A Junior Primary School Teacher’s StoryFebruary 3, 2023
“From the bumpy dirt road of whole language to the super efficient highway of synthetic phonics ”
I write to you as a Junior Primary teacher with over 35 years of experience. I have spent the past 5 years teaching straight reception classes and the past 4 working exclusively with decodable text. I have previously worked as a Reading Recovery teacher and have trained hundreds of teachers to take Running Records. I became a Reading Recovery teacher because I wanted all students in my care to leave my class as confident readers. I now become an advocate for systematic systematic phonics for the same reason. Systematic synthetic phonics needs to link directly to decodable text, include a phonemic awareness program, have a focus on phonemes, (sounds in words and articulation) and be supported by a classroom environment where children are exposed to rich language and vocabulary.
Over the past 4 years I have been on an incredible and on occasion confronting learning journey. I have attended Professional development with Lyn Stone, Bill Hansbury, Bartek Rajkowski, Lorraine Hammond, David Kilpatrick and travelled to Melbourne to be Orton Gillingham trained by Ron Yoshimoto. I have read useful books such as Explicit Direct Instruction (John Hollingsworth), Reading for Life (Lyn Stone). Lyn Stone was my starting point and an easy read.
This professional development has transformed my classroom practice and for the first time in all my years of teaching I know all my students are well on the way to becoming truly confident readers and writers.
I too had questions.
How do I track progress?
OLA – screening of Reception students for first term intervention
PASM – a Phonological screen for second term intervention
Acadience/Dibels – three times a year across the school
Our literacy co-ordinator developed a screen so we can quickly assess our students on each set of graphemes prior to taking home decodables matched to these graphemes. All of these directly impact on what I teach and how quickly we progress. I know exactly where each student is working and what their next learning goal is.
What about Running Records?
With the understanding I now have about how students learn to read I will never take another Running Record.
The whole premise of a running record is based around the guess. Student are not expected to read the title, (because we know they won’t be able to). They have a rich introduction and are told any tricky words. We don’t trust our students with the book until we have built a scaffold around the text. If we have taught our students well they can access every part of a decodable book independently. There is no need for any levelled text if we are being systematic about how we teach reading. Students quickly discover the joy of being able to read picture books independently with little to no assistance.
After a Running Record I would always pick a teaching point, based on MSV.
My new and deep understanding of how the English language works makes my teaching very powerful. I can explain to students exactly why a word is spelt in a particular way. Teaching this way allows every student to access the curriculum at their own pace with very explicit intervention when needed.
Are students exposed to rich language?
As teachers it is part of our job to provide students with a wide selection of literature. Expanding their vocabulary through the words we expose them to and the text we choose. Using decodable text does not mean we throw out our gorgeous books. They are merely a teaching tool that are far more effective than the levelled readers.
What about my high fliers?
These are the students who will be successful despite us. Teaching this way they are able to read complex text much earlier. The don’t need the training wheels of decodables for as long. Yes, I agree they would probably get there without decodables, but teaching this way enables them to develop a deep understanding of how the English language works. If a student is turned off reading when using decodables they are not being used correctly or well.
What is the purpose of decodable or levelled text?
The purpose of both these systems is to provide supportive texts so that students can ultimately read anything.
My new analogy is this,
Levelled readers – provides students with a dirt road. Needs to be constantly maintained, pot holes appear all the time, unpredictable in different weather. You often need to take different roads because the most direct route is blocked. If you are driving the wrong car you are never getting through!
Decodable readers – provide our students with a super highway. They get where they need to be in the most direct way. You can travel in or on anything and meaning everyone will arrive at their destination at different times. Even with highways improvements can be made.
I think the thought that decodables are ‘boring’ comes from teachers who don’t have a deep understanding of their role. Struggling Oliver didn’t think it was boring today when he read “Mud” independently laughing at the story as he read. Jaiden who has just started to blend had a look of absolute joy when she took home her first book. These are the children who would never get there using the old system, they would just get further and further behind. I know when my two lowest are reading and my intervention is to extend my high fliers we have to be on the highway to success. I too was reluctant to let go of the past, but when we consider their purpose we don’t need both. Why would I single out groups of students who ‘need’ decodable text? What message does this give students? Levelled readers are simply a waste of money and shelf space. If you explore you will find there are some excellent decodable series.
I do not have the words to express how privileged I have been to be part of our schools journey. I am now making the impact I have always wanted to in my teaching.
I hope you take the time to explore systematic synthetic phonics supported by carefully matched decodables. I will never look back and am always looking to improve my craft.
Please feel free to ask questions if you need me to clarify anything.
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