S3 E5 - When Having the Right Stuff Isn't Enough

Flat Tyre


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Hi there, everyone. Welcome to the Structured Literacy Podcast recorded here in Tasmania, the home of the Palawa people. Today on the podcast, I'm diving into a situation that many of us find ourselves in. We have ALL the things in school, but our results aren't what we were looking for. We've purchased a phonics program; we're building our decodable text stocks; we have ditched benchmark assessment, and we may even have engaged a consultant to work with our school. Despite all of this time and effort, we are still seeing ho-hum results. Now, one of the reasons that this happens is not because people aren't clever or working hard or because students can't learn. It's because it's not just the stuff that matters. It's what we do with it. 

How You Can Maximise the Benefits of Phonics Instruction and Decodable Text in the Early Years.
In today's episode, I'm going to run through a few shifts that we might've made in our schools and share some pointers for how you can get the best out of each of them. Let's start with the early years. There are two main things to consider here. That is, phonics instruction and decodable texts, and, of course, there are more elements of early years instruction. These are just two of them that usually come with pretty big purchases and a lot of time invested. 

Let's begin with phonics. Just having a phonics program in your school is not enough to guarantee results. I'd like to use the analogy of gardening here. Buying a phonics program is like watching some YouTube clips about growing vegetables, buying some seeds and putting them in the ground. This might work IF you have fertile soil. Your watering might be effective IF you know when to do it, how much to do it and under what circumstances you need to change things up to get the best outcomes. If you don't know that and are just watering at the same time every day for the same length of time all year round, regardless of the plants in front of you or their position in the garden or the season, you aren't likely to get great results. The same goes for our phonics programs. 

All too often, what I see is people getting a program (and there's a number of really great ones out there), doing what the program says and expecting that to be the answer to their problems. Programs are incredibly useful and, I'd actually say, necessary to support teachers and teams, but no program developer, including me, knows your students. No program developer can look your kids in the eye and read their engagement level, nor can they predict the response to students in different schools to different instruction. This is why you will never see something from me that tells you exactly when to teach what. We don't release guides that say, "In Term Three, week two on Thursday, you will be teaching X, Y, Z." because we each have to meet the students where they are up to. If you would like to delve deeper into the role of programs and where they can and might not be useful, have a listen to Episode 2 of Season 1 of the podcast, Should We Be Using Programs to Teach Reading? 

How Can We Effectively Use Phonics Programs in the Classroom?
Programs are essentially tools, and to use our tools to best effect, we have to know what we are doing, why we're doing it, and when to do what. The secret to effectively using our phonics programs lies in explicit and responsive teaching. Explicit teaching is incredibly student-centred because it's data-driven. But that data must be collected regularly in a variety of ways and used in decision-making on an ongoing basis. If we are only collecting data on phonics progress once per term, we could have nine weeks of kids not quite getting it and we don't know that. I suggest that assessment is collected weekly through a brief check-in of what has been taught that week. Even better, do it on a Monday based on what you taught the week before. That way, you'll really know what has and has not stuck for your students. We might be used to engaging in 'checking for understanding' within lessons in the moment, but having another opportunity that's super quick for students to show you after a brief break what they've retained helps you make decisions for future teaching. You aren't doing a full assessment on every child here, just asking them to write down the graphemes you've taught the previous week. If children can write them and spell words, then they're going to be able to read them. The spelling option here gives you a lot of really great information. Now, you could do this whole class, but kids are REALLY  good at copying each other without you noticing. So a one-on-one check-in is perfect if you can make it happen and this is where classroom colleagues can come into play. If you can't do that and you don't have helpers, you don't have to do the one-on-one for everyone. Just do it for those who you know need additional support and capture everyone else in the larger group. Do the best you can with the people and time resources you have. Of course, we need to be constantly evaluating student responses in our lessons. That's what the whiteboards are for. Every time you ask students to do something, there should be an opportunity for feedback. Either in the form of 'Tick It or Fix It', (where you write the word or sentence or element on the board, and students evaluate their own responses where literally they tick what they've got, or they fix it up, and then they get to tick it.) or through using mini whiteboards to check for understanding where the students show you the board. There are so many other critical elements of phonics instruction, and we don't have time to go through them all here. But I do have a podcast episode about how to make your tier-one instruction really strong, and we'll link to that in the show notes. 

