We have all heard the saying that prevention is better than cure. This is equally true for preventing reading difficulty as it is for polio. Systematic synthetic phonics is more than just a nice way to teach reading. It is a method that is effective for over 95% of students in our classrooms and, when taught well, I have seen largely non-verbal autistic students learn to read with phonics. I have also seen adults who have gone their whole lives not reading learn to read with simple, evidence-based practice.
All too often we teach our Tier One programs using broad instruction and whole language practices, such as predictable texts and sight word programs, using the justification that they teach plenty of children to read. The truth is that they do. But only about half. What happens to the other half of children who are not best served by these approaches? Usually we identify them in year 1 and provide some sort of ‘intervention’. This may take the form of Reading Recovery, LLI or some other kind of whole language program. The worst thing about this is that these programs are grounded in the same broad, whole language based methodology that failed the students in the first place.
If the child is very lucky, we provide them with an effective intervention such as Mini-lit or Toe By Toe quickly. By that time however, they have figured out that they are different from their peers and the time needed to provide the intervention takes them away from learning in the classroom. They are still likely to be behind. If the child is a bit lucky their parents take them to someone who understands the science of reading when they’re in about year 3 or 4. If they are unlucky, none of these things happen and they make it to high school unable to read and write effectively.
What if there was a way to make all of this intervention unnecessary? What if there was a way that we didn’t have to leave it all to chance? The answer is, there is! When we use good strong evidence based practice for Tier 1 teaching we prevent a whole bundle of children from falling behind their peers. We help thousands of children who would otherwise be relegated to the label of ‘slow learner’ or ‘struggling reader’ experience continual growth and improvement in their reading. Evidence Based practice IS the prevention for reading failure. It is also the cure.
Knowing that we need strong evidence-based Tier 1 teaching doesn’t prevent the situation of having children enter our classrooms significantly delayed in reading. Children often land in our schools without the skills we would expect them to have and when this happens we need a plan to support them. This doesn’t have to be an expensive commercial program. Instead, knowing some basics and understanding what is important can help you give your student the best chance of consistent and continual growth.
To support vulnerable students one of the simplest things you can do is to teach using an explicit teaching, gradual release of responsibility model. This model ensures that you are supporting students and moving at their pace. Combined with systematic, cumulative teaching of Phonological and Phonemic skills and Phonics, an explicit teaching model will give your vulnerable students the best chance of building strong foundations.
We often hear about prevention being better than cure. Many schools use whole language instruction as their main teaching methodology and then have to pour thousands of dollars into intervention. Much of this can be prevented if we just use evidence based teaching methods right from the start. We can back this up by providing intervention that is grounded in evidence to those students who need it.
In April and May I am running a “Supporting Struggling Readers” Teach Along. If you would like to find out when further information about this Teach Along is available, click here.
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