S1 E10 - Your Upper Primary Phonics Catch-Up Action Plan

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Transcript Summary

In the past, when we had struggling readers in our class, we'd do a benchmark assessment, identify reading levels, and try to support these students. In our small group rotations. But these days, with the growing awareness that guided reading, levelled texts and three queuing are no longer supported, upper primary teachers are asking exactly what am I supposed to do? Well, we here at Jocelyn Seamer Education have the answer. In today’s episode, I share the three steps you need to take in your Upper Primary Phonics Catch up plan.

The first thing to realize is that there are two main reasons children reach upper primary, that's year three to six without foundational skills. Either they are instructional casualties who just need to be taught, they haven't learned it yet, and we can just teach them, or they have an underlying learning-related difficulty.

The tricky thing is that when children are being or have been taught with an un-explicit, non-evidence-informed approach, we can't always tell who is who or which is which. The good news is that the initial steps to support students are the same for everyone.

Step One - Collect Some Data

Step number one in this action plan is to collect some data. We don't want benchmark reading assessment data. We want data related to the foundational skills around phonics and word-level reading and that's going to incorporate phonemic awareness.

There are three aspects of assessment to consider.

1) The assessment that will give you the broadest and quickest picture of where students are up to is a simple spelling test. We can actually get quite a bit of information about our student's development from looking at spelling because if a student can spell words, you can be reasonably sure that they're also reading them. This can be done whole class, which saves you time and instead of using an actual spelling test, you can use the phonics monitoring assessment from your school's program if you have one. Make sure you include the non-words and ask students to write the graphemes as well. This will give you a great idea of where students are up to and inform your teaching focus.

Basic Code Assessment 
Complex code and Alternate Spellings Assessment

2) Once you see where students are up to with this spelling assessment whole class, you can dig a little deeper where you need to. If the students could correctly spell most of the words that were in that phonic-based spelling test or the reading assessment we're using as a spelling test, then you don't need to do anything further, they've got what they need, and you can move on to do other things.

But if they couldn't spell them, then it's time to see if they actually know the sounds and graphemes or the phoneme-grapheme correspondence when they're asked to read them. But only do this with students who couldn't spell accurately. If they could spell accurately, including the non-words, then you don't usually need to take the time to do this from a reading perspective.

What you may find is that students can read words but not spell them, and this is really common. If this happens, students fall into this category of being wobbly rather than not having the knowledge. This comes about because in the early years of school or in their previous years of school, the focus has been largely on reading with phonics rather than on teaching both reading and spelling (or decoding and encoding) at the same time to take advantage of developing these reciprocal processes. It's really common, and a little bit of catch-up work will be of benefit to these students.  What you may also find is that students can't recognize phonemes or graphemes or read words, and some students will know the basic code but not the complex code. Some will be able to read some words with the extended or complex code but not actually be able to read the graphemes in isolation or confidently read the non-words.  This comes about because those students will have mapped some of these common words, and they don't know how to use the knowledge of that word level reading to extend to other things. These students are often the ones that look okay on a benchmark reading assessment, but that can have a spectacular crash in learning in the upper primary because they had enough to get by when there were pictures that they could rely on to decode, but then when the pictures go away, and the words become more complex, they don't know what to do.

Then there are the students who get to upper primary without even having the basic code, and I'm sorry to say that this absolutely happens. These students are the most likely to have a learning difficulty of some sort, and it's not our job as a teacher to diagnose what that is, but we do need to recommend referral because we've recognized that students are in real trouble and further investigation does need to happen. Read3, which is an Australian company have a free screener and it's called the CHIP, which stands for Check How I Process. This screener looks at phonemic awareness and phonics, but also rapid automized naming and phonological working memory, and it will help you answer the question is this child's difficulty caused by a learning difficulty or have they just not learned what they needed to?

Step Two - Teach

If students have arrived in years three to six, or even the secondary grades, without the required phonics knowledge to read and spell at a basic level, we need to give it to them. But just as it's not a one size fits all approach in the early years, it's not a one size fits all approach in the older grades either . Students who fit into that wobbly category can be supported at a whole class level with some revision or consolidation lessons.

Our third Reading Success in Action book would be perfect for this. It works from a phoneme focus, examining the what, how, why, and when of using alternate spellings and phonemes and links to spelling and morphology detours to teach concepts like spelling rules and suffixes in conventions. It's all age-appropriate for older grades, but it's got the phonics revision that so many students also need. Our books all come with QR codes that take you straight to videos of me explaining how to use things. But if you have a phonics program in your school already, try and use as much of that as you can. don't go buying new things if you don't need to. You can take what you're using and adapt it for your upper primary students.

But what about those students who need to actually be taught from scratch? I think that this is a broader conversation involving more people than just a classroom teacher because, as an upper primary classroom teacher, you still need to teach all of the age-appropriate content. You can't possibly be expected to teach foundational skills on your own as well. it's highly unlikely that the whole class will need this learning. So how do you manage it? Well, sure, you could split students into groups in the classroom, but that means a significant loss of instructional time. You could try and manage whole class, but it is nigh on impossible to deliver a lesson whole class that will provide the targeted support needed by our strugglers and also engage everyone else. After all, if our strugglers could learn well from a bit of revision or some light touch phonics, they wouldn't be strugglers. These students need the intensive targeted work that's going to meet them exactly where they're up to.

Step 3 - Monitor Student Progress 

The third step in your action plan is to monitor student progress and evaluate how the students have responded to the intervention work. It's called a response to intervention model because we have to evaluate how well what we've been delivering is serving those students and when they might need something more. Once you've been working in a targeted, explicit way with regular review and practice, you should start to see positive growth in phoneme-grapheme correspondence and word-level blending within a few weeks at the latest, and if you aren't seeing that, it's important to take things a step further with referral to specialist support.

You Must Manage your Workload

Finally, I want to remind you that you can't keep adding things to your literacy block without impacting on your well-being and that of the students. When you add something, you must take something out or shuffle things around, and if you find yourself needing to provide whole class phonics consolidation work, It won't last forever. Yes, you may need to pull back on some time spent on morphology or the text-based work for a term or two, but doing so will pay dividends for years to come for your students.

Looking for Resources to support your struggling readers?  Look no further than the Resource Room.


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