Sunday, 16 July 2017

Phonics Check Self Assessment: The Sequel

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a low-key self-assessment rubric, mainly as a conversation-starter for teachers and schools about current practices, knowledge, and beliefs pertaining to the teaching of phonics to beginning readers. Quite a few people contacted me with their views, and asked me to post "answers" to the questions I posed. 


So here goes: 


1. Does your reading instruction begin with the introduction of a small number of letter-sound correspondences, and explicitly (and gradually) teach children how to blend, segment, insert, and delete sounds in order to produce different words?
This approach is at the heart of systematic synthetic phonics (SSP). As noted in my previous blogpost, there are different approaches to phonics instruction, but they are not equally effective for beginning readers, and SSP is most likely to see more children off to a good start, especially those children whose progress is likely to be compromised by known or unknown vulnerabilities. Interested readers are referred to this excellent overview by A/Prof Deslea Konza, from ECU University.

See also this excellent brief video of A/Prof Konza discussing SSP instruction and its importance.
I am aware that some teachers say they find beginning reading instruction in this way “boring”. I have a pretty simple response to such teachers: in the nicest possible way, this is not about your needs, it’s about the needs of young children. I have seen great examples of early years teachers making SSP engaging and rewarding, so this really doesn’t wash. Perhaps teachers just need to feel more comfortable and confident with the approach.   
2. Do you use decodable texts as the starting point for children starting to read, or predictable texts?
It is one thing for children to be introduced to the process of reading via SSP, but it is another thing altogether for that initial teaching to be associated with the use of initial decodable texts. Decodable texts are pretty much what it says on the packet: books that contain words that are easily decodable by beginning readers. Such books provide opportunities to consolidate emergent knowledge of sound-letter links, so that these become more automatic for the beginning reader.
There are many commercially-available sets of decodable readers, such as Fitzroy Readers, Little Learners Love Literacy, Dandelion Readers, and Pocket Rockets
If your school has made the move to SSP, well done – that’s a significant step towards ensuring that more children emerge from the first three years of school as confident and competent readers. If, however, you are juxtaposing SSP with predictable texts, it is likely that your students are receiving mixed messages about the reading process, and may, as a consequence, develop some unhelpful early habits, such as “reading” from picture cues.
I have blogged previously about the uncritical acceptance of the importance of “authentic texts” for beginning readers. What does “authentic” even mean, and who decides which texts will be anointed with this descriptor? These are big questions that can sit on the table for now.  
3. Do you employ a so-called “Three Cueing” process in which beginning readers are encouraged to “guess” unknown words they encounter while reading, with attention to the first letter and its corresponding sound used as a last resort?
Three-cueing is a Whole Language zombie that can be found in many Australian classrooms. How many? Who knows, but it comes up often enough in my discussions with classroom teachers and parents, for me to be of the view that it is alive and well. I am happy to be presented with evidence to the contrary.
I encourage you to read Alison Clarke’s terrific summary as to why it is not aligned with SSP teaching. In fact, as pointed out by Professor Mark Seidenberg, in his 2016 publication, Language at the Speed of Sight, the Three Cueing strategy simply teaches the habits of poor readers, and why would we want to do that?  
4. Do you deal with sound-letter correspondences only “in context” rather than teaching these in isolation as a starting point?
As you would realise, SSP has a focus on early teaching of specific skills, in isolation, to reduce the cognitive and linguistic load imposed on young children early on in the reading process.
Any reference to teaching reading skills in isolation typically elicits protests from the Whole Language die-hards who fervently maintain that meaning making is at the heart of reading, or words to that effect. Meaning making is certainly at the heart of reading for skilled readers, but beginning readers need to familiarise themselves with the apparatus first.
5. Do you introduce lists of so-called “tricky” words (sight-words) to be learnt as wholes, early on in the reading instruction process?
The ultimate aim of reading is for most, if not all words, to become “sight words” – words that are instantly, and in fact, unavoidably recognised and understood as wholes. No-one wants to engage in the laborious and unrewarding task of sounding out every word in a sentence. That would result in poor fluency, low comprehension and a generally unrewarding experience.
However, that does not mean that the “fast track” to filling children’s brains with sight words is to present them with lists of words (in many cases with at least one irregularity in phoneme-grapheme correspondence from the perspective of the beginning reader), and requiring them to memorise them.
By all means, introduce sight words, but do so systematically, and via discussion with children about their composition. Most sight words contain some regular features, plus one or more irregular features. These can be discussed with and explained to beginning readers, as part of the word-study process and the wonder of learning about the origins of the English language.
6. Do you base your reading instruction around some version of “The Big Five” (phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency?
It must always be stressed that effective phonics instruction, and the knowledge of the alphabetic principle that it confers, is necessary but not sufficient for beginning readers. Beginning readers also need to be developing their phonemic awareness skills, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency. Some authors, such as A/Prof Deslea Konza, argue that we should upgrade the “Big Five” to the “Big Six”, to  specifically include oracy- see full-text of her excellent paper here. As a speech pathologist, I can’t argue with this position. Broader language skills (e.g. with respect to narrative language) contribute to, and are strengthened by, effective reading skills. Language and literacy have a symbiotic relationship, as I have described in detail in this open access 2015 paper.
7. Do you focus instruction around a “Letter of the Week”?
Many students arrive at school “knowing their letters”, e.g. as evidenced by the ability to recite the alphabet and/or to sing the Alphabet Song (the one that is sung to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, and annoyingly for us folk outside North America, has the final letter pronounced “Zee”). Knowledge of these 26 letters is a vital starting point, but as they need to work together to represent the 44 sounds that are used in English, teaching via a letter of the week is slow and cumbersome, and sometimes confusing for beginning readers. You can read more about this here. 

