If you’re working in a school with a synthetic phonics Early Years literacy program and a Response To Intervention (RTI) approach to literacy strugglers, you’re very lucky. There shouldn’t be too many children getting through to the Middle Years in your school without being able to read and spell competently.
However, if your school teaches early literacy using mainly:
- a sound for each letter of the alphabet,
- high-frequency words and
- predictable/repetitive texts,
then you probably have more students who are struggling, especially if the school offers more of the same sort of approach (Reading Recovery, Leveled Literacy Intervention, L3 etc) to kids who are struggling (Tier 2 intervention). The exception might be if most of your students are from high socioeconomic groups and pay for more effective intervention outside school.
Kids with more severe difficulties in your grade (e.g. students with Intellectual Disabilities, Developmental Language Disorder or Specific Learning Disorder) probably still need intensive intervention in the middle years to keep improving their decoding and spelling skills. However this might not be available.
This makes your life a lot harder, because the curriculum you’re teaching requires strong reading and spelling skills, and differentiating activities to allow your weaker readers/spellers can participate and succeed is a lot of work. You might also be trying to backfill the decoding and spelling skills they lack, again adding to your workload.
It’s in your interests to argue for a whole-school literacy policy that includes first-and-fast, explicit, systematic linguistic/synthetic phonics in the early years, followed by effective Tier 2 and Tier 3 intervention, for as long as it takes. However, that’s not going to help you with the strugglers in your grade right now.
Developmental Language Disorder (DLD)
DLD is the new, internationally-agreed term for what was previously called a number of different things, including Severe Language Disorder or Specific Language Impairment. These children have problems with listening, expressive language, or both.
About 3% of children have a Developmental Language Disorder, so chances are you have one in your class. There is lots of good information about DLD on this excellent YouTube channel.
Kids with DLD often find it hard to learn to read and spell, unless they get explicit, systematic teaching about how sounds, letters and word parts work in our spelling system.
If you suspect you have a student with DLD in your class, please refer them to a Speech Pathologist straight away for an assessment of their expressive and receptive language, phonemic awareness, and if possible also their word and pseudoword reading, spelling, working memory and rapid automatised naming. This should then inform their ILP.
Specific Learning Disorder/Dyslexia/Dysgraphia
Kids whose problems with reading and writing can’t be explained by language, cognitive or other difficulties, and whose problems persist despite high-quality intervention for at least six months, should be sent to a psychologist or neuropsychologist for an assessment. The ensuing report will be helpful in writing the student’s ILP.
If there’s a student who already has a formal diagnosis of dyslexia in your class, ask for a copy of the report explaining what assessments they’ve had, what their main areas of difficulty are, and what intervention they need, and again use this information when writing their ILP. Bring the school’s specialist staff on board, including the Speech Pathologist if you can.
If the student has a report saying they are dyslexic/dysgraphic, but recommends coloured overlays, special glasses, vision therapy, or hopping on one leg or any activity other than working on reading and spelling, the best approach may be to just ignore it, especially if it recommends that expensive intervention be provided by the report’s author. Have a look at the MUSEC briefings or get your hands on a copy of Making Sense on Treatment Choices to find out more about which interventions are based on good evidence, and which are just snake oil.
“Garden variety” poor readers/spellers
If you’re concerned about the decoding or spelling skills of any or all of the kids in your class, there’s nothing to stop you from administering the assessments of Phonemic Awareness and Decoding/spelling pattern knowledge listed here, and then using the results to guide what you teach about spelling, and what books you ask them to read, and patterns you ask them to study (they may need books with simplified spelling patterns).
However, kids who don’t know a lot of the spelling patterns that everyone else in the class has mastered will need these taught systematically. You probably can’t do much of this yourself, and will again need to call for reinforcements from the student support/welfare team or the student’s family. There are lots of good decoding catch-up materials available.
Finally, please teach spelling by explicitly and systematically showing children how spelling patterns work, and giving them plenty of practice with each patterns. See this blog post for more on this topic, and click here for free spelling lists that focus on one spelling pattern at a time.