Learning to Teach Phonics

So in my last blog, I was talking earlier about how at MIS we were embarking to teach how to read in what is called a 'synthetic phonics' approach. This is the first update of our current adventure and involves a bit of a blend of both the pedagogy of teaching something to the children at MIS, and also the pedagogy of distance learning.

Our first task was to figure out what to teach our children. My initial foray led to me reading Diane McGuinness's book "Why Our Children Can't Read: and what we can do about it". I ordered from Amazon. Whilst I was there, I saw also in the 'people also bought', another book also including an author McGuiness although different first name (Carmen who it turns out is Diane's daugther in law married to her son, also a co-author - Geoffrey). Reviews by the readers made it clear that their book (Reading Reflex) is the practical teaching manual that supports the theoretical book by Diane McGuiness. It was a no brainer, a few clicks later the book was also ordered. 

I was however, more than a bit concerned at the idea of simply learning how to teach out of a book. I returned to my new acquaintance Susan Godsland from the site (http://www.dyslexics.org.uk), asking if there were any courses that could teach us synthetic phonics online. Her own programme (Sound Reading System) is a face to face programme. However she did manage to locate an online programme called 'Phonics Ireland'. This is the programme that we've now bought and I'm currently going through. We'll eventually put all our teachers through on the same programme.

The Phonics Ireland programme follows very much the same logic and approach the two books by the McGuinesses adopt (Why Our Children ..., & Reading Reflex). 

Distance Learning from Phonics Ireland

In no way do I want to take away from the distance learning and flexible approach that the Phonics Ireland product gives. For one thing I am just grateful that there is something out there that does actually teach us how to teach this. 

On the other hand my studies with Open University and an assessment of the presentation of this excellent course is so very 'Web 1.0'. Essentially it's a highly structured electronic book, complete with text, video and animations and even assessments for us students to go through the programme. One progresses through the course in a serial sequence - to some extent this is probably the only way to go through this material.

There's something so wonderfully simple about this format (I know that this will come across as patronising - I apologise it is not meant to be so) that actually I'm MORE convinced that the actual programme educators are in fact the real deal, not less so. It's clear their passion lies in their actual course contents and not in the course presentation or potential web wizardry. Still it means that we're still stuck in a world which has no 'backward links' or connections to part of the course that might have been covered previously. It's strictly the online student by themselves interacting with Phonics Ireland staff, there is no student interactivity. Assessments require one to work offline with a Microsoft Word document before uploading; and the online videos are presented as if we all have fast broadband internet connections (I have to press 'play' and then pause and wait for 30 minute or more for a 2 minute video presentation to load).

Despite this, the actual Phonics Ireland staff have been very responsive to the few queries or hiccups I've encountered (thank you Paddy and Harry).

Phonics Ireland Course Contents

So despite the 'backroom in the garage' feel to the course presentation, there's no doubt that the actual course contents is absolutely first rate in that it meshes in entirely with the synthetic phonics information that I've now been sucking up both in print and within the online communities.

The programme is written either for the educator that is working one-on-one with a student, or working with a whole class. 

The programme deals with theory and also with diagnostics and also with actual pedagogy. I can only comment that when I'm reading their material it all feels very natural and very easy to understand. What I'm not sure about is if this is because they are brilliant and experienced educators (I suspect they are), or whether they're re-affirming what I've read in the literature and so I'm already 'on-side'. We'll soon get an insight as to which it is when the rest of our teaching staff embark on this programme. Since they haven't been reading as much as I have, I'm pretty sure that they will be 'fresh meat' so to say.

I'm almost half way through the modules and it's simply amazing that I can have access to this first rate information, generated in Ireland whilst I'm sitting in the tropics in Fiji.

Initial Pupil Experiences

Of course we're keen to work with the actual pedagogy and so we've taken some of our more difficult students to do some one-on-one teaching with them. This helps get us up to speed for the rest of this academic year (finishing in December because we're in the Southern Hemisphere) as well as giving our students with difficulties a head start on this programme before we change to the whole school teaching via this method.

One of the girls that I'm working with is probably 18 months to 2 years behind her classmates. Already this approach with about 8 sessions under my belt with her, I can see that she's got a 'whole word' recognition strategy, which explains why intially her reading in Class 1-2 seemed to be so 'on track' and 'ahead' of her class. This can only been seen because of the emphasis on reading out individual coded symbols before blending a word. She get's the word 'big' right in a story but when she encouters it again, she might change it to 'dog' (or 'bog') because she's in a hurry to get through the sentence and I suspect just expects this word to be there and sees either the beginning of the word, or the end, or both and guesses the rest. She doesn't realise her mistake until I interrupt with a 'hmmmm' and point to the word again. When she goes slowly she gets it right.

I also see that she's got problems some of the code which undoubtably comes from learning the name of the symbol (the letter) instead of the sound. Her problem vowels are 'u' and 'i'. 

In summary, not that I wasn't convinced by the research, the practical evidence with less than 10 micro-sessions with some of our pupils with reading difficulties, has already unearthed a slew of potential problems that we simply weren't aware of before. Like all the schools in Fiji we have been using a 'phonics' approach in our teaching but it seems that it's really the 'eclectic' approach that we've been doing. Most of our children do learn to read very well but about 10% of our pupils are definitely having problems. We're very excited by this programme to attend to these 10% too. I cannot wait to get the rest of our staff through this same programme.

Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.  -Will Durant