Claire Brooks - Learning Intervention Program Coordinator, St. Christopher's Primary School, Holsworthy, NSW, Australia

1. As a teacher involved with learning intervention programs to support children with learning difficulties, what do you see as the most significant challenges that these students face?

Children with learning difficulties ALL differ. However, a common area of difficulty is the development of phonemic awareness skills. Phonemic awareness is the understanding that spoken words and syllables are themselves made up of sequences of sounds (phonemes) and the ability to manipulate them can be developed. Phonemes are the smallest units of sound in the English language that makes a difference in a word’s meaning. Phonemic awareness is the link between spoken and written language. It is the conscious awareness of the sounds in spoken words.

Research has shown that phonemic awareness is a powerful predictor of success in learning to read (Stanovich, 1986; 1993; Share & Stanovich, 1995). Although phonemic awareness is not easy for many children, it can be fostered through language activities that encourage active exploration and manipulation of sounds, which in turn can aid in the development of reading and writing in children.

A child who has difficulty with phonemic awareness will inevitably have difficulty in learning how to read and reading to learn. Considering that reading is embedded in all key learning areas eg. English, Maths, Science, etc, it is important to identify children who demonstrate difficulty in phonemic awareness, EARLY!

To do this, in Kindergarten, children are introduced to the names and sound of each letter in the alphabet. The order that children learn the sounds of the alphabet are a,m,s,t,I,f,d,r,o,g,h,l,u,c,n,k,b,v,e,p,j,w,y,x,qu,z.

2. What strategies have you found most successful in helping such students?

At St Christopher’s, the Kindergarten children are screened to assess their level of phonemic awareness. Children who have difficulty participate (with parental permission) in an intervention program that provides them with one-on-one instruction in phonemic awareness. During the intervention session, the children engage in tasks that involve segmentation, isolation, blending, rhyming, discrimination, alliteration and substitution of sounds. The children also have access to tile cards that have single sounds scribed on them that children can manipulate. However, the focus is on getting the child’s brain to process each separate sound (phoneme) in the correct order.

Phonemic awareness differs to phonics. Phonemic awareness is an understanding of how the sounds of the spoken language work to form worlds. Whereas phonics is the system by which the symbol represents those sounds in an alphabetic writing system. A child may know what symbol or letter represents ‘Aa’ but can they hear the sound ‘a’ in a word eg. Cat?

A good strategy to reinforce phonemic awareness skills is to encourage children to say the word out loud, write the word, then check to see if their word has all the sounds. Immerse children in nursery rhymes, shared reading experiences and opportunities to explore writing.

Another difficulty that I have discovered with children who struggle with reading is their limited knowledge of high frequency or sight words. These include words like ‘saw, there, here, come’ etc. Words that occur frequently in texts that children cannot ‘sound out’ and must learn by sight. Having knowledge of sight words allows the child to focus on the meaning of text, as opposed to stopping every second because they are unsure of a word. In short, knowledge of sight words allows the child to use his/her mental resources to focus on the meaning of the text as opposed to decoding.

3. What would be your advice to parents of students with a learning difficulty?

Speak with the classroom teacher and have an ‘open line of communication’. Parents and teachers who work together have a greater chance of supporting the child and helping the child experience growth and success. Parents are not teachers and do not have skills that are evidence-based. I always share knowledge with parents that I work with and my advice to parents is, if a teacher does not share her knowledge and strategies then make sure you go and ask her/him.

4. Can you elaborate one specific example of how you have engineered a turnaround with a student?

Any teacher can experience some level of success with a child. First and foremost, the teacher must establish a good rapport with the student. Students will move mountains if a teacher believes in them. Secondly, any child who has difficulty with reading must have many opportunities to read. I have worked with children who have had the opportunity to read 3-4 consecutive days within a group. All children in this group began each lesson with a list of sight words that was established and that was built upon as texts were read. As a group, we would begin our lesson with a game that developed the student’s knowledge and automatic recall of sight words. After this fun game, the students would engage in reading of a text. The students would firstly, predict what the text was about, flick through and look at images and discuss difficulty terminology and its meaning. Throughout the text, children were asked questions at the literal and inferential level. When the children had completed reading the text, they would add new vocabulary and difficult sight worlds to their original list, which grew every lesson. This group of students after roughly 20 weeks had experienced tremendous success, were confident and had developed a repertoire of reading strategies that enabled them to read independently.

5. What would you see as key attributes a teacher must possess to successfully deliver intervention programs for children with learning difficulties?

  • A belief that all children have the right to an education that develops the knowledge and skills that will enable them to reach more than their potential and enable them to access the curriculum.
  • Knowledge of research-based intervention practices and why they work!
  • Passion and commitment.
  • Strong interpersonal skills that enable them to work in a partnership with parents and support staff.
  • A desire to be a learner themselves and to continue to try different strategies when others strategies may not work.
  • Knowledge of learning difficulties and how they impact on a child’s learning and how the teacher’s role is that of a catalyst in bringing about change.