Sunnybrae Normal School (TLIF2-026) - Supporting success on school entry and the first year of instruction Publications
The teachers at Sunnybrae Normal School wanted to accelerate the literacy development of their underperforming year one students, particularly that of their priority Māori and Pacific students. They made a start in 2015 when the school principal took a sabbatical to investigate how to support and accelerate underachieving students in their oral language, reading, and writing development in their first year at school.
Author(s): (Inquiry Team) Helen Rennie-Younger, Wendy Frazer, Catherine Sands, Glenda Pretorius, Carolyn Hutton, Anna Blair, Jocelyn Ley, Winnie Ngata and Dr Alison Davis
Date Published: February 2019
They made some gains the following year but wanted to explore innovative teaching practices and extra monitoring to increase achievement even more. The teachers saw that there were a small number of Māori and Pacific students whose school attendance was relatively low. They believed those students could achieve more if they were at school more often. They also wanted to foster closer links between the school and home and whānau when a student entered school and during their first year of schooling.
Because the actions are fun, and I like the actions. It helps me to remember how to write the words into my writing book.
Student talking about actions to help them learn high-frequency words
The team discovered that accelerating the literacy progress of priority students in their first year of school is not something teachers can achieve alone and requires a combination of factors. These factors include teachers and school leaders identifying priority students early and collecting and using data from multiple sources. Teachers and leaders used the data to look for patterns and mismatches that would provide information on how best to support students’ ability to encode and decode text. The team also found that having smooth and successful transitions from early childhood and on to year two was important for maintaining the students’ progress and sense of belonging and wellbeing.
The team says that it was crucial that school leaders promoted and developed a culture of collaboration in the team, so practices could evolve based on a shared understanding of the practices and resources required to accelerating students’ progress. The team says that the core of their success arose from the collective power of change as they grew together as reflective practitioners.
- Helen Rennie-Younger — Project leader (and SENCO)
- Wendy Frazer
- Catherine Sands
- Glenda Pretorius
- Carolyn Hutton
- Anna Blair
- Jocelyn Ley and Winnie Ngata — Teacher Aides
The project also had support from Dr Alison Davis from Vision Education as a ‘critical friend’.
The inquiry story
The project involved all the year one teachers and two teacher aides, one of whom is Tongan, a group of priority Māori and Pacific students, as well as any other student who was underachieving. It included the whānau of the students transitioning from early childhood centres and of the Māori and Pacific students in the year one classes.
What was the focus?
Data the teachers had collected highlighted several areas of concern:
- Average attendance at school was 94 per cent in 2015. However, there was a group of Māori and Pacific students who were below that, with some between 70–80 per cent.
- After one month at school, twenty-five per cent of students were presenting with low item knowledge in terms of letter name and sound, written vocabulary, and reading and writing high-frequency words.
- There was an on-going discrepancy between item knowledge in subtests on the Observational Survey and the level some students were reading at when the survey was administered. Forty per cent of students (28 out of 70) tested for the six-year net were reading below the National Standard expected after a year. However, 19 of those 28 students were stanine five or higher in two or more subtests, and six students were stanine five or higher in all subtests.
The project identified three outcomes to address these concerns:
- Provide a successful transition to school so students have a sense of belonging and are settled. This would respond to the students’ varying cultural and educational needs and enable them to build on their knowledge and experience as they took on the challenges associated with developing early literacy skills.
- Identify family support systems the school can put in place to increase the attendance of identified Māori and Pacific students, so they have better opportunities to access the teaching and learning programmes.
- Explore a range of innovative practices over an extended period to ensure that students reach the National Standard for reading within their first year at school and that teachers and parents/whānau are aware of a student’s progress in their first year.
What did the teachers try?
Deliberate shifts in teacher practice to accelerate literacy development
Teachers approached the changes they needed to make to their practice to accelerate progress for their target students.
