Young learners benefit from Better Start Literacy Approach

Issue: Volume 101, Number 8

Posted: 30 June 2022
Reference #: 1HAUp3

Explicit literacy teaching using the University of Canterbury’s Better Start Literacy Approach (BSLA) is making a big impact for new entrant and Year 1 students.

Firth School student Blaike has seen a great improvement in her literacy learning.

Firth School student Blaike has seen a great improvement in her literacy learning.

There are wide variations in the literacy skills of tamariki starting school, which can become larger over time. Early findings from the University of Canterbury’s Better Start Literacy Approach (BSLA) are good, showing that explicit teaching is closing gaps between learners’ literacy progress and development.

The Ministry of Education is making professional support in the BSLA available for new entrant and Year 1 teachers and sector literacy specialists who provide in-school support. The aim is to get learners the support they need when they need it and prevent problems for them later in the learning pathway.

BSLA is a comprehensive approach to build strong foundational literacy skills for all learners in their first year at school. After 10 weeks of receiving BSLA, children are assessed again to see how they are responding and to help teachers identify next steps for each learner.

Professors Gail Gillon and Brigid McNeill and their team from the University of Canterbury Child Wellbeing Research Institute have developed the evidenced-based approach specifically for the New Zealand educational context. Controlled trials have shown the approach to be effective.

“We are thrilled with the positive data from over 6,000 children who have received BSLA right from the start of school,” says Gail.

“The data indicates that with high quality professional learning and development and appropriate supports our new entrant and Year 1 teachers can quickly advance children’s foundational literacy skills within the first 10 weeks of class teaching. They are also identifying early children who need additional small group support and understand the teaching strategies necessary to support these learners.

“The amazing results we are seeing with BSLA is a reflection of our talented junior school teachers and the expertise of our literacy specialists who are supporting them,” adds Gail.

Gail and her team have noticed that BSLA is working particularly well in schools where there is a strong leadership commitment, and where teachers are working together to implement the approach.

Engaging whānau is an important aspect with BSLA. Teachers are working hard and thinking of creative ways to engage as many whānau as possible in learning how to support their child’s oral language, reading and writing development.

Firth School’s learner success

Firth School in Matamata was among the first to adopt the approach in their 2021 new entrant class. It has worked so well for them that this year they have integrated it across their five junior school classes up to Year 2.

Principal Michelle Ryan says the results they’re seeing after learners’ first 10 weeks at school, and ongoing after that, are “out of this world”.

Michelle says many of their foundational learners begin their schooling with little oral language and low readiness for learning.

“We were concerned by our Year 3 students’ data and realised it was because we weren’t doing enough at the new entrant level,” she says.

“It’s been the best thing for us as it’s very specific, very explicit and very targeted. We have a lot of learners with individual learning needs and they’re all making accelerated progress because of this approach.”

New entrant teacher Maureen Toki says she is excited to see the children’s engagement and thirst for learning in a fun and exciting way.

“The learning that happens in just the first 10 weeks of the approach is phenomenal and we can see the transferring of knowledge into other curriculum areas.

“The approach has sparked curiosity and inquisitiveness in our students. They want to find out more about the content in the stories we read.”

Positive shifts across the board

While they’ve seen huge improvements in children’s oral language, Michelle says the greatest excitement is seeing students transfer the knowledge and apply their learning to other aspects of literacy such as reading, writing and spelling.

She says this is the first time in her three years as principal where there has been a positive shift in new entrants’ attitude towards writing.

“With all the blending, segmenting and resources that are supplied, they’re able to independently take those skills and knowledge and apply them to their writing.”

Michelle recalls the day a student came to her after visiting Wellington for the weekend and wrote “we went to Wellington and went to the zoo and up the cable car”.

“I could read all of that without him telling me what it said. He’d been at school for eight weeks and could write that well because of BSLA.”

She has noticed students are also reading without finger pointing to scan text, and there is acceleration of sound knowledge that is evident throughout the daily programmes and outside the classroom too.

“They’re noticing the sounds all around them. We can be out in the playground now and someone’s telling me, ‘That starts with a ‘t’’, and they’re reading signs.

“We’ve never had this sort of engagement, retention of knowledge or accelerated progress before.

“We were lucky because our junior team could see we needed to change what we were doing as it certainly wasn’t meeting the needs of our students.”

Teachers empowered

Firth School’s teachers have adapted to the new approach with ease, integrating it throughout the day’s lessons, says Michelle. The 30 weeks of lesson plans, the resource kete and the online learning modules combine well and build on each other.

Teachers unpack vocabulary as they work through the step-by-step lesson plans.

For example, a book about a kiwi will lead to unpacking all the vocabulary, with the literacy focus being carried into their learning as they work through the inquiry space, researching the kiwi, making habitats, and creating kiwis through art.

“The students are blending sounds out and writing the tricky words – that aren’t from essential lists – as they learn.

“It’s really humbling to see our teachers, who work so hard, see it all gelling together for the students,” says Michelle.

The BSLA microcredentials provide teachers with modern online learning – working through modules and quizzes to gain their qualification rather than essays and assignments. This is supported by weekly online sessions with university tutors and other teachers.

The most powerful impact for the Firth School teachers has been their own weekly professional discussions.

“It’s provided professional dialogue where the team comes together once a week and talks through the approach, where they’re at, look at resources and what they need. We’ve got a mix of experience, and they all share something different,” says Michelle.

The assessments are useful

Michelle says the resources provided with the approach are fantastic and something they will work to embed across the whole school.

“The assessments identify where the gaps in skills and knowledge are for our literacy learners and inform the explicit teaching required.”

Michelle says the digital assessments are engaging for the children as there’s no ‘got it wrong’ and reinforces that they did a good job.

All students have an oral language assessment either at school entry or when they first have BSLA teaching. Those who show gaps in their abilities are assessed again after 10 weeks of teaching. This assessment will show their skill and knowledge progress in response to the teaching and indicate what teaching individuals need from that 10-week stage.

“We’ve replaced our previous school entry assessment with the BSLA baseline assessment. The resulting learner data and graphs are provided through the digital platform.”

This data is great for the teachers, Michelle says.

“Everyone likes to be successful, and you feel good as a teacher knowing, through the data and engagement, that your students are learning.”

Whānau partnership

Michelle says the children are now confident writers, readers and learners – and whānau are enthusiastic too.

They held several whānau hui to explain the approach and what the learners will bring home because this approach is new for them too and the books look different to what they are used to.

“It’s a partnership. Things go home at night and learners share with their parents what they’re doing in the classroom.”

She says home-based learning is manageable and purposeful without being stressful for the student or parent.

“For example, we might tell [whānau] what sound we’re learning and ask them to support their child in finding five things at home that start with that sound.”

Maureen agrees this has strengthened the partnership between home and school.

“The learning is seamless as the children are taking the learning home and continuing this with whānau.”

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Key things to have in place

To get the best results from BSLA and Phonics Plus books, Michelle says you need:

  • The support of your BSLA facilitator – for Firth School it was their Resource Teacher: Literacy.
  • A willingness to want to change practice to meet the needs of your students.
  • A partnership with whānau through regular hui and communication. 

Find out more about BSLA(external link) 

Apply for BSLA funding support(external link)

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:54 am, 30 June 2022

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