S2 E8 - Why isn't my Tier 1 Instruction working?

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Hello, and welcome to the Structured Literacy Podcast. My name is Jocelyn, and I'm so pleased that you've decided to join me for this episode. A little while ago, I created an episode called, Why Isn't My Tier Two Instruction Working? This was episode three of season two. In this episode, I shared several reasons that things might not be going to plan and suggested ways that schools might strengthen Tier-two practices to make them as effective as possible.

The states of structured literacy.
In this episode, coming to you from Pataway Burnie here in gorgeous Tasmania, I turn my attention to Tier-one instruction. Earlier this year, here in Tasmania, our Premier, Jeremy Rockliff, announced that all Tasmanian children would learn to read with systematic synthetic phonics and that the phonics screening check would be required. This announcement was widely applauded and gave those schools and teachers who are already on the bus of structured literacy a real sense of hope that things were about to change here on the Apple Isle. Not only was phonics put on the table in the early years, but a multi-tiered system of support was identified as being critical to improving our state's outcomes, as well as evidence-informed practice in all areas of literacy.

Tasmania is not the only state where this kind of reform has taken place. South Australia was the first with a requirement that all public schools to complete the phonics screening check, and they also introduced the Literacy Guarantee Unit, a group of people who were there basically to help schools get really great results in literacy. New South Wales has also taken giant strides in this area with curriculum changes and the provision of professional learning resources and materials. These three states' public commitment to structured literacy is terrific in helping schools get tier-one instruction right, but it's not nearly enough to guarantee that it happens.

Today's topic - Reasons Tier 1 instruction might not work.
Let's say that you work in a state where system leadership has declared that structured literacy is the future. Let's say that your principal is on board with this, and you now have a robust phonics program in place. Is it possible that these things can happen, and your results can still be lacklustre? You bet it is! You see, there is way more to getting great results than system leaders being firm on the intention for systematic, explicit teaching and having a program.

Reason 1 - Teachers don't know WHY they're being asked to work this way.
Let's get into some of the reasons that Tier 1 might not be getting it done, even though it looks like it should be on the surface. The first reason that your Tier-one instruction might not be getting you the results you're looking for is that your teachers don't know why they're being asked to do what they're being asked to do. If you've been a listener of this podcast for a while, you might have heard me talk about my three R's for consistent, robust practice across the curriculum. Those R's are routines, resources, and responses. A program should give us direct, clear routines. It should also provide us with or guide us in the direction of resources. It might even give some indications of responses, such as a monitoring assessment or tool. But what a program alone can't do is fully flesh out this last bit, responses. Responses is about how we make decisions about when to move on, when to backtrack and revisit instruction, when to speed up and when to slow down. It can't tell us that little Johnny and Susie in our class might need smaller steps in how the complexity of content increases than James and Samantha. It can't read the facial expression of a student and figure out that their lack of response in a lesson is because they don't know something or whether it's just because they're too afraid to try, lest they make a mistake. All of that comes from the teacher. It's teachers who make the decisions about these things in response to the needs of the students in front of us, not a program.

However, If we don't know why our program is asking us to work at a perky pace, provide a large number of repetitions in a lesson, or teach things in a particular order, we don't know how to make the finely tuned adjustments to instruction that help our students get great outcomes. If we don't really understand that we don't read words as global shapes, it might be tempting to whack a few sight words on cards into homework packs. If we don't understand how human memory works and that retrieval and repetition are critical to long-term memory, we might skip daily reviews more often than we do it. If we don't really understand orthographic mapping as a cognitive process that comes about when we read all through the word over time with practice, we might let it slide when students guess at words they don't know. All of these things can happen at the same time as we're using a great systematic synthetic phonics lesson. In episode two of season one, there's a podcast episode, 'Should We be Using Commercial Programs to Teach Reading?'. In this, I discuss the role of programs and what they can and can't do for us. If you're curious about the answer to that question, check it out.

Reason 2 - Doing but not Learning
The next reason that your tier-one approach might not be getting your students the results you're looking for is that there's a difference between doing and learning. For my entire life in schools, both as a student and a teacher, the language of 'doing' has been everywhere. We might say we're doing maths, or we're doing biological sciences, or we're doing decoding. Doing is great, but it doesn't necessarily lead to learning. Doing is busy and can feel purposeful. Doing is about ticking boxes across a large range of things, but learning, real learning, is about permanent changes to long-term memory. For that to happen, things have to get very specific and very targeted.

