I've seen the gaps my students had, and the lack of phonics was the only reasonable explanation I saw for why they couldn't spell, and looked at me blankly when I asked them to sound something out, and just guessed or approximated words they didn't know by looking at the first and last letters.
When I moved to NC, I took a job teaching reading intervention to 9th graders. I had experience using SRA Corrective Reading, which I liked. I purchased some of the older workbooks and used it with modest impact in a 10th grade reading intervention program.
But I felt like I needed to understand more about what learning to read looks like, and why it went wrong. So I read probably 15 different books, which led me to Dr. David Kilpatrick's Equipped for Reading Success. I did the phonemic awareness training with my students, as well as did leveled/repeated readings, and talked generally about some phonics rules. Again, I had modest success and many of them improved in fluency and comprehension. But not enough.
This year, I have about two dozen students who have earned A's in ELA for years, but have failed the EOG (the end of year test). Their scores showed that despite their hard work, they weren't able to read well enough to access the skills they had.
So I went back to Kilpatrick and read Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. I don't know if there was new information, or if I was just ready to understand it more, but it helped me form a plan to address these students. I know that when I went looking for information or a solid plan for reading intervention in middle school, there wasn't much out there that was specific and focused on older kids. I share this not as an, "I have this all figured out" plan, but as a "This is working so far, and the research is solid" plan.
First, I identified 4-6 students per class period to focus on. I looked for students who were hard working and motivated, but whose test scores and reading assessments showed lagging skills in phonemic awareness, phonics knowledge, fluency, and comprehension. For those skills, I used Kilpatrick's PAST short form, the Pets Fluency passage (instructions), the San Diego Quick assessment, and the district-required Megawords test (note: I don't recommend this - it was by far the least useful piece of information I got). What I'm looking for is automaticity, as well as what mistakes they make.
The students I chose for small group were mostly decoding around the 5th grade level (these are 8th graders) and had gaps in their phonemic awareness that impacted their ability to successfully complete orthographic mapping. Their fluency impacted comprehension because they worked so hard to decode that they didn't have processing space to also take in what they were reading.
The first group got essentially this pitch: reading shouldn't be as hard as I know it is for you, but the adults in education messed up and made some bad choices about how to teach reading. This is fixable, and if you give me 6-8 weeks of small group time (20 minutes, four times a week), I will help you get better at reading. Are you in?
I haven't had any student turn me down yet. Today, several of them said that small group was their favourite part of the entire school day.
I break it up into three parts (based on Kilpatrick's research):
- Phonemic awareness training, using his One Minute Exercises,
- Explicit phonics training, which is dynamic and focusing on what I think will make the most impact/the issues that come up as we read, and
- Modified choral reading of texts just above their reading level with comprehension checks and immediate corrections
The first two take about ten minutes, and the third takes about ten minutes. In my inclusion class, I have two small groups because I have an EC teacher who pushes in. She does the choral reading piece, and I do the first two pieces, and we rotate after ten minutes. So I have about 1/3 of the class in small group.
This week, we're doing One Minute Exercises from several levels where they showed gaps, and interleaving the levels. Some are syllabification, like saying husband without the "hus." Some are modification of middle vowel sounds, like saying "hat", but changing the "a" to "i" and getting "hit." Some are removing part of a blended syllable, like taking the "l" sound out of "clash" to make "cash". After each set of exercises, we talk about what the skill is, and why they're doing it.
Then we've been looking at vowel sounds, and how subsequent vowels in words change the pronunciation (silent e, double consonant, when two vowels go walking, etc.). I've also had them backwards decode words they've seen in etymology, focusing on rime units like "tion"/"sion" and "ent"/"ant". They spell nonsense words as well as real words, and we talk about WHY they are spelled like that.
Finally, we've been reading a 6th grade level text from Common Lit using modified choral reading. The first person in the group reads a sentence, then everyone reads the next sentence, then the second person reads a sentence, then everyone reads the next sentence, etc. until everyone has read. Then the pattern repeats. I stop them when there are audible errors or it seems like their prosody is off and they aren't understanding.
The biggest barrier is that I'm essentially creating this program from scratch, and that requires a ton of background knowledge. The phonics part is particularly difficult, because most of what exists is for elementary students, and isn't ideal for how I want to present it. Equipped for Reading Success is great, but it isn't a "here's what you teach day 1, day 2, day 3, etc."
I've heard a ton of ELA teachers at middle/high school level say that they haven't been trained in early literacy, and so can't do this work. I would challenge that idea. I trained myself because that's what I had to do to meet the needs of my students. I've been teaching for 20 years, and the level of literacy has been declining slowly over that time. It happens to coincide with the rise of the three cueing systems and balanced literacy. We, as secondary educators, didn't make those choices for students. But we suffer the consequences. I felt like for me, the only ethical choice was to figure out how to remediate for students who also didn't have a choice in the process.
Research says that 60-70% of students figure out reading regardless of how they were taught. I do see fewer students than that figure would indicate being able to have the reading skills necessary to read and analyse content on grade level though. They can get by, but it catches them out in middle school when texts and skills get harder, and their reading isn't improving.
I don't know how to fix this. But I feel better having a plan, and understanding generally what needs to happen to improve. I've read the experts, and I have a class structure that gives me the ability to do this kind of work.
So why not try?