Harnessing the 4 Pillars in Phonics Instruction

Roman Temple

In last week’s post, ‘Phonics without the Froo Froo’, I wrote about the need for phoneme grapheme instruction to be direct, simple and explicit. If you haven’t read that post, you can find it here.  In this post I also outlined Stanislas Dehaene’s 4 pillars of learning. You can learn more about these pillars in his book, ‘How We Learn’.

How We Learn : Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine... for Now - Stanislas Dehaene

This week, I’d like to take the discussion even further and evaluate some common classroom practices against Dr Dehaene’s 4 pillars to help you maximise the impact of your teaching.

But firstly, let’s look at the criteria for evaluating against the 4 pillars.  (Remember, all 4 pillars are necessary for strong learning) 

ATTENTION – Are we directing student attention to the exact-right thing we want them to learn, focusing on one thing at a time in a way that supports students’ current levels of executive functioning?    

ACTIVE ENGAGEMENT –Are students actively participating, not just in the doing, but in the thinking? Are we making them reflect, think and generate something?  Are we helping them maintain motivation by providing learning material that is in the ‘sweet spot’ of not too easy and not too hard?

ERROR CORRECTION AND FEEDBACK – Are we providing the feedback that alerts students’ brains to the fact that there has been an error? Are we providing ongoing revision and practice? Are we spacing that practice out with a pattern of learning something, test something, learn something, test something that lasts for a period of months?

CONSOLIDATION AND AUTOMISATION – Are we focusing the combination of teaching and practice on building automaticity. This means not focusing on too many things at once and monitoring learning in all its components over time.

Common classroom practice 1 – conducting a 10-15 minute mini lesson to the whole class followed by literacy rotations with a variety of activities.

This approach to teaching phonics and reading gets 4 crosses. Even if the mini-lesson had ticks for all 4 pillars, the ratio of adult to no-adult time in the lesson means that the results are likely to be poor for all but the most ‘with it’ learners.  Even the most carefully thought-out rotation activities cannot direct student attention on the teacher’s behalf, make sure that the student is thinking about what they are supposed to be thinking about, provide feedback that is timely and support more active engagement or consolidate learning.  The simple fact is that effects of ‘independent’ work in the early primary years are minimal.  On top of that, even if the teacher had a variety of tasks available to suit the different learning needs of the students, they would not hit the mark because without attention and active engagement, anything experienced sits in the sensory memory and then disappears.   

Common classroom practice 2 – Teaching phoneme grapheme correspondence and word level reading to the whole class.

I know that I am going to challenge some people with this one.  There is much current discussion about whole class teaching and, let me say, that when it comes to working with a rich text for ‘top of the rope’ reading instruction, syntax work, science, history and the non-number strands of maths, I am all for it.  I would never dream of separating children for these things, but when it comes to learning phoneme/grapheme correspondence and decoding, I do ask that you think about the effect of whole class teaching on individuals. Here’s why.

  • All children learn to read in ‘roughly’ the same way, however they can vary greatly in “speed, ease and motivation with which they learn” (Dehaene, 2020, g 186). This is why I have placed both ticks and crosses on the graphic above.  A whole class lesson can tick all the boxes for the 4 pillars for some students (usually the middle of the road ones) but the students who work at a faster or slower pace won’t be getting what they need.

  • This assertion is backed by Dehaene in his discussion of curiosity. He refers to curiosity as the desire to the learn (hence the link to motivation) that comes about when our brain knows we are going to learn something novel. Novelty (unsurprisingly for those of us who teach small children) is a drawcard for attention. This is a basic, biological driver. This doesn’t mean that we have to create a circus in our classrooms, but it does mean that we need to signal children’s brain that something new is about the happen. Boredom arises when we are presented with things we already know about and can do. So, if a student already knows what the lesson is covering well, they will switch off. It’s not about behaviour. It’s biology. Similarly, if the material is too hard (or further ahead than we are ready for), we cannot access it and our brain switches off because it detects that we are not learning fast enough to gain any value from what is in front of us.  Hitting the mark in terms of providing the right amount of novelty (new material to learn) to make children curious means that we are much more likely to trigger the dopamine circuit that responds to learning new information in the same way that it does to food.

  • For our students who struggle, there is also the issue of attention and engagement. I don’t think that students need to be very far ‘behind’ the main group to be a struggler. Remember, different students will respond differently based on the speed and ease at which they learn things in general. So, while one student might be just fine with learning new graphemes of the complex code while revising previously learned ones in a tier 2 group, this can actually cause overload and overwhelm for another.  Multitasking is a myth. It’s as simple as that.  In his chapter on attention, Dehaene discusses the ‘bottle neck’ that exists in our working memory. If there are two competing pieces of information or tasks, our brain will choose one to be the focus and the other one will have to wait (very often dropping out of our working memory or not being attended to at all).  It’s why we can’t text and drive with equal attention applied to each skill. When we ask a student to focus on more than one set of graphemes at once (learn new ones while still learning the previous ones), we are jamming up the bottle neck in their memories.  Now this is very different from learning new graphemes while consolidating previously learned ones in daily review sessions.  This second scenarios means that the student will have actually learned the graphemes before they are being reviewed.

    This clip shares a bit more about the challenges that differences in working memory and pace of learning can create when attempting to teach the whole class at once.