Doing phonics might look like teaching the proscribed lesson format in the order it's provided. It might mean teaching phoneme-grapheme correspondences in a certain order and engaging in certain follow-up tasks such as reading decodable text and sentence dictation. Doing looks like getting to the end of the term and feeling good because we covered all the content. Learning, on the other hand, involves teachers paying close attention to what students have and haven't learned and responding accordingly. It means embracing the complexity of different students' needs in that they need different numbers of repetitions to learn the same content. It means we have to provide Tier 2 support that is fully aligned and responsive with additional doses of instruction. It also looks like pairing back and getting comfortable with doing less but doing it better. If doing Is going an inch deep and a mile wide. Learning is about going an inch wide and a mile deep and dealing with that panicky feeling that comes about when the unhelpful voices in our head tell us that we are not doing enough.

In order for learning to occur, we have to know what skills and knowledge children have learned, when they've learned it, and how much practice they will need to keep it. We have to make decisions based on assessment, including diagnostic, formative, and summative forms of the assessment. Structured literacy simply doesn't get it done because the best lesson in the universe will not result in the permanent change to long-term memory that we want it to if it doesn't reflect what we know about how human memory and attention works and it doesn't meet the needs of the students in front of us. If you're multitasking right now, just come back to me for a second and write this down. Learning is a permanent change to long-term memory. That is the goal.

Reason 3 - You don't REALLY have a whole school approach.
The third reason that your Tier 1 instruction might not be getting you where you want to go is that you don't really have a whole school approach. Teachers might have been trained in routines together, and they might have been provided with the same resources, but the way that these are used in practice is so variable that you now have the same inconsistent level of practice that you had when you started down the path of looking for your current program.

No program can withstand the pressure of teachers going rogue and, through a lack of understanding of the why and the reasons behind the how, watering down the approach. This stuff does not start with someone choosing to undermine the whole school approach. It starts small. Someone decides that their students can do a bit of craft in literacy on Fridays. Another decides to throw in a fun task on Tuesdays. A third skips the data collection at the prescribed time and just goes with their gut because there isn't anyone holding it all together, providing guidance and oversight. When this happens, things very quickly get very messy.

A real-life example of a whole school approach.
I was speaking with a school leader this week whose school has committed to evidence-informed instruction in the early years of reading. I visited the school and modelled the routines from Reading Success in Action in classrooms that were videoed and are now used in ongoing professional learning and to refine practice. They're developing a literacy agreement, and all team members are on board and working with fidelity. This leader commented to me how wonderful it was, when conducting tours with prospective parents and students, to see consistent practice happening between classrooms. Every classroom reflected the same strong practice. They weren't identical, but they all had what they needed to. These classroom visits are completely unannounced. These teachers are not putting on a performance. They are simply teaching according to the way that they have all agreed to teach phonics and decoding, knowing that there are lots of other opportunities for teacher creativity. And guess what? Their data shows that they are getting it done.

It makes my heart sing to hear these stories. Happy teachers, happy students, happy parents, happy leaders and actual evidence of the change in long-term memory that we know is needed for strong outcomes. And this school is not leaving it there. They are bedding down the resources, the guidelines, the documents, and the processes that are going to keep this practice strong in the long term. They've also taken significant steps to bring their Tier one and Tier two instruction into alignment. I won't go into that now because I covered it in episode three of season two. But let's just say that if you want strong learning for your strugglers, this alignment is critical.

Reason 4 - Swiss cheese data.
The final piece of this puzzle is about data, and there are a few considerations here. The first is that monitoring might not be conducted frequently enough to enable teachers to respond to student needs. If you only check in on student progress once per term or once per semester, you are not going to know where the gaps are in the moment to go back and fill them. What happens is then that you do your assessment at the end of the term or the semester, and your data looks like Swiss cheese, leaving you pulling your hair out, having no idea where to go now.

