04 Making sure all teachers have the knowledge to enable literacy success for every child

ERO’s report Accelerating the progress of priority learners in primary schools (2013) identified the need for ongoing professional learning and development (PLD) to build teachers’ confidence to understand and use strategies to accelerate learning for children needing additional support. Teachers at HOKOWHITU SCHOOL demonstrated a well considered commitment to accelerating learning for these children by implementing new practices, particularly in classrooms. Leaders and teachers were reflective practitioners who were constantly looking for better ways

to improve achievement. They understood that when a child was not progressing well, their teaching approaches needed to change. Their most recent changes focused on two progress issues they sought to solve: supporting writers in Years 4 to 6, and reducing the need for withdrawing Years 1 and 2 children from their classrooms for literacy interventions.

Many Hokowhitu School children in Years 4 to 6 achieved well in writing. Teachers had focused on writing over the past few years and saw considerable gains for many children. However, supporting those students who were not achieving well in writing was identified as an ongoing issue.

The main changes made to teaching strategies allowed teachers to move away from literacy interventions for groups of children to making sure all teachers had the knowledge to implement teaching practices to ensure success for every child.

This narrative shares the changes for teaching literacy to junior students, and then discusses the benefits for children who are English for speakers of other languages (ESOL). Finally, information about the writing programmes in Years 4 and 5 is shared.

Reducing the need for withdrawal from class for literacy interventions

In recent years, teachers had focused on improving reading instruction in the first year. The need for improvement was identified in 2014, when less than 60 percent of children had reached the expected reading level when they turned six. By the time children turned seven, about 80 percent reached the expected reading level, but some were not able to sustain their improvements.

In 2015, teacher PLD, parent education sessions, better monitoring of achievement levels, and clear progressions of teaching and learning were introduced. Although these contributed to some improvements, leaders were still not satisfied with the outcomes for those children needing additional support with early reading and writing.

A further significant concern was that only half the children who had participated in Reading Recovery were meeting literacy expectations at the end of Year 6. Leaders also noted a discrepancy between the reading level the children were achieving in the Reading Recovery programme and their instructional reading level in class. These children had difficulty connecting the letter sound to the symbol, and hearing and writing sounds in words. Leaders felt the children were not transferring learning from the intervention into their learning in the classroom. Teachers also determined that many children who had difficulty with early writing success also had difficulty forming many of the letters. Leaders wanted to see more children succeed in the teaching pods (kete) with fewer requiring withdrawal from their class for intervention programmes.

Leaders engaged a literacy expert to work with teachers from across the whole school to completely revise their literacy teaching practices. The new intervention, called Multi-Sensory Structure Language (MSL) aimed to reinforce the connections between the symbols children see, the sounds they hear, and the actions they feel.

During the PLD provided by the literacy expert, teachers learned about the structure of language and the alphabetic code. Some teachers told ERO they learnt a lot but found the new learning challenging. As they had been good spellers and writers themselves, they had not learnt explicit teaching strategies to support children needing extra help to achieve success with early literacy. The PLD provider taught the teachers the alphabetic code as if they were a class of children, explained the screening tools and modelled teaching strategies they could use themselves.

Teacher aides also attended a PLD session on the structured language instruction. The session shared information about new terms and concepts, and outlined the progression some children needed to move through to achieve literacy success. Teachers explained some of the teaching points children would see during in-class teaching workshops, as well as ways teacher aides could support children with follow up activities after a teaching workshop.

Making deliberate connections between reading and writing in Years 1 and 2

Teachers applied new strategies to teaching new entrant children letter formation and sounds together in a systematic way. Each child participated in an individualised programme, planned after analysis of results from a phonological screening assessment.

Most children initially used whiteboards to write a selected group of letters while practising the related letter sounds. Their early reading reinforced those same letters and sounds. Later children moved to writing and reading a wider variety of letters, sounds and words. Children also learned lists of irregular words they called Heart Words.

Here is an example of the explicit teaching determined for Year 1 children.


Stage 1 Teaching – Code

(Mostly Year 1 children)

Phonological awareness – identify words in sentences, discriminate and generate rhyme, blends and segment syllables.

Phonemic awareness – identify first/last sounds in words, segment and blend sounds in consonant vowel (CV) words consonant vowel consonant (CVC) words.

The code:

  • closed syllable CV and CVC
  • letters formation – lowercase
  • digraphs closed syllables (th, sh, ch, ng, ck)
  • open syllables
  • s had two sounds /s/ /z/
  • know short and long vowel sounds

  • longer spelling for /k/ is – ck
  •  suffixes ‘s’ (making a word plural) ‘ing’
  • list 1 Heart Words

Teachers modelled writing sentences that reinforced the sounds and words children had focused on. Teachers then dictated simple sentences for children to write themselves. Gradually the children moved on to writing more of their own sentences and ideas.