  • There are also considerations for instructional time. Even if students' brains didn’t respond as Dr Dehaene describes, and we gave additional lessons to our strugglers and our fast lane learners, asking students to sit through 30 minutes of instruction in something they are not currently actively engaged in learning doesn’t seem like a good use of time. My suggestion is flexible groupings across classrooms so that all 4 pillars can be achieved for every student, every day.  You will likely have your own views on this, and that’s ok.

I’ll finish this rather long section off by saying that the context of your school plays a huge part in how you need to structure your lessons.  Your data tells the ultimate story.  The greater the spread you have in terms of ages, stages of development in learning, working memory capacity and ability to display the social/emotional skills needed for learning in a classroom, the tighter and more measured the progression needs to be. But, even in schools where there is a narrower range in these things, there will always be students who struggle, either because they are behind or beyond the main group.  These students need to be supported so that they can learn to read (albeit at a different pace) in the same way as their peers. 

Common classroom practice 3 – Video clips and songs to teach phonics

I have been known to turn to a YouTube clip that focuses on sounds or phonological awareness when the students (or I) needed a brain break, but let’s not kid ourselves that a Jack Hartman Letter Sounds Workout clip is going to result in any learning whatsoever.  Again, I’m not against the Jack Hartman clips (kids love them!), but they are not reading instruction.

For one thing, the minute we put a ‘video’ on, our students’ level of active engagement drops through the floor. Many children become glassy eyed, slack jawed zombies (you know it’s true!) and their brains go to sleep. Secondly, how do we know what children are actually paying attention when there is boppy music, flashing colours and cute characters on the screen? Without the first two conditions, there is no chance for error feedback and consolidation to occur.

Common Classroom Practice 4 – Daily, differentiated review

Happily, this is one activity that is growing in popularity that ticks all the boxes, providing that the following conditions exist:

  • Review material is based on monitoring data from frequent assessment and targeted specifically to meet student needs.
  • All students aren’t expected to participate in all review (particularly our struggling students who can become overwhelmed very quickly).
  • Review material covers graphemes that were learned over different times periods (something we learned recently, something we learned last month, something we learned last term). The balance is important so that students don’t become bored.
  • Students are actively engaged in DOING something like reading and writing words.
  • There is a little bit of novelty included in the review (change the background colour, font colour or change the order of the slides if using a PowerPoint).

This has been another long post (sorry!) and yet, I still couldn’t cover as much as I would have liked to. Why not focus your next professional learning community meeting on evaluating your school’s approaches against Dehaene’s 4 pillars?

Looking for ready-made resources to help you implement structured literacy in your classroom?  Read more about the Resource Room here. 
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Jennifer Giewald

Thanks Jocelyn for another informative post with lots of practical ideas I will definitely be trying out next term. I was just wondering if you had any suggestions on how to teach the grapheme phoneme correspondence to students at their level within your class if you do not have the option to use flexible groupings across your grade?
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hedy Allen

Thanks Jocelyn, yet another informative blog! I had a bit of difficulty getting the video clip to work but got most of it finally. It certainly reinforces the need for quick ongoing assessment so that we know which children have embedded previously taught material into their long term memory and who needs more practise.
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Amy McGovern

Thanks for this insightful piece. I think it's a tough sell to tell teachers both whole group and the mini lesson model are not effective, even with the research on your side. One solution is to to try and create homogenous groups for whole group reading instruction. I realize this is controversial as well, but I've seen it work extremely well with thoughtful teachers who flexibly group and monitor progress. It means teachers need to share their kids and trust their colleagues. When this happens, we maximize the benefits of high impact instruction (whole and small group) while also avoiding Dehaene's pitfalls -which you have outlined so well. 
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Jocelyn Seamer

Hi Amy. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. As it happens, I agree with you around the grouping. I have done this myself in my own school and am working with schools who do it now, with wonderful results. Both students and teachers benefit from the reduced cognitive load and results are much stronger.  Take care, Jocelyn. 
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Renee Weedon

Hi Jocelyn

I love your posts. So easy to read and understand! 

I struggle with the whole class teaching as a 1/2 multiage. Reaching the high kids and ones who are struggling. With flexible groupings across classes, how are students getting grade level exposure to concepts? Or like you said, they can’t even take that in.  

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Felicity Wallace

Hi Jocelyn,

As an experienced teacher, I have found this very interesting to ponder about. The 4 pillars of learning make a lot of sense and make a teacher reflect on how effective the teaching and learning is for all their students.

The clip was particularly impactful. You raise many important points. I agree that explicit teaching needs to focus on the needs of all students which comes directly from regularly testing your students. 

It also needs to take into account the cognitive load capacity of all students. A teacher does not want to overload the working memory of any of their students. My question is how do we find out the level of working memory of our students?

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Amanda Lafontaine

I can absolutely see the value in the Daily Classroom Practice 4-Daily Differentiated Review. As a kindergarten teacher, who is in the infant stages of wanting to transition to this way of thinking, I found myself asking out loud “what does this look like in the classroom?”  I am all for putting this best practice to use. However I don’t know what it should look like. Is there a place you would recommend I look to get an idea of what this looks like or how a typical classroom day is set up in this style….bonus points if it is kindergarten!  Everything is always geared to 1 and beyond. Kindergarten is an entirely different beast!

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