Structured literacy provides solid foundations

Issue: Volume 101, Number 3

Posted: 16 March 2022
Reference #: 1HATEJ

A structured literacy approach is plugging foundational gaps, with fewer children requiring extra support at a Wanaka school.

Teacher Phillipa Wilson with her Year 1 class at Holy Family Catholic School.

Teacher Phillipa Wilson with her Year 1 class at Holy Family Catholic School.

For the past four years, Holy Family Catholic School in Wanaka has been using an evidence-based approach which sees all tamariki from Y1–8 spending 20 minutes, four days a week, working on structured literacy activities.

Principal Jo McKay explains why the school decided to take this route.

“As a school, we had really high levels of reading and writing achievement, but we had some concerns with spelling, specifically. We looked at these gaps in our foundational literacy skills and from this, deputy principal Angela Scoullar and I met with Carla McNeil from Learning Matters and started our professional learning.”

Research and science

Jo says there’s a large amount of research about how human brains are wired in a specific way to learn to read, write and acquire literacy.

“Every child learns to read in the same way. A lot of children come to education settings and naturally have the ability to map and store letters, letter strings and words, as well as follow text and learn by self-teaching graphemes, phonemes and phonics – all of those things that we now know are so very important for teaching reading and writing,” says Jo.

“But for some children, those connections, or ability to self-teach those connections, aren’t quite there. It’s important that we equip them by implementing a teaching approach that builds teacher knowledge and practice and aligns with the science of reading and evidence. A structured literacy approach ensures we consciously teach and develop strong foundational skills.”

With the components of literacy instruction in place and explicitly and directly taught, Jo says that nothing is left to chance.

“We start off with looking at phonological awareness and that gives us our broad skills for identifying and manipulating units of oral language. Then we work through the alphabetic principle, and that’s understanding direct letter to sound correspondence – spelling patterns and irregular spelling patterns. Then we go through to fluency and onto vocabulary and comprehension.”

For Year 1 students, the structured literacy approach is now the norm.

For Year 1 students, the structured literacy approach is now the norm.

Catering for all needs

Professional learning development (PLD) has led to a big shift in pedagogy at the school.

“It’s a pedagogy, not a programme, and teachers have had to do a lot of upskilling and learning, which has allowed them to focus on how to teach and having confidence that what they are doing is based on science and evidence – and they’re seeing results.”

When teachers started unpacking the data and questioning how to raise the tail of underachievement, particularly in spelling, they realised they had a ‘smorgasbord of programmes’, and there was a lack of consistency which had been embedded in long held beliefs and ideology, Jo believes.

“We knew that a one size fits all programme doesn’t fit everyone. We wanted the approach to be something that worked for our neurodiverse learners, and students who present with learning challenges in literacy, especially dyslexic learners,” says Jo.

With a focus on providing core literacy foundations, Holy Family Catholic School now has fewer children in Years 1–4 needing additional support.

In the classroom

While the fast 20-minute lessons may be considered quite traditional, they are also highly engaging and ākonga know what to expect – there’s quite a lot of movement and an expectation for the child to be responding.

“There will be a revision of a previous concept, or the previous days’ learning. So those things are all helping with their working memory, helping them to remember and learn to encode – to write it down – which reinforces that learning,” says Jo.

Writing toolIn each lesson, there are three components – oral language, writing and verbal speaking.

“In a typical lesson, you’ll see phonological awareness, the alphabetic principle, irregular words, revision of a previous concept and potentially, the introduction of a new concept. There’ll be decoding, reading of the words, and encoding, writing the words. The progression of the learning will be different in terms of the level, or the needs of each class,” explains Jo.

She says the systematic and sequential progress of the lesson is training the brain as well.

“Every child in our school will know what their ‘tool hand’ is and know how to use it. We’ll get children to hold up their hand – sound out a word and put each finger up. They’ll read the words, say the words, share the words, write the words.”

Adaptable approach

Teachers can bring their own flavour and style to the structured literacy approach.

“We have two new entrant classes and within those two classes, the teachers have very different personalities, but both are teaching the same scope and sequence in an evidence-based way.”

Jo says the results show that the learning can be transferred into other areas of reading and writing, where there might be elements of a more collaborative and relaxed approach to teaching and learning.

“Without a doubt, it’s absolutely having an impact and we can see the children using the skills they have learned within their reading and writing, which is really rewarding.”

During the Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020 and August 2021, the school transitioned to an online learning space and continued with explicit daily spelling sessions.

“We just moved them to prepared PowerPoints and the children would have the ability to ask questions. From March 2020, it was adapted and provided us with a new format working with Learning Matters. That was like a next step in our journey that worked well and is now part of our concept delivery.”

Teacher Kathy Pittaway with Year 4 and 5 students Melati, Gabriella and Ruby.

