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3 steps to implementing an ecosystem of phonics-based learning

An elementary curriculum director shares how her district has embraced phonics as the key to turning students into lifelong readers

When Florida State Assessment scores revealed that our third-graders were under-performing in reading, my colleagues and I analyzed the data to determine the root cause of performance. The data showed a need for an explicit, phonics-based approach to literacy for our young students. Unless they develop foundational reading skills early, students will experience literacy deficits across all subjects, and phonics instruction embedded in comprehensive reading instruction is the most effective way to teach them how to read.

In fact, last year the Florida Senate passed a bill that requires instructional materials to incorporate evidence-based strategies, including a phonics-based approach to acquiring literacy skills, with the goal of improving reading performance for all students. According to the new law, Florida districts aren’t required to provide state-approved literacy resources until 2021. However, our team had a great sense of urgency. Whether it was required by the state or not, we set out to create an ecosystem of phonics-based learning that would reduce the number of students who struggle with reading.

Setting goals to satisfy all stakeholders
Our goals in creating this ecosystem were to increase reading achievement, help students succeed on their third-grade state assessments, and, most important, inspire our students to become lifelong learners through reading.

To put these goals into action, we looked for a platform that would appeal to not only the students and educators, but also to the curriculum developers, instructional coaches, and school- and district-level administrators. We considered every perspective to get everyone behind our final decision.

Choosing the right phonics-based platform
The feedback we gathered formed the following guidelines for our ideal platform:

  1. We needed a platform that keeps students actively engaged. No worksheets! We want to teach and then have students apply what they learn to gain a well-rounded understanding of concepts.
  2. It had to not only improve student reading skills, but also provide professional development to help our teachers develop a deeper understanding of the difference between phonological awareness and phonics, and how to identify where students are struggling with phonics.
  3. The platform had to use integrated literacy units to complement our current curriculum.
  4. The student activities had to include multisensory and systemic elements that go beyond the state requirement.
  5. It needed to benefit students at a wide range of ages of abilities. All our elementary and K–8 schools are Title I and serve a significant number of ELL students, so the platform had to support a multi-tiered intervention system for educators to use small groups to hone specific skills.

After reviewing many programs, we chose Reading Horizons Discovery for all 26 of our elementary/K–8 schools, starting this school year. We also use other interventions such as Leveled Literacy Intervention to target deficiencies in reading that hinder performance.

Upfront and ongoing PD
With any district-wide initiative, we believe in front-loading our educators with professional development (PD). Before the school year started, we opened PD for all of our kindergarten, first-, and second-grade teachers. We provided multiple trainings at three different schools to make sure all 400 educators felt familiar with what they were going to be expected to teach. During these trainings, we introduced them to online modules that keep the learning going.

We also used a grant to hire an additional curriculum staff member who supports educators with PD and implementation. She will observe classrooms and will model, coach, co-teach, and support teachers as they navigate through this high-impact instructional routine.

But PD is not just the initial training or the online modules. It’s supporting our teachers, day in and day out, as they navigate through this systematic, sequential routine of phonics instruction.

Supporting all ages and abilities
Even though we acted before the state required us to, we weren’t looking for a quick fix. We implemented the phonics-based approach for all K–2 students. Most of our students are in general education classrooms, which means that there may be a second teacher who works with students during reading instruction. We use a multi-tiered student support system for intervention. If we see students who are struggling with prerequisite lessons and skills, they can work on those skills either in the general education classroom or in a pull-out setting, in a small group with a teacher.

Our ecosystem of phonics-based learning also extends to our self-contained emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) classroom. Because we started the implementation with K–2, there are students in our third-grade classes who are struggling with phonics and phonemic awareness, and we offer them tier two intervention as well.

So far, feedback from our educators has shown that a phonics-based approach to literacy is the comprehensive support that they and their students needed. After investing time and resources into this initiative, it’s reassuring for educators to say that we’ve found the missing piece.

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