. The criteria determined that if students name less than 31 letters in a minute then they are at risk (marked in red), if they name between 31 and 36 then they are at some risk (denoted in yellow), if they name more than 36 words per minute then they are at minimal risk (green and blue).
In May, half of my students were at risk in the LNF! Only four were at minimal risk. This was somewhat alarming. I recognised that these results were due to my instruction. I had been emphasising the sound letters can represent over the name of the letters. This approach had been having a tremendous impact on students ability to read and can be seen by the vast number of students with negligible risk (denoted in blue) for identifying the Correct Letter Sounds in the Nonsense Word Fluency (NWF) assessment. However, clearly there was still a gap in my teaching that needed to be addressed.
Over the next 4 weeks I introduced daily explicit instruction in the names of letters. This took a maximum of 5 minutes per day, and was often closer to 2 minutes. I retested students on LNF after 4 weeks and the results were staggering. Because students had a strong knowledge of each grapheme, they were quickly able to attach a name to each one.
What made these results even more impressive is that over this 4 week period we lost a number of instructional days due to Covid-19 lockdowns, a public holiday, the school closed for storms and I was absent for a number of days. In total, the improvement is a result of just 10 brief lessons on the names of letters. I have also included our LNF results from the end of 2021 to demonstrate that this remarkable improvement was maintained.
At the start of this year we assessed students using DIBELS. My tweet above was a reflection of our current Grade 2 students. A number of these students received intervention throughout 2021. You might be tempted to think that the nine students who received intervention were the bottom nine. You would be wrong. What is pleasing is that it is impossible to tell from this assessment who had intervention. This assessment helps signal to us the students who currently need intervention. Our intervention program is successful because we are able to bring our students who are at significant risk up to the level of their peers. This allows us to then provide intervention to other students who need additional support now.
I am proud of my students and their learning. I am also proud of my colleagues’ efforts in teaching. Our data provides an important reflection of what is actually happening in our school. Our data is not perfect but we need to pause and appreciate the amazing teaching and learning that is occurring. As we celebrate we begin to roll up our sleeves and get to work on all the things that we still need to do. We may never arrive at perfect results, but we can still strive for excellence.
I pledged to run 100km over the month of March to help raise awareness about dyslexia through the Code Read Network. I didn’t think it would be too difficult- I’d throw my red cap on and rock up to a few parkruns along with my normal morning runs. I didn’t realise how busy the month of March would get. I also didn’t factor in the week I took off because I was sick.
When I woke up on the morning of the 28th I had only completed 69km. My longest run for the month has only been 7km. I was overwhelmed with the number of kilometres I had left to run and was tempted to let the challenge quietly slip away. Why did I need to add extra stress to my life when I was already busy enough?
For too many students this is the reality they face when confronted with the reading. They feel stressed and overwhelmed. It can be much easier for them to find excuses to avoid having to read. This is particularly true for many children with dyslexia.
“Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”
About 20% of the population are estimated to have learning difficulties and 80% of diagnosed learning disorders are assessed as having a reading disorder (or dyslexia). This means that in almost every classroom across Australia there is at least one child with dyslexia.
As a graduate teacher I thought dyslexia was a bit like a unicorn: it didn’t exist. I was taught that when students didn’t learn to read it was perhaps due to the child's a lack of interest, laziness, or maybe the parents weren’t reading to them enough. In short: it was everyone’s fault except the teachers.
I now know that this perception was not only naïve, it was damaging to students and their families. Dyslexia is nobody’s fault. If a child needs to use a wheelchair, we don’t blame the child or their family. Likewise we ensure that they have access to ramps. We need to make sure that we have similar provisions for students with learning disabilities.
Ignoring dyslexia is a fault in many educational institutions. We need to identify students who possibly have dyslexia and provide them with the instruction and intervention that they need. When I look at my 5-year-old students at the start of the year, I have very little idea who amongst them may have dyslexia. The good news is that the initial literacy instruction that children with dyslexia need is beneficial to all children. Ensuring quality teaching of systematic and synthetic phonics not only supports students with dyslexia, it lays a solid foundation for all our students.
