Comprehension is an essential part of the literacy equation

by Annie Facchinetti, leading educator and author of
OZBOX: Learning through Literacy and Oxford Literacy teaching notes.

Imagine that you were lost in Turkey and the only directions you had were written in Turkish. You could probably read them out loud with reasonable accuracy, even though your phonological awareness of the language may not be perfect, but unless you can speak Turkish, your understanding would be limited. Reading the directions is therefore unlikely to be a valuable activity for you. So, while phonics and decoding are critical skills, without comprehension, the whole point of reading is lost.

Seminal research by Gough and Tunmer (1986) proposed the Simple View of Reading, which places equal value on decoding and comprehension using a mathematical equation: Reading = Decoding x Comprehension or R = D x C. In this equation, if there is no comprehension, and therefore the C has a value of 0, the R will also equal 0. In other words, if comprehension is not happening, reading is not happening.

A comprehensive study by the US National Reading Panel (NRP & NICHD, 2000) identified five areas as being critical to reading instruction: phonemic awareness; phonics; fluency; vocabulary; and text instruction. Often referred to as the ‘big five’, the NRP concluded that each component is necessary for successful reading from the earliest stages of school.

This represents a shift from traditional thinking, whereby phonics was the main focus for early years students and comprehension was introduced later.

The view that comprehension should be an integral part of reading instruction has garnered much support in the research literature. Cunningham and Shagoury (2005, p.4), for example, contend that emphasising decoding too heavily in lower grades can lead to a lack of understanding when reading by the time students reach the middle years. They advocate explicit instruction in a range of comprehension strategies, including visualising, inference and synthesising skills. Reed (2016) takes this one step further, asserting that:

Teaching comprehension while students are still mastering foundational reading skills will not only allow for students to demonstrate age-appropriate skills, but it also will help reinforce the reasons we read in the first place: to derive meaning, understanding, and enjoyment from a book or other text.

This suggests that not only are students capable of text comprehension as soon as they begin reading (Gregory & Cahill, 2010), but also ensuring that they have the skills to access meaning as they read is vital to help students become successful and willing readers. Comprehension is an essential part of the literacy equation Teaching comprehension… will help reinforce the reasons we read in the first place: to derive meaning, understanding, and enjoyment from a book or other text.

While instruction is some foundational skills of reading such as phonological awareness, will gradually become less necessary as students’ reading proficiency increases (Reed,2016), comprehension remains important right through the primary years and beyond. A lack of comprehension skills will affect not only a student’s academic results, but also a whole host of areas om their adult lives, including opportunities for future study and employment prospects (Marshall, n.d). Consequently. it is necessary to provide continued support for students to develop and refine strategies to understand and critically analyse what they read throughout their school lives.

There is general agreement that while decoding is necessary for successful reading, by itself is not sufficient (Gough & Turner, 1986; Van Kleeck, 2008). Incorporating targeted and explicit comprehension instruction into daily literacy programs is therefore essential to support students as readers and learners.

Teaching systematic synthetic phonics is a ‘success for all’ approach

A Read, Write Inc. Case Study by Sophie Rasic from Mr Brendon Madden, Principal, Toowong State School, Queensland

“Be prepared to see fast improvements”

Age group: Prep–Year 6 | Students on roll: 284

School context: Toowong State School is a well-established Brisbane inner-city school, based in its current location since 1910. The suburb is predominately a residential area. The school’s strengths are cultural diversity and inclusivity, having implemented both a bi-lingual and bi-cultural program for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

Student demographic: The school is in the top 100 public primary schools in Brisbane for English and Maths academic results in 2017 (bettereducation.com.au). Of the student population, sixteen per cent speak English as a second language and six per cent are deaf and hard-of-hearing.

When did you start teaching systematic synthetic phonics?

Read Write Inc.
(RWI) was my introduction to overseeing the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics. After researching phonics-based approaches to teaching in late 2015, I chose RWI as the best fit for Toowong State School based on the program’s explicit connections for teachers between reading, writing, spelling and comprehension.

When did you implement Read Write Inc.?

Our staff attended a two-day training session with RWI consultant Hayley Goldsworthy in Term 4 of 2015.

Since then I have appointed a RWI Manager, carefully rolled out the program over three terms in 2016 with ongoing support from Hayley through the initial staff training to a consultation day and master class sessions – focussing on modelled lessons and feedback throughout the year from teachers.

