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Implementing a Strong Phonics Program

Lynn Hobratschk, Amy Jones, and Lisa Toole share their best practices for choosing curriculum, training educators, and maintaining focus

According to some recent research, phonics instruction is one of the most effective ways to teach children how to read, but a comprehensive phonics curriculum is hard to come by. Unless they develop foundational reading skills early, students will experience literacy deficits across all subjects. Here, three innovative curriculum leaders, Lynn Hobratschk, Dr. Amy Jones, and Lisa Toole, offer their insights into what makes a successful phonics program and how to implement it in schools.

Lynn Hobratschk: Long-Term Training and Timely RTI

Implementing the right phonics instruction is essential. Teachers who come straight out of college training programs, in my experience, don’t have the depth of phonological knowledge or training to be able to teach phonics in an explicit, systematic manner without some sort of support system. In a small district such as mine, which doesn’t have literacy coaches or curriculum specialists, we rely on our teachers to do the curriculum work.
We had a select group help us find the reading program that would power up our reading instruction in the areas we needed assistance. Training should be seen as a long-term strategy. The district needs to provide follow-up training and ongoing support to keep the fire burning. We also need to help our teachers “see” the results of their new instructional methods by providing reflection and feedback time. We have teacher trainers in our district now to help enculturate our newly hired teachers with the intention to maintain a common method of phonics training from grade to grade, class to class. When students have reading difficulties, our goal is always to identify quickly and intervene well. Through a well-defined RTI system, with high expectations for Tier 1 instruction and data collection, students who are struggling can be spotted quickly. Using specified, targeted instruction in a small group, the Tier 2 interventionist can be a critical resource for filling in gaps and bringing students to grade-level instruction before they lose hope.

Dr. Amy Jones: Start by Training Coaches

Some decision makers and teachers won’t see the importance of an explicit and systematic phonics program until someone presents the need. Whether the need is to help struggling readers or to help teachers better understand how to explicitly teach phonics, educators must show the need in order to create the initial motivation needed to kickstart a major literacy initiative. Before classroom teachers are trained, train reading coaches and interventionists. This way, coaches can act as teacher-leaders and develop capacity for implementation. The reading coaches and interventionists become in-house support for classroom teachers when the district is ready for full implementation across all classrooms.
Reading coaches and interventionists can model lessons for teachers and show them how to implement the initiative in their classrooms. They are also the biggest cheerleaders for the initiative when it is time for rollout because they have seen it work, and their peers trust their judgment. This helps with buy-in.

Develop classroom teachers’ buy-in by allowing them to have a voice in curriculum mapping and decision making when it is time for the initiative to impact the classroom. Create grade-level committees on which three or four grade-level classroom teachers serve. Include an interventionist and reading coach on each grade-level team, since they have had experience with the initiative and can provide valuable input.

Lisa Toole: Train Administrators and Follow Up with Everybody

Professional development creates awareness. After the initial training on our new phonics program, we were more aware of the gaps and the hodge-podge of phonics our teachers had been practicing that resulted in confusion for students. The research-based strategies of teaching systematic and explicit phonics allowed our K–3 teachers to communicate with a common approach. This benefited both the students and the professionals. Something we found instrumental was to train administrators. This way, they know what the messy, legitimate work of early literacy learning looks like for the student, but also for the teacher being observed and evaluated. Our principals have mentioned numerous times that training on our phonics program was beneficial and allowed them to gain new insight for their own understanding. They now know what effective phonics instruction should look like in the classroom.

I recommend routine follow-up to monitor the progress of teacher implementation and student learning. This is helpful because it emphasizes the importance of the instruction and specific strategies within the program. It also allows me to validate the commitment these teachers have made by visiting their classrooms and reciprocating feedback. I look for actual evidence of phonics instruction and ask how specific aspects of the program are working for them. This leadership technique has supported the scope of work and kept it exciting for teachers.

Lynn Hobratschk is the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in Friendswood ISD in Texas.
Dr. Amy Jones is the director of pre-K–6 curriculum and instruction and the director of federal programs for the Lauderdale (AL) County Board of Education.
Lisa Toole is the K–6 curriculum coordinator of Ohio Valley School District in Ohio.

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