This morning I completed my third run in four days. Each run was over 10km and completed in the dark before sunrise. It seemed a fitting end to a challenge that raises awareness of students who are too often kept in the dark. Let’s make it possible for them to see the sunrise.
Want to know more?
Check out AUSPELD and find your state branch for support.
The CODE READ Network does some great advocacy.
Learning Difficulties Australia is an association of teachers and other professionals dedicated to supporting students with learning difficulties.
The Victorian Department of Education and Training has a helpful Learning Difficulties Information Guide for Literacy.
Below is a video I recently made for the families of my students about the early stages of phonics that may be useful.
Recently two graduate teachers confided in me their feelings of guilt over using pre-prepared materials in their classrooms. They both really enjoyed teaching these programs, their students are doing some wonderful learning, and they are not wasting time creating something that already exists. Their guilt emerged because they have been led to believe that teachers need to create the content for their students’ unique needs. While catering for our students’ needs is a crucial aspect often education, we can easily forget that the ways that we learn are generally very similar.
"Teaching is interesting because learners are so different; it’s only possible because they are so similar.”
When I go to the doctor, I don't expect them to create the medicine. When I order a meal, I don't expect the chef to have grown the ingredients in their own garden. And when I go to the mechanic, they will order a part rather than make it themselves. So why do we expect all teachers to do the dual tasks of creating a curriculum and teaching the curriculum?
Don't get me wrong: it is important that teachers have the knowledge to create curriculum. It is a waste of time for thousands of teachers to be creating similar curricula in parallel. It is an unreasonable expectation that all teachers are able to produce programs of exceptional quality from scratch.
If you mention that your school uses a program*, you are likely to hear the phrase "programs don't teach students, teachers teach students." There seems to be an adverse reaction anytime someone mentions that they use a program within education. This is a little bit strange given that program is defined as "a set of related measures or activities with a particular long-term aim". That definition could just about sit next to the word school.
Why are people hesitant about using the term program when discussing what they do in their classroom?
It is possible that it is because the term program is often synonymous with commercial program. I know I used to hold to the myth that commercial programs were something to avoid in educating our children. However, I now realise that some commercial programs can benefit schools.
A key reason educators give for avoiding commercial programs is that somebody profits from them. There is an understandable scepticism about anyone making a profit from the education of our children. Of course, we need to be wary and avoid any snake-oil salespeople. However, when you look at the actual costs of many good programs you might be surprised. The actual cost is often not much more than the materials would cost.
The real question we should be asking is "what is the price of creating our own programs?" When we start to add up the late nights that teachers spend creating, printing and laminating our resources, we start to see the real cost of expecting every school to come up with unique programs. This cost is so significant that 'workload' has become the prime issue in schools in many juridictions including Victoria. The cost of creating your own program is often much more expensive than purchasing one.
R= Ready to Roll
One key advantage of using an appropriate commercial program is that they are often packaged to be easily implementable. This means that we have more time for planning other learning experiences. It also means that we are able to focus on how we deliver the program, rather than creating what we need to deliver.
Recently we implemented a new spelling program. After an initial half-day session our staff were ready to start teaching with the program. There wasn't much for them to create, to print, or laminate. Instead they could shift their focus to reflecting on what worked in each lesson and how to fine-tune their practice to improve the learning of their students.
A commercial program organises the learning. A good commercial program organises the learning well. A good teacher can organise learning well too, but good teachers also have a myriad of extra responsibilities that keep creeping in the way. It takes time to sequence learning. It takes a lot of time to sequence learning well. Teachers often don't have that time. It also takes expertise to sequence learning well. Many teachers are experts, but it is difficult to be an expert in every area that we are expected to teach.
A good program is well sequenced. The skills students learn are built on each lesson and this continues throughout the multiple years of the program. There is consistency between classes and the material that students are learning is delivered in a cohesive way. With a well-sequenced program the teaching is organised and the learning is also better consolidated.