Teacher aides, new, relief and ongoing staff have attended two extra rounds of RWI training in the last year to ensure the program remains current and imbedded in our school.

The children’s unwavering engagement in classes proves their enjoyment, particularly when teachers report of students who ‘bounce off’ to phonics lessons.”

How would you describe the RWI training you received?

RWI is a significant undertaking and training was essential to our school’s success.

Hayley was our trainer and consultant, and facilitated our school during Term 4 of 2015 to prepare staff to teach RWI the following year. In this critical time, Hayley worked effectively and closely with our RWI Manager to unpack the materials and set-up processes so that a clear step-by-step roll out of the program was achieved.

Alongside continuous training sessions for all staff, Hayley ensured we were prepared for RWI by connecting us to Oxford University Press who we were able to talk with directly when ordering our resources that make up our catalogued texts and teaching kits.

The payoff for their effort and commitment is in the results of their students.”

Have you put any strategies in place for mentoring and coaching staff to help everyone adopt RWI? 

RWI training is a key part of the induction process for all staff at our school, and we undertake refresher training days to ensure everyone at Toowong State School is on board.

Our RWI Manager is an integral staff member for mentoring and coaching at our school. The support teachers receive has ensured consistency of RWI practice. Teachers have reported, continuous feedback given by the RWI manager based on data collected keeps teachers and students both focussed and motivated for each six-week teaching cycle – rarely has a student shown no progress.

How has your school as a whole changed as a result of implementing RWI?

Now that RWI is a program fully integrated in our school, there’s a greater sense of understanding and confidence from our teachers and students. Some of our teachers have worked in the industry for over fifteen years, and now they feel they can articulate how they teach students to read clearly. Teachers have even higher expectations for all students to become capable readers. The payoff for their effort and commitment is in the results of their students.

How have your students benefited from RWI?

Knowledge of spelling and its application in writing is very strong across all years.

The children’s unwavering engagement in classes proves their enjoyment, particularly when teachers report of students who ‘bounce off’ to phonics lessons. When asked to write about their favourite part of the day, a Year 1 student wrote, ‘Morning tea is the best part of the day because next it is time for RWI!’

Have you seen any impact on your results?

Students’ results are significantly higher than years prior to the implementation of RWI, and as a school we are proud to announce that by the end of 2017, the impact in PM Reading Level results for Prep & Year 1 students show progress up to two years ahead of their grade level. Last year’s NAPLAN results, for students beyond Year 2, who had undertaken twelve months of the RWI program showed great improvements, particularly with reading skills.

What would you say to other schools considering adopting RWI?
It works. RWI is a program that takes a ‘success for all’ approach. RWI addresses differentiation and additional needs between students, keeping them engaged through the Tutoring program. One-to-one tutoring sessions are supported by plenty of online resources and a handbook to help students who require extra guidance.

Do you have any practical tips for other schools to help them be successful?

Commit to the program! For RWI to have the maximum positive impact on students’ learning, the program needs to be implemented in its entirety. Assigning a RWI Manager is central to initial and ongoing success – this position is responsible for managing planning, feedback and training sessions for both existing and new staff, particularly within the first year of introducing the program.

Be prepared to see fast improvements in students’ reading, writing, spelling and comprehension; plan extension programs for very capable students in Years 1 & 2 who exit RWI early, and buy quality reading materials for those engaged readers – this is a new, but exciting challenge to expect!

Systematic synthetic phonics helps all students achieve reading growth

A Read, Write Inc. Case Study from Jocelyn Seamer, Principal, Dundee Beach School, Northern Territory

Every child has benefited.”

Age group: Preschool–Year 6 | Students on roll: 23

School context: Dundee Beach is a remote school 2 hours outside of Darwin. Mains electricity connection came to the area in 2006. The community has only recently had the road to Darwin sealed and most roads in the area are dirt in the dry season and mud in the wet. There are no shops or health services at Dundee Beach. There are two roadhouses in the local area which service locals and tourists who come to the area for fishing.

Student demographic: Our student cohort is mainstream with no learners identifying as English as an Additional Language/Dialect. We have a high proportion of students who require additional support for their learning due to disability or developmental delays. The school has a low socio-economic status.

When did you start teaching systematic synthetic phonics?

