In the last half-decade, there has been a noticeable groundswell towards evidence-based literacy instruction in primary (and secondary) schools in New Zealand. This shift has primarily been driven by educators at the chalkface reshaping their teaching approach to incorporate the research and evidence.
For many years the science about how the brain learns to read has been accessible to us. Unfortunately, the research conducted by cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists and linguists has struggled to make its way onto the classroom or university (teacher training institutions) floor; the space of course we need it to land. As discussed in a chit chat with Professor Pamela Snow there has been a “knowledge translation crisis” and we have experienced a lag of information being presented to the education sector.
The translation of scientific research to classroom reading instruction and support involves multiple stakeholders, such as academics from tertiary institutes, teacher training, school leadership, educators, and even political considerations.
Despite the challenges, our guiding principle should be to adhere to scientific findings from neuroscience, cognitive psychology, linguistics, or educational research that forms a body of research termed the science of reading (the largest body of international reading research). Structured Literacy is the teaching approach founded out of the science of reading, and it is exciting to see the bridge growing stronger every day.
Navigating amidst the noise
As we strive for progress and evidence-based change, there is a growing concern that the cacophony of voices and distractions may obstruct the path toward meaningful and evidence-based transformation for literacy education. The noise in education takes various forms, including the continuous stream of policy debates, conflicting viewpoints from stakeholders, and even the presence of dubious (snake oil) educational offerings. These disruptions make it easy to lose sight of the primary objective: to enhance literacy instruction for the betterment of our learners and ultimately our society.
Amidst the constant clamour and distractions in education, there is a genuine fear that we may continue on this journey without making a significant impact or change to the status quo.
We do not have time for combined approaches.
While the idea of adopting a "pick-and-mix" approach to literacy instruction may seem enticing, it presents substantial challenges. Educational approaches often come with conflicting methodologies and philosophies. Implementing a mix of approaches would require educators to be knowledgeable in all these approaches and proficiently integrate these methods harmoniously, even within a single classroom. This demands readily available resources and expertise for each approach, which is logistically demanding and leads to inconsistencies in teaching. When teaching and learning time is so precious, do we have time for this?
Fiona Smith is a Team Leader at Willow Park School in Auckland and says, “I was a little bit sceptical of this whole Structured Literacy approach. In fact, I would say a year into my professional development in Structured Literacy, I would have said that there's probably room for both. You can take a little bit of Structured Literacy, a little bit of Whole Language, and you've got yourself a beautiful literacy programme.”
But after two years, she says, “Structured Literacy is really the only approach I would use in my teaching now.
“There is very precious little time available to us in the classroom, so we have to make the minutes count, and we have to do what's going to make the biggest impact on the kids in our class.”
While debates may persist and opinion pieces rear their head about using various approaches to cater to diverse student needs, one thing is undeniable: we must not endorse whole language or balanced literacy approaches. As Mark Seidenberg states findings have been yielded that are rock solid. In this short video, he discusses, “If educators had been paying attention to this research, would we have had reading wars over whether we should be encouraging methods that promote linking print and sound?” Stating no, he then continues, “What we should be thinking about is what’s the fastest and most efficient way to get the most kids through this stage of integration, seeing how print relates to speech so they can get on with the task of reading for various purposes and learning from what they read.”
Our young learners’ time in the classroom is precious, and we need to use the most effective teaching approach during this time.
We must embrace the science and research behind effective literacy instruction.
Our educators deserve a deep understanding of how the brain learns to read to confidently adapt and adjust their teaching practices to reach every student in their care. This knowledge forms the bedrock of a teacher's journey into the science and research of effective literacy instruction.
Is a Structured Literacy approach the way forward? There is evidence to suggest so. Structured Literacy (when delivered with fidelity) has demonstrated its ability to successfully teach the majority of children to read. This is substantiated by Nancy Young's Ladder of Reading and Writing, which illustrates this.
As stated above, Structured Literacy practice stems from findings known as the science of reading. It is a teaching approach that encompasses all aspects of language and literacy. The approach is often mistaken as phonics alone or for a programme simply due to the term structured and the explicit and at times scripted elements of delivery. These scripted aspects are provided to teachers in a bid to help them learn the act of explicit instruction and delivery. Moreover, it goes a step further by integrating multi-sensory techniques that engage different areas of the brain, resulting in more captivating and efficient learning experiences, a key part of the bridge between research and practical classroom application.
Shirley Winters is the Principal at One Tree Point School and says, “When we started our Structured Literacy journey, learning about the science of reading and how the brain learns to read was a huge mind shift for all of us.
“Teachers are enthusiastic, they're motivated, they're empowered. They can see that their teaching is making a difference for all learners. They now have the tools and the strategies to teach in an explicit, systematic way based on the science of reading, and they're feeling successful.”
If we intend to implement this approach on a large scale, it is imperative that we carefully consider the logistical aspects involved. Scaling up educational initiatives requires a well-thought-out plan that delivers the improved quality outcomes for both teachers and students that we as a nation are seeking.
Teachers need to have confidence that this approach is something that can realistically be implemented within their classrooms. To build this confidence, we must provide educators with the necessary support, resources, and training to effectively adopt this approach. This consistency and support are crucial in ensuring that teachers feel capable of implementing this pedagogy with fidelity and that it can be sustained over time.
Candy Hollier, Team Leader of Year 0-2 Syndicate at Whangamatā Area School, says, “The pedagogical foundation we have been given has just helped us immensely to be able to adjust our best practice to meet our students’ needs on a daily basis. We've also had a wonderful coaching model which has enabled me as syndicate leader to help staff build their own capability as teachers of Structured Literacy.”
Clarity of purpose is our ally
When championing evidence-based education, questions may naturally arise regarding the suitability of Structured Literacy. It's crucial to acknowledge that the educational landscape is intricate and delicate, with any alterations potentially carrying significant consequences. Nevertheless, it's equally vital to recognise that we are on the verge of potentially transformative evidence-based shifts that can greatly benefit our education system.
Maintaining a clear sense of purpose and unwavering commitment to evidence-based practices is imperative. Just as Phonological Awareness serves as the foundation to the building blocks for reading success, let us firmly and clearly establish Structured Literacy as the literacy instruction approach to build from. By doing so and adhering to evidence-based methods, we pave a clear path towards improvement. Establishing a clear pathway and providing teachers with the knowledge, practice supports and resourcing they need to teach most, if not ALL, students they work with, is what they deserve. Teachers became teachers to make a difference. Now is the time to provide them with the clear direction needed to shift our literacy outcomes, whether at classroom, school, regional, or national level.
If you would like to know more about how we can assist with your school’s Structured Literacy journey, we have a variety of Professional Learning opportunities including workshops and consultancy with schools where we provide a whole-school professional learning series.
If not you, then who?