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Phonics & Phonemic Awareness are Key to Early Literacy Success

November 21, 2023 District Announcements news

Fort Vermilion School Division (FVSD) is going back to basics when it comes to literacy and teaching young students how to successfully read and write.

Working with lead researcher, Dr. George Georgiou, Professor at the University of Alberta, and his team at the Reading Research Laboratory in Edmonton, FVSD has made tremendous gains over the last six years with growth continuing throughout the pandemic. While other districts saw literacy levels slide because of learning disruptions, our students improved significantly, building a solid foundation of literacy skills that will carry them through their school career.

These successes are being noticed! Along with Dr. Georgiou, FVSD Superintendent of Schools, Mike McMann and Supervisor of Learning Services for Literacy, Sharon McLean were recently invited to participate in the ‘Social Innovation Showcase: Challenging the Status Quo’, held in Edmonton at the University of Alberta on November 7, 2023. Sponsored by the University of Alberta and United Way, the ‘Innovation Showcase’ was part of an evening event hosted by the Friends of the University of Alberta Society, featuring keynote speaker Dr. Samantha Nutt who spoke about ‘Leading Change in a Complex World’.

In celebration of the Society’s 80th anniversary, six influential University of Alberta projects (out of thousands) were chosen and highlighted for the 300 people in attendance. Projects that tackle complex issues in ways that hold promise and possibility. Projects that are important to the social wellbeing of our communities and our province.  

Four school divisions participated in an early reading intervention study (one of the projects highlighted  in the ‘Showcase’) which began in September 2021:

Fort Vermilion School Division, Greater St. Albert Catholic School Division, Black Gold School Division, and Lakeland Catholic School Division.

This project was partly funded by Alberta Education, who has been involved from the beginning and facilitated the sharing of this new program for free among all Alberta school divisions and districts. The new Alberta curriculum for Language Arts is based on research and data collected from this study which has proven to be so successful that word has spread to the provinces of Nova Scotia and Manitoba, even crossing national borders. Belize was so impressed by the research it has recently implemented the program to address a literacy crisis and are now using it across the country to learn English.

The research study contrasted two intervention conditions that included phonological awareness activities, and phonics instruction. Of the 1,410 students screened from the four participating divisions, 273 were identified as struggling and received interventions from 60 trained Interventionists. These interventions were delivered in small groups of 2-4 students for 30 minutes, four times per week. In total, students received 60 lessons.

Click here to read more about the study: Children's Reading Reimagined

The results of the study speak for themselves! Over the course of this project, students from the four participating districts improved on average 1.5 years over 4.5 months of instruction. Of the students that received intervention, 80% improved over time. Data collected from the study showed the effect sizes of interventions used, compared to all previous reading interventions published, were three times larger than anywhere else in the world. In addition, the effects of the intervention a student received was maintained, even when the intervention was discontinued. It is also noteworthy that a previous study of early reading interventions by Dr. Georgiou and his team, following Grade 1 students until Grade 3, showed that of the 290 children that received the intervention in Grade 1 only 3 students continued to experience reading difficulties by Grade 3. Building on this success, Dr. Georgiou and his team will continue the research and work with the remaining 20% of students still struggling. More intensive interventions will be explored, and the resulting data collected and analyzed. FVSD will once again be participating, leading the way to better reading outcomes for all Alberta students.

Many individuals and organizations are working together to move the needle on student literacy - supporting, advising, collecting, analyzing, and doing the work on the front lines. Along with Kristy Dunn, Project Manager and the four participating school divisions, Dr. Georgiou collaborated with Dr. Rauno Parrila, Centre Director for the Australian Centre for the Advancement of Literacy at Australian Catholic University, and Dr. Robert Savage, Dean of the Faculty of Education at York University in Ontario. Both Professors having spent decades researching and working in the fields of literacy and early reading.

Even with decades of knowledge and research from highly respected Professors with Doctoral degrees backing the study, Dr. Georgiou credits much of the project’s success to the involvement and commitment of school staff and supportive direction from invested Superintendents.