What Is the Role of Decodables?
The second part of early years instruction that we need to chat about is decodable texts. These texts are great for students to practise decoding with graphemes and phonemes that they have learned. They're intended as temporary reading materials until such times as students are familiar with the code and can tackle unfamiliar words without guessing. As with a phonics program, it's not enough simply to have the books in the school. We can't buy decodable texts and then tick the box that says, "Oh well, we're evidence-informed because we have decodable texts." To make this practice really effective, there are some important points to consider.

Number one. Children aren't given decodable texts, or any texts, to read until they can actually blend well. The key to embedding words into long-term memory is to read all through the word, knowing what a word sounds like, what it looks like, and what it means. If you can't read all through the word yet, your only option is to guess at the words, or you struggle with the reading so much that you end up hating the whole reading process.

Point two. It's not particularly useful for most children to have both levelled and decodable texts in the mix in the early stages of learning to read. Now, we don't have enough robust, reliable research about decodable texts yet. So while we're waiting for that to happen, we need to draw on the research we do have and use some common sense. As with point one, if you can't blend the words because you don't know the code or you're not blending it, you don't have the phonemic skills, levelled texts are no help at all. They simply force you to guess the words or look at the picture, at least with a decodable text, the phoneme-grapheme correspondences are constrained to the things the children know. With a levelled text, there's no controlling for any of that. So we are constantly putting things in front of the children they don't know how to use.

The third comment I'd like to make on this is that I think, and this is my opinion, that there are a bunch of children being confined to reading only decodable texts for way longer than is necessary. Remember, decodable texts are a temporary tool to help children develop decoding. Once you're familiar with vowel and consonant diagraphs for reading and spelling, you can lift the words from the page because you're moving from sounding out the decoding to word recognition, where you can just say what the word is, and you can tackle unknown words without guessing, it's time to move on. There might be a period of time when students are reading more complex decodables and beginning to branch out into, what I call, mostly decodable texts, and these might be Billy B Brown or Hey Jack from Sally Rippon. They could be Aussie Nibbles books or any of the other terrific texts that every school has in their library. For some children, this point of a gradual release into less decodable text will be reached in the second half of Year One. For others, it will be somewhere in Year Two. Some children might be Year Three or even older for a very small number of children. The point is that there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to who can read what. We really need to understand about the learner's profile. 

The next point about decodable texts is that what you do with them matters. There is no point in simply taking your small group guided reading practices that are focused on comprehension and three cueing and substituting the levelled texts for decodable texts or the other way around. Firstly, that's not what decodable texts are for. Secondly, the practices in traditional small group guided reading don't follow the evidence we now have about how kids learn to read. Thirdly, if all children are reading decodables in year 3 and beyond, that's a signal that we've gotten wires crossed somewhere along the way, thinking back to the previous point. When it comes to upper primary, there are similar discussions to be had about it not being enough just to have 'the stuff'. Let's take morphology. I think that we'd be hard-pressed to find a Year 3-6 classroom where prefixes, suffixes and bases aren't at least discussed somewhere along the line. So, saying that teachers aren't covering morphology is like saying that nobody's been teaching phonics. It's not true. However, simply including prefixes and suffixes in the mix is not enough to make real results happen for students' reading, spelling, comprehension, and vocabulary development. The rigour of instruction matters. The gradual release model across lessons matters, including increasing the complexity of the context we are examining and working with morphemes.

What Does the Research Say?
In my work to develop Spelling Success in Action, I looked at a bunch of research about the instructional elements that research showed led to the best outcomes for students, and these included breaking words and building words, examining meaning, making word families, and looking at the impact of suffixes on the grammatical form of the word. So, for example, -ion usually creates words that are nouns. All of these points are very clear when examining the research and that's why Spelling Success includes them all. But it's not enough just to do these things even.

