A Plan for Facilitating Early Referrals

I work in a public K-8 charter school. Over the course of the six years I have been there, each school year has begun with the same dilemma: how to get classroom teachers to complete early referrals for students showing language and reading problems so that appropriate supports can be implemented. The total school population is around 350 students, and yearly, there is an ample number of K-2 students requiring reading support through the Early Intervention Program (EIP). The classroom teachers typically identify and submit referrals for speech sound problems early in the school year, but they struggle to identify language problems that may impact reading and spelling. Consequently, at the end of the school year when decision-making about retention promotion is in process, there is a flood of referrals for K-2 students who are not achieving in reading and spelling. At this point, students have missed out on important supports that could have helped them progress. 

In my school, Orton-Gillingham (OG) instruction for reading, spelling, writing, and comprehension is implemented in grades K-2.  While the majority of students gain competency in the skills through the instruction, there is always a smaller percentage who don’t. I attended the week-long OG training in June. Although I felt confident in the knowledge of the content related to phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, oral, and written language, there were other aspects of the content and methodology that were enlightening. In the manual, the authors present research supporting the program’s instructional methodology, including studies highlighting the relationship between strong phonological awareness and better reading ability.  One of the initial steps of OG instruction is for classroom teachers to administer the Phonological Awareness Skills Test (PAST) in order to identify phonological awareness difficulties in students.  The program also recommends the integration of whole-class phonological awareness (PA) activities into the language arts curriculum for 15-20 minutes daily. 

Recently, I met with administrators and K-1 teachers to discuss the need for earlier identification. I explained the relationship between good phonological awareness skills and reading acquisition, and I reiterated the importance of phonological awareness instruction to help improve outcomes for children who are at-risk for reading problems.  I wanted confirmation of whether or not the phonological awareness screenings and whole-class instruction are being done and got it-- neither is done, even though they are an integral part of the OG instructional process. 

But, it’s funny how things come together sometimes.  My caseload number is low starting this school year, so this opened a window of opportunity for me to volunteer to administer the PAST to each student in the six K-1 classes.  The administrators and teachers expressed excitement about the idea. Of course, it takes one task off their plate, but I’m actually excited about doing this because it’s necessary for those students who are struggling with phonological skills and reading. The process should also be beneficial for direct observations of students’ communication skills, in general. 

In summary, this plan will involve:

  1. administering the PAST individually to students in six K-1 classes.
  2. analyzing student performance for each classroom (e.g. individual student performance, whole-class performance by skill, etc.). As per the OG process, this will help teachers identify at-risk students and the skills to be targeted for whole- and small-group instruction in the classroom (tiers 1 and 2). Getting the teachers to buy into consistent classroom-level phonological awareness instruction may be another hurdle, but hopefully, they will understand that it shouldn’t be neglected. I will also recommend tier strategies for any students noted to have other communication issues.
  3. meeting with teachers to discuss at-risk students’ progress in whole- and small-group instruction in the classroom. Specific deficit skills will be re-assessed to measure changes in performance. Students not showing progress with classroom-level instruction may be referred for tier 3 interventions with the SLP or other staff. 
  4. Students not showing adequate progress at the level of tier 3 interventions may need a referral for special education evaluation. 

I’m keeping fingers crossed that this process will facilitate the flow of referrals by late October- early November (versus March-April). I hope to be able to share the good news in the future that the process worked successfully!

 

Author: Colleen H. Williams, SLP.D, CCC-SLP

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