A sample of writing produced by a five-year old child is shown here. The writing started with dictated sentences and then included the child’s own thoughts

The class programme provided new entrant children with many other reading, writing and oral language opportunities. They enjoyed shared reading, using big books and poems. They used decodable texts and the Price Milburn (PM) readers during guided reading to introduce words in a sequential manner. Their reading and prewriting discussions also included many opportunities for discussions to support the children’s developing oral language. Children engaged in many literacy activities during play-based learning including making shopping lists, reading books and acting out imaginary scenes, roles and activities.

Ongoing monitoring of individual children’s achievement allowed them to progress at differing rates. Some children quickly learned the alphabet code, and were successfully reading as high as level 18 or Turquoise of the Ready to Read levelled texts by the time they turned six. They were also becoming confident writers.

ERO spoke with a boy who had attended school for six months. He showed his written work and read aloud three of his most recent pieces of writing. He was able to identify which sentences were dictated by the teacher and which he had thought of himself. He explained more about some of the events he had written about such as a visit to the Life Education bus. He said he was a good reader and writer because he knew about syllables and vowels. He was keen to explain that ‘y’ was sometimes a vowel and often when a word ended with an ‘e’ it had a long vowel sound. He said he liked writing and ‘did hundreds of drawings and writing at home’.

Working with parents

Parents attended an information evening to learn more about their children’s structured language and play-based learning. Leaders and teachers were highly aware parent education was vital to explain how they could support this learning and why children were bringing home different resources. The change from bringing home an early reader on the first day to bringing home letter/sound and heart-word cards required careful management. Parents received quite detailed information about what the teachers and children were doing at school and what they could do to reinforce at home, including advice about encouraging play at home. Extracts from this guidance are below.


Play

  • Tell stories to your child and ask them questions about what they remember
  • Give children time and space to act out imaginary scenes, roles and activities
  • Allow children to move between make- believe games and reality (playing house/ helping with chores)
  • Schedule time for your child to play with friends to build friendships and practise socialising
  • Buy your child ‘true toys’ such as blocks, lego, and costumes to encourage creativity
  • Spend unscheduled, unstructured time together with you child.

MSL

  • Read to your child and with your child
  • Support your child learning the alphabetic code by practising their letter sounds, heart words
  • Use the letter sounds they know to create words (if they know m, s, t, i, a they can make mat, sit, sat)
  • Support your child to learn the five vowels – initially the short vowel sound mat, pet, sit, not, mug
  • When reading, only sound out regular words (am, dog, hat, chop) not heart words (come, said, to, was)
  • Help your child to practise segmenting words (stop s-t-o-p)
  • Look for rhyming words and ask your child to think of more words that rhyme

Some parents also kept in contact with their child’s teachers to further discuss what the child was doing at home and at school. One teacher helped a parent revise some of the concepts by discussing a chart displayed on the wall in her child’s classroom. The parent took a photograph of the display and later reported that using the chart at home helped both her and her child make sense of the things the teachers were focused on at school (shown above).

Success for children whose English is their second or other language (ESOL)

The new teaching practices also benefited children in ESOL programmes. Formal opportunities to practise letter formation and the alphabetic code in a systematic way helped them progress in both reading and writing. Children quickly became familiar with regular patterns and could confidently read and write high frequency words (Heart Words). Practising dictated sentences helped them understand print conventions, which allowed them to record their own ideas when working with their peers. Learning the same reading and writing strategies when working in their ESOL programme and their classroom, helped them develop confidence with writing in a new language.

The writing approaches that already worked for most children in Years 4 to 6

Teachers had previously introduced a variety of strategies and approaches that had helped many of the children to achieve well in writing. A school goal for 2015 was to accelerate the writing progress of boys who were below curriculum expectations. Each teacher set specific goals for the children in their class. The goals varied, as did the teacher’s actions and strategies, depending on the needs and strengths each teacher identified in their students. They moderated judgements of writing samples, and then agreed which students had progressed. In this way, they were easily able to identify their target students.

During the year, teachers reviewed and recorded the impact of their deliberate acts of teaching on the students’ achievement. Some teachers interviewed children to gain their perspectives on what was helping them to succeed in writing. They also identified challenges that reduced progress for some children.

One teacher’s end-of-year reflection

I have implemented:

  • daily free-writing time
  •  free-writing prompts on the wall
  • free-writing ideas and questions
  • modelling of writing ‘think alouds’
  • Google Docs set up
  • writing goals developed alongside the children and glued in books
  • celebrations of writing on blog, walls, and in newsletter
  • writing for authentic purposes
  • interest-based writing groups.

At the end of the year, teachers documented changes in their practice, successes enjoyed and challenges encountered. They proposed further steps for the next year. These reviews were collated for each team and summarised for the whole staff. Updates of the school’s teaching and learning handbook, Key Foundations for Pedagogy, incorporated findings from these reviews to outline the teaching of writing expectations for teachers. The school-developed learning progressions and explicit feedback made learning and strategies for learning visible for children and teachers. Authentic writing tasks were situated in a familiar context (for example, the family), or related to learning in the wider curriculum (for example, in art or science).

