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The Educators' Exchange: Evidence-Based Literacy Instruction at KPDSB

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 Keewatin-Patricia 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.

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Written by Shannon Elliott, Instructional Coach, KPDSB

Implementing Universal Screening:

Two boys reading together in classIn anticipation of the Ministry’s requirement of a universal screener for K-2, and in response to the recommendations in the Right to Read Report, our board implemented the universal screener, Acadience for all K-8 students this fall.  As stated in the Right to Read report:

“Mandatory instead of discretionary screening reduces the risk of bias in assessment or selecting students for interventions. It reduces the risk that students will fall through the cracks. Universal evidence-based screening ensures better decisions about which students need additional support and ultimately improves student outcomes.”

For many of the schools I work with, the ‘beginning of the year’ scores were discouraging. The majority of classroom teachers were faced with a sea of red and yellow scores (indicating students were well below to below benchmark). Central staff dug into the data with schools during Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) and found students we assumed would be identified as “at risk” but also some students that we considered “good” readers who had also been identified as at risk. 

Digging into the data as a school team provided an excellent opportunity for learning.

Probably the most important observation we made in our school-based PLCs was that many classes had most students scoring red and yellow, and this meant we needed a change in Tier 1 or Core instruction. We couldn’t keep doing what we were doing because it wasn’t working for most students. 

As an Instructional Coach, I needed to support classroom teachers in implementing effective Tier 1 instruction. I started with building their understanding of what each of the Acadience measures meant and what next steps needed to be taken. For example, in Primary there is the Nonsense Word Fluency measure. I had many questions about this one! Once teachers were aware that it was measuring basic phonics and decoding, it made more sense. A chart provided by Stephanie Stollar Consulting was extremely helpful in highlighting the next steps based on scores.  

Click here to see the chart created by Stephanie Stollar Consulting. 

The next step was introducing teachers to resources that would support students in this area. My board began implementing Fundations this year in Kindergarten and Grade 1 as well as Lexia in Grade 3 to support these skills. We have also implemented Heggerty for phonemic awareness in all K-2 classes and the Heggerty Primary Extension for Grades 3-5. Another example of helping teachers connect the points from the universal screener to the work in the classroom was in the Acadience Grade 3-8 Oral Reading Fluency (ORF) screener. The screener is broken down into three measures: Accuracy, Word Count, and Retell. As a Junior/Intermediate teacher myself, I could understand why many teachers wanted to jump right to working on comprehension to improve ORF scores. It is what we have always taught - reading comprehension strategies! So, it was sometimes difficult to explain that comprehension will not improve until we look at the root cause (See Fig. 1).

Figure 1: Adapted from Acadience Training Manual

This meant first looking at the student’s accuracy. Could they decode? Did they know the various phonics patterns? If so, how was their fluency? Were they able to read fluently enough that they had brain space to comprehend what they were reading, or was their brain consumed with getting the words off the page that there was nothing left for understanding what they read?

This distinction was new to most Junior/Intermediate teachers and led to the question: HOW do we teach this? As a coach, I would work with teachers to determine specific student needs by using various diagnostic assessments, such as:

Once we had this data, the teacher and I could work on supporting Grades 4-8 in Tier 1 and 2 by implementing the necessary board-approved resources, such as:

Additionally, we are using Empower for some Tier 3 interventions. 

We are now finishing our mid-year Acadience and implementing Progress Monitoring. Preliminary results show growth for most students. Classroom teachers have worked tirelessly to implement new programs and change their way of teaching to meet the needs of our studentsand it shows!  

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Written by Ainsley Norlen, Grade 1 teacher and Laurie Carambetsos, reading intervention teacher, King George VI School, KPDSB

Ainsley: My Science of Reading journey began long before I even knew what the Science of Reading was. For several years, I knew that my students in grade 1 were missing something essential but I didn’t know what those essential components were or what they were called. I combed for online resources about phonemic awareness and used a variety of activities without fidelity.  

decodable booksLaurie: In the fall of 2020, I had the opportunity to take part in a professional learning opportunity with David Kilpatrick. It opened my eyes to a world of missing pieces and an understanding of the science behind how children learn to read. With help from our board speech pathologist, Reading Intervention teachers made a presentation around phonological and phonemic awareness for our Grade 1 and Kindergarten teachers. Ainsley came into this already having some understanding because, as she said, she had been including some of those skills within her day because she recognized a need. In our presentation, we included an opportunity for the teachers to try a quick phonological assessment on their students and the results were staring us in the face. Most of them did not have these important foundational skills. 

Ainsley: In 2020, we started to implement whole-group phonemic awareness, using the Heggerty Phonemic Awareness Curriculum. Laurie and I were amazed at how quickly most of the students picked up on letter names and sounds since we were reviewing them every single day, using flashcards. Using the Heggerty assessment tool, we were able to track student progress.  