Students who need additional learning support
The teachers inquired into what progress in writing looks like for specific students with learning support needs and into how to support them to make that progress. In one example, a teacher started with a social story that outlined the writing process and used it to scaffold the student to construct an oral text. The teacher raised her expectations of the student, who started using assistive technology to increase his independence when encoding text. In another case, a student constructed sentences and then used sticky labels to write them. Initially, the teacher prompted the student to remember the sentence, reducing this scaffolding until it was no longer needed. As the student’s recognition of high-frequency words and knowledge of alphabet sounds improved, the teacher encouraged him to encode text without using sticky labels.
The teachers developed a visual self-assessment tool for encoding text that was in line with the National Standards and the Literacy Learning Progressions. Teachers used this tool as they modelled the writing process for their students. They placed the visuals on the cover of each student’s draft book and referred to them before, during and after a student completed a piece of writing.
Concepts about print
Teachers used a new teacher prompt card to ensure they covered all the concepts about print in a week during shared and guided reading lessons. They also developed new resources to help reinforce concepts about print during the weekly ‘Reading Tumble’.
Teaching for the automaticity of writing high-frequency words
The team developed a fun and engaging way of teaching the writing of high-frequency words. Teachers identified the words most commonly used in writing in the first year of school and split them into three levels. They developed a set of actions for helping the students remember how to write each of the words (for example, clapping their hands, then patting their knee, then tapping their head for each letter of the word). The actions were used consistently across the team.
The teachers also put the words students were learning on a large ‘word wall’ and established writing work booklets to help consolidate students’ control of new words. They used the Switched to Spelling programme, in which the teaching of sounds is not done in isolation, but embedded within all aspects of the teaching and learning programme.
Teachers worked in pairs to regularly observe each other teaching reading and writing, discussing strategies and giving each other feedback.
Analysing data on literacy progress
The teachers analysed their practice in a range of ways. Classroom observations were one aspect of this, but gathering, analysing and responding to data by reflecting on the effectiveness of these practices to accelerate student acquisition of literacy skills was paramount.
All students were assessed when they started school, and those identified as requiring extra support became priority learners for the inquiry. They were tested at 10 week intervals, and any other students identified as working below expected levels were added to the priority group for closer monitoring. In the second year, teachers extended this to track students’ written vocabulary and ability to hear and record sounds in words. Any student scoring below stanine five was added to the priority group.
Teachers did peer reviews with their colleague of students identified as not tracking to meet expected levels in reading or writing. Teachers discussed the success of the implementation plan, adjusted it, and identified further steps for action and inquiry before the next review.
Increasing attendance rates of identified students
The project moved from tracking attendance at the end of each term to checking it at weeks three, six and nine. This allowed the school to see whether and how attendance fluctuated. The school talked to the students’ parents about attendance, and the Principal sent formal letters to parents when a student’s attendance was of concern to the school. The Tongan teacher aide touched base with each identified student every morning, to connect with them and check on their wellbeing.
Enhancing partnerships for the transition from early childhood education
Teachers visited two early childhood education (ECE) centres each term in the first four terms of the inquiry to see how the school could better support the students transitioning to Sunnybrae Normal School. Several staff from ECE centres visited to watch the school’s literacy programme in action. The students’ ECE pre-school portfolios are brought into the school and put on display until the first parent interview, which happens when the student has been at school for four weeks.
Two pre-school visits were held for parents/whānau and students each term — one focused around literacy and the other around mathematics. Parents met the school staff, and students were introduced to their transition buddy, an older (normally year four) student who became their buddy for at least the first four weeks of school. After four weeks, teachers collected the parents’ views on the transition at the parent interview.
Connecting with Māori and Pacific communities
At the beginning of 2017, the school employed a Tongan teacher aide. Since then, the school has brought in some new initiatives:
- The teacher aide has worked alongside the Literacy Support teacher with a group of Tongan students to help with their students understanding of what they are being asked to do, and to communicate with their parents.
- She uses a Facebook Messenger group to encourage Tongan parents to make and attend parent interview appointments.
- A video of a teacher with a group of students reading through the alphabet cards to support the correct pronunciation of letter sounds was posted on the school’s Facebook page. The team leader talked to older siblings of Pacific students about how they could support their younger siblings at home and sent home dual language early reading books for parents to read to their children.