When asked about FVSD’s contribution, Dr. Georgiou did not hesitate to say, “As we speak, Fort Vermilion School Division is the fastest growing school division in Alberta in terms of literacy.”

He is impressed with the level of investment shown by Superintendent Mike McMann who brings the best in terms of programming for staff and doesn’t see this happening anywhere else in the province.

Acknowledging that the program takes work to be successful, Dr. Georgiou points to FVSD as the example for the province. Superintendent McMann has made it a priority to ensure that staff at the school level are properly trained and delivering programming daily. From Administrators to Teachers and Educational Assistants, all levels of staff are involved in learning how to speak about and teach literacy, and to identify when interventions are needed. FVSD has been working diligently to train Educational Assistants in all schools as Interventionists in literacy and in math as well. Not just a body in a classroom, Educational Assistants have been integral to the continuing success of this program, doing the daily small group delivery and working with students individually as needed. Thereby allowing the teacher to focus on delivering systematic instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness to the whole class.

Superintendent McMann agrees that this program is not a magic bullet and without the investment and daily work put in by Teachers and Educational Assistants, we would not be where we are today.

“The biggest piece deserving of recognition is the hard work over the last six years from everybody,” stated McMann. “From a district level to Teachers, and the biggest group of people who have made the biggest impact in reading, our Educational Assistants and Interventionists. They have really changed the lives of kids and the trajectory for them.”

Parents also play a crucial role in the direction the Division is going and have stated that they want their children to read, understand math, be connected to community, and have a career. McMann expands on that saying, “Those four priorities, [Literacy, Numeracy, Connectivity, and Career Paths], really focus us on driving that instructional piece around each one of them.” He also credits FVSD Supervisor of Learning Services for Literacy, Sharon McLean as having been instrumental in determining what we actually need to do, doing the research, and saying what works and what doesn’t.

“For the past five years we have worked extensively with teachers on how to teach reading,” said McLean, "particularly in the primary grades, and are now focusing on Grades 4-6. It has been great to see the programs, working with teachers who are excited about teaching reading, working with interventionists, working with the research materials and now we have those materials to use in our classrooms forever. In working with Dr. George Georgiou, I can see across Canada that people are interested in his work.” McLean feels that explicit, systematic instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness foundational skills has been the area of research focused on the most because these are the skills that students need to become good readers. With literacy being an important indicator for future success, it is more important than ever to ensure that the work done is put into practice and the learning continues for new principals, teachers, and staff. Everything FVSD does is based in research and every decision made at the district level and by Trustees is made based on the impact it will have on students.

One notable change observed, is the number of junior high students that are struggling readers. That number has dropped significantly and is expected to continue a downward trend as intervention programs are expanded and more Interventionists in elementary and middle schools are trained. Following the 2021 research study, FVSD has continued to use Dr. Georgiou’s programs and interventions with great success. Adding further proof that this new way of approaching literacy is working and is repeatable, consistent, and reliable. There is also great benefit to having trained Interventionists physically in our schools who can share their knowledge with fellow educators and are available to deliver interventions in-person as soon as a need is identified.

This groundbreaking work around early reading and literacy will continue. Dr. George Georgiou has been connecting with school boards in other provinces and presenting his research to colleagues, his most recent engagement being at the 35th Annual British Columbia Association of School Psychologists Conference in Vancouver on November 15. With a grant from the Government of Canada received this past September, Dr. Georgiou will now shift focus to the 20% of students that need more intensive interventions.

As a pioneer in the implementation of this new program, FVSD is honored to play an integral part in sharing these strategies with the education community. Superintendent Mike McMann has already conducted several webinars around the impact of COVID on student learning and how FVSD saw growth where other jurisdictions experienced slides. “If we know systematically how to teach reading, we don’t have to debate it anymore. We used to buy programs to solve this problem, now we know how to do it and we have the research to back it up,” said McMann.

Read more about the study here: Children's Reading Reimagined