Evaluation of the Phonics Program 2015

Evaluation of the Skills Development Program for fourteen Grade 3 teachers
Introduction
The skills development program for Grade 3 teachers during 2015 consisted of five workshops in conjunction with on-going monitoring of the program within the classroom context. Workshops were facilitated at the start of each term, the following topics were covered:

  • phonological awareness
  • learning styles and how to facilitate multi-sensory activities
  • pronunciation of sounds, blends and digraphs
  • activities to support children in consolidating key knowledge
  • how to introduce sounds, blends, digraphs and split digraphs
  • how to support children to identify where they hear sounds, blends and digraphs
  • how to support children to develop reading and spelling skills
  • structure of a lesson
  • assessment
  • peer mentoring

During each term every teacher received three support visits from an experienced member of staff. This provided the assistance necessary to apply what they had learnt in the workshop to the classroom context.
Data collection
During November 2015 an evaluation of the program was completed in order to explore the factors that influence the success of the phonics program and any challenges associated with the program. This included gathering quantitative and qualitative data. Quantitative data was collected from 13 teachers by means of a questionnaire. Of the thirteen, twelve educators were female and one was male. All thirteen were Black African and their first language was isiZulu. Qualitative data was gained through six semi-structured interviews. The semi-structured interviews were audio recorded and transcribed. Informed consent was obtained from each person and the principal from each school which explained the purpose of the research and the possible implications. Through a system of coding similar themes emerged from the data.
Factors that influence the success of the phonics program
It was found that two key factors during 2015 had influenced the success of the program, those being:

  • development of necessary skills
  • elements of the program

Each of these areas will be explained in more detail in the following two sections.
Section 1: Development of necessary skills
The teachers identified the key skills they had developed through being part of the phonics program through the questionnaire.

Screenshot 2016-06-12 19.18.23 (2)
From the graph it is evident that the teachers recognise they have developed a variety of skills in order to teach phonics. During the semi structured interviews the teachers specifically referred to three of these elements:

  • understanding of relevant terminology
  • knowledge and pronunciation of sounds, blends and digraphs
  • the confidence and ability to teach phonics

These will be explored in more depth below.

Understanding of relevant terminology
All the teachers in the questionnaire stated they had developed a knowledge and understanding of the appropriate terminology (sound, blend, consonant digraph, vowel digraph, split digraph, blending and segmenting) associated with the teaching of phonics and during the interviews the teachers referred to relevant terms (transcript 1, lines 3 – 4, line 32, transcript 2, lines 4 – 6, transcript 3, lines 10 – 14, transcript 4, lines 3 – 5, lines 36 – 37, transcript 6, line 70).
Knowledge and pronunciation of sounds, blends and digraphs
All the teachers in the questionnaire stated they had developed a knowledge of how to pronounce sounds, blends and digraphs and during the interviews five teachers referred to the fact that their pronunciation skills had developed (transcript 2, lines 49 – 50, lines 56 – 57, line 83, transcript 3, lines 12 – 14, line 89, transcript 4, lines 30 – 31, lines 83 – 87, lines 94 – 95, transcript 5, lines 72 – 74, transcript 6, line 4, lines 69 – 70, lines 79 – 81).
Confidence and ability to teach phonics
All the teachers in the questionnaire stated they had developed a confidence and ability to teach phonics. Developing both an understanding of relevant terminology and how to pronounce sounds, blends and digraphs (see above) will have contributed to each educator’s ability to teach phonics. Within the interviews all six of the teachers referred to developing in their ability to teach phonics. Three teachers explained how the program made the teaching of phonics ‘easy’ and thus the teachers developed a confidence to teach phonics (transcript 1, line 28, lines 36-37, line 98, transcript 3, lines 25 – 26, transcript 6, lines 9 – 11). The teacher’s confidence can be linked to their increased understanding of what to teach and how to support the learners to develop the appropriate knowledge and skills (transcript 1, lines 77 – 80, transcript 2, lines 17 – 19, lines 48 – 50, transcript 3, lines 89 – 90, lines 113 – 114, transcript 4, lines 38 – 42, transcript 5, lines 71 – 74, transcript 6, lines, 23 – 25).

Guarany (2011) highlights how confidence is a result of three elements, namely having a good knowledge of the subject area, being prepared and reflective practice. From the data it is evident that the teachers have developed knowledge of the subject area, can use the curriculum to plan lessons (see graph on page 5) and through the support visits (see page 7) have developed reflective practice skills, hence growing in confidence.

Screenshot 2016-06-12 19.21.20 (2)

The confidence and the ability the teachers developed through the skills development program impacted on the progress the learners have been able to make during the year. All the teachers during the interviews remarked on how their learner’s phonic skills had developed. One teacher maintained she had seen a general improvement (transcript 4, lines 126 – 129), whilst other teachers commented on specific skills learners had developed as a result of the program:

  • ability to pronounce sounds (transcript 2, line 21, transcript 3, line 104, transcript 5, line 5), blends and digraphs (transcript 1, line 32)
  • development of skills to read and spell words (transcript 1, lines 8 – 10, lines 23 – 25, lines 69 – 72, transcript 2, line 21, transcript 3, line 104, transcript 4, line 53, line 62, transcript 6, line 103)
  • ability to apply the skills developed to the writing of sentences (transcript 1, lines 24 – 25, transcript 6, line 10)

For more information on the progress learners made during 2015 at each school involved in the program refer to the November 2015 Report.
Section 2: Elements of the program
The questionnaire asked teachers to indicate how helpful each element of the phonics program had been.

