Dr. Heather Kenny, a past kindergarten teacher, reading interventionist, consultant and higher education teacher-educator, explores how school leaders and coaches can support teachers of early readers. She is the President of Unleashed Innovation, Inc. and the creator of Sounder & Friends,™ an educational adventure show to develop learners’ phonemic awareness. Dr. Kenny identifies desired student learning behaviors to build foundational reading success.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. Instructional coaches and leaders create the environment that supports teachers to continually imagine, grow and achieve. They model an excitement for learning that teachers in turn model for students. This podcast is dedicated to promoting the important aspects of instructional leadership. Thanks for listening.
Steve: 00:28 Early reading classrooms – coaching look for’s. Joining us today is Dr. Heather Kenny, a past kindergarten teacher, reading interventionists, consultant, and higher ed teacher-educator. She’s the president of Unleashed Innovation, Inc. and the creator of Sounder and Friends, an educational adventure show that develops learners’ phonemic awareness. Welcome Heather.
Heather: 00:56 Thank you, Steve. Glad to be here.
Steve: 00:58 Heather, I’m wondering for a starter, if you’d tell us what led to your focus and study of phonemic skills.
Heather: 01:07 Absolutely. So when I completed my teacher education program, I won’t tell you how many years ago, but I was acutely aware of the fact that I had no clue how to teach students to read. I knew how to plan literacy lessons, but that was not the same as understanding how children learn to read. So I breathed a huge sigh of relief when my first job was in kindergarten
Heather: 01:55 It was really just a speech and language pathologist who we could have conversations with. But once we started teaching what we referred to to as a phonemically driven literacy program, it takes a letter to sound approach, and we had enormous success with that. We were focusing on the sound and then teaching children how those sounds mapped to letters. And traditional instructional approaches do the opposite. They actually take a letter to sound rather than a sound to letter approach. So for example, we’ll often hear teachers in early primary classrooms saying, “what sound does that letter make?” Well, letters don’t make anything. They’re just visual representations of the sounds that we hear in our spoken language. And for students to become fluent readers, they need to be able to hear and identify and differentiate between those sounds and spoken words.
Heather: 02:48 After all, it’s a single sound that means the difference between one word and another. Cat to coat, to cot to kit. And we need to teach students not only to be able to hear and differentiate those sounds, but we need to teach them how those sounds are spelled. So, as I mentioned, we had great success using this approach with beginning readers. And then later as an interventionist, I took those same principles of instruction and applied them to my work with older struggling readers. And virtually every struggling reader that I have worked with in grade three and above Steve, has had phonemic awareness deficits. And the statistics are quite shocking. As many as 85% of reading comprehension problems can actually be linked back to a lack of phonemic awareness, because if we don’t have those skills, then we’re not able to read fluently and automatically. And if we can’t read fluently on automatically, we can’t attend to the message that the author’s trying to convey. But I did find in my private practice that once students developed anemic proficiency, and then we filled in any holes or deficits and phonics knowledge, they were then able to make very rapid gains in both word recognition and reading fluency.
Steve: 03:58 I tell you Heather, you triggered a piece of history for me. I started my teaching career in grades four, five and six, and then after six years transferred to teach first grade and of course had no idea
Heather: 04:55 And I think that’s a common experience, Steve even now, unfortunately, but that’s our job, right? As teacher educators and consultants and so forth that to help teachers build that foundation and knowledge and be able to recognize when there are holes in that foundation.
Steve: 05:14 Heather in my coaching work, I place a lot of attention on observing students engaged in learning. It’s what I like to call learning production behaviors. What’s the learner doing that’s gonna cause the learning to happen? And I’m wondering if you’d share your thoughts with a focus on what coaches and administrators would hope to see students doing related to the internalization of phonemic skills. I’m wondering if you might kind of timeline it for us. So if we’re in those early childhood classrooms, what would we hope to see? And then as the grades go up, if we’re watching the kids, what is it we’re looking to see the kids doing?
