S3 Ep15 - Four Points to Consider When Pacing Phonics Instruction

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Hi there, welcome to this episode of the Structured Literacy Podcast, it's Jocelyn here coming to you from Tasmania, the home of the Palawa people. At Jocelyn Seamer Education, we believe that every child has the right to be taught with evidence-informed instruction and that every teacher has the right to be supported to make that happen. It's a nice idea to always base instructional decisions on research. It would be wonderful to have certainty in this way, but the reality is that we simply don't have robust findings from research that involves randomised, controlled trials and publication in peer-reviewed journals for all elements of instruction. That doesn't mean that we don't consider instructional research when we have it. It means that, in the absence of direct research, we use what we have and fill in the gaps with our experience. We also need to carefully monitor data to evaluate practice through the lens of student outcomes. In today's episode, I'll be sharing some points to consider when determining pacing of phonics instruction.

There are four decisions we need to make in pacing phonics for our students. The first decision is when to begin phonics, then how much content to teach at once, when to move on in the code and finally, when to stop teaching phonics. As I said at the beginning of this episode, we don't have robust research to guide every element of instruction, so in this episode I'll be drawing on research for some parts and drawing on my own experience for others. Don't worry, I'll be super clear about which is which, so that you can make up your own mind about your own teaching.

Let's begin with when to begin phonics instruction. Different programs approach this differently. Some wait until the end of term one of Foundation, others begin from day one. In the past, many people believed that we had to wait until students had developed oral phonemic awareness skills before beginning phonics. This may have come from the viewpoint that the process of learning to read was strictly linear and so students had to learn the basics of phonological awareness before moving on to phonemic awareness, and that it was at this point that we could move on to teaching phonics. This view has now been challenged by us having a deeper understanding of how phonemic awareness works and the relationship between the development of phonics knowledge, phoneme/grapheme  correspondences and the development of phonemic awareness.

Let's firstly address the belief that we need to develop the beginnings of phonological awareness, such as working with syllables and rhyme, before learning about phonemes. There's research to reflect on here that comes from Susan Brady and her team. Susan Brady is a professor emerita from the University of Rhode Island. In a webinar for Oregon Response to Instruction and Intervention, she shared details of research where findings indicate that learning to work with larger units in words, such as syllables, is not necessary to begin working at phoneme level. We've linked to this webinar in the show notes on the website so that you can watch it for yourself and make up your own mind.

Essentially, research teams compared two groups of students, some who were taught syllables and rhyme and some who moved straight to phonemic awareness. Researchers found that students who moved straight to phonemic awareness, skipping syllables and rhyme, learned to read well. This showed that those skills are not precursors for the foundations of reading and spelling. That's not to say that we shouldn't ensure that students develop them, just that we don't have to wait for them to develop before moving on to phoneme awareness, blending and segmenting.

And just to note on what I mean by phoneme awareness. I mean the ability to be able to identify the sounds in a word. So knowing that the word cup starts with /c/ and ends in a /p/ and in the middle there's an /a/. From here, students learn to blend and to segment, which is to isolate those phonemes or sounds and bring them back together to recode a word, so saying /c/ - /u/ - /p/ - /cup/, and the segmenting bit is to segment and sound them out in the first place, c-u-p. All of these things are interconnected. This has important implications for instruction. One of the reasons that teachers used to hold off on teaching phonics was because they believed that they had to be able to put correspondences to work. Well that makes sense, however, in not addressing phonemes until phonological sensitivity had developed, they were engineering a delay in the introduction of graphemes or the letters we use to spell sounds.

There's another area of research that has important implications in this decision making. That is around how phonemic awareness develops. An idea from previous practice that's still hanging around and is rather stubborn to shift is that children need to develop phonemic awareness orally before working with letters, or rather that it's through oral work that phonemic awareness develops. Meta-analysis after meta-analysis over the years has shown that this is simply not the full picture. Research is quite strong that it's through working with letters and learning phoneme/grapheme correspondences, then putting them to work in the context of written words, that we get best bang for our buck in developing phonemic awareness.

