The reading wars are over (thank goodness for sound research!), but we still are at risk as we teach, model, practice and apply the skills necessary to develop phonemic awareness and phonics in our kids.
And here’s why: We are focusing on “Do they have the skill?” rather than “How automatically do they have that skill?”. And the success of our students, particularly in phonemic awareness and phonics, depends on our response to the second question. Automatically pulling up the skills to support “bigger”, more complex skills like comprehension and using context to determine meaning of unknown words is what is going to make or break the success of your kids.
Now, some of you might be thinking: OF COURSE we teach phonemic awareness and phonics! In fact, we do it EVERY DAY for at least 30 minutes a day!
While that is likely true in nearly all (hopefully ALL!) of the K-2 classrooms and intervention classrooms, our work isn’t done when the kids just “get” the skill. They need to master the skill and then become automatic…and maintain it across time.
One of the things that has risen to the top of my “be concerned about” list is that when schools are using DIBELS and AIMSweb to benchmark and progress monitor kids, the phoneme segmentation fluency, letter naming fluency, nonsense word fluency and other phonemic awareness/phonics-based tasks just fall off. Whether kids have benchmarked or not!
For example, just last week I ran into a group of second grade strategic oral reading fluency students as we did our data review. When I asked if the students had “passed” the nonsense word reading fluency assessment in 1st grade, what we found is that they hadn’t – but because the text was no longer expected to be given in 2nd grade, we never flagged those kids as needing additional phonics support well into 2nd grade.
So, what were they getting? Hours of fluency practice each week.
Hmmm…strike you as a little off base? It sure did to me!
So we fixed the problem right away by getting kids into daily, timed review of letter sounds and sound spellings and then practice in blending words the “whole word blending” way – without having to sound out each sound and then recode the word. In other words – we trained them (in a plan that is lasting 6 weeks!) to look for the spelling patterns in words and quickly read those words.
The interesting conversation came after we did some progress monitoring on the nonsense word reading fluency: the teachers said, “But they’re reading those decodable books at 70-80%+ accuracy, so no wonder I didn’t think they needed additional phonics instruction!”
The point is – without fluency of skill, then the skill mastery may not be sufficient. AND that lack of fluency may not show up until later grades…so we have to be proactive. Actually, I would change our definition of “mastery” to include the element of fluency. Without it, we’re fooling ourselves.
So, here’s where I encourage you to start in analyzing how your students are doing on ANY skill. Ask yourself these questions:
- Are they slow but accurate on the skill?
- Are they fast but inaccurate on the skill?
- Are they slow and inaccurate on the skill?
- Are they meeting the fluency rate on the skill?
Kids will fall into one of those four categories! And once we have sorted kids by skill into those categories, we now have information on how to provide additional support during small group instruction. If you have a slow but accurate student, then timed practice is key. If you have a fast but inaccurate student on a skill then you know your practice will be slowing them down in order to later speed them up. If they’re both slow and inaccurate, then some direct teaching on the skill (even though it’s been previously taught) is the right fit.
I guess my desire for all of us is that we remain vigilant in our pursuit of skill mastery for all of our kids. Fluency of skill IS going to make or break their reading independence now and in the future…especially when they encounter tougher text with lots of unknown words.
I encourage you to start by going back to your strategic and intensive kids and see if they “passed” those critical-to-pass assessments before the particular tests were no longer required in that grade level. Once you sort your kids according to the four types above, then you can more accurately point your interventions to what is really going to make a difference in their skill independence!