How to Teach in a Way That Responds to How the Human Brain Works.
We need to teach them and use them in a way that responds to how human memory and attention works. This is the case for every element of instruction. Not just for literacy and for every grade, including into secondary school. Having a program in place but having students seated where they're not even facing the teacher, immediately waters down the quality of learning.  I'd like you to do an exercise for me now. If you're in a chair, I'd like you to turn your body at a 90-degree angle. So you're going to face to your left or your right, and I want you to look ahead at the wall or whatever's in front of you when you turn around. Have a think about how long you would be likely to maintain that physical position and maintain focus on the thing that you're looking at. And I'm going to suggest to you that that's probably not a very long time. Next, trying to teach 50 kids in the one classroom with all of the distractions and noise of that setup makes it harder for students to learn. There's lots of research showing the negative impact of noisy environments on student learning outcomes. Running your explicit instruction in small groups, with students spending large amounts of time looking after themselves, does nothing to maximise every instructional minute, and before you email me, I know that small schools have huge hurdles in terms of having enough grown-ups to manage to provide targeted instruction across grades, so you're going to do the best you can with the resourcing you have.

But for the rest of us, it's simply not necessary to leave children to their own devices during instruction. In adopting programs and taking on resources, 80 per cent of the work has been done for you, in terms of sequencing instruction and creating the resources. The responsibility for the remaining 20 per cent rests with the grown-ups in the space making strong general instructional decisions so that our teaching actually leads to learning for students. The how is equally as important as the what. It is especially important when we think about our students who have additional needs, who come from complex home backgrounds. The how is critical for them. We need to get back to this point for everyone in every classroom, in every grade, in every curriculum area.

So Where to From Here?
So where to from here? If you are new to structured literacy, make sure that you have as much emphasis on the hows of instruction as you do on the what and of course, we need to build the why; that one can kind of come over time. We need a brief general introduction on the science and the research, and then come back and cycle that back through and continue to build teacher knowledge and grown-up knowledge about why these things are important. Not being clear about what is expected in terms of general explicit teaching guarantees you variable results across your school. For those who are already on the bus, it's important that we are evaluating practice consistently through the lens of cognitive load theory, how human memory works, and what is necessary to focus student attention. You can teach the best lesson ever but if the students are not actually tuned in and engaging cognitively with the work that you're putting in front of them, you're wasting your time, and you're wasting their time. Many of our children do not have a minute to waste and if I sound like I have a real sense of urgency about this, it's because I do. Sometimes I think that we're taking these opportunities for great outcomes and then just. I don't know, picking them up and throwing them away. Doing these things is actually not hard if we have the will to make them happen. Classroom setup, engagement norms, what it looks like to be a responsive teacher to meet the needs of all of our students. These are all critical areas of focus for instruction and if your results aren't quite what you've been hoping for, and you do have systematic, structured, evidence-informed tools in your school, don't go jumping from one program to the next. Your instructional problems will not be solved by getting a new program because it's the how of delivery that is missing here. Evaluate practice through the lens of explicit teaching principles. To help you do this, I've shared a link from Aero to a great simple infographic outlining six teaching functions of explicit teaching in the show notes. 

Don't Forget the Data.
Also, consider how data is being collected and used. Remember, data collection doesn't have to be a formal normed tool. Don't get me wrong, those are necessary at key points in the year, but they are not sufficient in and of themselves for truly responsive teaching. Checking for understanding during lessons, regular check-ins on students who need a little extra support, gauging the emotional response of students to particular tasks, and gathering their feedback about how they feel about learning are all important forms of data collection. A word of warning here, though: you don't want to rely solely on kids saying that was fun, but you do want them to feel connected to the learning and what it takes to be successful. 

Want To Know More?
If you don't have evidence-informed tools yet, or you've been using something that's been okay as a transitional tool, but it's time to move on and do something more robust, then you might like to have a read of one of my blog post called, 'Is this the science of reading?' It has a checklist of features that early years programs need to have to be evidence-aligned. I've linked to that post in the show notes. Of course, we have programs to offer you if that's useful to you as well.

In Conclusion
If we want to use our teaching tools effectively for maximum student outcomes, we need to understand the how of instruction as much as the importance of having the resources that support us. Without knowledge of the why and the how, we'll never be smarter than the program and we'll never reach the point where every student is taught by an expert teacher of reading and writing. 

Until I see you in the next episode of the podcast. Bye, everyone.

Looking to help your team be 'smarter than the program'? Consider a school-level membership to the Evergreen Teacher.  Learn more here

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