This article was written by Jocelyn Seamer and first published in The Professional Educator.
If you drive five hours north of Alice Springs you will find yourself in the town of Tennant Creek. A brief walk around our local primary school will reveal children from a range of backgrounds and levels of achievement. Some sit quietly in their classrooms ready to learn, some need to be encouraged to enter the classroom, and others openly refuse to participate, sitting outside or walking around the school. Off-task behaviour is a daily challenge to manage across all year levels, but conversations with our teachers reveal an interesting fact.
“Nobody leaves the classroom during Read Write Inc. lessons. They don’t even ask to go to the toilet!” remarks a teacher. When prompted for more information she responds, “It’s because they are all learning and feel successful”.
In the years preceding this conversation, Tennant Creek Primary School had adopted a number of reading programs. One long-term staff member talks about a phonics program that the school designed.
“When we taught kids phonics, they learned to read. Even the Year 6 boys who couldn’t do anything were starting to read and spell,” the staff member recalls. This growth was short-lived however; a whole language program replaced the phonics program the school had developed.
It is 2018 and the Northern Territory Department of Education (NT DoE) is making great strides in putting evidence into practice in literacy instruction. In 2016, after six months of researching the evidence of reading instruction, the NT DoE decided on a shortlist of resources for teachers that supported systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) instruction. Each resource went through a rigorous auditing process using the Evidence Based Practices Framework (EBPF) to grade each product on a range of criteria. At the end of the process, Read Write Inc. Phonics was selected as the program to be implemented across the five regions of the Northern Territory (NT). To date, 60 remote schools have been trained in the use of Read Write Inc. Phonics, with another 10 coming on board by the end of the year.
Hundreds of children are now receiving evidence-based instruction for the first time and the encouraging experiences of Tennant Creek Primary School are replicated across a range of schools, from Darwin to Alice Springs. Children are learning to read in exciting numbers. Before the introduction of SSP, many children had spent six years at school and were still unable to read the most basic content. A short, intensive period of instruction in the alphabetic code, however, has resulted in student growth that is encouraging and indicative of what is possible when departments of education choose to honour the aims of their strategic plans.
Systematic phonics has been proven to be the most effective method of teaching children to read. The 2005 National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy recommended that “teachers provide systematic, direct and explicit phonics instruction so that children master the essential alphabetic code-breaking skills required for foundational reading proficiency.” It found that “there is a strong body of evidence that whole language approaches are not in the best interests of children experiencing learning difficulties and especially those experiencing reading difficulties”. The panel also found that “being taught under constructivist modes has the effect of compounding their (students’) disadvantage once they begin school. This is particularly the case for children from non-English speaking backgrounds, including Indigenous children where English may be their second or third language” (Commonwealth of Australia, 2005, p. 28). The children of Tennant Creek Primary and the other remote schools in the NT can ill afford whole language teaching. In 2017, 26% of Year 3 students in the NT achieved Below the National Minimum Standard in the NAPLAN reading assessment.
In the two years since the NT introduced SSP instruction, a visible shift has occurred. Children who were not reading are now reading. Scores in the Progressive Achievement Test (PAT-R) have shown that children in schools teaching SSP are performing better than their non-SSP counterparts. After five weeks of phonics, children at Tennant Creek Primary School are delighting their families with their new ability to sound out words and their teachers are thrilled that they are willingly participating in writing lessons for the first time this year.
Evidence based practice enables. It empowers children to understand how words work and apply that knowledge to their reading and writing. It also empowers teachers, support staff and families by providing methodology that is accessible to all. In the homelands school of Mungkarta, 80 kilometres outside of Tennant Creek, Indigenous assistant teachers and volunteer parents actively participate in teaching phonics alongside a classroom teacher to build the skills of the children of the community.
“We want our kids to be strong in culture and lead their community,” an assistant teacher asserts.
Staff and families recognise that the ability to read is a key component to a bright future. Back at Tennant Creek Primary School, it is no accident that the most disruptive of our students are usually those with the poorest reading skills. This week, years 5 and 6 students have just begun their journey with SSP. The first lesson was well received with one group asking their teacher, “Two more words Miss, please, two more words!” as their lesson came to a close.
When asked how he feels about reading the Read Write Inc. Phonics decodable books, a Year 4 student who is frequently in trouble for disruptive behaviour responded, “Happy!” This is a big step for a young person who often experiences school as a series of disciplinary interactions.
At Tennant Creek Primary School, there is a tangible feeling of hope. Our teachers eagerly collect resources for their next phonics and reading lessons. They plan rich literature-based language and writing units collaboratively, knowing that through their SSP lessons they are equipping their students with the skills to participate in deeper learning. Our school recognises the necessity of the ‘Big 6’ of literacy instruction: oral language, phonological and phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency, phonics and comprehension all play a vital role in building strong literacy skills. Children are read to daily with opportunities for dialogue embraced. Our minimum standard is now ‘growth for all’.
And what about the children sitting outside the classroom? In short, we have looked them in the eye and told them that it’s going to be okay. We have promised them that they aren’t dumb, that they can learn to read and spell. We have committed to changing their futures. It’s a big challenge, but it’s one that we feel confident that we can meet head on. Evidence-based practice in literacy instruction changes lives. We see it in our classrooms, the research affirms our observations and we are so very pleased to have the opportunity to do good work in the NT. We refuse to allow our students to be written off and discounted. Watch this space. Big changes are here.
Jocelyn Seamer is Assistant Principal (Curriculum) at Tennant Creek Primary School in the Northern Territory. Jocelyn is a dedicated and professional educator who is determined to prove that all children can learn through evidence based instruction. She works to actively to promote systematic synthetic phonics, explicit teaching and high expectations for all children, regardless of background or disability. The core of her practice is achieving growth for all children using inclusive methodology that meets the need of the most vulnerable.
Commonwealth of Australia (2005) Teaching Reading, Report and Recommendations, National Inquiry of the Teaching of Literacy, December 2005
Listen to Jocelyn speak on ABC News about the success she has achieved with Read Write Inc. at Tennant Creek Primary School.