Your Semester 2 Success Plan
Hi there. Welcome to the Structured Literacy Podcast. It's Jocelyn here bringing you this episode from Tasmania, the home of the Palawa people. If you are a teacher in Australia or New Zealand, it's the start of Semester 2, 2023, and it's time to have a think about what you are hoping to accomplish over the rest of the year. If you're listening from the Northern Hemisphere, you are heading towards a new school year, this post will be just as helpful for you. Today I'd like to share a few tips for making the next six months super successful for all students.
Point 1 - Data
The first point I'd like to share with you is about data. I know, I know. Data can be the bane of our existence if it's nothing more than a compliance activity. However, if our data comes from reliable tools and informs our teaching, it can be the difference between floundering around in the dark and shining a light directly on student outcomes.
If you're an early years teacher, your phonics data will be a core part of the puzzle for strong student outcomes. In previous episodes of the podcast, I've shared some research about the importance of students having a solid understanding of the alphabetic principle. While this knowledge can be developed at any time, the window for setting students up for success is in the early years.
The foundation year is about building strong phonemic skills so that students can blend and segment with ease and develop the capacity to read and spell words with the basic code. That is, alphabet sounds and the most common consonant digraphs. The Australian curriculum doesn't ask for students to know the digraphs <ch>, <sh>, <th>, and <ng>; however, it is widely accepted that these form part of the expectations for foundation. This also needs to extend to reading and writing simple sentences.
In year 1, the focus is on learning phoneme-grapheme correspondences for vowels and consonants, including a range of vowel digraphs such as I R and those pesky split digraphs, and I say pesky because they can be tricky for our struggling students to master and because there is much conjecture about what to call them. Some say split digraph, others say bossy E, silent E, vowel split E or marker E. There are those who say that the term split digraph is misleading as the letters were never joined and then split apart, and I can see how this makes sense, but I think that it's more important that we have consistency across the classrooms in our school, and that students know how to use this grapheme than it is to call it a particular term. Nobody's medical career is going to be ruined because we called a grapheme a split digraph.
Year one is also when students develop confidence in reading words with more than one syllable. These words will be in the form of compound words, and then base words and common prefixes and suffixes. By the end of Year One, students should be able to write several simple sentences on the same topic and read a simple, decodable text containing graphemes they know. They should also be reading at approximately 60 words per minute.
If all has gone well in foundation and Year One, Year Two is about consolidating knowledge of the code, increasing fluency, and supporting students to the point where they can read a reasonably complex text at 90 words per minute. Year two students are also expected to be writing compound sentences and longer texts.
What does data have to do with any of this?
Now, what does data have to do with any of this? It's our data that helps us know whether our students are on track to achieve their end-of-year goals. Our data should be feedback. We often treat the data we collect as judgment of our worthiness as teachers. That's a really unhelpful way to look at it. Instead, it's part of the answer to problem-solving. If we treat helping students achieve success as a riddle to be solved rather than a trial to be endured, data is your friend.
Data Years 3-6
If you are a Year 3-6 teacher, your data collection could be from a norm tool such as DIBELS or Acadience for reading and might be from specific phonics and decoding tools if your students are still working on that knowledge. When it comes to writing and comprehension, feedback is more likely to come from your work with rich text than an assessment tool, but there are certainly milestones of learning you can observe. The Australian Curriculum, English General Capabilities are a great guide for this, and we'll link to them in the show notes. If you're a Resource Room member, you have access to student-friendly I Can Statements for all grades written according to the Australian curriculum for English. These can help guide you over the coming semester. You'll find them in the planning and assessment section of the Resource Room membership.
Point 2 - Monitoring Progress
All of this brings me to tip number two, which is monitoring progress. We're used to assessing student outcomes twice per year and determining grades; however, there is much to be gained from more frequent monitoring of student progress. This is particularly the case for phonics and decoding due to the nature of phoneme-grapheme correspondences and the need for mastery learning of each part of the code before we can move on; close monitoring of student progress is critical. If a student has learned 15 out of the 20 graphemes you've taught so far and you move on in your teaching without that student learning the other 5, their ability to develop strong foundational skills could be significantly compromised.
However, if you are closely monitoring student learning, you'll notice when correspondences aren't strong and be able to respond straight away. This could take the form of additional lessons, personalised practice, and targeted homework. The most successful early-years teachers I work with have data without gaps. They notice when their students need additional practice, and they provide it. They intervene as soon as it's needed. They don't wait.
If you are teaching Year 3-6 and have students still developing phonics knowledge, this close monitoring is just as important because, without foundational skills, your students are simply not going to be able to engage in year four, five, or six teaching. You cannot write a text if you cannot write words. Knowledge of the code is foundational for spelling and reading.