At the end of the day, phonemic awareness, phonics, reading and spelling are intimately linked. They all impact each other; trying to treat them as separate processes kind of misses the point. If you want your students to have strong phonemic awareness in the early months of Foundation and beyond, teach them phonics and support them to put this knowledge to work as you support them to segment and blend. Don't wait for oral phonemic awareness to appear before introducing phonics. If you do, there's a good chance that you may be unintentionally holding them back in developing the very skills that you know are critical.

Let's move on to the next decision we need to make. That is, how much content to teach at once. As with when to begin phonics instruction, how many correspondences are taught at a time varies widely between programs. Some programs cram the whole basic code and some of the complex code into the first term of Foundation, whereas others space things out with one phoneme-grapheme correspondence or letter sound taught per week. Most sit somewhere in the middle. For many years, I favoured introducing approximately three new correspondences per week, not only working with three per week, we worked on many more than that in practice and consolidation, but in introducing three new correspondences on average. Some weeks, there would be more; some weeks, there would be less. On this issue we have some research to draw on, but this is limited in its scope and more research really is needed to be able to form stronger judgments. But I'll share it with you anyway.

In 2022, Nathaniel Hansford from Pedagogy Non-Grata examined 17 studies of phonics instruction to explore how many graphemes were introduced per month in research studies where students had strong outcomes. From Nate's number crunching across these studies, he found that the apparent optimal number of graphemes to teach each month was between 9 and 15. Fewer or more correspondences appeared to result in worse outcomes than sitting in this sweet spot. Reading this was quite affirming for me in my own teaching, with that goal that I had of introducing three new graphemes per week on average. So what does this mean for us? Firstly, let's remember that there is no such thing as conclusive and infallible findings, but we can keep the findings we have in mind as we plan for our students. If three is the average, then students with difficulties that include really poor memories may learn two correspondences per week, whereas students who pick up learning more easily may learn four.

One thing I will say here is that your decisions about how many correspondences to introduce in a week, or at once, should come from what you observe in student response to instruction, not the predetermined pacing of a program. There is no point in forging ahead with the next set of graphemes if your students are still wobbly on a whole bunch from the previous weeks. In a similar vein, we need to make decisions about when to move on in teaching the code. This is an aspect of instruction that I don't have research findings to discuss, so please understand that I'm sharing my thoughts based on my teaching experience and what makes sense to me. You'll make your own decisions about whether what I'm saying makes sense to you, and of course, as more research emerges, I'll adjust my thoughts to include it.

Okay, let's dive in. What I'm talking about here is when students are first learning to read, and they're developing the ability to blend, how much code should we teach them before we stop and wait for blending and segmenting to catch up? Some programs teach the first four or five phoneme-grapheme correspondences and then don't introduce any more until the students can blend. Others go right on through the whole basic code, regardless of whether students are blending or not.

The tension for me in the first scenario is that phonemic awareness and blending are not natural. Some students just take a little longer to learn them than others. In my own teaching, I've seen some students confidently blending and segmenting in the preschool year, and others take up to term three of Foundation to get there. If we wait for students to be able to blend before teaching beyond the first few graphemes of a sequence, it's potentially three or four terms before those students are learning any more code. If a student begins to blend in the middle of term three, they then have a term and a half to learn the rest of the basic code before the end of the year, where their peers have had the whole year. Schools then end up in the position of having a large number of Year One students who start the year wobbly on or missing big chunks of the basic code, putting them automatically behind.

My other concern here is, what are those students learning for the time when they aren't learning more code? We could say the answer is phonemic awareness, but research, as we've explored in this podcast, indicates that it's through practicing phonemic awareness accompanied by letters and having supported practice in working with that code in the context of words, that phonemic awareness develops the best. So if we aren't teaching the code, and students aren't experiencing repeated practice with written words, isn't there a chance we're holding them back in developing the very thing that they need? My answer here is that I don't have a research-informed way to know. I have questions around whether there is a minimum threshold for how many correspondences you need to optimise the development of phonemic awareness and what the differences are in how children with a learning difficulty respond to instruction with different numbers of correspondences. If there are any researchers listening, I'd love it if you could make this the focus of a study, and if you actually already have research findings that I'm just not aware of, please get in touch. I would love to hear from you.

