S1 E21 - Reasons the Wheels Might Fall off Your Whole School Approach - Part 4

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Hello there everyone. Welcome to this episode of the Structured Literacy Podcast. I am Jocelyn coming to you from Tasmania, the beautiful home of the Palawa people.

I need to apologise in advance for my voice. One of my delightful children brought me home a gift from school, which was a cold, and as much as I've tried to shake it, it's hanging around. But I'm not going to let that stop me from showing up for you so that we can make sure that we are providing you with the support that you need for your structured literacy journey. Let's get started.

Over the past few episodes, I've covered several reasons that the wheels might be falling off your whole school approach to reading instruction. Much of the conversation has been focused on phonics instruction because that's where the greatest level of precision is required. Those all-important bottom-of-the-rope concepts must be developed to mastery regardless of the age of the students.

If children are in years three to six and don't have a strong knowledge of phonics, they need instruction. If they're in secondary and can't sound out unfamiliar words for reading and spelling, that's a problem. I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. These issues of upper primary and secondary are big enough for me to write a whole course on them, and I might just do that, so stay tuned.

Today's topic - Why a once robust, disciplined, and focused approach has dropped off.
But today's episode is all about the fourth reason that things might not be going well and some suggestions for what you can do about it. I am rounding off this series of podcast episodes by sharing my thoughts on a situation that exists in many schools. That is, your once robust, disciplined, and focused approach has dropped off to the point where your data is suffering.

Schools are busy places, and there are always competing priorities. This is as true for teachers as it is for leaders, so it's easy for the focus that we once had on initial reading instruction to drop off. In fact, it's necessary that it does. We can't, after all, maintain a super strong focus on more than one thing at a time, but there does come a point where this lack of focus goes too far.

When we first start down the road of a new approach, we have money for resourcing and training. We invest time in our meetings, making sure that everyone is on the same page. We make time to examine data and plan together from what we see, and we are all on board with maintaining consistency across our classrooms.

But over time, the bucket of money for training and resources becomes smaller or non-existent. Our teaching staff turn over, our key leaders move on or get promoted into other roles, and what we are left with is a shadow of the great whole school approach that resulted in the early data growth that we were so proud to display in graphs and spreadsheets.

Got it done, but moving on
Because we have 'done phonics' in our school, and our focus is elsewhere, we look up one day and see that the wheels have well and truly fallen off while we weren't looking. When this happens, it's gutting. Those members of the team who were around from the start of the structured literacy journey know exactly what it took to get things going, and it's understandable that they look at the task ahead and feel something akin to despair. How are we going to do this again? How are we going to get back on track? How could we possibly have the stamina and determination to start over?

The good news here is that you don't have to start over. You aren't starting from the same point that you started from last time. Not only have you already climbed the mountain and know the way, you now have so much more knowledge than you did last time. You know what to look out for, what you wish you'd done last time, and how to get where you are going even quicker. It can be easier to get things on track a second time because you already know some of what you need to do before you start, but it can also be difficult.

One of the major decisions you'll need to make is whether to keep your old program or get yourself a new one. It's tempting to jettison the old program and start fresh, but I want to caution against change for change's sake. If your old program is a robust, evidence-informed one that has previously gotten your school great results, seriously consider keeping it and revamping what you have happening.

Resources can be really expensive. Training is expensive. If your school's list of requirements around structured literacy is met by your own or your previous program, consider a relaunch. Do a fresh data collection, run some team practice sessions, put a schedule together for observations, reflection and careful monitoring of student progress. Reaffirm the reason you are doing what you are doing by engaging in some in-depth case study-style conversations about students whose data shows that they haven't been served in recent times, and paint a picture for your team of how things can look.

But you might decide the make a change
However, there are times when it might be a good idea to make a change. Reasons that you might choose to change a program might include:

- You now know things that you didn't know when you chose your original program, and you can see that it won't serve your school's needs as well as you thought it might back when you made your decisions. This could be because of the way that instruction is organized, the resourcing, or that it's not as flexible as you would've liked.
- The second reason you might choose to make a change could be that the feeling of the team towards the program is so negative that it's just going to be too hard to bring everyone around. This can happen if the previous implementation has felt like it's been done to people rather than being done with them. It's part of human nature that we are more likely to be on board with something that we have had a voice in choosing or implementing. If that hasn't happened previously and teachers feel like the program has been foisted upon them, they may not be too keen on heading back there again.

6 Key Steps to Turning it Around
Regardless of whether you relaunch your old program or choose a new one, you'll need to ensure that some key things happen before launching ahead.