When I was a graduate teacher, I was provided with a folder of photocopied literacy worksheets for each week of the term. From this I was expected to craft a complete term of reading and writing learning. I was also busy working out how to manage student behaviours, communicate with parents, juggle teaching in an art room as we awaited new buildings, teach maths, science, history, do yard duties, participate in staff meetings…
Phew! I am exhausted just remembering this experience. It's little wonder that so many teachers leave the profession in the first few years. We are losing people who have the potential to be amazing educators because they are not well-supported. One way that we can support them is to provide them with quality-teaching materials.
Why was there an expectation that I could turn the folder of photocopied material into a curriculum of anything near the quality of the experienced teacher next door?
I am not pretending that even with a quality program I would have been as good as those with more experience. But I think I would have been able to focus more on what really matters: my students' learning. I also think that I would have spent fewer weekends planning and preparing.
Graduate teachers need to stand on the shoulders of the giants who have worked before them in education. This may be the experienced mentor next door, but we should also leverage the experience of those external to our school. Many programs have been created by experts who have worked tirelessly on them. Let's not ignore this expertise.
I would love for more people to see what is happening in my classroom. This blog is partly an attempt to document my teaching so that others can learn from it (and I can learn from others). I want to know more about what makes teaching effective. This is tricky to discern when there are so many factors in a classroom. Is it the way I greet students? Is it how I frame questions? Is it the way that I manage behaviour? Is it the culture of participation that I build? Is it the explicit teaching? Is it a sense of wonder in my students?
There are so many moving parts in one single classroom that it is difficult to work out what elements are essential for effective learning. However, if a number of different classes are implementing a particular program and all are achieving similar results, then the program is likely to be a factor. In this instance we can begin to examine the program, rather than trying to consider all of the aspects of all the different classes.
Many commercial programs claim to be 'research-based'. We need to scrutinise these claims so that we can continue to learn what contributes to effective teaching and learning.
A funny thing happened when I started to use a commercial program in my classroom. I became a better teacher. I no longer wasted countless hours planning. My teaching became more targeted. I was able to pay closer attention to my students. Instead of trying to create an entire unit, I was focused on small tweaks that made significant impact on my students' learning. In short, I was work on the art of teaching because the program dealt with the science of teaching.
Another myth is that programs turn teachers into automatons. This couldn't be further from the truth in my experience. I have had the privilege of observing many teachers. Even if they are delivering the same program, their artistry always shines through.
Another line that does the rounds when programs get mentioned is "there’s no such thing as a silver bullet.” You will get no argument from me. Teaching is complex and to pretend otherwise devalues teaching as a profession. We don’t need to complicate it further and to dismiss programs because somebody else created them. A program is not a silver bullet. Despite many programs being ‘ready-to-roll’ this does not equate to a ‘plug and play’ situation where anybody with a heartbeat could do the work of a teacher.
Teachers often work miracles. Let’s employ every tool that we have at our disposal so that we can make more miracles happen.
S= Students' Success
The most important aspect of determining whether to use a program comes down to the very reason schools exist: our students. Their success should be the factor that sways whether a program is appropriate.
If you do not use any commercial programs and your students are achieving wonderful success: congratulations! Thank you for taking the time to read this post and keep doing what you are doing.
Many of us are not in this position and believe that there is room to improve our students’ learning outcomes. Perhaps someone has already done the hard work of creating a program that meets the particular long-term aims you are striving for. Perhaps a program that is suitable for your situation exists.
Not all commercial programs are created equal. Some are much better than others. And some are definitely not worth investing in. However, to habitually dismiss the use of all commercial programs increases teachers’ workloads, and potentially disadvantages our students.
"Everything works somewhere; nothing works everywhere."
*I have deliberately used the US spelling program instead of the proper 'programme' because I thought 8 points were enough for my (oh-so-witty) acrostic.
In my last post I mentioned that I have been teaching my students about phonemic awareness.
First up, a confession: once upon a time I believed that the terms 'phonemic awareness' and 'phonics' were interchangeable. They are not. However they are strongly related and children benefit when our literacy instruction explicitly teaches both of these essential skills.
Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in speech. It is this ability that allows us to segment the phonemes in 'cat' (/k/ /a/ /t/) or 'boat' (/b/ /ō/ /t/). Through phonemic awareness instruction we can teach students to segment, blend, isolate, and manipulate the phonemes that make up words.
Phonics is about linking the phonemes (or sounds) within spoken language to the graphemes (or letters) that we use in our written language.
Clearly, if students have a strong grounding in phonemic awareness, then they will be better able to link these phonemes to graphemes. This should result in a stronger base for students to build their literacy learning on.
So there is not really an argument about whether phonemic awareness should be taught to our students. However, there is plenty of debate about how much phonemic awareness instruction students need and what exactly this should look like.
In one camp there are those that claim that phonemic awareness could be done in the dark. I, for one, would prefer to leave the lights on, and not just so I can see the smiles on my students' faces.
It is important to keep the end goal in mind: I want my students to be proficient readers. Phonemic awareness is important, but it is not sufficient. Therefore my students are best served if I can ensure quality instruction in phonemic awareness while introducing graphemes as early as possible. Coincidentally, today I received an email from a popular commercially available phonemic awareness program stating that they have adapted their program to have "greater phoneme/grapheme connections".
At the start of our foundation year, a lot of our phonemic awareness instruction is done without graphemes (and could theoretically be completed blindfolded).
However, as soon as I start introducing grapheme-phoneme correspondences I begin incorporating them into our phonemic awareness activities.
I might ask students to :
This led me to the query below:
I agree with 33.8% and think that they should remain as separate phonemes. Let me explain why.
Last year, I noticed that my students were accurately writing many words. There was a bit of confusion about which grapheme to use when representing the /k/ sound in monosyllabic words (sock, stick, pack, etc.). You may have noticed a pattern already. I taught this pattern to my students.
My students were pretty quick to let me know about a missing gap.
Words like 'six', 'max' or 'fox' started causing issues. I realised that any time I came across the letter 'x' I was teaching the /k/ and /s/ phonemes as one unit. This makes some sense because they are represented by one grapheme in these words.
However to a 5-year-old child they are clearly two distinct phonemes. Asking them to segment the words 'socks' and 'fox' should result in identifying the same number of phonemes. I was inadvertently overcomplicating the task because of the additional knowledge I have.
This is exactly the gap that exists between the knowledge of novices and experts that I try to avoid.
This year I have been clearer in my expectations. If I want students to segment a word into phonemes, then I need to hold myself to the same standard and recognise individual phonemes.
It was my 5-year-old students' 21st day of school yesterday. It was a joyful experience as EVERY child was forming words and accurately decoding them. In the midst of all the activity, my teaching assistant turned to me and said "I've actually got goosebumps!" It was a magical moment building on what is becoming a firm foundation.
Some of my students had some knowledge about letters and the sounds that they represent. But many had very little knowledge on day one. So how did that beautiful moment happen yesterday?
Simply, I taught them the skills they need to begin to unlock the code of written language.
Please note that what I am outlining here focuses on my decoding instruction. This takes up part of our literacy block, but is by no means the entirety. I have also spent lots of time reading rich texts, teaching nursery rhymes, developing our oral language.
Step 1: Phonemic Awareness
Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in speech. It is useful to check whether students can hear and say sounds accurately so that they can transfer this to their reading and writing.
Over the last 21 days we have practised our phonemic awareness skills. We have been isolating phonemes along with blending and segmenting words. I have found that teaching these orally helps us when we introduce grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs). While there is an argument that 'phonemic awareness can be done in the dark', I am discovering that linking these activities to the GPCs enhances students abilities in phonemic awareness, their decoding AND their encoding.
Step 2: Teach Grapheme-Phoneme Correspondences
On my students' fifth day of school I started introducing them to GPCs. In their second week they learnt 's' represents /s/, 'a' represents /a/, and 't' represents /t/. I teach the sound it often represents and how to write the grapheme. We have revised these GPCs daily ever since. We practise writing and saying these GPCs regularly. By the end of the week my class had mastered these GPCs.