So in the absence of research for now, I go back to Cognitive Load Theory and its assistance in helping us to understand how brains like to learn. One of the concerns of people who advise holding back on teaching more code until blending is in place is that they worry that students' cognitive load will be overwhelmed. This hasn't been my experience. In working in some really tricky schools with kids with a whole host of difficulties, I've seen that kids can learn more phoneme-grapheme correspondences than they can read and spell with, and not be overloaded IF there is sufficient practice in the mix. I think that the best way to determine if an approach is overloading a child's cognitive load is to closely monitor their learning and pause to consolidate whenever you notice that they aren't making progress. So if you've taught eight correspondences and they can only recognise and write three of them, focus on the five they don't have before moving on. At the same time, you'll be working on phonemic awareness through isolating phonemes, blending, and segmenting in a highly supportive lesson using the graphemes they know. And when might you pause teaching the code because they aren't blending? For me, that sits at the end of the alphabet.

Whether students are or aren't blending might not be critical in terms of moving on in the code up until a certain point, but it is a consideration when it comes to grouping. Students who have reached the middle of term two of Foundation, who are not blending at all, have very different needs from those students who are blending orally and are moving their way through to blending with graphemes, or indeed are already blending with graphemes. Even in the word work component of your lessons, kids who are blending need to have some of the scaffolds removed to encourage more independent work, whereas those who aren't, need extra scaffolding. You simply can't do both at once. An answer might be to break them up into small groups for this, but then we're dealing with this lack of instructional time or loss of instructional time that we know accompanies regular small grouping in a rotation situation in the classroom. So where am I landing in amongst all of this in the discussion? Well, don't let lack of blending in the early stages stop you from teaching students phoneme-grapheme correspondences until they reach the end of the alphabet.

Monitor student learning closely. If your phonics program doesn't test phoneme-grapheme correspondences regularly, please, please, please add it in. Yes, you can put it in your daily review and monitor there, but there's nothing quite as effective as quickly checking in with kids one-on-one to see if what you have taught has stuck. You don't need a special tool for that, just write the letters on a piece of paper and monitor it in a quick table and a clipboard with a bit of paper. Don't go high-tech and all fancy, you're just checking in. This is especially important for those students you know need a little extra attention in their learning.

The final decision we need to make is when to stop including phonics as a core part of instruction. I'd love to be able to give you a definitive answer based on grade here, but unfortunately I can't. It all comes down to what students need, and there's two aspects of this to consider. The first one is how many graphemes do students really need to be taught explicitly? 50, 60, 100, 200? Once again, different programs differ in how many graphemes they cover and even in what they consider to be graphemes in the first place. I myself have adjusted my thinking over the years and Reading Success in Action now includes 99 graphemes to be explored explicitly, with the opportunity to extend higher flying students with less common spelling, such as <eigh> as the /ay/ in the word eight. Other programs attempt to explicitly teach over 200, but many of these are rather obscure and, I think, often best explored in the context of morphology or as they arise in words during reading and content learning.

For example, let's take <ti>, as in the word completion. The <ti> in this word isn't a grapheme in the same sense as <sh> is, but students do need to know that there's a pronunciation change that happens when the suffix -ion is added to the base word complete. Trying to teach that ti, ci, si, ssi, sh and ch are all spellings for the phoneme /sh/ and then expecting students to know when to use what can be very overwhelming for students, particularly those who struggle with memory or phonological difficulties. My personal approach to this is to teach the <sh> and <ch> explicitly and then let kids know that there are spelling changes that happen when we add certain suffixes. This would then occur during our morphology instruction. It's much more logical, but I'm digressing here, I'm sorry.

