Laying the Foundations
One teacher's journey
Recently I was listening to an audiobook. Thanks to a dodgy Bluetooth connection, every couple of minutes a word was skipped. Most of the time, I could work out what the word might have been. It was tedious, but I could still follow the story. Until it cut out as they mentioned “the myth of…”. I had no context for what that missing word might be. There were very few clues in what I had heard. I had even caught the initial sound of the word, but given that there are over 4000 words starting with ‘m’ (according to a scrabble dictionary), this was of little use. I was left frustrated and perplexed. It wasn’t until they later repeated the phrase that I knew they were discussing “the myth of measurement”.
As a fluent reader, I could fill in most of the blanks despite my dodgy Bluetooth connection. However, this is the complicated guessing game that occurs in many classrooms under the guise of reading instruction. Three cueing is the misguided belief that we need to consider the meaning, syntax, and visual information to decode words. Instead it promotes guessing based on context or using clues provided by pictures. This style of instruction is evident in the current Victorian Curriculum Foundation English elaboration, which has students “attempting to work out unknown words by combining contextual, semantic, grammatical and phonic knowledge”.
Of course, context is important in comprehending the text. However, the first step towards understanding must be accurate decoding. To create readers who are good decoders students need to be able to orthographically map words, through linking letters with the sounds they represent. To achieve this, we need to explicitly and systematically teach phonics. Decoding occurs when we focus on the letters in front of us and process them in order. If I am looking at anything other than the text on a page to decode, then I am just guessing. Of course, phonics is only one aspect of reading, but it is an essential skill. Students who can decode words have a much better chance at comprehending the text in front of them.
I recall a student who was reading chapter books. Whenever he got to a word he didn’t recognise, his eyes would jump to the small picture. This child was unfortunately an instructional casualty of three cueing. He had inadvertently been taught that he would understand the word if he looked somewhere other than the word. This is exactly the type of reading behaviour that leads to a ‘third-grade reading slump’.
Three cueing is often seen as a hallmark of ‘balanced literacy’. Although there is no clear definition of what balanced literacy actually is, it is nevertheless a popular term in Australian schools. It certainly featured prominently in my training as a primary teacher just over a decade ago. One of the texts we were referred to was Fountas & Pinnell’s chapter called ‘Guided Reading Within a Balanced Literacy Program’ (1996). So imagine my surprise when the same authors posted a blog last year distancing themselves from the term ‘balanced literacy’! Unfortunately, this shift away from the ‘balanced literacy’ label doesn’t seem to coincide with any substantive change in their approach to teaching reading.
Last year, social media erupted as a moderator for Fountas & Pinnell’s facebook group suggested that we should accept that 20% of students will be unable to read proficiently. I am not sure where this figure came from, and Fountas & Pinnell have since apologised. However, to claim that 1 in 5 was an acceptable rate of failure caused an understandable outburst. Imagine the outcry if 20% of students didn’t have lunch! This equates to over 800,000 current students in Australia. As educators, we should not accept this high number of instructional casualties.
Emily Hanford's latest podcast Sold a Story is shining a light on practices that are common in many classrooms. Well-meaning teachers are unintentionally teaching their students how to be poor readers. Instead of teaching students to effectively decode words, we are telling them to look at pictures or use cues other than the words themselves. This is leading to students becoming instructional casualties. Good readers decode words accurately and automatically. This is what we need to be teaching our students to do in order to avoid any more instructional casualties.
There are far too many stories of children who are instructional casualties of three cueing. The devastation, heartbreak and illiteracy that are perpetuated by the prevalence of this practice is shocking! Think about your family and friends. How many of them are you willing to allow to be instructional casualties? How can we possibly condemn such a large proportion of them to a life of struggling to read?
Three cueing, by its nature, leads students to guess at words. This creates instructional casualties who become poor readers. Our children deserve to be taught the skills they need to decode words accurately. Teaching phonics systematically and explicitly as part of our literacy instruction empowers every child to read.
A version of this article originally appeared at https://educationhq.com/news/heartbreak-and-illiteracy-three-curing-creates-instructional-casualties-108331/
There has been quite a buzz created by Emily Hanford’s latest podcast Sold a Story. If you haven’t listened to it yet then I strongly encourage you to do so. At the time of writing I am eagerly awaiting the third episode to be released.
