We were very fortunate to be able to represent Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS) at the annual International Dyslexia Association (IDA) Conference 2018. This year, the event was held at Foxwood Resorts located at Mashantucket, Connecticut. Aside from four packed days of symposiums and break-out sessions, conference participants also had the option to visit a school on one of the days.
During the preparation of our trip, our colleagues shared their experiences of the IDA conferences they had attended in the past. One of the common key highlights was a school visit. They had wonderful reviews and highly encouraged us to do so as well. After hearing their responses, we both decided to sign up for a visit to Waterford Public Schools.
Waterford Public Schools is located at Waterford, Connecticut. Connecticut has passed a trio of dyslexia laws since 2015. The laws require dyslexia assessment for Kindergarten to Grade 3 students, effective literacy instruction to students who need it, and teacher training in structured literacy. The district also focuses on early identification of students at risk of dyslexia or other reading-related learning difficulties. This is done through assessing students in the following areas: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension skills.
Within Waterford Public schools, they incorporate a structured literacy approach to its English language arts programme from Kindergarten to Grade 12. Depending on their school level, different literacy intervention approaches will be adopted. Teachers use the Wilson Reading System® and Orton-Gillingham approaches in their mainstream and intervention classrooms.
Literacy and intervention approaches according to grades and child’s needs
From Kindergarten to Grade 3, teachers use Fundations® to provide early literacy instruction in their typical classrooms. All students receive the same type of instruction. When a child does not respond to this approach and continues to exhibit literacy difficulties, he or she will be flagged for other intervention. However, the consistency in instruction as students’ progress to higher grades allows them to focus on the content they are learning, rather than adapting to new literacy instruction.
From Grades 4 to 12 onwards, more intensive intervention is provided for students who continue to struggle with literacy. These can include Orton-Gillingham and Just Words®. Just Words® is designed for Middle school students (Grades 6-8) with mild to moderate gaps in their reading and spelling skills. At the High school level (Grades 9-12), the extra support classes are considered as classes where students can earn credits that will contribute to their final year marks. Unlike the Elementary and Middle School level, the Wilson Reading System® is mainly used at the High school level. From elementary to high school, students who need literacy support are taught in a smaller group setting of 3 to 10 students per class.
At the Elementary and Middle schools, whether it was a typical mainstream or intensive literacy class, the students were observed to be very compliant. When the students entered the class, they were quick to settle down and displayed a ‘ready to learn’ attitude. They were engaged throughout the entire class and participated eagerly in activities. Students knew their class routines and were aware of what and where to retrieve the required resources. They showed enthusiasm in learning and were constantly on their best behaviour. More importantly, the nine and ten-year-olds were willing to fingerspell with their hands! On the other hand, High school students in the extra support class used a tapping technique to aid them in spelling. While slight differences were noted in the Wilson Reading System® approach, the essence of the remediation was similar to the Orton Gillingham approach where elements of simultaneously multisensory teaching were recognised.
Similar to the other schools, students at the High school level were compliant and on task. In the mainstream class, they were given opportunities to work independently or collaborate with a partner. Students took ownership of their learning when they actively participated in the in-class discussion or sought clarification on the subject matter. At the end of the High school visit, two exemplary students with dyslexia were invited to share their story with us. Questions such as ‘how difficult were it for you to cope with learning’, ‘how were you helped by your teachers’ and ‘who has been your strongest advocates’ were asked. Both students were forthcoming in sharing their struggles with learning but that the extra support class had really helped them cope with it. They are now coping very well, crediting their mothers and teachers as their strong advocates. One of them will soon graduate from High school and moving on to an Arts College!
Throughout our visit to all the three schools, we found the teachers to be calm and composed. As the students are very well-behaved, teachers did not have to regulate or manage any misbehaviour. They can focus on lesson execution and delivery of the lesson. More importantly, when they are using the Wilson Reading System®, teachers can refer to and follow the lesson as documented in the manual. That definitely helped in their lesson planning as all lessons were pre-planned and teachers had to execute, document a child’s learning progress, and tweak whenever necessary.
As we made our way from elementary, middle and high schools, we could see the smooth transition of the literacy intervention being implemented and carried on as the child progresses into higher grades.
The district’s experiences with success lay in their early identification and providing timely and effective literacy intervention for students who could be at risk of developing literacy intervention or have been diagnosed with dyslexia.
The success of an intervention or support programme for students is dependent on the buy-in from all stakeholders. In view of this, the districts are forced to develop a system to ensure components of the Wilson® programmes are carried out from Kindergarten to Grade 12. It is a commitment taken by all stakeholders to ensure a plan is in place to standardise the practice of administering intervention across all public schools in the district, honing teachers’ professional development and translating it into educating the students. This will then translate down into guidelines and practices in schools. All the teachers within the district are certified at Wilson® Level 1 to carry out the literacy instruction and intervention within their school. They are also encouraged to pursue professional development so as to achieve Level 2 certification in 2019.
Teachers at Waterford Public Schools have knowledge of the issues with dyslexia and other literacy challenges. They are aware of the importance of providing literacy instruction with fidelity and consistency. They have witnessed the results of the literacy approach, thus, they embrace the programmes. This awareness and conviction spear-head teachers to come up with initiatives such as awareness of dyslexia, presentation for colleagues and parents, and engaging the Board of Education of the district. When there are fidelity and consistency in supporting students with learning difficulties, all stakeholders will see the positive results as they complement and support each other.
At the DAS, educational therapists are trained in the Orton-Gillingham (OG) principles and approach which is similar to that of Wilsons. As was observed, what is practised with OG, e.g. language-based, simultaneously multisensory, structured, sequential and cumulative, was also practised in the Wilson programme. For instance, when the students were made to do spelling, they were required to trace and sound before writing the word down. While the Wilson Manual greatly helped the teachers with delivering their lessons, our Main Literacy Programme Integrated Curriculum was developed to achieve the same goal. However, unlike the Wilson Programme which remediates basic literacy skills, the DAS Integrated Curriculum incorporated Reading Comprehension and Writing as part of our literacy remediation.
On the other hand, one marked difference between what was observed in the Waterford Public Schools and what is being done at the DAS was the use of Educational Technology. In recent years, educational therapists at the DAS have been introduced to various EduTech tools that are useful for teaching. Educational therapists are encouraged to incorporate the use of these EduTech tools in teaching or assigning tasks to students. This has shown to benefit our students in acquiring skills such as reading comprehension and writing, especially since the generation today are more apt at using technology.
Currently, the Preschool Programme at DAS has supported young struggling learners who continue to receive remediation on the Main Literacy Programme if they are diagnosed with dyslexia. There are also students who enter into our programme at the primary and secondary schools. It will be beneficial to identify students at risk of developing literacy difficulties as early as possible to render intervention. All in all, the experience at Waterford Public Schools reinforced the good things that are being done at DAS – DAS has been actively conducting an awareness talk to parents, schools and other organisations in Singapore as well as strongly supporting continual teacher training and advocacy towards students’ learning needs which will ensure that the relevant donors and the ministry maintains their backing of the programmes. Indeed what the DAS is doing is very similar to what we had experienced during the school visit.