Another real-life example.
Another school quite close to where I live, (and you know who you are you absolute legends, so huge shout out to you) really upped the ante on results when they introduced weekly check-ins and adjusted teaching in response. These check-ins aren't about taking time out of instruction to sit each child down with their own assessment, but rather a 30-second flashing of cards or pointing to graphemes for individual students to see whether they've learned what they didn't know previously and whether they've learned what you just taught them. Yes, we should be checking for understanding in our lessons daily, but there's something about doing a quick check-in individually outside the literacy lesson that gives you more reliable results. After all, I can remember things in the moment, (or maybe not), but if you ask me an hour later and I can't remember, that's a great indication of where I'm sitting in my learning. That check-in doesn't have to be done by the classroom teacher either. It's a great opportunity for classroom assistants to be a part of the data picture.

I'm not going to pretend that these kinds of things don't come without implications and consequences. Every time we say yes to something, we have to say no to something else, so this comes back to the pairing back to what is most important. Have a look at your literacy block. What is currently being done because it feels nice, or we think we should be, but we can't actually point to how that's improving student outcomes? Find those things and shift them. Maybe reduce how often they're being done or eliminate them altogether. In doing that, you will be able to find time for these other components, but you cannot keep just piling on more and more and more into your literacy block and expecting it to work; that is just going to lead to stress for you. and for your students.

Reason 5 - Alignment.
Back to assessment data. It also comes into play when we consider which tools we use to assess. When we overload our assessment schedules with extras because we feel like doing more assessments will strengthen practice, we are in real danger of muddying the waters so much that we get lost. For example, if you're using Reading Success in Action to guide your phonics and decoding instruction, you'll be able to use a range of decodable text series. This was an intentional decision to enable schools to be able to use what they have but also provide students with a broad range of reading opportunities for different purposes at different times, and I think it's a good thing that our students get to read a range of books. The decisions about which books students can read are guided by the alignment that I've created in the teacher guides. I've aligned popular decodable series to the scope and sequence and high-frequency word instruction that's recommended and have then sorted the books within each set into one, two, or three puzzle pieces, depending on the complexity of the text. This is done because being able to read a text in the early stages is about more than just the code. It's also about what I call phonemic stamina. Some kids can read books that have two words on the page, and some can read two sentences. Children can be learning the same graphemes but be at different points in this phonemic complexity. If a school then uses an assessment provided by a decodable text provider to assess each student for the purposes of deciding which book students can read, what to teach next and what's happening in evaluation practice, things are going to get really messy, especially if the scope and sequence vary from the one provided in Reading Success in Action. It's not that there's anything wrong with the other scope and sequence, but rather that the assessment provided with Reading Success in Action and the assessment provided by the decodable text provider just isn't in alignment. Things are out of whack.

Reason 6 - Levelling
The other element here is that this encourages us to let go of benchmark assessment but not let go of levelling. Our decisions about which books students read can absolutely be about what we know of that student's knowledge of the code and their phonemic skills. We don't have to rely on an assessment to tell us which books children can read now. To help you get this assessment piece of the puzzle sorted out, I'm sharing several links in the show notes of this episode found at jocelynseamereducation.com.  You'll find the exact link to the notes in the description of this episode.

In conclusion
Getting your Tier-one reading instruction right, particularly in the early years, is critical. Having leadership on board, having a program, being robust about the way we teach and respond to students, and ensuring that the team stays together across routines, resources, and responses, will mean the difference between doing and learning.

If you've identified points that you could tighten in your school's practice after listening to this episode, please don't beat yourself up. In fact, if you've identified places to improve, you can celebrate because you now have a plan. No school is starting this work from scratch. No teacher is completely clueless. No leader is leading a team starting at zero. Your action today is to identify your strengths and to celebrate them. Then choose one thing that you can do next to move your school's practice closer to your end goal. And that one thing could be letting go of something that isn't quite serving you.

We want to create long-lasting, measurable learning for every student in our care. Is this work challenging? You bet. Can this be achieved? Absolutely. But it won't happen if we overcomplicate things. Seek out the simplest answers and the most direct paths. They'll get you where you want to go.

Thanks so much for listening. I'll see you in the next episode. Bye, everyone.

Links to further reading and listening: 

Blog Post: Time to Break up With Running Records

Podcast: Why It's So Scary to Let Go of Benchmark Reading Assessment

Blog Post: Is Your Assessment a Waste of Time? 

Podcast: Reasons the Wheels Might Fall of your Bus - You Don't Have Your Data Ducks in a Row

Looking to strengthen your Tier One and Tier Two practices?  Join the Evergreen Teacher Membership for courses to walk you step by step through making the most of instruction.  Join us here

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