The writing instructional approaches teachers identified included:

  • modelling
  • teacher think alouds
  • use of examples (literature and within the class and school)
  • writing groups based on needs
  • oral language opportunities
  • shared writing
  • deliberate acts of teaching used wisely
  • making explicit links between reading and writing
  • different ways to provide feedback for children

Teachers used the writing progressions as a tool to sharpen the focus of their teaching. They also intentionally shared them with the children using goal sheets. Children knew what they were trying to master and could self-manage their learning in workshops and conferencing activities. They would evaluate their own progress and the teacher would indicate with an arrow when they were close to moving up a level or sub-level. Many children made good progress and were working at the expected level.

The new approach to support children not achieving well in writing

The information gained through interviews with children in Years 4 to 6, and an analysis of writing samples, identified a significant group of children with difficulties in meeting some writing expectations. These children were generally able to explain and organise their ideas quite well and were developing some useful knowledge of structural and language features. However, difficulties with spelling limited their use of vocabulary and motivation to write. When assessing these children’s writing it was evident that they continued to achieve at Level 1 of The New Zealand Curriculum in aspects such as spelling and vocabulary. However, most of these children achieved at a higher level when taking account of their ideas.

Leaders and teachers collaborated in a whole-school inquiry into the teaching of spelling by identifying the need to focus more on phonemic awareness. They recognised that although some children had no difficulty learning about the sounds in words, all readers and writers need to have an awareness of the sound system of the English language. The children who were not progressing to Level 2 of the curriculum had little knowledge of the correspondence between spoken sounds and the alphabet code.

Teachers in Years 4 and 5 realised the practices introduced in the whole-school PLD about structured language were likely to benefit children in their kete (teaching pod). They decided to teach spelling through a word-study programme that helped children explore and better understand the alphabetic code as a means to improve decoding, spelling and writing.

Initially, they used an assessment screening tool provided by the literacy PLD expert. The tool focused on:

  • segmenting sentences into words
  • discriminating rhyme
  • producing rhyme
  • blending syllables
  • segmenting syllables
  • identifying first sounds
  • identifying last sounds
  • blending sounds
  • segmenting sounds
  • memory for sentences.

Teachers made many changes as they developed their own and children’s confidence with the new learning. First, teachers focused on explicit teaching of sounds or the parts of the code that most children needed to master. They also emphasised the links between word study and writing. By the middle of the year, 25 children were identified as needing more intensive support and were organised into five groups for further in-class support.

Originally, three teachers in the open learning space decided one of them would teach each group reading, the second would teach writing, and the third teacher would focus on word study. However, teachers’ further reflection following additional PLD convinced them to teach word study, reading and writing together to help children fully understand and apply the connections between speaking, word study, reading and writing. When ERO visited the school the three teachers were implementing this change so these children could participate in daily 20 minute workshops focused on the three aspects. They were also considering how to better group these children to focus more on reading and writing interests and needs, rather than group children according to their reading age.

ERO spoke with a Year 5 child who had made considerable progress in writing in the previous two terms. She showed a sample of her work from the beginning of the year that had a lot of simple ideas but many words spelled incorrectly. The child couldn’t easily read what was written in her earlier work. This issue made editing and reworking her writing difficult.

The most recent piece of work had few errors and the ideas formed a more logical sequence of more complex ideas. The child was able to recognise errors and fix them. She explained she was now proud of her work rather than feeling it wasn’t very good.

The child thought the word study activities and the workshops focused on writing strategies had helped her improve.

Teachers in Years 4 and 5 did not have to completely abandon the writing teaching and assessment tools they were familiar with. To monitor progress they used the same asTTle assessments and other tools, such as a pseudo-word test, they already used along with information from observations and discussions with individuals.

When ERO was at the school, teachers in the Years 4 and 5 kete (teaching pod) were still modifying their programme to accommodate their previous teaching of writing practices with the new word-study teaching and the more deliberate links to the teaching of reading. They were still collaboratively reviewing the progress of the 25 students receiving intensive support through daily workshops, while continuing to use the writing practices that had previously resulted in the success of so many other students.

Next steps

Leaders were revising their literacy teaching expectations to logically combine the explicit teaching of the alphabetic code, with both reading and writing content. Early work on this showed less emphasis was needed on the code by Years 5 and 6, and more complex writing features were expected at this level. An example from their early draft of expectations for part of stage five writing is shown below.


Stage 5 Explicit Teaching – Writing Content

Curriculum Level 3 (Many Year 5 children would focus on these)

  • I sometimes use similes, metaphors and language features to enhance my writing.
  • My choice of language interests my reader, has personal detail and is sincere.
  • I use impact to gain and maintain the readers’ interest.
  • I develop my ideas by using appropriate detail.
  • I am beginning to use paragraphs.
  • I use interesting and varied sentences, and topic words to create flow and pace.
  • I can use grammar/tense that is correct most of the time.
  • I use direct speech, adverbs, synonyms, and adjectives to enhance my writing.
  • I include descriptive words, emotive language and visual language features.
  • I can use all basic punctuation, including apostrophes, correctly.
  • I check and edit my writing (using dictionary, adding detail).