Laying the Foundations
One teacher's journey
This post has been adapted from an article featured in Dystinct Magazine Issue 3 in May 2021
My school has had an exciting journey over the last year. It’s a tale that may resonate with you or inspire you. It’s a story of how mindsets and attitudes can shift when evidence emerges that there is a better way to teach our students.
This tale began a decade ago, and the first mindset that needed to change was my own. When I started teaching, my understanding of dyslexia was ill-informed. I thought it was an almost mythical, vague umbrella term for anyone who struggled to read. I now know better and look back with guilt at how naïve I was.
I remember teaching my first class as a graduate teacher. This class of 8 and 9 year-olds included one student who was very much a beginner reader. I quickly realised that I didn’t have the knowledge to teach someone how to read from scratch, despite completing a four-year Bachelor of Education. I thought that there should be a systematic way to teach a beginner reader. Instead, I was left struggling to teach her, and she was left struggling to read. I regret that I didn’t provide this child with the instruction that she needed.
After teaching in Melbourne, Australia, I moved to a remote community in the Northern Territory. There I worked with some of the most disadvantaged children in Australia, predominantly Indigenous Australians. For most of my students, English was their second (or third) language. The teachers I worked with were some of the most passionate and hardest working individuals I’ve met.
While I was in the Northern Territory we started to teach English using Direct Instruction programmes as part of the Australian Government’s Flexible Literacy in Remote Primary Schools Program. This approach was unlike anything I had used before. Teachers were provided with a script that built language and literacy skills systematically. More importantly, we received some excellent training and instructional coaching. My own knowledge and skills in teaching reading and writing improved dramatically during this period, as did my ability to mentor and support others.
The importance of a consistent and sequential programme cannot be overstated. Teacher retention was a significant issue, and it was not uncommon for students to have several classroom teachers in a year. Using Direct Instruction programmes helped ensure that our students continued on their learning trajectories despite changing teachers.
I remember being awestruck when students were able to identify the ‘predicate’ and ‘subject’ of a sentence. I didn’t know what these terms meant, let alone explain them to students and other teachers! I relished listening to students read a rich tapestry of stories, including classics like the Trojan Horse. It was incredible to see these students being successful in the face of multiple challenges.
The use of Direct Instruction as part of the Flexible Literacy in Remote Primary Schools Program was found to have a radical impact on the growth of Very Remote Indigenous schools.
“In contrast, our analysis shows a 124% growth for Very Remote Indigenous schools involved in Flexible Literacy from 2015 to 2017 while growth in the same period was 19 and 34% for all Australian and Very Remote Indigenous schools, respectively.” (Pearson, 2020, p8)
I relocated to be closer to family at the birth of my second child. I got a job at a school in central Victoria which was entrenched in ‘balanced literacy’. Balanced literacy assumes that reading is a natural skill that is learnt through exposure to books and minimal explicit teaching. The school had just invested in Fountas & Pinnell’s Levelled Literacy Intervention and were using this as the intervention programme. This program encourages students to learn words as whole units and provides predictable readers. Children are encouraged to make guesses rather than use knowledge of phoneme-grapheme correspondences to decode accurately. Despite adopting a balanced literacy approach, the school still managed to get ‘good’ results. We are fortunate that our students come from families that love them, support them and surround them with rich language experiences before beginning school. However, some students continued to fail to pick up the skills they needed to become readers. And while this number was ‘acceptable’ in respect to our data; it wasn’t acceptable in terms of the devastating impact that this could have on a child’s life.
My new school’s approach of balanced literacy ran counter to my recent experience of using Direct Instruction. One of the common posters in the school highlighted the strategy of “looking at the picture” to decode a word. I dealt with this tension by doing my best to provide quality teaching while ticking the boxes that the school required. I’m proud to say that no one in my class was told to look at a picture when trying to decode. I also built positive relationships with other staff members and started planting seeds that there could be a more effective way to teach literacy.
Last year, I accepted the role of Literacy Leader at the school and put my experience and knowledge in teaching literacy to the test. In front of me was the seemingly monumental task of changing our school’s practices to better support all of our students in their reading journey.
It turns out that a global pandemic is a great time to convince others that change is needed. In April and May, Victoria underwent its first COVID19 lockdown and schools went to a ‘remote learning’ model. Not having to commute to work, I used the time to dive into the research around the ‘Science of Reading’.
“The body of work referred to as ‘the science of reading’ is not an ideology, a philosophy, a political agenda, a one-size-fits-all approach, a program of instruction, or a specific component of instruction. It is the emerging consensus from many related disciplines, based on literally thousands of studies, supported by hundreds of millions of research dollars, conducted across the world in many languages. These studies have revealed a great deal about how we learn to read, what goes wrong when students don’t learn, and what kind of instruction is most likely to work the best for the most students.” (Moats, 2019)
I was able to see how this body of research supported what I had learnt through my experience of Direct Instruction regarding how students learn and how teachers can best support students to learn how to read. All I had to do now was convince my principal and my colleagues that our school needed to change direction in our literacy programme.
When face-to-face classes returned in May, I arranged a conversation with my principal about why we should change our approach to teaching literacy to align with the Science of Reading. I thought this was going to be a difficult conversation. I made sure that I had done my research and collated my key talking points. This included the importance of explicitly teaching the six pillars of: oral language, phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. I was nervous heading into this meeting and worried about the very real possibility of being told ‘no’, especially given the recent investment that the school had made in Levelled Literacy Intervention kits.
