Lancaster Leading Synthetic Phonics
Visiting Lancaster Primary School last week, CEP Media Officer Britt Ditterich sat down with Principal Trish Perry and Learning Specialist Willie Alblas to learn more about the school’s adaption of synthetic phonics .
The school’s decision to use this approach to literacy, rather than the ‘whole word’ method, has garnered plenty of interest and attention since they made the switch, just over two years ago.
And while the team at Lancaster concede their approach may not be ‘standard’ in most Australian schools, they say they’re determined to forge ahead because they’re getting results.
Thanks for your time Trish and Willie. We’ve been hearing quite a bit about your school’s approach to literacy. Can you talk me through it?
(Trish): It’s called multisensory structured language. It’s definitely an approach and not to be confused with a specific program. It is a teaching approach and it involves systematic synthetic phonics; so, it is teaching the kids how to decode words and how to encode them, so, looking at a word’s make-up and understanding them from that – rather than a whole-word approach.
What made you decide this was the way you wanted to go about literacy?
(Trish): A lot of our children weren’t learning – even with Reading Recovery and a lot of other intervention, they weren’t truly catching on with reading. We saw that some kids were leaving here, progressing into high school, and they still weren’t reading properly. For us, that was a clear alarm bell that something had to change.
We also had a child in the school who had dyslexia. We went about finding out more about what the Dyslexia Association was recommending for a child like him and they were suggesting this. We then did further investigation, we attended professional development and then we decided that this was the way forward for all of our students.
(Willie): So, just like Trish said …the reality was we had far too many kids getting through to grade two, grade three, not being able to read well. We changed our approach and we use explicit direct instruction for all lessons, not just literacy, for everything we teach– and at around the same time we introduced multisensory structured language.
The key of this is that it’s working at a level that the kids are working at, so if they don’t get it we go back and teach it again until they’ve got it and we do a lot of reviewing of ‘previously taught skills’.
Has it been challenging to adopt this approach? Have you faced many hurdles?
(Trish): I’d say it has been difficult in the sense that we have to be very careful to relate everything to what the Department expects to be taught – I feel that it’s a constant balance between what the Department requires and what our kids actually require.
We’ve had to use our own school budget to do all of this — training the teachers, purchasing new materials, and providing intervention so that our teachers can teach one-on-one with this approach when required. We’ve also had to change our assessment program to make sure we are catering for the needs of the children and not just ‘ticking boxes’.
(Willie): We’ve faced many challenges during the past few years, with budget constraints, teacher knowledge gaps and difficulty finding resources. We are being mentored by Bentleigh West Primary School and they have shared their experiences in changing their teaching approach with us. Principal Steven Capp and Victorian Teacher of the Year (2015) Sarah Asome have shared resources, assessments and their knowledge with us, particularly the Explicit Direct Instruction method. Our whole staff have been down to BWPS to experience what rigorous teaching of reading, writing and maths looks like. We are all still learning as we go.
What work have you had to put in, or what things have you had to do, to be able to implement this approach?
(Trish): We’ve had to attend intend intensive training to do this. We’ve had to purchase new books – decodable books – and we’ve had to change the way we teach in the classroom, so we are now explicitly teaching the sounds and explicitly teaching how to apply those sounds to make words.
And when exactly did you make the shift – two years ago?
(Trish): Yes, two years ago and I can confidently say our children are starting to show really clear improvements with their understanding of words, particularly the kids who are at the top-tier who need very strong intervention. They’re really starting to show that they have a great understanding of ‘how’ words are, and then being able to put words together.
(Willie): Essentially, we are still early in this process. The results from the Phonic Check, which is what we use from the UK, are improving each year and we are aiming to achieve a 100% pass rate for students at the end of Grade One.
I wouldn’t say we’re necessarily recording really strong results yet because these things take time. We really need to give it several years to be able to see true comparative results.
Has this given you a sense of vindication?
(Trish): Oh, absolutely. And I’ve actually got one of my teachers filling a more specific role of collecting data, looking at the data, making sure every child is properly tested, so that we can continue to provide intervention when it’s needed. We are looking at the point of need of our students all of the time, rather than just classroom teachers doing their own things. Instead, that specific teacher will make sure that data is being collected through the school and then communicates those results all of the time – constantly — back to our other teachers.
(Willie): With the whole-of-word approach we see a lot of guessing of words — that’s one of the main problems – kids are just looking at words and guessing, or they’re relying entirely on an accompanying picture to actually know the word.
Whereas with this approach … I can’t say it enough; this has been a huge changer for our school and our students, and I would truly recommend it to all schools.
What feedback have you received from your educators, as well as your parents?
(Trish): The teachers are really excited, and they’ve absolutely noticed the difference. We are one of very few rural schools using this approach, so we are quite unique.
From our parents we’ve received resounding support and they tell us they find it easier to work with their kids at home by using this method because it resonates with them and their education. We’ve also had other schools visit us to see what we are doing.
Would you like to see greater collegiate support for this teaching approach?
(Trish): Absolutely. The word is out there and the research we have been seeing certainly suggests that the whole-word-approach doesn’t work, or it certainly doesn’t work as well. Given this, we do often ponder why there hasn’t been a clear shift back to teaching the phonetics of words but we’re big believers that schools need to do what works for them; what works for their students because we are all different.
Trish and Willie, thanks for your time.