In the last few years, and due to the implications of the pandemic, we were finding more students starting at our school were struggling with their reading. We had quite a few students who were reading at the age of 5 and 6 years old, and this was starting to get worse year upon year. We decided that we needed to offer our students phonics support to help them learn how to read properly – that is where we found Abigail Steel and her team to help us.
In the Summer Term of 2022, Abigail Steel came to our school to deliver training to our English Department, EAL and SEND team. As a starting point, and because we knew very little about phonics at all, we wanted to ensure our staff were better prepared to support struggling readers in their lessons. Although many of these members of staff wouldn’t be delivering phonics intervention, we felt it best to ensure we had a team of trained staff especially when teaching students who struggle to read on a day-to-day basis. Staff found the session engaging and useful. Abigail has a certain flair in being able to hold the interest of 30 members of staff on a hot summer’s day at the very end of the academic year! Staff reported how they felt it was beneficial in knowing how to support students who struggle how to read and spell. From this, we met with Abigail and the intervention team and developed a basis for an implementation plan, considering how we could use the programme in our school.
Once we worked out the logistics of implementing the programme, we trialled it with students in bottom set classes in year 7. After a few weeks, staff reported this to not work so well because there was simply too much content to try and cover in lessons and moreover, many students, despite being weak readers, didn’t need phonics intervention and needed support with comprehension. So, we rethought our approach and trialled Form Phonics with a small group of students. We tested all students who were identified as having a reading age of 6 or below, triangulating NGRT data, Star Reader Data, ‘Book Looks’ and Abigail’s phonics assessment that accompanies the booklets. We narrowed our group down to 3 students who we felt needed this the most. We wanted to ensure our group size was small because it meant that we could better support students.
The lessons in the booklet follow a ‘Direct Instruction’ approach that is perfect for our students; not only does it align with our approach to teaching English, but it ensures students have always got a continual reference in front of them. This worked well for our students who have processing difficulties as they could return to any key sounds easily. Staff also found this useful and adapted the booklets by adding in quick recall starters to embed, long term, the sounds. The booklets are simple and easy to adapt – any member of staff trained in the basics of phonics could easily pick it up and adapt as necessary. Some sounds needed a bit more in depth practise as they became increasingly challenging, other students flew through and even managed to fit 2-3 sounds in 25 minutes. The booklets made this possible and ensured staff had something to ‘latch onto’, rather than just ‘teaching phonics’ with no resources readily available. This became particularly helpful when trying to differentiate the programme. In our trial group, one student in particular had a significantly lower reading ability than two other students, however all were still able to progress through the programme, albeit as slightly differing rates, but the booklets were really easy to differentiate for all students of different abilities at the same time.
After two full terms of trial spanning 24 weeks, we’ve noticed a significant impact on students’ reading. Not only are students reading more confidently but students have improved on average by 6 months in their reading ages in this time (appendix 1). Most notably, two students have both improved in terms of 1 year during this time. One student, due to having such a significant barrier to reading, and severe processing difficulties, couldn’t access the test itself so results couldn’t be validated. Moreover, students really enjoy the sessions and over time have become very used to the consistent structure of the tasks in the booklet, growing more and more confident. Students particularly like when they have the chance to create their own sentence and apply the words in different contexts, they enjoy making them as creative as possible!
We’ve also found the booklet assessments useful as a way of seeing what might need re-teaching. We did find that there was a significant gap between each assessment however, so we simply used the same structure and type of tasks in Abigail’s booklets and created our own assessments for students at half termly intervals, so after roughly 6 weeks instead. These assessments are designed to be quick and easy to assess, and they certainly did not impede on the sessions. They took very little time at all to deliver 1:1 with students. Staff leading the sessions found the assessments a vital element in revisiting key sounds that students struggled with.
After trialling our phonics strategy for this academic year, we plan to roll out the strategy across the full academic year with a wider group of students. We plan to have roughly 4 students on Form Phonics during a 12-week full term, and then switch the groups after the full term is complete. This will enable us to support a wider range of students who struggle to read.
Overall, we have found Abigail Steel Phonics to have a great impact on our staff and students; the students enjoy the sessions, it builds their confidence, and follows a very simple and easy to understand structure that is perfect for our students. Staff have seen a noticeable difference in students’ reading abilities overtime and staff have become increasingly more confident in the delivery of phonics since we’ve used this programme.
English Teaching Department
Secondary School, Manchester
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