Screenshot 2016-06-12 19.24.19 (2)
From the graph it can be seen that the teachers rated the different elements – workshops, support visits, curriculum, resources and assessment – as good or very good, thus valuing the various components of the program. During the semi structured interviews the teachers specifically referred to two of these elements, the resources and the support visits. These will be explored in more depth below.

Resources
The six teachers referred to the resources provided within the interviews. They commented on the fact that all the materials necessary to facilitate the phonics program were provided (transcript 1, lines 93 – 94 and transcript 3, lines 22 – 23). Four teachers identified that the resources support with learning, helping the children develop important skills (transcript 2, lines 79 – 80, transcript 4, lines 67 – 70, transcript 5, lines 16 – 17 and transcript 6 lines 13 – 15) with one teacher highlighting how the resources help to keep the children motivated (transcript 2, lines 45 – 46). The teachers also linked the use of the resources to enjoying learning (transcript 2, lines 25 – 26, transcript 4, lines 67 – 70, transcript 6 lines 32 – 34). Through their research Crook et. al (2008, p.21) identify a key reason why enjoyment within learning is important, “When one works and learns in a happy state, one is more likely to carry learning forward than when happiness is not involved.”

Screenshot 2016-06-12 19.26.38 (2)
Support visits
Five of the teachers referred to the help they had received through the support visits within the interviews. Teachers identified that the support visits had been helpful (transcript 1, line 99, transcript 3, lines 23 – 24, transcript 6, lines 53 – 56) and that through the support visits clarification could be acquired when teachers had queries or concerns (transcript 2, lines 54 – 57, transcript 3, lines 36 – 38, lines 70 – 73, Transcript 4, lines 135 – 139).

New Teacher Center (2014) recognises that teacher support, results in teacher effectiveness and improves student success amongst other factors. From the data collected, the support visits were providing the assistance necessary to teach phonics effectively and thus improving the quality of teaching. One teacher commented that without the support (transcript 3, line 68), ‘the program and the development would have been far behind’.
Challenges associated with the program
The questionnaire asked teachers to indicate challenges associated with the phonics program.

Screenshot 2016-06-12 19.30.15 (2)
From the graph it can be seen that teachers noted a range of factors. During the semi-structured interviews three of the factors from the data arose, namely: not enough time allocated to the teaching of phonics (transcript 2, lines 62 – 63, transcript 5, line 43, transcript 6, lines 122 – 123), large class sizes (transcript 3, lines 76 – 77, transcript 4, lines 74 – 75, transcript 5, line 56) and children with learning difficulties (transcript 5, lines 53 – 54, transcript 6, lines 48 – 49). However one area emerged which was a key concern for 62% of the teachers.
Key concern noted through the research
Through both the questionnaire and semi-structured interviews a key concern arose. Eight of the thirteen teachers made reference of the need to continue with the program in some form.

Two teachers commented on how the program should continue in general as the methodology supports learners to develop age-appropriate phonic skills (transcript 1, lines 26 – 28, lines 97 – 99, transcript 3, lines 110 – 114). One teacher emphasising the program should be facilitated in other districts (transcript 4, lines 122 – 125).

Five teachers (three through the questionnaire, two during the interviews) highlighted how it would be beneficial to continue the program with Grade 4 teachers and learners as a way to ensure teachers understand the methodology and build on the skills developed during Grade 2 and 3 (transcript 2, lines 85 – 86, transcript 3, lines 120 – 122). Two teachers went as far as suggesting the program should be developed for the whole primary school as a way of developing language skills (transcript 1, lines 43 – 45, transcript 4, lines 109 – 112).

One teacher acknowledged that the methodology could be applied to the teaching of isiZulu (transcript 4, lines 106 – 107).

Conclusion
The challenges the teachers noted, specifically the format in which the program continues in the future, needs to be considered in consultation with partners.
In concluding it is worth taking into consideration the comments three teachers made during the interviews in reference to how they felt before the implementation of the skills development
program. These teachers identified that they struggled to teach English (transcript 1, lines 82 – 83, transcript 4, lines 7 – 9, transcript 5, lines 30 – 31), one stating (transcript 1, line 26), ‘Myself I was so blank’.
From this report it is clear that the teachers have greatly benefitted from the skills development program, now having the confidence and ability to teach phonics to their Grade 3 learners. The support visits have provided the assistance necessary to teach phonics effectively and the teachers have valued the resources provided. As the teachers acquire a new class of learners at the beginning of 2016 they will start the program again.
Bibliography
Crook, E., Brice Heath, S., Lunt, J. and Whelan, K. (2008) Finding Enjoyment, Gaining Achievement, Doncaster: darts.
Guarany, F. (2011) Increasing your confidence as a language teacher [online], Available from www.teachingenglish.org.uk/blogs/fernando-guarany/increasing-your-confidence-a-language-teacher [Accessed 15 November 2015]
New Teacher Center (2014) Ten reasons to have a high-quality teacher induction program [online], Available from www.newteachercenter.org/blog/ten-reasons-have-high-quality-teacher-induction-program [Accessed 15 November 2015]