Tips for Launching a District-Wide Phonics Program

    In Language Magazine's August 2021 issue, Jennifer Moss manages to implement a literacy program that benefits the whole district

    Over the course of a few years here at Lumpkin County Schools, our leadership team began to realize that literacy was a root cause of many challenges in our district. We serve a large proportion of economically disadvantaged students, as well as a significant percentage of English language learners (ELLs). It was important to see all of our students growing in terms of their reading ability, but due to the low numbers, we often couldn’t sustain the cost of a pull-out program. In the end, we launched a district-wide phonics initiative that meets the needs of both diverse learners and teachers. Here are a few keys that helped us create and implement a plan to address literacy issues in all of our grades and schools.

    Understand Students’ Circumstances
    There are so many factors that can contribute to a student’s challenges. Is it their home life? Are they hungry? Are they worried about why mom didn’t come home last night?

    If kids are worried about issues like that, they may not have a ton of energy left over to focus on instruction or phonics practice. We have to know their strengths and weaknesses and the circumstances that helped create them so that we can help in the appropriate ways. We have to know our students and develop a relationship with each of them to break down barriers. It is important to know not only a student’s name but what he or she is interested in as well. Developing a school community where all students are valued and appreciated is important. We have to have a heart for these kids first before we can dive into any kind of instruction.

    Get the Whole District Involved Early
    Our literacy initiative was born from our in-house leadership teams, which included teachers from elementary, middle, and high schools. Teachers and administrators in every school were participating in the Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement (GLISI), a program that helps to bring about change in school districts. This was an initiative that our superintendent began in his first year in our organization. District and school leaders first attended to understand the process. Then we began to bring teachers on board as an important piece of our strategic plan. As they went through the program, they were looking to identify root causes of the challenges we were seeing.

    We were not surprised when we continued to see literacy popping up as a common challenge, but in these meetings with teacher leaders and administrators from across grade levels, it became clear that literacy was an issue in every grade. As we continued talking with our educators throughout the district, phonics kept coming up over and over again.

    We heard our teachers say things like, “You know, this student is reading by sight, not breaking down words. When they get to a word that they don’t know, they can’t break it apart. They can’t build upon previous skills because they don’t have the phonics skills.”

    Focus on the Root, but Treat the Whole Plant
    It was a given for us that our phonics program would be focused within grades K–5. It just makes sense to focus literacy efforts on young kids so they don’t have issues as they continue through school. We first chose to focus upstream to ensure our younger learners acquire the foundational skills so when they arrive in middle and high school, they will be able to read at levels needed to complete their work across subjects.

    However, poor phonics skills had been identified in our middle and high schools as a critical issue to be addressed. We chose a partner, Reading Horizons, to support educators at all grades with their structured literacy and phonics-based curriculum for students who were behind or at risk in our middle schools and even high schools.

    Middle and high school teachers are often not excited or prepared to teach phonics, but the population of students who need help at this level is pretty small. The online software provided a great deal of instruction and support for the students who did need it.

    It has also been effective in strengthening the English abilities of our students who speak other languages but still have very limited English proficiency. We are participating in a research study to verify this effect, and we also look forward to state assessment scores to compare to previous years.

    Offer Teachers Focused PD
    Our initial goal with our phonics program was for teachers to become experts in the direct instruction piece. All elementary teachers were trained extensively, and we continued with coaches throughout the first two years of instruction. Coaches observed teachers and provided feedback. They also worked with grade levels to review important concepts and provide expert advice.

    We are also currently training members of our own staff to become coaches to continue the process in upcoming years. They will be able to train new teachers and work with current teachers to strengthen the program. We also offered teachers videos supplied by Reading Horizons that illustrated each lesson, so they were able to watch someone modeling the lesson they were going to give. This has been a game changer. Our teachers can go to a website and watch someone teach the material they’re presenting tomorrow to refresh their knowledge.

    Give Teachers Options
    Especially when it comes to technology, we believe in giving teachers options. Technology can be incredibly helpful, but sometimes it can get in the way too, and that line isn’t the same from teacher to teacher.

    For example, some teachers choose to use the assessment tool within the software, while others prefer to give students paper-and-pencil assessments, which assess the same items and skills, just in a different format. For teachers who are comfortable with technology, it’s nice to have a streamlined setup from assessment to differentiation. Teachers using the paper-and-pencil approach can still figure out where they need to focus with each student, and that’s more important than pushing the right buttons in a piece of software.

    Launching a district-wide phonics initiative can seem like a daunting challenge, but by empowering our staff with ongoing support and high-quality structured literacy tools, we were able to manage it together.

    Jennifer Moss is the director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment at Lumpkin County Schools in Georgia. She can be reached at [email protected].

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