Phonics-based literacy inquiry lifts progress

Issue: Volume 99, Number 2

Posted: 14 February 2020
Reference #: 1HA5Rv

At Whanganui East School, a dramatic lift in literacy progress and positive behaviour has come about as a result of explicit teaching of phonic awareness as part of a rich literacy programme.

Phonics-based literacy learning in progress at Whanganui East School.

Phonics-based literacy learning in progress at Whanganui East School.

Teachers at Whanganui East School were concerned about a number of students who were behind in their reading and were not progressing as expected with literacy, noticing they couldn’t decode words or translate words into their writing. 

Ray Stormont, the literacy lead teacher, recalls: “I knew we needed to do something different. There was an evident need – something was missing.” 

The school, which has 187 students, took an iterative inquiry approach and explored a phonics-based method – starting small. Ray researched including a phonics approach and worked with two seven-year-old boys who were new to the school and had new entrant level reading skills. Both boys progressed quickly – one from level five to level 21, and the other from level five to level 17. Their behavioural issues also improved as they became confident learners. Their learning dispositions changed from “I’m dumb, I can’t do it” to those of confidence.

The results of explicitly teaching critical literacy knowledge and skills including phonic awareness had proved successful, and along with the evidence-based research in support, there was a valid and persuasive case for taking it to a larger scale across the junior school. The school’s teachers were also attracted to the close alignment of reading and writing, which could be taught together and in a complementary way. 

Support and training from the school’s Resource Teacher in Literacy (RTLit) and their PLD provider, Massey University, then focused on unpacking the pedagogy behind the approach and developing informed practice with ongoing regular coaching and mentoring. The school was then supported to scale the project up by participating in a project run by Massey University: Teaching to Ensure Progress in Literacy. 

Leadership in support


Literacy learning supportLeadership has been key to the success of this literacy inquiry. From the outset, Principal Eleanor Barry required robust thinking about improved learning outcomes for students and conditions for success.

These included: 

  • allowing the time needed for this to work – it is not a short-term solution
  • reducing other pressure on teachers: eg reporting and running records
  • creating systemic change – incorporating new ways of working into ongoing structures as they were proved successful 
  • limiting school key foci to two so not to overload themselves – literacy and restorative justice
  • changing their PLD applications to reflect this priority.

What’s changed as a result for teachers? 

The regular mentoring and coaching opportunities from the Massey mentor and the RTLit has focused on learning new teaching concepts and methods for analysing their students’ learning, and how to plan next steps based on that precise need. The teachers are now ensuring they link the learning in reading with the learning in writing more explicitly.   

What’s changed for learners and whānau? 

Ray explained that the children enjoy the decodable texts because they can read and make sense of the text. They bring in extra vocabulary with better context. They can write a sentence from the very early days from when they know just three sounds: ‘My cat is fat’. The focus learners are making significant progress – seen at home and school. 

Whānau are encouraged to read with their children, especially Dr Seuss and selected poetry that is sent home that complements the approach. 

“High expectations of students are critical,” says Ray.

Creating systemic change

  • This approach is now being used for all new entrant and Year 2/3 classes.
  • Teacher aides have also been trained to provide consistency.
  • Resource kits are available for all classrooms.
  • Reading and writing are being taught sequentially as this helps with memory.
  • Students at older levels that are struggling with learning are assessed for foundational gaps in their knowledge, skills and capabilities.
  • Ongoing professional learning development and achievement goals are being directed at supporting this approach.
  • An improved strategy for all incoming students regardless of their level is being developed.

About Teaching to Ensure Progress in Literacy (TEPiL)

TEPiL is a practical teacher training trial that is funded by the Ministry and is run by Massey University’s Tātai Angitu. TEPiL supports positive progress in children’s reading and writing, particularly for those who have been struggling to meet expectation in their literacy outcomes.

Training involves:

  • an initial workshop and guidance on selecting learners to take part 
  • post workshop activities including online modules, videos of practice and discussion opportunities for peer learning teachers share their assessment, successes and practice ideas
  • observing modelled lessons and receiving feedback on their own lessons
  • regular monthly contact.

Project facilitator Christine Braid says, “Teachers identified that taking time to set the foundations for literacy success has had enormous benefits for children in reading and even more so in writing. These foundations include a focus on phonological awareness and knowledge of the alphabetic code. Teachers report feeling empowered to make a difference for students and having an increased enjoyment of teaching reading.”

The project is part of a trial the Ministry of Education has been doing in innovative foundational learning – testing different approaches to enrich and improve literacy learning.

Literacy learning support available from Resource Teachers in Literacy (RTLit)

If you are interested in support and training in expanding your literacy learning practice by working with a Resource Teacher in Literacy (RTLit) – please check with your school’s regional Ministry of Education Advisor. 

For more information about the RTLit service visit Literacy Online TKI(external link)

To contact the Ministry national office team supporting the RTLit service, email:

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:30 AM, 14 February 2020

Get new listings like these in your email
Set up email alerts