Structured Literacy in the classroom

Emily Moorhead, a teacher at Winston Churchill Public School in Kingston Ontario, recalls the day she caught a grade one student with an Elephant and Piggie book “hidden” in his lap, “I opened my mouth to say, ‘put that book away, it’s math workshop time!’ and then I froze”. This boy was the most reluctant reader in her class, it was mid-April and he was still struggling at an early kindergarten level, “instead, I beamed him by biggest smile, and told the whole class we’d get back to math later. Find a spot and READ!”.

Reading is a complex process that is difficult for many children to master. Emily’s understanding of the science of reading helps her ensure every child in her class succeeds. Research has shown that explicit, systematic instruction in the structure of the English language is the most effective way to teach reading. The International Dyslexia Association calls this approach “Structured Literacy” and has defined it in through their Knowledge and Practice Standards.

However, despite the widespread scientific agreement that structured literacy works well for all children and is necessary for many, it has been slow to make its way into Ontario classrooms. Teachers are not required to learn about the science of reading or the structure of the English language before teaching children to read. Additionally, the curriculum goals and recommended teaching strategies supported by the Ontario Ministry of Education are mired in the legacy of the “Whole Language” philosophy of the 1980s. Emily admits that early in her career she had doubts about the way she was taught to teach reading, but it was her experience as a mother that got her to move beyond the instructional status quo and search for evidence-based approaches.

When her son Aidan was having difficultly learning to read in kindergarten she recalls “he would read those little patterned books and correctly read ‘look at the apple… look at the banana, look at the grapes.’ and then not recognize the word ‘look’”. She knew her son was a smart kid who had plenty of exposure to books and well-developed language skills. Aidan’s teacher was using the same strategies Emily used, and he was getting plenty of support at home, but he just wasn’t progressing. “It was both infuriating and confusing,” she says, and it left them both frustrated. “At our house, in the early years, if both Aidan and I weren’t crying, it was because it wasn’t homework time”. By the end of grade one, she says, “I felt completely defeated as both a mom and a teacher.” Recognizing it was time to try something different she went searching for new strategies and found The Reading Clinic in Kingston. She enrolled Aidan in tutoring and enrolled herself in a three-day teacher workshop to learn their basic approach.

“I know this approach is the right thing because my kids are eager and happy to practice, their families are able to engage, and no one is crying at reading time! My students leave me believing they are readers, believing the English language makes sense and knowing that learning to read, write and spell takes practice and hard work, but they can do it!” – Emily Moorhead

Jan MacLean, the founder of The Reading Clinic, ran that first summer workshop. Jan started off by asking everyone what had brought them there, Emily remembers “every single teacher said they felt like they had been unable to reach certain students in their classes. That no matter how much work they and their students put in, all the guided reading and shared reading, and lesson planning and writing… we felt as though we’d failed to help our students become better readers, writers, spellers.” After that first day, Emily ran home and practiced what she had learned with Aidan. “I’ll never forget how his face lit up as he remembered sounds, and blended or manipulated them. From day one, I was hooked. It was like the missing piece of teaching reading! Why had I never heard of this before?!”

The following September she started using a structured literacy approach in her kindergarten classroom. “Parents were raving about how their kids were learning to read,” she says “but most of all I loved that I didn’t have a single child who wasn’t able to join in and keep up. I had some who found it harder than the rest, who needed more practice or some one-on-one time with me to work on blending and segmenting, but every single child that year learned how to read, EVERYONE!… It was incredibly empowering to learn a tool that would let me reach out to these little learners— that would let me say, I can see this is hard for you, but I know what to do to make it easier. We’ve got this!”.

Emily has returned to the teacher workshop at the Reading Clinic every summer, first to share her experiences and later as an instructor. In November of 2018, Emily spoke at IDA Ontario’s Literacy and Learning Conference in Toronto. She explained how she incorporates structured literacy into her kindergarten classroom and said that she likes to start off by telling the kids “we are going to learn a secret code. This is the secret code that everyone who knows how to read in English has learned – and our class is going to learn it too!”. The main tool she uses to teach the code is called a “code pack”. She makes these herself by cutting out small squares of card stock and printing a letter or letter combination each one. The pack contains only the sounds and spellings that the class has learned, as each new sounds and spelling is learned a new card is added to the pack.

Emily says one of the things she loves about structured literacy is that the feedback is instant, “A student’s hesitation, or their eyes lighting up, or hearing which little errors they make— it all allows me to adjust my instruction to meet the student where they are. It’s the perfect “zone of proximal development.” I can make a lesson a little harder or a little easier, a little faster, or slow things down, to ensure every child feels successful. I know what they know, both because I know what I’ve taught, but also because I know what they use from what I’ve taught”.

Emily teaches the code during both whole class and small group instruction. She says she likes to start off each day with a quick review of the sounds in the code pack. Next, the class will practice printing a few of the new or tricky sounds on individual chalkboards before doing a group blending or spelling activity. Guided reading times are code group times until kids are really reading independently. During this time, she asks students to spell words using the sounds in the code pack on laminated “sky-grass-ground” mats. This allows her to observe and correct the way the kids are forming their letters. She says that this small group spelling time gives her a “window into reading” to help her understand what the kids know and what she needs to target for practice. However, Emily says her most effective tools are her time and her willingness to be frank with the kids. When she sees that a child is struggling she will address it head-on and say “I’ve noticed that you look unsure when we practice spelling,” or “I can tell it’s hard for you to remember some of the sounds, but it’s okay. I know a lot about teaching kids how to read, even kids who are having a hard time with it. I’m going to help you figure it out”. She says, “there is so much power in that confidence, kids feel it too, and they are willing to put themselves out there”. She takes time to work one-on-one with kids who need extra help during playtime, while the class is tidying up, or listening to a story read by her teaching partner and she keeps at it until the child’s confidence gets built up and the code starts to “stick.”

“…there is so much power in that confidence, kids feel it too, and they are willing to put themselves out there.”
– Emily Moorhead

Involving parents is also a big part of Emily’s success, she finds she gets the biggest “bang for the buck” when she sends each child home with their own code pack, she also takes time during parent-teacher interviews to explain her approach. She remembers fondly one family who brought their son along for the meeting, he helped her demonstrate how he could say the sounds, spell the individual sounds, “build” little words with the code cards and change them to make new words. The family took the code pack home, and in the following weeks, she watched with delight as the boy progressed rapidly. At the school holiday concert, she casually mentioned to the boy’s father how impressed she was, and the boy’s father turned to her with tears in his eyes and said “I have to tell you. I’ve been practicing the code with [my son] every day, and we play all the games you send home, and make words with the cards and… and I am learning to read right along with him.”

Ultimately, it is both the attitude and achievement of her students that gives Emily confidence in structured literacy. “I know this approach is the right thing because my kids are eager and happy to practice, their families are able to engage, and no one is crying at reading time! My students leave me believing they are readers, believing the English language makes sense and knowing that learning to read, write and spell takes practice and hard work, but they can do it!”

And what of that child who was struggling at an early kindergarten level mid-way through grade one? Emily recalls proudly that he “started to gallop through the levels, that kid would come in after a weekend and ask me to test him again, he would say ‘I think I got better, Mrs. Moorhead!’” And he was right, by the end of the year, the boy was reading at a late grade three level.

For her passionate dedication to continually evolve her practice to align with current understanding and evidence-based instructional techniques IDA Ontario is proud to recognize Emily Moorhead of Limestone District School Board as an IDA Ontario Literacy Leader.