Prevention Before Intervention

Written by Leslie Keast-Patch, Founder of Learnersaurus

Imagine if we had measures in place for developing reading skills in the prep and year one classrooms, that would prevent the need for intervention later in schooling. Could this be possible? If we look at current research, evidence of successful practices and neuroscience, then the answer is YES!

Having taught for many years in a primary classroom, I was often confronted and frustrated by the fact that it was clearly evident that some children could learn to read with seemingly little effort, while others, who were of equal intelligence, were overwhelmed and severely challenged at the mere thought of the process.

My own studies, research and practices over the last 15 years, have led me to delve further into the possibility of improving the rate and development of a child’s reading and spelling skills, by ensuring the initial establishment of three essential processes prior to formal reading instruction. 

After working with over 800 students, providing individual instruction using some of the evidence based methods from Orton, Gillingham and Stillman and the Dyslexia Institute Literacy Program, I have witnessed the marked improvement and rate of reading skill development, when the initial focus is on establishing automatic responses to sequencing, letter knowledge and identification, then phonemic awareness.

For some students, providing the opportunity to improve their sequencing and letter knowledge alone, can demonstrate a massive improvement in developing reading ability.

Should we spend more time on preparing the learner for literacy skill acquisition rather than teaching reading, in the early years, with the expectation that this will improve the reading and spelling acquisition outcomes as the learner progresses?

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There are a number of factors that will impact on the child’s ability to develop reading skills, however, it is more important that we focus on what needs to be developed in the early stages? To begin, let’s look closely at what these processes are and how they effect the development of the reading process.

The reader is required to recognise the letter (both in capitals and lower case) and recall the appropriate sound that has been stored in the auditory memory. The eyes then must move to the next letter, blending as the previous sound, recognise its shape and the sound it represents, then blend it with the next sound and so on. These processes must be happening extremely quickly and fluently in order for the reader to make sense of the word.

Research tells us that the process of reading is complex, requiring specific connections within the brain and this is now clear, due to the conclusive evidence gathered from neurological imaging and neuroscience.

If each connection must first be established in order to make this process automatic. An automatic response is essential for making sense of the text. Professor Maryanne Wolf (Cognitive Neuroscientist, Tufts University) refers to this as the “Reading Circuit”. In her book “Proust and the Squid” (Harper Perrenial, 2008), Wolf discusses the changes within the human brain since we began to read.

When does this process become automatic and are we allowing the learner time to acquire these processes and connections?

There is sometimes an assumption that these required connections will be in place when the child commences school, with a readiness for acquiring literacy skills.

Is this really the case?

The fundamental skills of phonemic awareness, alphabet knowledge and sequencing are essential to reading and spelling skill acquisition; however, there is only a small window of opportunity for learners to consolidate these skills.

But what about handwriting?

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In order to also add handwriting and letter formation to the equation, these processes need to be fast and automatic.

Research shows that learning to write by hand is a key component in improving  spelling ability. For beginners, handwriting practice facilitates letter learning (James, 2010; Longcamp et al., 2005), and letter learning not only sets up the neural systems that underlie reading, writing, and spelling but it can be a primary predictor of later reading success (James & Engelhardt, 2012; Piasta & Wagner, 2010).

Let’s pause to discuss the terms phonemic awareness and phonological awareness. A child’s initial exposure to language is through oral language in the form of words. It is often not until the child reaches school that he/she is required to break words up into explicit, individual sounds (phonemes). Without being given explicit instruction to identify individual phonemes, some children find this extremely difficult. Without an awareness of the pure sound of each letter, phoneme identification can be confusing, especially when we think about our pronunciation of many phonemes in the English language. I recall working with a boy who was asked to spell the word “nut” and he wrote “nt”. When asked how many sounds (phonemes) he could hear in the word, he responded with “there are only 2, “na” and “t”.

This leads me to ask, would this also, therefore, create a difficulty for the child to be able to match the individual sounds with the visual representation, if this/her knowledge and memory of the visual representation of that sound is equally unclear? Perhaps this would have a detrimental effect on phonological awareness development.

An example that I regularly encounter is when a child is asked to place the wooden letters in the order of the alphabet. When he/she reaches the letters l,m,n,o,p, there is a look of confusion and they sometimes ask “where’s elemeno?”.

Letter recognition and knowledge of the letters of the alphabet, forms another essential connection in the reading and spelling process. An ability to quickly recognize the letter that will represent the sound, or the sound that the letter is represented by, may also require explicit instruction, again with the opportunity for enough repetition to ensure an automatic response.

Some children have difficulty in sequencing information, and working memory can be challenged when trying to order the auditory and visual sequences at the same time. Would this effect reading and spelling?

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I recently completed a study in the school environment, through a trial using a specific rotation across three Prep classes, where these fundamental skills were taught explicitly, with three repetitions per week, in an engaging, multisensory, structured and inclusive way for the whole class. The trial was implemented across two school terms (Term 2 and Term 3).

The children were screened prior to the trial, and grouped according to ability in phonological awareness, letter sequencing, letter identification and handwriting and ability to recognise and generate rhyme.

The groups consisted of approximately 8 children working with one staff member to supervise. The staff trained for the trial included the Learning Support teacher, Prep teachers, and teacher aides.

We set out to allow time for explicit instruction and multiple opportunities to practise their skills and see their success. Each group was provided with multisensory learning opportunities and explicit instruction, with lots of repetition in their focus area.

  1. Sequencing, letter identification and letter knowledge: Using the wooden letters, each student has the opportunity to build his/her own the alphabet sequence and identify the letters, building speed and accuracy at each session. Knowledge of the letter names and use (vowels and consonants) is gradually introduced through stories and experiences.
  2. Letter identification and letter formation: Using multisensory practices the child is required to identify and form the letter shapes that are his/her individual focus, increasing speed and accuracy. Games are used to improve speed of processing, visual memory and working memory.
  3. Phoneme identification and grapheme matching: Using the wooden letters and a game focusing on cvc words and letter identification, with explicit instruction, the children are required to match the pure sound to the letters, both individually and in cvc words. This also provided an opportunity to identify rhyme and generate rhyming words.

Additionally, once the students became more confident within these areas, they were introduced to the irregular words that they need to use in early reading such as; was, is, any, said etc. We used mnemonics and picture clues to support this.

The result: reading levels have escalated (2016). Through comparisons of previous data, results revealed an outstanding improvement in reading acquisition for all learners, with just half of the previous number falling below the expected levels.

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The responses from the staff involved were:

“Last year the majority of our students finished on a PM 2 and this year the majority have finished on a PM 7!!!”
“Last year we had 47 students finish 'below the expected level' set by Cath Ed and this year we have had 24 students.”
"This is the best program I have used”
“Needless to say we are all doing the Prepasaurus across the entire Prep cohort. Starting officially next Term with our rotations. It is such a priority at our school now to in-service new teachers.”

By exploring the experiences of the staff and the learners in this project, along with the many years of working with children one on one, the data collected strongly supports the methods used in this trial.

By examining the data collected, we can see the benefits of explicit preparation for literacy in the early years, helping the brain to prepare the required connections for reading readiness.

This learning model can be successfully used as a preventative to the need for intervention in reading and spelling acquisition in later years of schooling.

Further studies at several other schools are currently underway and data is being gathered.

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Leslie Keast-Patch