On the subject of letters, I was reminded too, by one of my Tweeps, that letters do not "make" or "say" sounds - they represent sounds, and often work in combination to do so, e.g., in digraphs such as th, ch, and sh

8. Do teachers in your school discourage parents from helping their children “sound out” words they do not know when they are reading at home?
It should be apparent from all I have written above that this is not a recommended approach. Parents are natural teachers of their children and are accustomed to breaking complex tasks down into manageable chunks. That is exactly the approach they should be encouraged to take with respect to early reading.
Sending decodable books home with parents encourages this natural approach and has a hidden benefit for parents whose literacy levels are low* – it makes the process of supporting their young child more enjoyable and achievable.

*This is also helpful to parents from non English-speaking backgrounds, who may, themselves, be learning to read in English. 
9. Do teachers in your school tell students that English is a “random” language (or words to that effect)?








                            
This is yet another piece of Whole Language excess baggage and is incorrect. As I have explained in an earlier blogpost:
About 50% of English words do have a transparent orthography, meaning that they can be read by someone who understands letter—sound correspondences. A further 36% have only one sound that deviates (typically a vowel), 10% can be spelt correctly if morphology and etymology are understood, and a mere 4% cannot be decoded from knowledge of these principles.
Literacy experts should not be promulgating this myth. 

The "irregular" aspects of English spelling create more, not less need for explicit and systematic teaching.

I would be very pleased to add to / amend these responses on the basis of reader comments and feedback. The purpose of this blog is, after all, to share information and ideas.

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You may also be interested in The Story of an Ugly Duckling: aka Phonics Check Furphies


(C) Pamela Snow (2017).

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

A Phonics Check of Another Kind

NB - I posted a "sequel" to this post on July 16. Like all good sequels, these blog posts are best read in order, so I'd suggest you start here. I suspect, though, that this is more of a circumquel than a prequel......
 
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There has been much debate of recent times about the proposal to introduce a Year 1 Phonics Check in Australia. I have blogged about this before so will not use space here going over the reasons why I think it is justified and a potentially important part of a response to the challenge of seeing more children across the bridge to reading success in the early years of school. The Phonics Check is not a “magic bullet” and any attempt by its detractors to portray this as the view of supporters is of course simplistic and a touch mischievous.

However, the purpose of this blog is to provide a rubric that primary schools can use to self-assess the extent to which they are “already doing phonics”, as is sometimes the response from schools, teachers, and other interest groups, who oppose the introduction of the Phonics Check on the grounds that current classroom practices render it redundant.

Before moving into this rubric, though, I think it is important to have some shared understandings of terminology and the fact that “phonics ain't phonics”. Simply asserting “we do phonics” or “phonics is in the mix” is not enough to ensure strong translation of scientific evidence into classroom practice. As outlined in this open-access explainer (scroll down to the link to whole issue), there are a number of different types of phonics instruction, and they have different levels of effectiveness for beginning readers.