Over the last five decades cognitive scientists, psychologists, and researchers have unveiled a lot about how we learn to read. Emily Hanford is exploring why this knowledge hasn’t made its way into our classrooms. There is a different idea about how students learn to read that is much more popular and prominent is schools and education faculties.
“Here’s the idea.
This origin of this idea is the focus of the second episode of Sold a Story, particularly focusing on Dame Marie Clay’s work and the Reading Recovery program she founded. It should be acknowledged that Clay did some important work in advocating for early intervention and remediation for students with difficulties learning to read. However there are aspects of her work that do not hold up to scrutiny today.
I was taught this idea that beginning readers need to use cues, such as a picture, or grammatical structure, to decode unfamiliar word at university just over a decade ago. My first school used Reading Recovery as its intervention program. I remember being gently rebuffed when I tried to work out what students in my class were doing in intervention so that I could better support them in the class. Little did I know how expensive this program was, both financially, and also in terms of costing children the chance for effective reading instruction.
Reading Recovery is an expensive intervention. It costs to train a teacher in Reading Recovery. According to their Australian website you must have at least 5 years’ experience teaching before embarking on a yearlong training course. These teachers work with students 1:1 for half an hour, five times a week for 10-20 weeks. In Victoria, this equates to a cost of over $2500 for every student who receives a 10-week Reading Recovery intervention. While expensive, it could be argued to be worth it if Reading Recovery was an effective intervention. However, numerous studies have indicated that any short-term positive impacts from this intervention are not sustained.
The real cost of Reading Recovery is that precious instructional time is spent teaching children to focus on words in inefficient ways. Clay was aware of different theories of how we read, claiming “On the one hand the traditional, older view sees reading as an exact process with an emphasis on letters and words, while on the other hand, a more recent set of theories sees reading as an inexact process, a search for meaning during which we only sample enough visual information to be satisfied that we have received the message of the text (Clay 1979, p.1- emphasis is mine).
This idea using just enough visual information alongside other cues is a recurring theme in Clay’s writings. She explores the idea that “text carries redundant information, more than the reader usually attends to (Clay 1991, p.331). This idea is explored through by blanking out a number of letters or words in passages to demonstrate how good readers supposedly ‘problem-solve’ or predict as we are reading.
I am not quite sure how these activities aren’t guessing. In fact Ken Goodman, who according to Clay was a leading authority on the reading process, refers to it as the ‘psycholinguistic guessing game’.
It’s interesting to note that Clay suggests that we should observe eye movements, as this is exactly what scientists started to research in the 70s. It became really clear that, instead of just sampling the letters in a word, proficient readers track every letter in each word in order. The idea that readers just need to get an approximate shape of a word was clearly debunked in the 80s (Ehri & Wilce 1985). It was demonstrated that proficient readers use their knowledge of phoneme-grapheme correspondences to decode words accurately and seemingly automatically. Clay appears to be aware of this research, having referenced Ehri in 2005.
Unfortunately, systematic phonics is not something that Clay advocated for. A trusted colleague has told me that when they were trained in Reading Recovery they were told to never use the prompt “sound it out” to a child came to a word they had difficulty with.
By 2005 there was an acknowledgement that some phonics instruction was needed within Reading Recovery, it appears to be analytical, where the focus is on breaking a word gradually into smaller parts. There does not appear to be a clear scope and sequence to this approach. In fact they appear to be discouraged as Clay states “teaching sequences of a standard kind are unlikely to meet the needs of struggling students”. The resulting ‘word-work’ (avoiding the term phonics) activities are somewhat baffling. Clay suggests that no more than 2-3 minutes per half-hour session is spent ‘taking words apart’. This limits the crucial phonic knowledge that struggling readers need in order to be able to gain meaning from a written text. There is also a big focus on separating words into onset & rime, which is a less efficient strategy than teaching how to blend individual phoneme-grapheme correspondence.
There is a more subtle yet equally worrying argument that emerges throughout Clay’s work. The idea that “well-prepared children seldom fail to learn to read” (Butler & Clay, 1987, p37) implies that if a child doesn’t learn then blame can be placed with their home background. I believe that this is a dangerous idea. It creates division between educators and families. Of course, students come from a wide variety of experiences before school. However, educators should take ownership of the things within our control. Ensuring that every child receives quality literacy instruction is the core work of teachers.