I have now also introduced:
I would have liked to have introduced a few more GPCs, but given the extended absences of students who have to isolate due to covid, I have slowed the pace slightly. I don't want students to be overwhelmed when they return to school.
Step 3: Sound it Out
Once my students know their first few GPCs we start blending them into words. The process I follow is that I show them vc and cvc words with the GPCs that they have mastered. I then model how to move from left to right, sounding it out as I go. Students then join in, and I make sure that they are saying the sounds that they can see*. Then it's the students' turn to do it independently.
Something to watch is that students are not stopping in between the sounds. This would make the next step harder. When I choose the cvc words, I start with ones that have a consonant that you can hold (s, m, n) as it is easier for students to blend these without stopping in between the sounds.
You can show the word by writing it, using magnetic letters, using cards, or however else you can imagine.
*Yes I know that you technically can't see a sound, but this is the phrase I use to quickly provide feedback to 5-year-olds.
Step 4: Say it Fast
Once students can accurately say the PGCs in a word, the next step is to read it as a word. I make sure that for their first few words I model it first. Once we 'say it fast', I ask "What word?" and watch in amazement as my students realise that they just read a word!
Helping students begin to crack the code of reading is one of those moments that I wish I could bottle. No wonder my teaching assistant had goosebumps!
A few students may struggle, especially if they are stopping between the sounds. I provide them with a
whisper phone and this often helps them to hear the sounds that they are saying.
At this stage I am also teaching a lot of new vocabulary. This is because I am limited in the words I am asking students to read by their knowledge of PGCs. A bonus is that my students now know that 'sap' is the liquid inside trees, 'nip' is a pinch, and a 'nit' is a bug that itches hair.
Step 5: Chop it
Hopefully you can see the link between phonemic awareness and phonics instruction. I have isolated phonemes and linked these to graphemes. Then I have taught how to blend our GPCs. On Friday we were segmenting GPCs and forming words. We said each word and then 'chopped it' into phonemes (I have heard others use the phrase 'robot talk'). My students then made each word, with an incredibly high level of accuracy.
I didn't want students' ability to write the letters get in the way of their ability to form words so we used cards. These stand up so I can easily monitor and provide feedback (although it means I am reading the word backwards).
What will happen next?
This process can seem painstakingly slow. Listening to students labouriously sound out every word on a page, then say it fast, then re-reading the sentence takes a lot of time and patience. However it is exactly what many students need in order to ensure that they can all read.
I have learnt to embrace this meticulous, methodical approach as I have seen that students thrive from laying a strong foundation for their reading success.
What have I taught? Routines and expectations
It’s the start of a new year of school!
For my prep students, it was their first day of school on Monday. This is an exciting time, with plenty of nerves (including mine) and a few tears (mostly from parents).
School is a new environment for my 5-year-olds. Most managed three visits last year, but even those with siblings haven’t had the same chance to explore the school environment (thanks covid). This means that almost everything is new.
So, I get to teach these wonderful 5-year-olds all of the routines and expectations that go with being at school. This is both exhausting and exciting. I also realise that there needs to be a sequence to teach the routines and expectations. So here is a rough list of all the things students learnt in their first day of school.
On Monday my students learnt how to:
I was tired at the end of the first day of school. Looking at this list it is no wonder that my students were exhausted! Fortunately the second, third and fourth day become less overwhelming as the routines and expectations of the first day are consolidated and then built upon.
I deliberately prioritise our class rules of “We are safe”, “We are kind”, and “We try hard”. A note from a parent last year describes why I am unapologetic about this.
Your classroom rules: ‘We are safe, we are kind & we try hard’ stuck with me so much I made a big poster displaying the words and put them up on Mum’s wall in hospital. It became a compact for anyone visiting the room. Great words to live by in 2021.
To read more about routines and expectations check out Dr Nathaniel Swain’s blog
What have I learnt? My students’ requirements.