I learned about phonics as part of my Initial Teacher Education at a small, independent college in NSW. But it was during my first teaching contract in the Northern Territory that I really discovered systematic synthetic phonics. That discovery was made by our  regional literacy coach  and completely changed the way the 13 small schools in the region operated. We had wonderful successes and I was an instant convert! From there I actively sought schools that were either already using systematic synthetic phonics or where I could make a change to do so. When I came to Dundee Beach I taught using elements of a couple of different programs but it was a lot of work to create the resources myself. Our children did very well with a change of approach but I knew that it could be better.

When did you implement Read Write Inc.?

I am very lucky to be working in the Northern Territory at a time when evidence-based practice is being embraced. After much consideration and research our Literacy and Numeracy Essentials team decided on Read Write Inc. (RWI) to deliver systematic synthetic phonics to our remote schools. We attended the training and commenced with the program in Semester 2, 2017. I was unsure at first about whether RWI would be for us because we were already delivering systematic synthetic phonics with good results, but when I attended the training I could see how RWI was different from other programs. I was excited!

How would you describe the RWI training you received?

Hayley Goldsworthy, our trainer, was so passionate about phonics and the difference that it can make to children’s lives. The training was comprehensive and I really appreciated the hands-on activities that gave us instant opportunities for practice. All of my questions were answered and I have had the opportunity to connect with Hayley since then.

RWI is a terrific vehicle for delivering high quality systematic synthetic phonics.”

Have you put any strategies in place for mentoring and coaching staff to help everyone adopt RWI?

We have made a start on weekly practice sessions. As we are a very small school and work in the same room much of the time, we have the opportunity to see each other’s lessons. We have recorded our own lessons to reflect on our work and will have a schedule of practice in place in 2018.

How has your school as a whole changed as a result of implementing RWI?

We now have a common language about early literacy instruction. We are able to confidently group students and be responsive to their needs based on a common understanding of their progress. Our planning time has also drastically reduced. Once everything was set up, a whole week’s planning and preparation only takes us about 20 minutes. For a small school with very limited time, that’s really important.

The students have responded very well to the program. I saw an immediate improvement in the engagement levels for our students with additional needs. The systematic, sequential nature of the lessons means that they have a firm understanding of what it takes for them to be successful. The lessons are also forming the basis for Tier 3 work with some of our students, meaning there’s a greater connection between the classroom and intervention work which is really important for our students.

How have your students benefited from RWI?

Our whole school has benefited from the implementation of systematic synthetic phonics. We have no separate spelling program, no spelling lists and no homework but our children’s spelling results have increased phenomenally. At our presentation day last week I gave two awards for spelling, both to upper primary students. One has increased their spelling age by 2.6 years and the other 2.9 years in 10 months. All students have made terrific gains because they are learning how words work and are utilizing their phonemic skills more.

Have you seen any impact on your results?

Every student in our school made at or above the expected growth in Progressive Achievement Tests in Reading (PAT-R) over the last 12 months. This figure includes our students with additional needs and I am most proud of that fact. We have seen extremely encouraging growth in reading scores (NEALE Reading analysis), PAT and in spelling across the school. They aren’t all at the desired level but when you’re achieving more than 12 months growth for 12 months of learning, you know that good things are happening. Every child has benefited.

Since implementing RWI I have noticed that students are actually reading all through the word instead of guessing when they come to an unfamiliar word. They know that the answer to their decoding dilemma is the word itself, not the picture or the context or their understanding of what would make sense. They self-correct a lot more and most importantly, our families are reporting that children’s skills and enthusiasm for reading has come ahead in leaps and bounds. There were a few tears at the presentation day! Part of this has been the decision to only expose our beginning readers to decodable books for instruction. This creates a reading environment where the student can be certain of success. Of course, students are exposed to terrific literature and shared reading opportunities too!

We now have a common language about early literacy instruction.”

What would you say to other schools considering adopting RWI?

Do it! RWI is a terrific vehicle for delivering high quality systematic synthetic phonics. I love that there are so many elements of reading and writing instruction built in and that once it is all set up there is very little preparation involved. It has meant that we have maintained our lessons right up until the last week of the year. It sends a really powerful message to our students about our work here at school and our high expectations.

Do you have any practical tips for other schools to help them be successful?

Set up your resources from the start so that you aren’t printing, cutting and laminating as you go. Also, display your speed sound strips and text teaching progressions where the students can see them. This keeps you on track while you are learning the routines and helps them be motivated to stay focused right until the end of the lesson.