Reasons the Wheels Might Fall off Your Whole School Approach - Part 3


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Hi everyone. It's Jocelyn here with the Structured Literacy Podcast coming to you from Tasmania, the beautiful home of the Palawa people.

Anyone who has ever said that teachers don't work hard clearly has no idea what they're talking about. I've never met a teacher or spent time in a school where there wasn't a flurry of activity intended to result in improved student outcomes of one sort or another. When it comes to our literacy approaches, more focus is given than to most areas.

We all know how pivotal strong literacy is in our student's success in academics and life more broadly. However, not all efforts result in those improved outcomes that we might be hoping for. This current series of four episodes is intended to provide food for thought when considering why your own efforts might not be leading to great results. In the first two episodes, I covered the importance of strong leadership and streamlined assessment, and you can hear more about that in episodes 17 and 18 of the podcast.

Today's Topic - Teaching Practices
In this current episode, I'd like to talk about teaching practice. Most schools have programs to help frame their reading instruction, particularly for phonics and decoding, but this episode isn't about choosing the right program. Today I'd like to run you through some problems of practice that might just be puncturing holes in your bus's tires.

No. 1 - Not working from your data.
The first problem of practice is not working from your data. In our last episode of the Structured Literacy Podcast, I talked about the need to have your assessment ducks in a row. If you are using a commercial program to help you teach phonics and decoding, it's important that you are using the assessment that aligns with the program. This enables you to easily determine whether students have learned what you have taught and lets you know what you need to teach them next.

When we muddle assessments and programs together that are not aligned and then try and use that data to inform instruction, we're really setting ourselves and our students up for a solid case of confusion. and it's understandable that teaching and learning gets a bit hazy around the edges.

Now, why does this matter? It matters because not all children learn with the same level of ease and speed. We all learn to read in fundamentally the same way, but the ease and speed at which this happens will vary.

No. 2 - Not responding adequately to your student's learning needs.
This brings me to my second reason that your whole school approach may not be leading to strong learning for all. That instruction does not respond to the needs of the students. The successful acquisition of phoneme-grapheme correspondences relies on students having access to the number of repetitions their learning profile requires. Some children need 12 repetitions of new material to learn it. Others need 20, and other students need 45.

My use of the word repetitions is deliberate here. I didn't say exposures because mere exposure to material does not result in learning. In order for new material to be learned, children need to be actively engaged in creating mental models and thinking; they have to process new learning through rehearsal and retrieval. This is critical.

When we sit every child in a class in front of the same core lesson to learn new phoneme-grapheme correspondences for the first time and expect that we can treat all of them as if they were the same. We are ignoring a fundamental truth about memory and learning. Different children need different things in order to embed new learning into long-term memory.

But let's be clear, I am not suggesting that some children need a phonics approach and other children need a whole-word approach. I'm talking about how long it takes them to embed things into memory.

The use of Tier 2 intervention
The simple answer is to identify these students nice and early and ensure that they receive an extra dose of instruction each day. This extra dose is what we call tier-two intervention. It isn't a special program or an approach that follows a different scope and sequence. It's an extra go at learning what the class has learned that day, where they were present. The idea being that if some students need 40 repetitions to learn and the main lesson gives 20, then we could provide another 20 repetitions in tier two intervention, and the student will get what they need. If the homework provides another 15 repetitions, then the student is well set up to keep up with their peers.

The key to this working well is to maximize repetitions in the core lesson. Instead of showing a card with a grapheme on it four times, do it 10 times across the lesson. Instead of having students write the new grapheme four times, have them write it for 30 seconds until you tell them to stop.

Include a review of the new grapheme for another five repetitions right at the end of the lesson, then repeat this after recess, after lunch, and right before home time. This spaced practice isn't just about spacing across a week or term but about spacing right across the school day too.

What if we're starting from different places along the scope and sequence of instruction?
Now, that's all well and good if everyone in our class is coming from the same starting point, but what if we're starting from different places along the scope and sequence of instruction, which is the more likely situation? Does it really work just to give some extra practice and catch kids up? For some children, it might. If a student has no learning challenges, no memory wobbles, and they just haven't been taught, or they haven't learned the phonics that you are focusing on, then it's a reasonable assumption that they can catch up with their peers over time.

However, if the student has an issue with memory and they need many more repetitions than their peers to learn phoneme-grapheme correspondences, asking that student to learn two sets of new content just doesn't make any sense.

Ultimately, it's our data that will tell the story about the effectiveness of our instruction. If your data shows appropriate growth for all children, keep doing exactly what you are doing. If, however, your data indicates that growth is not present at an appropriate rate, then something needs to change.

Unfortunately, too many children sit quietly in lessons that are not suitable for their needs, spending time not learning a thing. Please make sure that this isn't happening in your class. And if you are about to send me an email telling me that this just doesn't happen Jocelyn, I'd like you to first have a chat with the year three to six teachers or the secondary teachers in your school and ask them about the students who come to their classrooms at the start of every year who do not possess adequate levels of phonics knowledge to participate in age-appropriate lessons. Trust me, those kids are there.