While my students have been learning a lot about school, I’ve been busy learning about them. I love learning about their likes, cultures, passions, interests and families. However this year my focus has needed to be on the health of some of my students. I have a number of students with a range of particular medical needs. This involves multiple medications at different points and being vigilant for any changes. Fortunately I have a fantastic Education Support colleague and together (with families) we are working out the routines we need to ensure that they are safe at school.
What have I loved? The sharing of resources
I believe that educators benefit when we are generous with our resources. I hate the feeling when I feel like I am creating something that someone else has already made. Reinventing the wheel is a terrible waste of teachers' precious time.
So I was excited this week by the launch of curriculum materials from the new Australian organisation Ochre Education. Ochre has released their first batch of sequenced video lessons with additional resources. The current offering includes English and Maths lessons for years 3-6. I see this as a perfect option for students who have to isolate due to covid or providing cover lessons. It’s well worth checking out! They are also on the lookout for educators who wish to contribute.
This year I want to post more frequently. I aim to lift the lid on what’s going in my foundation classroom. I also want to share some of my insights and thoughts about education more broadly. So I have decided to start answering three questions each week.
What have I taught?
‘Twas the week before school and all through the building,
Many teachers were stirring but not any children.
Over the last couple of weeks teachers have been busily planning, prepping and setting up classrooms. There’s a sense of excitement about what the year may hold, as well as apprehension about the new classes and what Covid might have in store for us.
We had a curriculum day on Friday and I taught my colleagues about our new spelling programme, Spelling Mastery. Spelling Mastery is a Direct Instruction programme and I was excited to share my knowledge of DI.
One of the hallmarks of training in DI programmes is how much time is spent on actually practising delivering the programme. This allows teachers to become familiar with the format of a lesson and then introduces what to do when students make errors.
My colleagues are incredible and they picked up managing signals and scripts really quickly. I am looking forward to continuing to help them as they start implementing this programme with their students.
What have I learnt?
One thing I learn each year is how long it takes to cut out labels and laminate displays. And this year I foolishly chose a hot-air balloon shape.
I also found this post by Brad Nguyen, which provide a dramatic contrast to the classroom setups featuring on Instagram, facebook and pinterest.
After a decade of teaching I’ve finally worked something out. If it’s worth putting up, it’s worth teaching/talking about first.
So, with that in mind, here is my classroom almost ready for school to begin tomorrow:
It’s a pretty blank canvas. It is deliberately blank so that students aren’t overloaded. After all starting school can be overwhelming for many students. I am trying to minimise this. I am also thinking that I might take down the alphabet frieze before tomorrow. However I do want students to feel welcome in my class, which is why the doorway is inviting, I have their birthdays displayed and I have sparkly fairy lights!
Don’t worry, we will be adding to the displays to it very quickly over the next few weeks. Come back in a week and you’ll see how it has evolved.
What have I loved?
Yesterday I celebrated my dad’s 70th birthday. Tomorrow is my wedding anniversary. In the last month I’ve welcomed a new niece to the world, celebrated Christmas and my brother and mum’s birthdays have been in there too. And I haven’t mentioned all the wonderful adventures I got to have with my children over the holidays. In short: I love family.
This is important to recognise in schooling. I am being entrusted with the precious children by so many families. I am responsible for their education and wellbeing. These parents & carers are trusting me to care for their child. It’s a bit daunting, but it’s a pretty significant honour.
Making families feel involved in their child’s education is a challenge I gladly meet. This starts early on as we welcome families on tours, visit kinders/preschools, hold information sessions, respond to emails. Last year we had three transition sessions for each child. The first two sessions were in small groups (a necessity in 2020 that we continued in 2021). This allowed the children to make connections with others and gave me the opportunity to get to know them more intimately before our final whole class transition session. I also had a prep playdate about a week before school started. Held at the school playground, this gave parents the chance to meet each other (and the teachers) as well as allowing the children to become more comfortable with the peers and the school environment.
As a simple acknowledgement of the partnership between families and schools, I give a small gift with a note to each parent/carer tomorrow.
Every child deserves to be loved and it is my job to care for each and every one of them.