However, like many ‘difficult conversations’, it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. My principal could see that some students were continuing to fall through the gaps of our instruction. She recognised that our literacy programme could improve and has arranged the necessary resources to do so. Instead of the ‘no’ that I feared, I received an affirming ‘YES’! I am fortunate to have an incredible principal who can listen to research and is willing to adopt new evidence-based approaches.
My next step was to start implementing a stronger Science of Reading approach in my classroom. I began by implementing a phonemic awareness programme. Lindsay Kemeny brilliantly outlined the what, why, and how of phonemic awareness in her article Phonemic Awareness: Where do I start? in the first issue of Dystinct. If you haven’t read this, then you should! Phonemic awareness is how we blend, segment, and manipulate the sounds in spoken language.
“Many children with reading difficulties lack phonemic awareness.” (Kilpatrick, 2013, p.14)
I started implementing a programme called Heggerty’s Phonemic Awareness with my Grade 1/2 class as there were some lessons available to support schools doing remote learning. I could see the benefit it would have for my weaker readers. What shocked me was the skills that my ‘strong’ readers were missing: many couldn’t reliably rhyme or accurately identify initial sounds in words. Explicit teaching helped, and within a couple of weeks these lessons were humming along. Every child was achieving success.
So, of course, I invited my principal to observe. And she quickly got every other staff member to watch one of these lessons. We ordered the books so that all classes from Foundation- Grade 3 could begin implementing the program.
It was crucial that I could share my knowledge with other staff, so I ran a Professional Learning series on the Science of Reading. Initially, we explored the Simple View of Reading which is a formula presented by Gough & Tunmer (1986) that: Decoding x Language Comprehension = Reading Comprehension. We investigated how oral language, comprehension, phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary and fluency are all essential components in being able to read. We then started to hone in on how we could effectively teach phonemic awareness, as people were inspired by the success I was having in my classroom.
And then Victoria had its second COVID-19 lockdown.
However, the Grade 1/2 classes continued to deliver online phonemic awareness lessons every day of the second lockdown (which lasted from July-October). I’m still getting comments from parents who I think were equally amused and impressed about “chopping sounds” (usually with grandiose gestures).
The Grade 1/2 team also started sending out decodable readers in our remote learning packs. These allowed us to focus on particular letter-sound combinations. It might seem like an outrageous expense to provide books that we might not get back. However, thanks to https://www.speldsa.org.au/, we were able to access and use free printable versions.
When we returned to school in Term 4 we hit the ground running. We rolled out Heggerty’s Phonemic Awareness in the Foundation & Grade 3 classes. I ran further professional learning on teaching phonics systematically and synthetically. Our school ordered a heap of decodable readers. And we got rid of the ‘reading strategies’ posters that told children to look at pictures instead of words!
I have been overwhelmed by how my colleagues have embraced our new approach. It’s not easy changing things that we’ve been doing for years (and for some, decades), but everyone is eager to learn more. They genuinely want to do what is best for their students and are going out of their way to give them the best possible education. What surprised me most was that the colleagues that I thought would be reluctant to change are amongst the most enthusiastic about our new approach.
This year, we are continuing to focus on embedding our teaching of phonemic awareness & phonics (synthetically & systematic) with the support of our decodable books. We are shifting our comprehension instruction to support a knowledge-rich curriculum. We’re explicitly teaching vocabulary and looking at the morphology and etymology of words in detail. We've changed the assessments we use to better assess the individual components of reading (hello, DIBELS) and refined our intervention programme. It is a lot to work on, and I’m mindful not to overwhelm my fellow teachers.
I am finding it a delicate balance to take small steps quickly, without rushing!
In particular, our new approach is providing our graduate teachers with the guidance and training that they need. I am in awe of how they cater for all of their students. The clarity of our programmes means that the quality of their instruction is excellent. I wish that I had this level of support when I started teaching!
I held a parent information session outlining how our school is now teaching literacy. The comments from parents have been overwhelmingly supportive with many starting to see the benefits. We have employed an experienced tutor to work with small groups of students who need extra support.
One highlight was a recent conversation with a family whose child is presenting with dyslexia. The psychologist who prepared the report made a number of recommendations. It was such a positive experience to inform the family that we had already adopted the suggested strategies and approaches!
My school has a long road ahead to ensure that every child gets the literacy instruction they deserve. But we have made a strong start. Our staff are on board, our parents are supportive, and our students are eager to learn!
Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, Reading, and Reading Disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7(1), 6–10. https://doi.org/10.1177/074193258600700104
Kilpatrick, D. (2013) Equipped for Reading Success.
Moats, L. (2019, Oct 16) Of ‘Hard Words’ and Straw Men: Let’s Understand what Reading Science is Really About. Accessed from https://www.voyagersopris.com/blog/edview360/2019/10/16/lets-understand-what-reading-science-is-really-about
Pearson, N. (2020). Yes, DI did it: the impact of Direct Instruction on literacy outcomes for Very Remote Indigenous schools. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1017/jie.2020.20
I am a father of two (6 & 3), married to a future Early Childhood Educator.