No. 3 - Not having a clear vision for instruction across the team.
The next element of instruction that can get in the way of strong results for all students is that there isn't a clear common vision for the what, how, and why of instruction. A common comment that we hear is we are all teaching explicitly. What's your problem? Now, people are not that blunt, but I think that's maybe what they're thinking.

The reality is that simply using the word 'explicit' is unlikely to result in a shared vision for instruction. Each person will have a different idea of exactly what this means. We need to know why we're doing what we're doing and exactly what it looks like in practice, including which resources will be used, what teaching routines will look like, and how we will respond to different student responses. Despite the perception of a common vision, without a visual demonstration of lessons and a clear outline of what is expected, it's difficult to establish a common vision for teaching within a group of people.

Create a checklist.
One of the simple things that you can do to get this on track is to produce a checklist of resources that teachers are to have on hand while teaching a timeline for the elements of a lesson and a common script for key terms and explanations. This needs to be done with your team. will be a slower process than if you just write it down and hand it to people, but working with your team to develop these resources will ensure that everybody's coming along with you.

Let me clarify...
I'm not a fan of everyone's lesson needing to be a hundred per cent identical. Let me clarify. I'm not talking about a choose-your-own-adventure scenario. It's not unreasonable to expect that the steps of a phonics lesson are the same between classrooms, that the sequence of teaching is consistent, that the responses to student actions and answers is shared between teachers and that everyone uses the same vocabulary and explanations for core parts of the lesson. That's just part of a solid whole-school approach.

But what is unreasonable is that every word a person says needs to be identical in all aspects of literacy to the classroom next to them. I think that that just puts more pressure on teachers and doesn't allow them to respond to student needs.

How to help everyone get on the same page for teaching.
To help everyone get on the same page for teaching, hold regular 10-minute practice sessions as part of your staff meetings, teach each other using the lesson outlines that are consistent in your school's program. It's a great way to give feedback to new staff to ensure that small things don't creep in that will take instruction off track. If you are a school leader, including the principal, participate in these practice sessions with your staff. Let them see that it's important to you that everyone is on the same page.

When it comes to whole school approaches, I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Consistency across classrooms is not about taking away a teacher's capacity to teach and make decisions. Teachers must decide on the complexity and pace of instruction in responses to their student's needs. Ultimately consistency is about student equity and every teacher in the school working towards becoming an expert teacher of reading so that every child learns to read right there at school, as is their right.

No. 4 - Not being able to let go of what may no longer be serving you.
The final point I'd like to make about instruction that can get in the way of your students achieving their best is when we just can't let go of programs and practices that are no longer serving us and our students. I'm not necessarily talking about sight word programs and guided reading groups, although the group rotation thing is hard to let go of sometimes. Have a listen to episode six to hear more about that one, but I am talking about programs that we may have implemented along our initial journey into structured literacy.

When we're first looking for alternatives to get us out of our balanced literacy slump, it's understandable that we grab hold of the first recommended program that comes along, and that may have served its purpose for a time, but as our core knowledge grows and we understand more of the nuance of putting together a structured literacy approach, our needs may change.

It can be challenging to put something aside that you may have invested time and or money into just two years ago because you now see a different path forward. I'm not talking about change for the sake of change or because something felt like it was getting a bit too familiar. I am talking about being willing to look our past decisions in the eye and say, "That served us at the time, but that really doesn't serve us anymore."

Don't spend money willy-nilly.
Don't run out and spend money willy-nilly on a new program and make the same mistakes all over again. But be prepared to spend more time looking at alternatives through the lens of your new learning about what instruction can look like and what a whole school approach looks like in your context and your school. Because while the evidence and the instruction are context proof in that explicit instruction works for everyone, and that's what we're aiming towards, how things will be implemented in your context may be a little different from the school's down the road.

Most importantly, give yourself permission to really consider what will be best for your students and your team. If something is complicated, overly repetitive, (and while low variance can be incredibly powerful, ad nauseum is definitely not) too narrow in its focus or not aligned to the curriculum you need to report on, it's unlikely to be easily adopted and maintained in a long-term sustainable way by your team.

Let's review.
Let's hear those four reasons that our wheels might be falling off instruction again,

No. 1 - Not working from your data.
No. 2 - Not responding adequately to your student's learning needs.
No. 3 - Not having a clear vision for instruction across the team.
And No. 4 - Not being able to let go of what may no longer be serving you.

This series is not intended to pick holes in your school's approach or your own instruction, but to help give you food for thought so that you can take action to get your students learning on track. Very often, the difference between not seeing results in your data and actually seeing results in your data is a few tweaks. It's a bit of tightening, it's a slight adjustment. We're not suggesting that you go out and replace everything.

In conclusion
Remember that it's your data that is the ultimate feedback about your instructional effectiveness. If you have your assessment ducks in a row, as discussed in the previous episode, and you are monitoring student progress through simple tools that align to your school's approach, you'll know whether you are getting the job done. 

And the proof won't just be on the page. It will be visible in the faces of the children you are teaching, who will tell you how much they love learning to read and who are so proud of their efforts. After all, that's the best experience we can have as a teacher. 

See you in the next episode. Bye. 

Are you looking for simple professional learning solutions that help you meet each team in your school at their point of need?  We can help. Click here to learn more about how an Evergreen Teacher membership can support your school. 

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