Friday, October 2, 2020

What to do When Phonics Isn't Sticking

Over the course of the last seven years I have attended multiple trainings for Orton Gillingham and phonics instruction. If I were to add up all the trainings over the years, including a two week practicum  with a 30 lesson personal follow-up, it would total over a solid month of work. This has been so valuable! 

As an instructional coach I have been able to use this knowledge with both students and teachers. I have coached general education and special education teachers who are running small intervention groups. I have worked one on one and in small groups with students on my own. Throughout these interactions and interventions, I have seen some wonderful student growth! But I have also seen students become stagnant in an OG intervention. I've seen students sit in an OG intervention for years. Even with coaching and modifications, certain students seem to stop making progress. They can't seem to transfer the isolated OG work into their reading and writing. Reading fluency is still a struggle and spelling outside of the OG lesson isn't much better. 

These experiences made me wonder why an OG intervention was working so well for some students and not for others. Is it true that some students will just always struggle when it comes to decoding and reading fluency? This was disheartening and certainly couldn't be true.

Then, last school year, my eyes were opened! I read two books that completely revolutionized my reading instruction, especially with the most struggling readers. I HIGHLY recommend that all teachers read these two books.

Equipped for Reading Success
Equipped for Reading Success was given to me as part of one of the Orton Gillingham trainings I attended. Sadly, I had the book for six months before I cracked it open. This book delves into the power of phonemic awareness and how it is paramount to reading fluency. Here are a few cognitive shifts I experienced while reading this book:
  • Phonemic awareness is essential to learning to read and storing words permanently in our brains for easy retrieval later.
  • Orthographic mapping is the way we remember words. It is NOT our visual memory.
  • Phonemic awareness should be explicitly taught beyond kindergarten and through the advanced levels.

Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties

This book built on what I learning in Equipped for Reading Success. It reinforced the importance of phonemic awareness and calls out interventions that lack this essential component of reading instruction. One such intervention is Orton Gillingham. 

In chapter 11 Dr. Kilpatrick states, "Some students 'take off' in their reading skills with Wilson or Orton Gillingham. These individuals likely had mild phonological awareness difficulties. For them, explicit interaction between letters and phonemes stimulates their phonological awareness development, which in turn allowed them to develop a sight-word vocabulary. But for students with more moderate to severe phonological awareness difficulties, such intensive phonics instruction does not produce the more advanced phonemic proficiency needed to become skilled at orthographic mapping. As a result, growth in sight vocabulary among many graduates of these approaches is often limited." Dr. Kilpatrick goes on to explain that the lack of phonemic awareness instruction within these types of interventions renders them less effective at producing skilled readers. He states, "When students have mastered the basic phonics skills and this is not translating into better general word-level reading, this is a clear indication of a problem with phonemic proficiency. It is not a sign that the student needs to learn more complex phonics rules."

Wow! 😲 This small excerpt does a great job explaining the issues I was having with OG interventions. We were lacking an essential component of reading instruction: phonological awareness.

What have I done with this knowledge?
After learning the powerful information about phonological awareness, I assessed several intermediate students who were receiving a phonics-based reading intervention using the PAST. What I found lined up perfectly with what I learned in Dr. Kilpatrick's books. These struggling readers did not have basic phonemic awareness despite having been in an OG intervention for at least a year. Armed with this knowledge, I worked with building instructional assistants, classroom teachers, and resource teachers to set up a short and easy phonological awareness intervention for these kiddos. We built it into every school day. Even after an extended break from school, these students made and maintained reading growth. 

All but three students met or exceeded projected growth on NWEA.

It's wonderful to see gains in students who had previously stagnated. Thanks to Dr. Kilpatrick's books the teachers at Cherry Tree have another powerful tool to teach students how to read. We also know that this work needs to be started proactively in kindergarten with all students. We will continue to pair phonological and phonemic awareness with phonics and word study. 

At Cherry Tree, we have always maintained the goal and expectation that all students should read at or above grade level. Armed with the knowledge of how to teach phonemic awareness to the advanced levels, this goal has become even more attainable. Great things are happening here!

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