The majority of my career has been in a middle school environment, where teaching letter combinations and sounds was not common. And so as a longtime elementary educator, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that for much of my career, I knew very little about teaching reading. My entire teacher’s college experience focused on the junior and intermediate grades, where reading instruction was not emphasized. My own son learned reading with very little work on my part, other than reading him stories or bringing him to the library.
With the publication of the Right to Read report (2022), it became clear that I could no longer avoid learning about the critical work so many primary and early years educators do every day. Getting started, however, was nothing short of intimidating. Foundational literacy concepts like phonemic awareness, graphemes, phonics, and digraphs were pretty much a foreign language to me. I had no idea where to begin – there seemed to be hundreds of books, resources, podcasts, and websites on the topic.
Thankfully, I have the knowledge and expertise of colleagues who are not only experienced in teaching reading, but teaching it in an engaging and culturally responsive way. Devon Clarke, a very talented PETL educator who is on our board’s Central Literacy Team, graciously invited me to attend the sessions he had developed with the literacy team for elementary educators.
Here are a few key takeaways I have gathered so far – I hope they resonate with anyone on a similar journey of learning this year!
We Can’t Forget The “Four Roles of the Literate Learner”
When I started learning about the Right to Read report, my impression was that educators would be teaching a lot of decoding skills in the classroom. The “Four Roles of the Literate Learner” – a concept introduced by Freebody and Luke back in the 1990s – still provides educators with a great model of literacy learning that particularly rings true in “science of reading” focused pedagogy. The idea that as readers, we are not only code-breakers, but meaning makers, text users, and text analyzers, is a good reminder that reading is a multifaceted process. This particularly important for English language learners, who not only need to decode English text but comprehend what they are learning to read as well.
Foundational Literacy Approaches are Not Just for Younger Elementary Students
Older elementary students also benefit from learning strong decoding skills: many may have gaps in their foundational reading skills that may have gone undetected. In one of the presentations, Devon shared a pilot project he worked on with middle school teachers. Together, they implemented the resource Catch Up Your Code with several grade 8 classes. Catch Up Your Code essentially focuses on helping older developing readers to recognize and connect the ways different letter combinations can make the same sounds, strengthening students’ reading and spelling skills.
The teachers gathered before and after data and other observations about the challenges and strengths of the resource. Overall, nearly every grade 8 student improved in an area of their decoding skills. Entering secondary school, these students will be much better prepared to succeed in their courses.
There is No Such thing as a “Be all, End all” Reading Resource
While resources like Catch Up to Code, or other reading programs can help students to make gains in their decoding skills, it is useful to keep in mind that no one resource is a “be all, end all” tool. In addition to resources that help students to decode words and sentences, students should also explore literature and texts that are culturally responsive and rich in meaning. This point was reinforced in the sessions I attended as the literacy team shared books that were identity-affirming and powerful in their approach to storytelling.
Ontario Educators are on a Learning Journey Together
Learning new and innovative approaches to teaching literacy takes time and teamwork. When it comes to learning about new resources and strategies, I find it most useful to hear the perspectives of educators that have actually used different literacy resources and can describe first hand what the successes and pitfalls are. Having colleagues to check my own understanding of the readings I am working on, and the expertise of experienced literacy teachers and speech language pathologists is also important on this journey of “reimagining” reading. This is why it is so important for boards to release teachers for professional learning: if literacy is a human right, then educators must have access to the time and resources it takes to make the vision of the “Right to Read” a reality.