Teacher Kathy Pittaway with Year 4 and 5 students Melati, Gabriella and Ruby.

Impact and results

Jo gets excited when she talks about the impact of ‘filling the gaps’.

“For the children who started as a Year 6, 7 or 8 learner, they had a whole lot of foundational literacy skill gaps which had been missed because we didn’t know what we didn’t know, and now we’ve had the ability to really unpack it.

“The most exciting thing is that we could clearly identify in those early days that we had a lot of work to do, but three to four years down the track, these students that have been exposed to this approach have hugely benefited.

“For our children who come in as new entrants, it’s different for them because this is just the norm, whereas those older children who have had this approach for four years already, they themselves can see where they’ve come from and they know what achievement they have made and are really proud of that,” she says.

Future goals

Now in its fourth year, Holy Family Catholic School has transitioned towards making the approach sustainable, with literacy leaders within the school supporting new teachers. Literacy leaders are now focused on further developing their coaching capabilities with PLD.

“We’ll do more work in the literacy field to ensure we continue to keep ourselves up to speed with the current science and research,” says Jo.

The school has seen great success and is looking at how the pedagogy of the approach can be transferred to teaching the mathematics curriculum.

The school is also keen to share its journey with other educators. During 2021, about 200 educators from throughout Aotearoa have visited Holy Family Catholic School to learn more.

“We’ve had principals who have brought their entire team through for multiple visits. They wanted to come and see it in action in our classrooms and get an idea about how it would work in their contexts,” says Jo.

As early adopters, were there any doubts?

“Oh, absolutely – a lot of us were very experienced with a lot of training in different areas such as Reading Recovery. Then suddenly you have a new pedagogy and you’re saying, ‘hang on, is this right?’ We did have doubt, but I think it’s just holding strong to that belief that there is science and evidence, whereas in the past we were leaving it to chance.

“This approach does not leave reading to chance,” concludes Jo. 

Deputy principal and SENCO Ange Scoullar, principal Jo McKay, and junior team and literacy leader Anne Fauth.

Deputy principal and SENCO Ange Scoullar, principal Jo McKay, and junior team and literacy leader Anne Fauth.

Better Start Literacy Approach

The Ministry of Education is funding Better Start Literacy Approach (BSLA) professional support. BSLA is an integrated approach to developing vocabulary, oral, listening, spelling, writing and reading skills in the first year of learning, utilising the Ready to Read Phonics Plus texts.

It focuses on the link between spoken and written language, systematically supporting children’s phonological and phonemic awareness, letter-sound knowledge and oral language.

For more information, or to apply visit BSLA(external link).

Student and whānau kōrero

It’s made me think about how to spell a word when I am writing. Sometimes I can remember the rules we’ve learned and I try to think about the syllables. I like that we get to read some fun stories with Mrs Scoullar. We get to play some games with the words and that helps me to remember the spelling and the words. Evie, Year 6

I sometimes practise our word lists at home and when I do, it helps me to remember the rules. I really like the series I’m reading with Mrs Scott. I like the word games and I try to remember to look for the syllables and work out how to say them. Eddie, Year 5

My spelling and learning some of the rules has helped me a lot with my reading because I think about the vowels and if they say their name or not. I really like the reading books as they’re interesting and not too hard and not too easy. I’m better with my punctuation when I’m reading and I understand it better. Tia, Year 5

The way she teaches helps me read and spell the words. I like learning all the concepts because they help me spell. Lucy, Year 3

Practising reading by saying and finger spelling the words helps the word pop. James-Alex, Year 2

Spelling concepts help me sound out words when I’m writing a story. I know all the different concepts and can make difficult words. Greta, Year 2

As a parent trustee on Holy Family’s Board of Trustees it has been a real pleasure to be involved with the evidence-based Structured Literacy implementation across the school – from the presentation of the initial idea, to the board’s commitment to our students’ achievement and the investment into our staff’s professional development. Then as it was implemented and refined in our classrooms, watching the positive effect on our school’s learning data, and now, supporting our team as they share their professional learning about this approach and its implementation with their peers from across the country. Carrie Wallis, board member and parent.

As parents we have great confidence in the structured approach to literacy, starting with the thorough assessment to identify the specific areas of need, so that subsequent teaching is targeted to support the learning needs of the children. The whole school approach provides cohesion between years so the children are continually building on previously acquired skills. We can see a real sense of achievement in our children as they continue to make clearly identified gains in literacy. Lucy Annan, parent.

We have loved the Structured Literacy programme at Holy Family. Our kids have benefited greatly from evidence-based learning and the consistent approach taken across the school. Listening to our kids sounding and figuring out each word as they are learning to read through the tools provided to them through the programme has been amazing. Both our children are now avid little readers at 6 and 7 years old. I would absolutely recommend this to everyone. Rebecca McElrea, parent

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 10:35 AM, 16 March 2022

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