Laurie:  We began connecting the dots to how the skills our students were learning could be applied to their reading and writing. We began to model and encourage our students to apply those skills, and suddenly they were segmenting sounds to spell words and blending sounds to read words.

Teacher helping a student learn to write

As the students were completing their writing tasks, we instructed them to put their pencils down when they came to a word they did not know how to spell. Using the chopping hand motion and the segmenting skills we had been learning and practicing from Heggerty, students were able to better hear separate sounds in the word they wanted to write. We would slow down the process even further by having them isolate the middle vowel sound using the roller coaster motion we also learned from Heggerty. This process allowed for vowels to make a return to their writing. Not only did it allow time for them to identify the vowel sound, but they now were able to match that sound with the correct letter. We would then encourage them to pick up the pencil and write down the letter(s) that correspond with each of those sounds to write the word. It was so neat to see all of the gestures in motion as they worked. It was also incredible to see the impact it was making on their ability to write and spell words, even if for some, it was just the beginning sound in the word. 

Ainsley: Happy with the progress that our students were making in phonemic awareness, I was ready to take the next step, which was to implement Flyleaf Reading foundational and close reading lessons and decodable books. I set levelled books aside and jumped right into using decodables, exclusively. While it has been challenging to let go of levelled books and the cueing system that I have used for so many years, the change has been positive. Decodable books have allowed us to group students according to specific skills that they are missing and what they need to move forward.  

Click here to read an LD@school article about the importance of using decodable texts in literacy instruction.

Laurie: As Ainsley implemented her small group reading time, it felt like we were on a learning journey with her students. We were familiarizing ourselves with the format of the different lessons and becoming more comfortable. In the meanwhile, her students started taking off, at times, faster than what we were ready for. This year, we are still learning ways to monitor student growth more effectively so we can continue to move their learning forward. 

Stay tuned for our next blog to hear how we began incorporating phonics and the success of implementing Fundations, a structured literacy program. We will also include our first experience with using a Universal Screening Tool.     

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Written by Shannon Bailey, Superintendent of Education, KPDSB

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”  

— Frederick Douglass 


On October 3, 2019, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) announced a public inquiry into human rights issues that affect students with reading disabilities in Ontario’s public education system. The OHRC selected a representative sample of eight Ontario English-language public school boards, including Keewatin-Patricia District School Board. KPDSB has always had a focus on reading instruction, knowing the significant impact it has on a student's trajectory. There was always a firm commitment to ensuring that teachers participated in regular professional development about literacy, we had well-stocked book rooms, collected data regularly, and scheduled daily guided reading across the system. When the inquiry began in the fall of 2019, we had a large amount of data to share with the OHRC and felt assured that we were doing what we needed to do to improve the reading abilities of our students. Although the pandemic slowed down the inquiry process, it allowed us time to start doing our own research. What we learned caused us to reconsider our current approach to implementing curriculum, teacher learning and preparation programs, use of resources, and how we determined student success. 

Deepening Our Thinking 

By the spring of 2021, we had read and researched enough to know that we could not wait for the Right to Read recommendations; the time had come to make changes to how we were teaching students to read at KPDSB. We learned about the “Science of Reading”, or structured literacy, and knew that our balanced literacy tactics were leaving many students behind.  We became aware of Hollis Scarborough’s Reading Rope and used this image to begin guiding the skills that needed explicit instruction as we reconfigured our reading instruction.  

We knew that we had to start small and ensure that we clearly understood this body of reading research before we could ask our educators to make changes to their instruction.  We also needed a clear picture of the pathway that we would need to take. We knew that we couldn’t think about how the science of reading would fit to KPDSB, but rather think about how KPDSB needed to fit into the science of reading. It needed to be precise and well-informed and not get too far ahead of the recommendations that we predicted we would see from the inquiry. It made us nervous to be making changes that were not directed by the Ministry of Education or by the OHRC (yet), but we knew our students couldn’t wait, as the pandemic had only widened the gaps in achievement. 