This is the fourth post in a series designed to kick 2022 with some resources that can help you. I started with some books, then listed a few of my favourite podcasts, and the most recent post featured webinars.
Now it's time to turn our attention to some fantastic websites (although, some of you might have noticed that I have already squeezed in quite a few website suggestions along the way).
These are six of websites that are a mixture of informative, enlightening, pragmatic, educational and useful. I hope that you get as much out of them as I do!
17. No Nonsense Educator by Jocelyn Seamer
A few years back I attended my first Principal's forum. I remember meeting a friendly Teaching Principal who was wonderfully encouraging and full of great advice. It came as no surprise when I discovered Jocelyn's blog that she was still providing encouragement and lots of practical tips!
The No Nonsense Educator blog focuses on the Science of Reading and Change Management. The posts are easy to understand, thought-provoking, motivating and inspiring. A great example of this is her post on the What, Why and How long of the Literacy Blog. Jocelyn also provides free guides on how to teach reading and writing. But wait: there's more! She has some "Teach-Along" courses that support educators in their day-to-day teaching and there's also a brand new app as well!
18. SPELD SA
When I first wanted to use decodable texts in classroom, I didn't have much of a budget. Combined with a global pandemic and the introduction of remote learning I was looking for books that wouldn't matter too much if they never made it back to school. That's when I discovered the Specific Learning Difficulties SA website. They provide free decodable books that can be printed or viewed on an electronic device. Following the Jolly Phonics sequence, they have added a new series in consultation with First Nations peoples who live and work in Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands. This website also provides other valuable resources including information sheets about learning difficulties and an intensive literacy program.
19. Shanahan On Literacy by Prof. Timothy Shanahan
To say that Timothy Shanahan knows a bit about literacy is like saying that Bill Gates knows a bit about computers. Timothy Shanahan was one of the leaders of the pivotal National Reading Panel in the US. His blog synthesises the research around literacy and communicates this clearly and effectively to teachers. I think his Top 10 Pet Peeves about Reading (part 1 and part 2) is a pretty good place to start.
20. The Science of Math
There are a lot of resources around the importance of explicit teaching in literacy. However, Mathematics education seems to be fascinated with mindsets and inquiry. It was a relief when I noticed The Science of Math* emerging this past year. This movement aims to help ensure that evidence-informed approaches are used in Mathematics education. The website has a range of articles on teaching Mathematics, as well as a great section on common misconceptions that are rampant in Mathematics education, such as 'productive struggle' or that timed tests cause 'math anxiety'.
*It is a US-based site, hence the spelling of 'Math'. Maybe one day they'll be able to afford an 's'...
21. The Snow Report by Prof. Pamela Snow
Pamela Snow is a powerhouse in literacy education. Her blog, The Snow Report, demonstrates her ability to tirelessly advocate for effective evidence-based instruction (see here). Pam's comparison between masks and decodable texts is also a fantastic read. Pam is also known for raising other people up, as shown by passing the mic to Sue Knight here.
Pam is a professor at Latrobe University and, together with Tanya Serry, leads the Science of Language and Reading Lab short courses.
22. Core Knowledge
I have spent a lot of time planning units of work. A LOT OF TIME! And often I have felt that I'm just reinventing what someone else has already created. It turns out that someone has- and they've done a better job of it!
The Core Knowledge Foundation has put together complete K-8** curriculum for Language Arts, Science, and History & Geography. These content-rich units are carefully sequenced so that students build knowledge throughout their education. I used Core Knowledge units last year and will be doing so again this year. I have seen how my prep students were capable of learning more than even I expected. The more I use Core Knowledge, the more I see how cleverly designed the curriculum is.
This is starting to sound like a sales pitch- so, the final thing is the price: FREE! That's right: you can download the entire curriculum without paying a cent!
(Obviously, there are some units that aren't appropriate in an Australian context and others need some adapting.)
**The K refers to Kindergarten in the US & NSW sense. We'd call it foundation, prep, reception, pre-primary, transition...
I am a father of two (6 & 3), married to a future Early Childhood Educator.