No. 1 - Team feedback
Number one, talk with your team and get their feedback. Using a whole school approach isn't negotiable, but what happens on the way to making that happen can be. Remember, people will be more willing to hop on the bus if they've had a voice. I'd also like to remind you that having a voice doesn't mean that everyone gets an equal vote.

No. 2 - Gather reliable data
Find out where your school is up to. Reliable data is critical. It allows you to share a vision with the team of precisely what the situation is and where the strengths and areas for opportunity lay. But be clear about what assessment data you are looking at. Make sure you're actually looking at data that really does measure the thing you think it is. So steering clear of benchmark or multiple choice type assessment. Have a look at your phonics, and have a look at your norm-referenced data if you have it, such as you might collect from DIBELS or Acadience. If your assessment is not reliable, then these conversations will not lead you where you want them to go.

No. 3 - Articulate what elements of instruction are important for your school
Point three, articulate what elements of instruction are important for your school. Do you want something tightly scripted or a little more flexible? Do you want teaching to be done by PowerPoint or with cards, or a mixture of both? Do you want something that comes with ongoing help, or do you have your own internal structures for support? The answers to these questions will help you know whether you will keep what you have or make a change.

No. 4 - Plan an implementation runway
Number four. Plan an implementation runway that includes things like training or retraining, organization or reorganization of resources, includes a series of meetings to affirm elements of instruction that will be non-negotiable and consistent between classrooms and those that teachers will get to make decisions about.

This will likely include things like teachers deciding on when it's time to move on to new graphemes based on the response of students and their monitoring assessment. Another piece of the puzzle to confirm with the team will be around what the plan for supporting a range of student needs will be. After all, your previously inconsistent practice has probably resulted in data that looks a little like Swiss cheese.

No. 5 - Plan for tier two and three intervention
Point five. You'll also need to put together a plan for tier two and three intervention, including how you'll identify students who need additional support, what that support will look like, and who will deliver tier two and tier three lessons.  A couple of points I want to make on this. Tier two does not involve getting a separate program from Tier one. It involves an additional dose with greater intensity and closer monitoring for those students who need it so they have their instruction at Tier one, and then they get an additional dose of that in tier two, you don't need a separate program.

Tier three is a different story, these students have quite complex needs this will be a very small number of students. You'll already know who they are because they'll have learning plans. The best people to deliver the intervention at tier three is not necessarily your teaching assistants. Our students sitting in tier three really need the support and guidance, and instruction from an experienced, qualified professional. Now, that may well look like a registered teacher who works alongside and in conjunction with a speech therapist. Our kiddies at tier three are going to need something that is of greater intensity and potentially a little different from what everybody else needs. I just want to make those points so that we are clear about the difference between tier two and tier three and how they sit within our overall framework.

No. 6 - Determine how you got into your current muddle
Point number six and the last one. It's a really good idea to determine how you got into your current muddle in the first place and take some steps to prevent it from happening again. If you identify that after implementation of your last round of phonics instruction, dropped off and never returned, add some check-in and revisiting time to your school calendar regularly.

If you found that inconsistency crept in over time because there wasn't really a documented plan for 'how we do things here', create one to carry you forward. Make that part of your relaunch. If the situation arose that your whole school approach fell over because one key leader moved on, engage in active succession planning to build capacity in your team to carry your practice forward into the future.

Finding yourself in the position where your once highly effective phonics decoding practices are no longer so, does not have to mean the death of strong practice in your school. If this is you, remember that you've built consistent team practice before. You aren't a novice at it this time. Perhaps previously you were a classroom teacher new to the school, but this time you have more experience and more to offer. You know what worked last time and what didn't work. You know how to get straight to the point and just make things happen. You've got this.

In conclusion...
These last four episodes have shared some reasons why the wheels might be falling off your whole school approach. The good news here is that everything that needs to happen to get great results in foundational skills for students is 100% in your school's control, and you can make it happen.

Your leadership CAN draw a line in the sand and say, "Enough. We are no longer accepting reading failure in our school. We are going to do whatever it takes." Your team CAN get your assessment ducks in a row so that you have data that you can rely on that gives you the information you need and enables you to monitor student progress. You CAN refine your practices so that you are working from that data and meeting student needs, and you CAN revamp your tired whole-school approach. 

Our students don't have time to waste. I know that you know that. They don't have three years for us to get it together. They need us to take action and to make things happen. Not one of us can do this work on our own. Reach out, build networks, and make connections because together, we absolutely can do what is needed to ensure reading success for our students. 

Thank you, everyone. See you next week.

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