So – assuming then that we have a shared understanding of what is meant by synthetic, analytic, embedded, and incidental phonics, let’s have a look at some questions schools can (and in many cases already do) ask themselves to assess the level of change in teacher knowledge and practice that may be indicated in order to better align classroom practices with the recommendations of three international inquiries into the teaching of literacy. Bear in mind too, that not one of these inquiries makes any reference to so-called “Balanced Literacy” which I have blogged about previously as a re-badging of business-as-usual Whole Language instruction, with some phonics “thrown in” as individual teachers see fit. In some classrooms, it no doubt represents a quantum shift away from Whole Language instruction, while in others, it equally assuredly represents little-to-no-change at all, in line with the fact that it does not have an agreed upon definition.

Here’s my rough do-it-yourself checklist that you might find useful as a starting point for discussion in your school or region. This is not a scientifically robust tool and nor does it pretend to be – it is simply a rough guide, based on discussions I have had with many primary teachers who have sought me out in the last two years in particular, to discuss their concerns about practices in their schools.

The first 9 questions concern classroom practices and the following 6 items focus on teacher knowledge/beliefs in your school.

Teacher practices
1. Does your reading instruction begin with the introduction of a small number of letter-sound correspondences, and explicitly (and gradually) teach children how to blend, segment, insert, and delete sounds in order to produce different words?

2. Do you use decodable texts as the starting point for children starting to read, or  predictable texts?

3. Do you employ a so-called “Three Cueing” process in which beginning readers are encouraged to “guess” unknown words they encounter while reading, with attention to the first letter and its corresponding sound used as a last resort?

4. Do you deal with sound-letter correspondences only “in context” rather than teaching these in isolation as a starting point?

5. Do you introduce lists of so-called “tricky” words (sight-words) to be learnt as wholes, early on in the reading instruction process?

6. Do you base your reading instruction around some version of “The Big Five” (phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency?

7. Do you focus instruction around a “Letter of the Week”?

8. Do teachers in your school discourage parents from helping their children “sound out” words they do not know when they are reading at home?

9. Do teachers in your school tell students that English is a “random” language (or words to that effect)?


Teacher knowledge/beliefs
1. Do teachers in your school have detailed and explicit*  knowledge of concepts related to early reading instruction?  Concepts to consider here include, but may not be limited to:

a. Phonological awareness
b. Phonemic awareness
c. Phonics
d. Alphabetic Principle
e. Phoneme
f. Phonemic blending, segmentation, insertion, deletion
g. Consonant
h. Vowel
i. Syllable
j. Stressed/unstressed syllables
k. Schwa vowel
l. Digraph, trigraph
m. Diphthong
n. Stop Vs continuant consonants
o. Short Vs long vowels
p. Morpheme - bound and unbound
q. Etymology

2. Can teachers in your school explain the characteristics of different types of phonics instruction (as per the explainer article mentioned in the link above)?

3. Do teachers in your school know how many sounds (as opposed to letters) are used in the English language?

4. Do teachers in your school believe that explicitly teaching decoding skills equates to a “drill and kill” approach to early reading?

5. Do teachers in your school espouse so-called “Balanced Literacy” as an appropriate pedagogical approach for early reading instruction?

6.     Are teachers in your school aware that there was a National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy in 2005, and of the recommendations it contained about early instruction and teacher knowledge?


As mentioned above, in recent years, I’ve been contacted by a number of teachers who are questioning the received wisdom of their classroom practices and in particular the utility of these practices for children who may not easily make their way across the bridge to early reading success – many of whom start from behind and stay behind.

This self-audit tool might come in handy as a basis for the discussions that many such teachers find challenging to initiate in their schools.

You know who you are.

There are strong ideological forces that make it difficult for you to be courageous and lift your head above the pedagogical parapet to signal your openness to change. You are to be applauded however, for your  insights and determination to do better by reflecting on, and potentially changing, your knowledge and teaching practices.

As a researcher, it’s my job to do what I can to support you.

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* Explicit knowledge is knowledge that we can talk about, explaining underlying rules and principles. Implicit knowledge, on the other hand, is an understanding that something is “right” or “wrong” but without the ability to articulate a rule that has been violated. For example, when shown the sentence “The boys goed to the beach” most adults would agree that it is grammatically incorrect, but not all can articulate that it is incorrect because the past tense of “go” takes an irregular verb form “went”. This requires explicit knowledge of grammar.

(C) Pamela Snow (2017)