The First Year – What I have learned about implementing a phonics program (Part 2)

Part 1 of this blog described some the mechanisms of the phonics program, both in classrooms and in meetings, that I think have contributed to the learning of our students. The purpose of this section is to describe some of the things I have learnt about what happens when the team gets together to discuss what has been observed in classrooms over the week.

Harness what you have. The phonics team runs on the principle that the way that we will improve as a teaching team is to identify and adopt the most effective strategies from the members of the team. As a team we are always looking to improve our instruction and are on the lookout for better ways of teaching the phonics program. However, the first place we need to start, and the place where we will get the best traction, is to learn from the other members of the group. The tricky bit is not sharing practice, because that happens everywhere. It is sharing effective practice. To do this you need some of the conditions mentioned in the previous post. Some common way of identifying where students are making more progress in class compared to another (positive deviance), some sort of standard to compare that to and then a willingness to discuss and share. 

This approach is also useful because everyone has something to share. It is rare that one individual in the team will have all the answers – more often different people in the team will be able to contribute some effective practice. This helps build the concept of the team and the self-efficacy of its members, rather than an expert lecturing from the stage.
Grain size is important. When discussing practice, the closer the discussion gets to the specifics of what actually happens in the classroom the better. It is particularly easy for a team, when discussing the differences in the learning of students, and the related instruction, to use broad terms to describe what they are doing. “We did /k/” or “we discussed the GPC a couple of times” is really common. It is like when someone starts talking about a generalised term such as “guided reading”. Every person in the group has their own idea of what “guided reading” looks like and the assumption is that all of the other members of the group have the same idea. The broader the discussion the more room there is for interpretation and miscommunication. 

However, when you start to really break down what actually happened in the classroom differences quickly become apparent. Asking people in the group to show you, rather than describe, what they did (even if they have to play act the events) is really useful. It is when members of the group see this level of detail that the differences emerge – “I didn’t do that” or “ok, I just got the kids to start without that intro”. A good guide is that if you think the grain size is right, go a little smaller!
Independent eyes are useful. The school at which I work heavily resources the Prep literacy program. There is an assistant in each classroom for the literacy component of the day who rotates from classroom to classroom. One of the unintended consequences of having an extra person in the room is that they have the ability to see the instruction across a variety of classrooms. These sets of independent eyes tend to help the group identify the differences in the instruction between classroom when the teachers themselves are stuck. Many times, when two teachers were furiously agreeing that their instruction was the same, one of the assistants would point out that there was actually a big difference in what was happening in the classroom: “Jim, you spend less time working through the GPCs from the previous lesson. You are doing similar things but the amount of time you spend on them is quite different. Judy, your class wrote those letters on paper with lines rather than the mini-whiteboards”. These differences that are identified may or may not be causes of the variation in the learning of the students; however, being able to discuss these differences is an important part of the process.

It’s not you, it is your instruction on this concept. Sometimes it is difficult to separate the practice from the person. I am not sure if this comes with the profession but this conflation of instruction and self does seem to occur more with teachers than in other professions. For the discussions to go well it is important the team know and understand that it is the teaching strategy that is being discussed. This is easily changed. Nothing reinforces the concept that it is the instruction that is important than someone trying something new and finding out it works. And they didn’t have to sacrifice a skerrick of themselves.


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