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In February of 2022, the Ontario Human Rights Commission released the findings of the Right to Read inquiry and their recommendations for improving literacy instruction in Ontario (click here to access the OHRC Right to Read Executive Summary and Key Recommendations).   Since then, educators across Ontario have been working to better understand and implement these recommendations to improve student success and improve best practice.

LD@School asked a group of educators from Bruce-Grey Catholic District School Board to share some of their journey into evidence-based literacy. Our bloggers include classroom teachers, instructional coaches, and superintendents.

We are grateful for the teams from the school board for sharing their thinking and experiences regarding the change in literacy instruction in Ontario.

Jump to the post written by Candice Zonneveld, teacher
Jump to the post written by Christina Speers, teacher

Written by Karyn Bruneel Superintendent of Education, Bruce-Grey Catholic District School Board

Beginning the Journey 

Teacher reading to a classSince 2018, our board has been working toward integrating the knowledge base from the Science of Reading into our practice in reading instruction.  

We started with building a shared understanding of the Big 5 Ideas in reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension) and how a reader moves through them as they learn to decode.

Click here to listen to an episode of the TalkLD podcast intitled, The Science of Reading Part 1: The Five Pillars.

We also moved from Reading Recovery to a tiered intervention model using evidence-based programs. Meanwhile, we continued to develop our staff’s understanding of the knowledge base from the science of reading. Next, we moved into purchasing resources, starting with resources for phonological awareness, then sound walls, and, most recently, decodable books, a comprehensive literacy/decoding resource for primary, a universal screener, and new diagnostic assessment tools.  

Click here to read the article Learning to Read and Write Using Decodable Texts, written by Karyn Bruneel.

We created a scope and sequence for the board and have spent much of this year supporting the implementation of our new core resources (which were provided by the University of Florida Literacy Institute (UFLI)) through a travelling carousel model delivered by our consultants and supported with follow-up from our coaches. We also trained our staff on our universal screener, DIBELS-8, at our October PD Day. In November we provided further PD on diagnostic assessments that staff could use for students whose screener results showed that they were at risk for reading difficulties.  

Putting the Tools to Work 

In the wake of the pandemic, the October screener data identified that we had a number of students struggling at the phonics level. The good news is that the work we have done in phonological awareness (including phonemic awareness) seems to be successful. The screener shows students begin to struggle when phonics is introduced. In late fall, after administering the universal screener, our comprehensive resource arrived and the training, school-by-school, began. Amazingly, when some teachers did a mid-year check-in with the screener, a number of our students moved from red (identifying the highest risk) to green (little risk) for reading difficulties, showing a significant change in the trajectory of our students with regard to decoding. It is exciting to see such quick growth.  

Young child pointing to words while readingWe have had to move to a "carousel model" where two consultants go out together to a school so that one can provide PD to the teacher, while the other supports the classroom in the teacher’s absence. We have had a lot of positive feedback on this model from staff and principals. Teachers are telling us that they find the new learning invigorating. Staff report that developing a common vocabulary and shared understanding of reading development, across the board, has helped motivate them to learn about and use the tools we have been providing.   

What We Have Learned 

My advice to boards at the beginning of this journey is to be vulnerable, by learning together at all levels of the organization, as you engage in the work. This was the way we did it. Start with building your vocabulary and understanding of the knowledge base of the Science of Reading. This will allow you to develop enough understanding of the knowledge base to effectively evaluate the resources you will choose to support the work moving forward. Start with understanding the levels of evidence, and ensure that decisions are made based on the strongest available peer-reviewed evidence from randomized control trials, etc. It is critical that you learn to evaluate practices and resources based on them being scientifically validated. We need to work together across boards to support each other in this very exciting work. Reach out and make a new critical friend. 

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Written by Candice Zonneveld, Grade 2 teacher, St. Basil’s School, BGCDSB 

I have been teaching French in the Bruce-Grey Catholic DSB since 2011, and over the last decade in our board, we have been trying to fill the learning gap. We were noticing more apparent holes in students’ literacy skills, especially in the areas of phonological and phonemic awareness. Students who were ‘supposed to be reading’ had many gaps in their phonological awareness skills, and knowing that these are pre-reading skills, further and more explicit teaching and learning were required. Students weren’t progressing in their reading and writing abilities, or they were plateauing and having significant difficulties moving forward; they were lacking different or specific language flexibility. But somehow, even with more targeted approaches of different skills, in whole groups, small groups and one-on-one, the gaps continued, and our students weren’t becoming more successful readers. What started out as interventions for a few students became a growing list of whole class needs. Year after year, teaching reading was becoming more and more challenging despite all our extra efforts.

example literacy block

Figure 1: The daily structured literacy block we made together.

Last spring, with the help and direction of our instructional coach and, being a French Immersion class, our French consultant and I attempted a full switch to a structured literacy block (Figure 1). We piloted the I Can Read in French (ICRIF) program by Lindsay Cochrane, which gave us many tools, including lesson slides and a scope and sequence for teaching phonics. The visuals in the slides, which show a picture of a mouth saying the sound, are extremely helpful for the students to remember and check in with to ensure they are pronouncing the sounds correctly. Using a new resource was a change of thinking from what we had been doing board-wide since I started teaching. As with trying anything new, it was a bit overwhelming at first, and I did what I always do; obsess over all the little details of why it's not going to work: Where would I find the time in my schedule? Would my students be able to sit still long enough to learn? How could I make the lessons fun and engaging? 

