Teaching Mastery, Not Memorization with Phonics-Based Learning

A district improvement specialist explains how her district successfully implemented a new approach in response to Arkansas’ literacy legislation.

By Sandra Halley

Throughout Marion School District, we have kindergarteners who have been to preschool and have story time every night, and then we have students who come into kindergarten tragically unprepared to learn how to read. Our data tells us that the unprepared kids can be two or sometimes three years behind their peers. Educators try so hard to do what’s best for every young learner, but we’ve found that achieving this balancing act using traditional teaching methods is unrealistic.

Two years ago, when Arkansas ranked in the lower third of states for reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), state legislators decided that a phonics-based approach to teaching reading would be the most effective for young learners. The state passed a law that requires educators to be certified teachers of phonics-based literacy by the year 2021. After two years of earning teacher buy-in with hands-on activities and an enriched curriculum, our district has seen typical low-scoring students reach the higher scores usually achieved by their advanced peers.

To get to this point, we had to choose a streamlined program and then educate our community of teachers and parents. Making sure we were all in it for the long haul, implementing the program with fidelity, and showing a dash of patience have gotten us this far.

Convincing the Naysayers with PD

In every district I’ve worked in, when we’ve asked educators to start something new, some of them resist diving in because they figure the technology will be gone after two years. In defense of teachers, districts most likely do quit on programs after two years because the results aren’t immediate. Even as adults, we’re looking for instant gratification for the sake of our students’ education and parent satisfaction. We want to spend our money on the best and cut the rest.

In my experience, though, no implementation can ever be called a success or failure until you’ve done it for five or more years. That’s enough time to take a look back at your data and see either adequate progress or red flags. At Marion, we’ve made a concentrated effort to say, “This is what we’re doing for the long haul,” because phonics-based literacy is what’s best for our students.

Our new curriculum is so different than what we’ve done in the past that it took some time for educators to use the program as it’s meant to be used. While the buy-in was pretty quick, they needed training and practice to improve the quality of usage.

After our training sessions, the naysayers were sold. Now, after two years of implementation, we hold basic training in phonics for new teachers and provide refresher sessions school-wide every year. We’ve also formed a team of facilitators for literacy, math, and technology. This is our boots-on-the-ground team that observes classrooms and discusses weaknesses and strengths in the program’s execution. Our facilitators also strategize and prescribe professional development for individual teachers who are struggling.

It’s safe to say our teachers didn’t have to wait two years to see results. Once they were using the program effectively, they saw the difference in their students’ abilities and were hungry for more. Using the systematic and sequential approach of Reading Horizons Discovery, students are learning how to decode and encode words versus memorizing and guessing. It’s been especially eye-opening for teachers who have older children because they realized that their younger children can now decode words in a way their older children cannot. In addition, we are implementing Reading Horizons Elevate in grades 4-6 to help any older students who are still struggling with reading proficiency.

Making it Routine for All Levels

We want the program to be a daily routine, so to maintain fidelity, we hold a districtwide literacy block every day. First thing in the morning, teachers have a specific time to dedicate to the phonics-based literacy. Nothing else happens during this time.

Using the program, we can start each student at absolute zero and let them work their way up. If one student doesn’t know what sound a ‘b’ makes, or doesn’t even know what a ‘b’ is, that’s okay, because we can start them at their level.

We help students break words apart by tapping and counting. When they’re writing their words down, they tap and can hear every single sound and grasp the letters that go into each syllable. This mind-body learning helps them retain what each letter and sound represents. At conferences, we’ve had parents share how their child is suddenly breaking words apart and teaching them letter sounds!

On the other hand, advanced students have the opportunity to move quickly and succeed. Rather than asking teachers to perform a chaotic juggling act, we can seamlessly address all areas and levels without sacrificing quality.

The Tools to Know, not Guess

Some teachers are used to teaching context clues and giving students a chance to guess words that they don’t know, but a student can’t be in 7th grade and guess words out of a geography textbook. With a focus on phonemic awareness and a phonics-based approach to literacy, our students have never been so enthusiastic about reading, and that leads to improved skills and scores.

In parent/teacher conferences, we encourage our educators to be upfront with parents about the changes we’ve made. We got rid of our previous reading program because we felt like it clashed with our new approach and was enabling students to memorize words rather than decode. It’s always a pleasure to hear their excitement about their students’ progress when we pull up the data.  We want parents to recognize that now, we’re giving students the tools to know, not guess.

Sandra Halley is the district school improvement specialist at Marion School District in Arkansas.

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