When it comes to phonics, how many graphemes should we teach and when should we stop? Well, there is no definitive answer here that everyone agrees on, but let's consider what we all already know from experience. Some children learn phoneme-grapheme correspondences very quickly with just some light touch instruction, and others need highly intensive instruction up into Year Three and Four. So how is a teacher or school supposed to know how to plan for their whole school approach when there is such variation in student need? The answer here lies in having a data-informed, responsive approach to this work. It would be great to be able to declare a cut-off date for instruction for all students in phonics based on grade, but that's just not how it works. Basically, if students are not reading and spelling appropriately with the whole code, they need instruction. If they are, then don't focus on it.

And there are two questions that we need to be able to answer to make decisions in this space. The first one is, 'What does it mean to say that a student has the code and how do you know they've reached that point?' The answer to the first one is that they need to not only be able to read and write words with the code in isolation, but be able to accurately spell words with known code in the context of writing and be able to transfer this knowledge to unfamiliar contexts. How do we know when to stop explicit instruction as a daily inclusion in the phonics space? For my money, the answer to that question is: when your students can write and read multi-syllable words with many spellings of phonemes in the context of sentences within classroom activities, you might consider removing phonics from your daily literacy block as a core part of instruction. It's important, though, to keep these words and some simple sentence dictation cycling through your daily review, so that we don't fall into the trap of thinking that fluency in the moment means that students have learned things for the long term. This fluency fallacy leads us down the path of all sorts of trouble.

There is one more point I want to make about when to stop phonics instruction. That is, that many orthographic conventions or spelling rules are linked to phonics. For example, the digraph <ck> is used after a single short vowel. You may find that it's a great use of time to revisit these rules with your Year Three to Six class to strengthen reading fluency and text-level writing. What will happen when you do this, is that you'll be consolidating the use of the grapheme <ck> for students and helping them learn the convention. In this case, you are dealing with phonics, but what students will be getting out of the instruction isn't just phoneme-grapheme correspondences. They'll also be consolidating knowledge for orthographic conventions. And how do you do this? Well, Resource Room members have access to a full set of teaching resources that bring alternate spellings of phonemes together and help you review orthographic conventions at the same time. There is nothing babyish about the images used at all. We also have resources to support consolidation of specific orthographic conventions broken down by spelling pattern. So you'll find lessons on ack, ick, uck, eck and ock, so that students can practice that pattern of the single short vowel is followed by the <ck>. There are also other spelling rules that your upper, primary or secondary students may not be firm on that you can consolidate through the Resource Room.

The decisions that we make about when to begin, progress through and end phonics instruction aren't always easy. They must be focused on student need, not our preconceived notions about what is suitable for students at different ages. We also need to recognise that not everyone in our class is going to need the same thing at the same time, and that's where working with our colleagues to share the teaching love can be important. When deciding when to introduce phonics, we don't have to wait until phonemic awareness is developed, because it's through learning about how words work with letters that we really strengthen that skill. When deciding on when to move on, remember that we are helping students learn to mastery before moving on and that we can teach the code up until the end of the alphabet, even if blending isn't present. Just monitor student progress to make sure that they're actually keeping up.

When deciding when to stop, it can be as simple as knowing whether your students have what they need to succeed. Resource Room members, you have everything you need at your fingertips to teach phonics and spelling, along with great courses to help you know when to do what and how, and, of course, you have ongoing support with fortnightly office hours, monthly mastermind sessions and the forum. Whatever program or tools you're using in your phonics instruction or in your school, it's your knowledge of your students and knowing what they need to move on to the next stage of learning that will make the difference in their outcomes. By meeting students where they're up to, we can reach every child and get them reading and writing. Thanks so much for joining me today. Until next time, bye.


Brady, Susan (2022) Phoneme Awareness: What We Now Know. https://youtu.be/RBp2wNMz--A?si=AHexDBrrjIbnR3vv 

Nathaniel Hansford (2022) How Fast Should Phonics Be Taught? https://www.teachingbyscience.com/phonics-speed 


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