It was a lot to wrap my head around, and I was certain it was going to be fruitless, dull and boring. After spending days talking myself out of it, I did what I often find hard to do, step back and just let go. In the end, after trying hard to rejig my entire day to fit it in, I decided I just needed to commit. To just dive in. It felt odd at first; it felt like we had tried for years not to teach like this. But the students were quite receptive to the switch. It was me who had the most difficulty, again, as usual, when it comes to instructional changes. I had anticipated the students being bored and disengaged, but they were, and still are, happy to sit and learn in this way. 

One big takeaway I had from the ICRIF program in the meetings with my support team and Lindsay Cochrane was how they referred to teaching phonics as learning a “code,” so that is exactly how I approached it with my students. We started as “word detectives” who needed to look for the clues/codes to crack the words. We needed to learn the new codes daily to help us piece together more and more words. But after only a few weeks, even my group of “non-readers” were reading, not only the daily decodable words easily, but full decodable texts, and they were excited about it! It was eye-opening and heart-filling. It was then that we switched our language instructionally, and instead of just being detectives, we began to call ourselves… READERS! Because that's what good readers do, they take the little pieces, the codes, and build them together to solve the puzzle of the whole word.  

I have been fully committed to structured literacy teaching practices in my class this year, and the progress and self-confidence seen in my students have been an eye-openerthey're readers! It works. Change can be hard, but this one has been so worth it. 

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Written by Christina Speers, Classroom Teacher, BGCDSB

Our classroom has been working on using evidence-based principles of instruction to teach reading skills. Some of the areas we have been focusing on are: phonological awareness exercises created by David Kilpatrick, explicit phonics instruction using resources from the University of Florida Literacy Institute (UFLI), and Reading comprehension. This all seems great, but most of the time it feels like I don’t know how to fit it into a day. This is the first year that I have been implementing structured literacy strategies in my classroom, and I love it because I see the growth in students. It doesn’t seem to matter how slow; there is progress. On the flip side, I’ve never had to be more flexible with my thinking and planning on how to best support students. On top of that is the struggle of fitting it all in.

One of my students, Jacob*, continues to struggle with hearing and manipulating blends in words, despite what I thought was explicit instruction of blends in reading and writing. This is a skill we have been working on since October. Jacob’s group has progressed to the next skill, working with r-controlled vowels, but Jacob still struggles with segmenting, blending and orthographically mapping these words.

Using Hierarchical Phonemic Awareness Skills

bruce grey

Figure 1. Hierarchy of Phonemic Awareness Schools, from Really Great Reading (https://www.reallygreatreading.com/six-layers-phonemic-awareness)

After consulting with our Empower teacher and applying my understanding of phonemic awareness skills, I was able to plan explicit lessons for Jacob, that incorporated manipulatives (coloured linking cubes).

Click here to learn more about the Empower Reading Program.

What did this look like?

I planned 5-minute daily practice sessions with one of our Educational Assistants (EA) and daily one-on-one instruction in the classroom. These lessons combined phonemic awareness skills with phonics, requiring Jacob to blend and segment words with blended consonant sounds. Using the lowest step of phonemic awareness skills, I first explicitly showed Jacob that some consonants are grouped in words and how we usually blend them together quickly to read them. I represented the letters in the blends with the same colour linking cubes. We then practised isolating different parts of the blends and continued to increase the complexity of skills to delete and blend the rest of the sounds together using Kilpatrick’s one-minute activities.

Click here to view a YouTube video showing an example of Kilpatrick’s one-minute activities.

Reading and Writing of the Words

bruce grey

Figure 2.

Continuing with this skill, we practised reading words with blends in them by drawing scoops under the letters of words and holding onto the sound until the next letter to blend to read the word (see figure 2). We also practised mapping words orthographically with blends using the “say it, tap it, map it, graph it” organizer (see figure 3).

say tap map graph

Figure 3.

After a couple of weeks of this explicit teaching method, Jacob quickly learned to hear the sounds in blends and is able to read and write them using the above strategies—a big success!

Next Steps

I will continue to solidify these lessons by slowly pulling back on the use of manipulatives (e.g. linking cubes, drawing scoops under words with blends). I am going to make this a go-to strategy the next time a student is struggling with this concept. When using this explicit teaching method, physically getting the student to touch the sounds (e.g. linking cubes) when they are being said really helped. I found that having the materials ready and within reach whenever I had any extra time was helpful so that at a moment’s notice we could jump right in. Having typed pages of text for Jacob to draw scoop lines beneath the words and phrases gave him something physical to draw on, provided the words were ready for impromptu one-on-one work. It was also easier to send work home for extra fluency practice.

* all names of students have been changed

About the Authors

Karyn Bruneel is a Superintendent of Education with the Bruce-Grey Catholic District School Board. She previously completed secondments as principal of Amethyst Demonstration School and as Executive Director of the Provincial and Demonstration Schools Branch. Prior to this time, Karyn worked as a  teacher and as vice-principal and principal in French Immersion schools. 

Christina Speers is a teacher by day, a parent by night and doing all the adulting somewhere in between. In her 14 years of teaching, Christina has taught all grades from K-8, been an instructional coach, a Reading Recovery teacher and had a couple of kids. To say the least, it has been busy. However, after all of these years, she finally feels like she have a handle on how to effectively teach students to read using explicit teaching strategies and a structured literacy approach. It is Christina's hope that these tips will help you on your journey of teaching your students how to read.

Candice Zonnefeld has been teaching primary French for 12 years at her current school, St. Basil’s. She is a mom of two young boys, a crazy dog and soon-to-be a few hundred bees. She grew up in the French Immersion system and has been a passionate French learner her whole life, even completing part of her undergraduate degree in France.