Heather: 05:57 =Absolutely. That is such a great question. So I think first and foremost, it’s important that we realize that spoken language proceeds written language. So the alphabet that we used to communicate in writing was actually devised for the express purpose of representing speech sounds. So when we think about literacy instruction and those learning production behaviors, that idea of speech to print, we wanna see that at all grade levels. So for example, in the preschool years, of course, children do and use the strategies that we teach them. So we have to be careful about what we’re teaching them in the first place. And then we wanna make sure that children are adopting or appropriating those behaviors as their own. So in the preschool years, we wanna make sure that children develop that awareness of sounds and spoken language. And we can do this by reading books or singing songs, playing games that promote rhyming and alliteration.
Heather: 06:52 Once we begin introducing letters, we can do so from that perspective of speech to print. So for example, what sound you hear at the beginning of moon? Can you hear the, mmm sound? What should your mouth do when you make that sound? Can you feel your lips pressed together? Now, I’m going to show you how we spell that sound mmm. We use the letter M and here’s how we write the letter M. So we always wanna make sure that we’re connecting – before we’re talking about letter symbols, we always want children to be listening for those sounds and then making those connections. And one of the really powerful teaching tools that we can use in those early learning classrooms and with older struggling readers as well, who have difficulty hearing those sounds is using mirrors so that they can actually watch their mouth.
Heather: 07:35 If I’m doing this kind of training the classroom, I wanna make sure that all of my students are looking at my mouth, that they’re mouthing those sounds along with me. And we also want to see, especially in that those preschool and kindergarten classrooms, we wanna see that awareness of spoken language infused in children’s conversation and their conversations around literacy, but also in their spontaneous play, because that’s that I’ve certainly observed. When I was teaching kindergarten and playing all these phonemic awareness games in the classroom, I would have parents come in say to me, “why is my kids sounding me out at home?”
Heather: 08:18 So we know that when children are playing and interacting, they’re drawing upon the things that make sense to them. So we really wanna see these spontaneous interactions. When children move on to kindergarten and first grade, instruction should continues to honor that speech to print relationship between sounds, but now the more complex spelling patterns. And we need to make sure that we’re avoiding instruction that really requires rote memorization of words. So I know a word wall has been a fixture in most classrooms for the last several decades but unfortunately the way they’re typically used is not highly effective because it encourages children to try to memorize those words. And honestly, in all of my years teaching, I have seen hundreds of word walls. I have never seen a child spontaneously go to the word wall to try to figure out the spelling of the word, because you have to know how it’s spelled before you can even find it.
Heather: 09:12 So it’s teacher friendly in terms of the way it’s organized, but it’s not student friendly. However, if we flip that and we provide students with access to a sound ball, so that we can actually see how that sound is pronounced and then give a variety of spellings for that sound, we will see children actually looking in mirrors, looking at what their shape looks like, mouth position looks like, trying to find that sound up on the wall and then looking at the various spelling patterns. So providing students with the resources that they can actually independently access, I think is very important. We should also see students decoding and encoding words like meaning sounding out words, right? Whether they’re reading or they’re spelling, we wanna hear those sounds in the words. And when they’re reading words, we wanna make sure that they’re actually looking intently at the word rather than looking at the pictures or jumping around on the page or looking up at the teacher.
requisite phonemic proficiency, they will be able to recognize words automatically without sounding out after only one to four exposures. So if we observe students who despite many exposures to words are still miscuing or still hesitating on those words, then we have to examine our instructional practices. Chances are, these are the students who need to further develop their phonemic awareness skills.
Steve: 11:40 That last piece I need you to lay out for me again. So because they don’t have the phonemic awareness, they can’t store the whole word as the map.
Heather: 11:51 Exactly.
Steve: 11:51 Having that phonemic awareness is part of being able to store the whole word as the map.
Heather: 11:56 Right. It’s that brain-based process and students need those phonemic proficiency in order to be able for their brain to be able to store that word for that automatic and effortless retrieval. And we always wanna look at student spelling ability as well, because that lays out in black and white, what students’ understandings are about how letters are used to represent sounds.
Steve: 12:21 There’s a a sign that I read years ago in a staff lounge that is ringing back to me as I listened to you. And the sign said, “teaching reading is rocket science.”
