The First Year – Some things I have learned about implementing a phonics program (Part 1)

A little over a year ago I had the fortune of starting to work with a group of Prep teachers teaching 5 year olds. When I began this blog it was my intention to share some of the things I was learning along the way and perhaps gain some advice. Somewhere along the way I got a little lost but I thought I would take the time to reflect on what I have learnt so far. 
As a secondary teacher with some familiarity with the alphabetic code and a little expertise in helping teams use data to inform instruction I thought I could help the group with the phonics program they were running. I didn’t exactly know what I was getting into – I worked hard to get some understanding of what a systematic phonics program would look like and asked as many questions of experts as I could.

The team was excellent – although the teachers were very young in their careers, they had the desire to improve their instruction and a lack of defensiveness when we discussed what was working and what was not. We had the benefit of some experienced staff who worked alongside us so the mix seemed perfect.

I have split the post into two parts: Part 1 deals with the mechanisms of the program, and the work of the teachers within it, while Part 2 deals the aspects of what makes our team discussions about the progress of kids more effective.

This is rocket science. I know I have shared this before but it really is not a simple thing to help students decode and encode the English language. Even the start of the process was difficult! We had to consciously learn what movements our mouths make with particular sounds, watch for particular movements in students and help them see those movements in mirrors. To then apply letter formation, pencil grip and posture to the learning of the alphabetic code – it required a significant level of thinking, expertise, planning and patience. Our team needed to spend a long time reading, learning and practising before we go to the classroom. Teaching Prep students to decode is not an easy task.

Sticking to the plan is harder than it looks. The Prep decoding program at my school is incredibly well resourced. Staff are keen and hard-working, meeting time is devoted to discussing and developing instruction, teaching assistants are present in each of the classrooms and we have a plan for learning. Despite all of this, fidelity to our plan was a difficult thing “to achieve on a consistent basis. On reflection there seems to be a number of factors that contribute to going a little “off reservation”. In order for the team to stick to the plan we need to:

  •  Develop a shared understanding, particularly early, of what some of the terms used so frequently actually mean and look like. It is so easy to paint our own mental image of what an activity looks like over the description or name someone else is using to describe their practice.
  • Understand that routine is important and careful thought about when and why we do something different is required. The routines serve the kids well and so we need to maintain them even when we might feel like we are going a bit batty!
  • Develop our understanding around what each activity we use with the kids is meant to achieve and what in the activity helps us achieve that. I wrote about activity substitution last year – it is so easy to start substituting one activity for another because the surface features are the same yet the deep structure may actually be very different. This has a remarkably large impact on student learning.

Teach a variety of children but in more homogenous groups. In our model teachers in the Prep group teach a particular phase of the alphabetic code. For ease of use we adopted the Letters and Sounds Phase model. The students are grouped together at the Phase most appropriate for them. The benefits of this arrangement are threefold: teachers gain a better understanding of the teaching of particular concepts as they repeat the teaching several times with different students; each Prep teacher will, at some point, teach each of the students in the year level, which allows the team to take responsibility for each student’s progress; and students have instruction which is quite narrowly focused on what they need to learn at a particular time.

Tracking progress over time is important.
A key plank in our work is the use and discussion of data that relates to our instruction. It is important to meet each week to examine the progress students are making and the difficulties teachers are facing to see if the team can produce a solution. Each term the team tests the students to get a measure of what they know and are able to do in terms of their decoding, including using the UK Phonics Screening Check. This comparative information allows examination of our instruction. 

  • Why is it that, in one class, students pick up particular GPCs faster than in others? 
  • What is different in terms of the instruction in that class compared to the others and how can we share that instruction? 

Also, it gives us a sense of whether our kids are making the progress we want them too – compared to last year’s cohorts, the UK sample, the assessment last term. Particularly with inexperienced staff, the use of a formal assessment to help begin to link instruction to student learning and then discuss differences in instruction to help improve is a key component of a team that learns together.

Part 2 will expand a little more on what we learnt from how to use the information we had to improve our instruction and how the members of the team worked together.


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