Shifting Toward Science of Reading 

We started by piloting phonemic/phonological awareness instruction in some of our schools at the kindergarten and grade one levels.  We chose Heggerty as the program that we would use. It is evidence-based, easy to use (as it is a highly scripted direct-instruction program), and had a scope and sequence of skill building that aligned with the research we had done. We allowed our pilot schools to implement this instruction for a few months, and they only had excellent feedback for us. We planned to make it an expectation for all K - 2 classes to use this resource beginning in the fall of the next following school year and purchased the digital licences, which were very helpful as we returned to school still masking. The online tool has video versions of the lessons and students were able to see the instructor’s mouth, while ours remained hidden. We had spent the summer continuing our own learning at the senior and central spaces of the board and were at the ready with decodable books, phonics resources and sound walls. During the professional development days at the start of the school year, we trained all K - 2 teachers and special education/resource teachers (SERTs) in the areas of phonological/phonemic awareness and sound walls. We stopped collecting PM Benchmark data at the central level and allowed schools to decide if they would continue to do so. This shift was VERY uncomfortable for our school administrators, and to be honest, made us nervous as well. How would we know how the students were achieving in reading? This “in-between” time period was full of discomfort, but we stuck to our convictions and kept moving forward at a pace that our educators could keep up with. 

Gaining Momentum 

Teacher and students reading in a circleBy February of that school year, February 28, 2022, to be exact, the Right to Read report was made public.  As one of the inquiry boards, we received a draft of the report weeks earlier and we breathed a huge sigh of relief.  We were absolutely on the right track, moving away from a “balanced literacy” approach, toward a “structured literacy” model. By this time, we had already introduced evidence-based tools for teaching word study, decoding, and phonemic/phonological awareness in our primary grades. We had decided to hold off until the following school year to introduce the phonics instruction, as there was a lot for teachers to be learning all at once. In saying that, we did have educators demanding the phonics resources earlier than the fall, as they were also doing their own research, and knew that this was a critical missing link from their classroom instruction. We obliged and learned from the schools that piloted those resources. It was tricky using more than one program to support the different skills because it was important that the scope and sequence of each program lined up with one another. We learned how to make it work, using the advice from our pilot schools to guide us. 

That spring, we decided to connect with the Amethyst Demonstration School, a Provincial Demonstration School in London, Ontario.  We had consulted with their central resource team several times over the school year and wanted to see what it looked like to support students with a tier 3 model. Along with learning about why it was critical that we continue to pursue changing our reading instruction from K to 12, this is where we saw the incredible impact of Empower Reading ™ (SickKids). Upon our return, we planned to have at least one educator from each of our schools become trained in Empower the next following fall. We also decided that we would purchase a screening tool (Acadience) to screen all students K - 8 beginning the following September. 

Continuing the Journey 

Our journey from there has developed a great deal.  We told our schools this school year that we are leaving behind many of our old practices: word walls, levelled reading, sight words (that are learned strictly by memorizing) as well as teaching predictive strategies for (essentially) guessing words instead of decoding them. We offered our K - 3 teachers, SERTs, DECEs and centrally-assigned educators who support elementary schools the opportunity to come together during the final days of August 2022, for a Literacy Symposium. We paid educators for two days of training that would enhance the learning that we had been providing over the course of the school year.  We plan to offer the same opportunity this summer to our grades 4 - 10 educators. 

This work has been hard, but necessary. We have asked our board to change many of the things that we demanded they do for many years prior. I think that it is worth noting that we have not had pushback from educators or their local bargaining unit, even with the continued presence of PPM 155. We believe that this is because of the high level of support we have provided and their own understanding of how important these changes are. It has been nerve-wracking for teachers to have to figure out the precise next steps for students in the absence of an evidence-based scope and sequence of instruction to follow. We have now put the tools in the hands of teachers that we hadn’t for a couple of decades, and the reception has been very good, overall. We still have a lot of work to do to continue to implement many more of the recommendations from the OHRC Right to Read report, but we are committed and up for the hard work ahead of us.  We are grateful for the support of those we continue to consult with, our administrators overseeing this change in their schools, and our KPDSB educators, who know that our students have the right to learn how to read. As Maya Angelou says, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” And we are. 

About the Authors:

Ainsley Norlen is a Grade 1 teacher and Laurie Carambetsos is a reading intervention teacher. Both work at King George VI School in Kenora. Together, they share 35+ years of experience in elementary education and have worked closely together for the last 7 years.

Shannon Bailey is a Superintendent of Education for the Keewatin-Patricia DSB.  Some of her portfolio responsibilities include the Elementary Program, Indigenous Education, Leadership Development, Human Resources, and supporting a family of schools across the vast region of the board.  As a primary teacher for most of her 25-year career, the work of literacy is near and dear to her heart.  Having experienced frustration over the years in not being able to move all readers in her classes, she is committed to making changes that meet the needs of all learners. She lives in Kenora, Ontario with her family on the beautiful lands of Treaty # 3. 

Shannon Elliott is an Instructional Coach for the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board in northwestern Ontario. Over the past 19 years, she has had experience teaching students from K-8, with the last 2 years of her career being an Instructional Coach, where she supports teachers across her board in literacy and numeracy.  She is grateful to live and play on the shores of Eagle Lake, in Treaty #3 territory, with her husband, daughter, and pets.