Point 3 -Laser Focus
This brings me to my third point of focus for the semester to come. That is, a laser focus on building foundational skills. It's tempting to try and jump right to text-level writing or complex text reading, and these things are important, but students simply aren't going to get there if they don't have strong foundational skills. These skills include fluent and effortless letter formation, knowledge of the alphabetic code, knowledge of morphology, the ability to get a grammatically correct sentence down onto the page, knowing about capital letters and punctuation, and how parts of speech work.
As well as those lovely units of work that enable students to engage with rich text, both for reading and writing. I want to encourage you to unapologetically and consistently focus on explicitly teaching all of these areas of English in teacher-led, low-variance lessons. Doing so will ensure that all of your students have what it takes to be successful in the more complex tasks that you're aiming for.
What to teach and when.
If you're wondering exactly what to teach when it comes to this content, I'm going to direct you back to those English general capabilities. You can look at where your students are up to now and meet them there. We'll link to the document in the show notes, but you could also find them on the Australian curriculum website. At first glance, this document is going to look very busy and maybe a little overwhelming. But it isn't so bad if you manage it just for your grade or just one area of English; you'll be able to download it as a Word document and then just delete the bits that don't relate to you right now, knowing you can go back and get the rest of them when you need them.
The general capabilities used to be called literacy progressions, and they didn't have the grades indicated for each point in the progression. They did in the draft, but then when it was published, they disappeared. With the version nine update, guidance around the grade that points are expected to be reached by, has been added back in. This means that you'll be able to pinpoint exactly what to teach your students, and you'll be able to see which skills are knowledge are important, both before and after your grade, enabling you to support students who need additional help and those who need extension. The idea of this document is not that you just find where your grade is supposed to be and teach that. It's that you use them as a progression to be able to support students where they're up to.
What can be achieved if you have a laser focus. A true story.
As an example of what can be achieved if you have a laser focus on foundational skills, monitor growth, and use data as feedback. I'd like to share a story with you about a school that I have been working with for a couple of years now. This school, that's about a five-minute drive from my house, has large numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and has 66% of their students in the lowest quartile of socio-educational advantage and 25% in the second lowest quartile, that means that 91% of their students are in the bottom half of the social picture when it comes to advantage. For a long time, this school's results met expectations, with the team reaching the end of every school year feeling awful about the poor results they were seeing in reading. Sure, some students were progressing well, but most were not.
Last year, this school adopted a systematic synthetic phonics approach to reading, using Reading Success in action as their guiding tool. They established strong data collection practices, organized resources centrally, (which was a huge job), worked with teachers and classroom assistants to refine phonics lessons and generally got everyone on the same page in understanding what was important for strong instruction.
This year they've had an increased focus on using monitoring data to provide personalized consolidation opportunities. Every student in the early years has a phonics folder, and Resource Room members will know what that is. They established a system where Year five and six students visited early years classrooms each morning to support practice in both reading and writing with graphemes and words.
The result of this laser focus? Over 50% of their foundation students have, halfway through the year, achieved the end of foundation expectations for phonics, decoding, and encoding at word level and looking at the lower end of achievement in the grade, there are only four out of 38 foundation students who have not met the expectations to be on track in their phonics and phonemic awareness, and these are students who need a little bit extra. But even for these kiddies, their results show that they are well on the way.
What is super impressive about these Semester One results is that this school's data does not look like Swiss cheese with gaps all over the place. Any gaps that existed in student learning earlier in the year have been well and truly filled through the school's targeted approach to practice and retrieval. You might work in a school where this kind of thing is the norm and be thinking, "Well, that's not that impressive Jocelyn; our data looks like that all the time." but I'd like to come back to this school's statistics when it comes to socio-educational advantage. 66% of students in this school are in the bottom quartile when it comes to advantage, and 91% of students sit in the bottom half of the population when it comes to a family's employment status and years of schooling and education. What this school is showing is that coming from a disadvantaged home life is not a learning difficulty and does not have to define your outcomes. I can't wait to get stuck into the year one two data and see what those grades have been achieving. I have no doubt they will be equally as impressive.
I am so proud to be working with this particular school, and I'm truly moved when I see the commitment of the staff to taking the necessary action that is needed to get every child's results moving. I'm not exaggerating when I say to you that those Foundation results brought a tear to my eye.
In conclusion - You CAN positively influence what goes on in the four walls of your classroom.
When it comes to setting your students up for success in Semester Two, I'd like to ask you to remember that there is a lot that you can't control about students' home lives and outside school hours, but you can positively influence what goes on in the four walls of your classroom. By focusing on foundational skills, collecting reliable and useful data, and then using it to monitor progress, you can adjust what is happening to meet student needs. It's not a question of can we do this. But actually of, "What is it going to take to make learning happen in our school? and then just doing it.
I hope that you have an amazing rest of 2023. Don't worry; I'm not disappearing. I will see you next week in the next episode of the podcast, but please note that while there is no such thing as perfection, you can absolutely make great progress with laser focus and a belief that all things are possible. Bye, everyone.
Looking for support and resources to create success in your classroom? Join the Resource Room today.