I don’t understand why people continue to defend Clay’s work as the basis for effective intervention. It is costly and doesn’t have long term positive effects. Struggling readers are taught to use cues other than the word when reading. The limited, unsystematic approach to phonics further compounds the disadvantage that struggling readers. Readers who struggle must be taught how to decode in order to gain any message from a written text.
“There is a message here. We adults may be wrong about what we think the child needs to know, to read.”
I wonder how many more people would be able to read today if Clay had heeded her own words.
Butler, D. & Clay, M. (1987). Reading begins at home. Heinemann Publishers
Clay, M. (1979). Reading: The Patterning of Complex Behaviour. Heinemann Education Books
Clay, M. (1991). Becoming literate: the construction of inner control. Heinemann Education
Clay, M. (2005). Literacy lessons: designed for individuals, Part 1 & 2. Heinemann Education
Ehri, L. C., & Wilce, L. S. (1985). Movement into Reading: Is the First Stage of Printed Word Learning Visual or Phonetic? Reading Research Quarterly, 20(2), 163–179. https://doi.org/10.2307/747753
It's a bit of a weird thing for a teacher to spend their Sunday at a professional learning. But I'm not the only weird one and I joined hundreds of other people passionate about education in Melbourne today at LDA's event 'A Day with Linnea and Friends'.
LDA (Learning Difficulties Australia) somehow managed to lure the Professor Linnea Ehri to Australia to receive the 2022 AJLD Eminent Researcher Award. When I heard that she was presenting in Melbourne I booked a ticket before I had even consulted my wife!
Alison Clarke (founder of Spelfabet) had the MCing duties and introduced each speaker wonderfully, as well as hosting the panel discussion brilliantly ( and had the dubious privilege of sorting out the initial tech issues).
Professor Ehri spoke eloquently about the research she has done about how children learn to read. Her work on orthographic mapping is something that all teachers of English and literacy should understand. Orthographic mapping is reliant on children having the knowledge of grapheme-phoneme correspondences to be able to decode and encode written words. This is the process that enables us to recognise words almost instantaneously.
I'm not going to go in too much detail as Professor Ehri will be presenting with more of her friends in Sydney on Tuesday, but I found the level of detail her studies on the Four Phases of Word Reading and Development went into fascinating. I was particularly intrigued by her findings when she compared instruction of syllable units against grapheme-phoneme units (in Portuguese). I believe that this level of intricacy is exactly what we need to disseminate further to help inform our teaching practice.
After a morning tea break full of discussion we were back to listen to Emina McLean. Emina is the Head of English and Literacy at Docklands Primary School, trains pre-service teachers and student speech pathologists, provides professional learning, consults and is a guru on education. She is also the co-recipient of the Mona Tobias Award. Emina spoke about excellence and equity in Australian education and how Docklands PS is trying to achieve both of these. My hastily scribbled notes say:
excellence = finding success for our students
equity = ensuring ALL students are successful
Emina unpacked four ways that Docklands PS does that help build excellence and equity.
The other co-recipient of the Mona Tobias Award was Dr Nathaniel Swain. He is the founder of Think Forward Educators, a teacher, instructional coach and researcher. Nathaniel encouraged us to reflect on our literacy instruction so that we can more effectively teach. He encourage us to teach the basics well, not so that we can go 'back to basics' but so we can move beyond the basics. A whirlwind tour of word instruction at Brandon Park Primary School, saw us looking at graphemes, words, morphemes, sentences, and extended texts through PhOrMeS and Read2Learn. The tinkling bell came all too soon to signal time was up.
Jocelyn Seamer was the recipient of the Bruce Wicking Award. Jocelyn is an educational consultant with many (and varied) years of experience as a teacher and school leader. She talked about how we need to help support our colleagues as we embrace educational change. Jocelyn unpacked the value of working with our colleagues and how, like we do with our students, we need to meet them at their point of need. At times this involves coaching, supporting, directing and delegating. We need to be as intentional with mentoring as we are with our teaching.
Lunch was another golden opportunity for discussions with others. It was nice to put faces to people I've previously only met online. And all too soon we were heading back into the theatre for the next session.