Heather: 12:35 Yes. That that’s actually a really famous quote by Lisa Motes and it’s very true. There’s so much to think about and so much to know in order to be able to teach proficiently. But the exciting thing is, is that these reading is a skill and any skill is something that can be taught, it can be learned, it be mastered, it can be practiced. Obviously, some of us are going to have more of a natural inclination than others and some of us are gonna need more practice to develop that proficiency, but it is definitely a skill. And I find that exciting to know that once we convey that to students that you can do this, we might need to help you develop some of the sub skills that are needed for success, but, with the right support and with enough practice, we can get virtually any child to read proficiently.
Steve: 13:25 And fair to say that the research is being done to help us get better and better and better at it?
Heather: 13:32 Most definitely.
Steve: 13:34 I’m wondering if you’ve got some thoughts on how school leaders can best support parents in parents learning about what to do with
Heather: 13:45 Mm-Hmm. So when parents think about early literacy, they typically think about teaching children their ABCs, and if school leaders can help to shift the understanding, that would be really helpful. They can certainly help spread information about the importance of attending to those speech sounds by sharing resources, such as Sounder and Friends by publishing articles in school newsletters, or hosting information nights, any type of community outreach that’s going to help communicate this to parents. But really, and truly Steve, I think the single most important thing a school leader can do is to ensure that teachers have that clear understanding of that speech to print relationship and the importance of teaching phonemic or skills to mastery. As you just mentioned, you know, teaching reading is rocket science, and it’s not fair to put that in the hands of parents. We can certainly help parents under understand what they can do to support their child in terms of their reading development. We don’t wanna be sending home those lists of spelling words where children have to recite, you know, “though” T H O U G H. We don’t wanna be doing that anymore, but those are the kinds of activities that are typically generated by the classroom teacher and sent home to the parents. So once teachers have that knowledge, that’s going to inform all of their conversations and communications with parents.
Steve: 15:04 Any last thoughts you’d like to share with school leaders on how we can best be supporting the skills of readers at our schools?
Heather: 15:16 Well, as we both know, school leaders have a powerful influence over classroom practices over curriculum and instructional materials. So it’s really important that they are well informed about what constitutes highly effective reading instruction. And they also need to understand the knowledge base that teachers need in order to provide that highly effective instruction to students. Not all reading instruction is created equal, and I have worked with a lot of very talented, very dedicated administrators who walk by classrooms and don’t realize that the type of reading instruction that’s going on is actually counterproductive. So a lot of the common instructional practices essentially teach kids to guess at words, rather than to decode or to read them. And these practices can actually hinder children’s long term reading development. In fact, some researchers call it an instructional disability because they were never taught how to recognize words in a way that will enable their brain to be able to retrieve those words effortlessly and automatically.
Heather: 16:19 So if school leaders know what high quality instruction looks like, things like that sound wall that I was talking about, things like making sure that when children are reading words, they’re actually saying the sounds in the word, or they’re leaning in to look very carefully at that word on the page, rather than looking up at the word wall or looking around pictures or looking to the t-shirt for the answer. So once school leaders know what that instruction looks like, then they can help to ensure that that type of high quality instruction is provided to all students in all grade levels and across all tiers of support. So promoting that knowledge amongst teachers, and then promoting that alignment between our basic tier one instruction, our tier two and tier three, I think would be tremendously powerful.
Steve: 17:06 Thanks Heather. As we wrap up, you wanna let folks know how they can be in touch with you and find out the resources that that you have available?
Heather: 17:15 Most definitely. So to connect with me, anyone is welcome to check out our Unleashed Innovation website. It’s at www.unleashed-innovation.com. You can certainly reach out to me directly. We also have Sounder and Friends, which is our educational adventure series and free app, which is intended to help promote these skills amongst our earliest learners. And those episodes are featured on pbs.org and on the National Center for Improving Literacy’s Kid’s Zone. You can also find us on our own designated YouTube channel, and the app is available for free download via Google play or the app store. We also post a lot of helpful resources, including games and activities on our various social media platforms. So we invite anyone who’s interested to follow us on Facebook and Instagram, or to visit the Sounder and Friends website at www.sounderandfriends.com
Steve: 18:14 Thanks Heather, appreciate all your all your input.
Heather: 18:18 Thank you so much, Steve. It was a pleasure speaking with you.
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