The school has translated literacy information into Tongan and Samoan and translated the transition-to-school parent survey form into Pacific languages. The school also changed how it shares data with families to allow them to take ownership of an area where they felt most comfortable in supporting their child.
The school also runs a ‘Drop in Café’ once a week from 2:30pm–3:00pm where parents are given refreshments and can connect with other parents, as well as talk to a teacher or the two teacher aides, who speak Tongan and Mandarin.
What happened as a result of this innovation?
During the project, the level students were reading at when tested at 10 weeks steadily increased. Previously, at 10 weeks the majority of students were expected to read at Red level texts. In the second six months of the project, more than half of the students were reading at Yellow and above at 10 weeks. This result reflected a change in the teachers’ expectations, which meant that they were exposing their students to Red levelled texts as soon as early reading behaviours were in place. The students were exposed to a wider range of high-frequency words and vocabulary and a greater variety of sentence structures at an early stage in their reading development.
The percentage of students needing Reading Recovery has remained steady at about 20 per cent across the whole school, but the reading level at which they entered Reading Recovery increased over the time of the project. The number of students needing Reading Recovery after a year of instruction has halved.
Most of the students scored above stanine six for hearing and recording sounds after 10 weeks of school. The teachers believe that using the Switched to Spelling programme supported students to achieve to this level.
There was a significant improvement in students’ writing vocabulary because of the focus on teaching and learning to write high-frequency words with automaticity.
Māori and Pacific students were over-represented in the stanines below five within the Concepts about Print subtest within the Observational Survey. Students made progress over the year, but that progress was not accelerated for all but one student.
Attendance of priority students
Attendance rates have mostly increased for priority learners. However, there remains a small group whose attendance fluctuates, and the project has not succeeded in increasing their attendance.
Transition from early childhood education
The majority of whānau and parents are positive about the transition process and speak highly about the buddy system. They continue to make suggestions about how to improve it.
Connecting with Māori and Pacific communities
Parents and whānau have been positive about the Drop in Café as a place where they can meet informally with other parents and feel a sense of belonging. Pacific families have responded well to the culturally responsive teacher aide the school employed, and she has helped the school embed practices that better support the school’s Pacific community. Some of the Tongan families are more comfortable in the school setting now that the school has adopted more culturally responsive practices.
What did they learn?
Teachers found that the constant refinement of their approach to tracking and monitoring priority learners within their first year of school meant they were more focused on identifying learners who were potentially at risk from the very beginning of their schooling. Teachers had more opportunities to identify mismatches between students’ reading levels and their ability to read high-frequency words, as well as mismatches between a students’ ability to encode and decode text. Identifying at-risk learners early led to more targeted and needs-based instruction from the outset.
Teachers became more aware of the importance of teaching and learning to write high-frequency words with automaticity. They also know more about the progress students should be making to meet National Standard or curriculum level at the end of the first year, and tracking students’ progress every 10 weeks helped enabled students reach the standard at the end of their first year of schooling.
Teachers noticed that students who were not tracking to meet expected levels at week 20 probably weren’t tracking to standard at week 10. Teachers initially did their first peer review at week 20, so they changed to doing the first peer review of students’ reading and writing at week 10 to identify any action they should take to get those students on track.
Teachers lifted their expectations of where students should be in their reading and writing and the number of words they should be writing after 10, 20 and 30 weeks. They are more likely to move a student on a reading level and monitor them closely than hold them back. As a team, the teachers are more aware of the need to accelerate the students’ ability to write high-frequency words to promote success when writing and the importance of developing phonological awareness beyond initial letter sounds to digraph patterns.
The ‘puzzle of practice’ students — those who didn’t meet standard at the end of the first year despite scoring above stanine five in some of their subtests — were either new to the school, had spent part of the year in one particular classroom, or completed their first year in a year two setting and had two teachers in their first year. The year one teachers now work with the year two teachers to support them to use strategies the year one teachers used with the puzzle of practice students to accelerate achievement and provide continuity of practice for those students over the two settings in the school.
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For further information
If you would like to learn more about this project, please contact the project leader Helen Rennie-Younger at firstname.lastname@example.org
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