Dr Jennifer Buckingham is the founder of Five from Five and is an expert on educational policy. She led us on an exploration of the policies in literacy education over the last twenty years. The messages from the Boys' education inquiry in 2002, the Rowe report (2005), and Dyslexia Working Party report (2010) all seemed very consistent that schools need to be teaching "a strong element of explicit, intensive, systematic phonics instruction” (Boys' education inquiry, 2002). And while it might feel like no progress is being made, Jennifer shared positive examples in the changes in the Australian Curriculum, the increased uptake of a Year 1 Phonics check, the SA Literacy Guarantee unit, and the Catalyst project of Catholic Education Canberra Goulburn.
It was time for the panel discussion, which saw all our presenters gather and answer questions that had been submitted throughout the day. There was talk about whether graphemes should be incorporated into phonemic awareness instruction, the usefulness of spelling tricky words, the importance of primary schools getting literacy instruction right, the need for secondary schools to have a consistent approach to supporting their students. And Emina gave me a new motto for school change "Less, done well, is more."
Then it was time for us all to go home (after a bit more chatting and navigating the Greek Festival), and more importantly to our schools and communities to keep improving our literacy instruction so that all children can achieve their success.
I got into teaching because I love mathematics. My first foray into teaching was as a year 11 student tutoring a friend in year 8. I managed to help them get their grade from an E to a B and this sparked a fire in me. I wanted to help others learn about this wonderful world of numbers.
When I graduated from uni I somehow believed that in order to effectively teach Maths I needed to get my students to discover it for themselves. I felt like a magician, planning experiences that would reveal a deeper understanding of all things mathematical.
If only I knew then what I know now...
I was busy providing activities that I hoped would allow students to unearth the enigma of mathematics. I should have been actively teaching them the things I hoped they would discover. After all, I was the expert in the room.
"If a student hasn't learnt, then the teacher hasn't taught."
Like many educators, I strive to improve.
The last few years I have been considering how to best teach students Maths. I've finally settled on a framework that is supporting my students to achieve some amazing outcomes. This model is heavily influenced by Rosenshine's Principles of Instruction. It also ensures that due attention is given to each of the proficiencies of understanding, fluency, problem solving and reasoning. You will notice though that the prerequisite skills required for these proficiencies are explicitly taught to students.
For want of a better phrase, I call it Revise-Learn-Apply.
In my first year of teaching I observed a colleague run a Maths lesson. He started it off with students answering 10 questions from the board. These questions covered a range of topics previously covered in his class.
When I started using Direct Instruction programs I noticed that everything that students learnt was revisited. Rosenshine talks about the importance of daily, weekly and monthly reviews. Others frame it as retrieval practice. Whatever you call it, it is essential that we give our students the opportunity to revisit and build on their prior learning.
Inspired by the practice of Bentleigh West PS, as demonstrated in this video by David Morkunas, I spend about 20 minutes in a revise phase reviewing things I have previously taught. This part tends to be paced pretty quickly, with students' understanding being regularly checked.
One revise phase might cover the following:
Given the number of topics we touch on, it has to be paced quickly, and mathematical fluency is developed throughout. Students are constantly responding to questions in different ways and I am able to provide immediate feedback whenever an error occurs. I am also able to be responsive and anything that gets a high number of errors will be revisited and retaught. Any students who struggle are easily identified and provide additional support. Having said that, the success rate as we revise tends to be pretty high.
The middle part of my Maths lesson (again about 20 minutes) is where the students learn because I am explicitly teaching. At the start of the year many of my foundation students didn't know how to count to 20. All of the concepts that now feature in our revise phase have been explicitly taught. During the learn phase new material is explicitly taught in small steps. Students are actively engaged as they build their knowledge about the concepts, procedures and strategies that are critical for being numerate.
Once students have been taught a new concept, they need to be supported as they practice it. The apply phase provides dedicated time for students to apply their new knowledge in different situations. It is here, in the final third of our lesson, that students are supported as they solve problems and share their reasoning. It is important to note that this phase occurs after the explicit instruction. My students have been set up to succeed because they have been taught the skills they need to be successful.
And because my students are successful at Maths, they love Maths!
Keen to learn more?
I am presenting about my experience teaching Maths at Sharing Best Practice Ballarat on October 1. Tickets have sold out but if you're attending then I'd love it if you chose to come to my session.
Think Forward Educators have set up a Maths Network and the inaugural meeting on September 14 features non other than David Morkunas! Details can be found here.
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.
I am a father of two (6 & 3), married to a future Early Childhood Educator.