A Blended Approach to Phonics Helps Struggling Readers and Improves Test Scores

A principal set out to find a literacy tool to help dyslexic students but ended up revolutionizing her early literacy curriculum.

By Dr. Christy Hiett

According to the International Dyslexia Association, approximately 15% of the general population has some symptoms of dyslexia, with a significant number of them going undiagnosed. Many young students with dyslexia struggle silently and have lifelong literacy issues. To help these students, in the fall 2015, the Alabama State Board of Education voted to define dyslexia as a learning challenge. This means every school in our state is required to screen students for dyslexia, and provide accommodations and intervention so they have the resources to become successful readers.

As part of the new requirements, Alabama schools provide assistive technology so students with dyslexia have the option of having text read to them and using speech-to-text software instead of writing. Last fall, I was informed our first dyslexia-diagnosed student was planning to transition to Fruithurst for the following school year. At the time, Fruithurst didn’t have assistive tech meeting the requirements for dyslexic students, so I began my search for the right technology tool.

Building a Foundation of Phonics

To prepare, I took a trip to a nearby school in Georgia to see what tools they were using to help students who were classified with dyslexia and other reading disabilities. There, I discovered a phonics-focused, blended learning print and digital curriculum called Reading Horizons that is designed to help students with dyslexia and a wide range of reading difficulties.

Fruithurst is a rural school where 76% of students are considered at poverty level, and getting students to read at or above grade level has often been a difficult task for us. After seeing a steady decline in student reading levels over my eight years as an administrator, I finally found the key to reversing that trend: ensuring that all students receive a solid phonics foundation.

In January 2016 we overhauled our entire K–2 reading curriculum to include Reading Horizons Discovery® direct instruction and software. Our goal was to serve students with reading disabilities as well as provide all of our students with a solid reading foundation.

The Blended Approach

Fruithurst uses Reading Horizons Discovery as its main reading program for students in grades K–2, and as reading intervention. Lessons typically last 30-40 minutes per day and incorporate whole-group instruction, small-group work, and individual work time. Many of my teachers use print resources like word list cards for dictation and transfer activities during whole-class instruction. Then, they use the digital program during reading stations so students can practice and reinforce the skills they worked on as a group.

Within two weeks of overhauling the K–2 curriculum, Fruithurst saw increases in student test scores, especially through spelling tests. I saw students as young as kindergarten learning how to decode words and, ultimately, to read. The decoding process actively involves students in their own learning: Students stand up from their desks and use whiteboards to decode words using the phonetic skills. We’ve found the phonics-based curriculum is a great solution for a classroom of children with a mixture of ability levels because it challenges those at a higher level while reinforcing phonics skills for children who are still struggling.

The engaging and comprehensive program helps children truly learn phonetic skills as opposed to memorizing spelling words for a test and forgetting them the next week. Before, many students were not doing well on spelling tests because they couldn’t grasp the concepts of the English language “code”. A handful of students were constantly making zeros and lacked the most basic foundations for spelling. I’m happy to report even students who were making zeros were making 100s after only a few weeks!

A Literacy Success Story

A great example of how our new approach works was a first-grade student who entered Fruithurst after completing kindergarten, twice. After multiple moves between family members and foster homes, he transferred to Fruithurst with the hope of finding a quality education and a stable living situation. Teachers diligently tried to teach this student to read, and to help him look past his struggles at home for a few hours each day, but he continued to struggle and had failing grades. With the implementation of the new phonics curriculum, he started getting 105% on spelling tests within a few weeks.

After grasping the concept of phonics, he was able to connect what he was learning to the classroom, which is something this particular student had never done before. He finished the school year above average, full of confidence in his ability to read.

At Fruithurst, the hunt for a new curriculum to help students with dyslexia and other struggling readers evolved into a complete curriculum overhaul. Using a blended approach to teach core reading skills allows students to move at their own pace and allows teachers to provide appropriate intervention to struggling readers. I am now confident that all of our students are receiving a great phonics foundation and have the best possible chance to be great readers in the future.

Dr. Christy Hiett is the Principal of Fruithurst Elementary School in Fruithurst, Alabama.

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