In a previous blog entitled A Plan for Facilitating Early Referrals, I described a longstanding problem with initial referrals in the school in which I work. Classroom teachers in my school struggle to identify students with language problems that impact academic achievement. My school serves kindergarten through eighth-grade children. At the middle school level, some students struggling in reading, spelling, and writing since the elementary grades have been referred to the school support team for the first time since entering school (hence the push for early identification!). Language screenings indicated the need for additional language testing. Because the students’ learning gaps had snowballed, psychological evaluations were also requested in an effort to get the students some academic support before they transitioned to high school.
We all know that spoken language and the development of reading skills are deeply intertwined. Along with oral language competency, phonological awareness is a critical skill that is strongly linked to reading and spelling. As previously reported, my school implements Orton-Gillingham (OG) instruction in kindergarten, first, and second grades. During the process of gathering information, it was revealed that phonological awareness screenings to identify students with deficits in phonological awareness are not completed, even though OG recommends it. The kindergarten and first-grade teachers use other measures to determine students’ performance on sight word fluency, letter identification, and letter-sound identification. In my opinion, students’ assessment profiles are incomplete without information about phonological awareness performance. With this important piece missing for students, how can the teachers know which skills to target for daily phonological awareness instruction (as recommended by OG)? They won’t know. Reading instruction, particularly for struggling readers, is incomplete without activities to strengthen phonological awareness.
Having a lower caseload number at the start of this school year has afforded me time to administer the phonological awareness screenings to the kindergarten and first-grade classes. The Phonological Awareness Skills Test (PAST) can be lengthy for many students (up to 30 minutes). I had hoped to complete one class per day, but it is taking more time per class than anticipated. So far, I’ve completed screenings for two classes and have already met with those teachers to share whole-class and individual student analyses. Coincidentally, the school is providing after-school tutoring sessions (one hour long) from September 2021 through March 2022. Amazingly, the PAST results line up well with the tutoring list—all of the students in the two classes receiving reading tutoring also showed skill deficits on the phonological awareness screening. The tutoring window is perfectly timed for implementing phonological awareness interventions in a small group. It will also allow for data collection to monitor progress.
I will tutor two kindergarten groups in reading and will plan instructional activities with two other kindergarten teachers. During the planning sessions, I will suggest opening each tutoring session with a phonological awareness activity(ies) and will provide the teachers with forms for documenting the activities and student progress. The tutoring sessions provide opportunities for small group instruction once weekly, but the students need daily instruction. I will continue to encourage the kindergarten and first-grade teachers to do that. Fidelity of instruction is important for decision-making about who will need to be moved into support team interventions or possibly referral for special education evaluation in the near future.
I hope to be able to recap in totality the results of this process for facilitating early referrals in a future blog.
Author: Colleen H. Williams, SLP.D., CCC-SLP