A Christchurch Initiative by Linwood College and the Wayne Francis Charitable Trust    
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Path and Trees

Literacy Project - Toe by Toe

Reading inquiries and research all over the world have concluded that systematically teaching phonics as well as whole word identification and how to use contextual cues is the most reliable way of teaching reading so that up to one third of children are not left behind. These inquiries have based their conclusions on a rigorous assessment of current research into learning, reading and the brain. While some children can learn to read seemingly effortlessly, many find the process difficult. Some of these children are being left behind and research shows that students who do not make good initial progress in learning to read find it increasingly difficult to learn as time goes by. The longer it takes, the harder it gets.


Although Reading Recovery is designed to bring reading-delayed 6 year-olds up to their peers, at Linwood College around 30% are still behind by the time they start high school. Reading Recovery and the current early reading teaching methods do not seem to be working for a large number of students.


Ideally the problem should be prevented by introducing a lively, systematic phonics programme into our new entrant, Year One and pre-school classes to support our existing reading programmes. Phonics does not have to be dull as Yolanda Soryl has demonstrated.


So there is a problem: a large number of high school students, many in low decile schools have not acquired sufficient phonic knowledge; which means when they read, their word recognition process is slow and their understanding compromised. These students have experienced years of failure by the time they reach high school and their deficits in vocabulary and knowledge mean they find it difficult to function at a secondary school level and too often they leave with few qualifications and little hope of a well-paid job and a secure and satisfying future. Toe by Toe is one programme that can be used to redress the balance.


Toe by Toe is a synthetic phonics programme that uses repetition so that a student can learn the alphabetic sounds in English to allow easy decoding. Students at Linwood College, completing Toe by Toe in 2006, improved their reading ages by an average of 2.5 years. It has proved equally successful with adult students and students in Years 9, 10 and 11 over the last 3 years. It requires a regular (preferably daily) 15-20 minute session with a tutor and most students need about 50 sessions to complete the book, though some take a lot longer as the programme adapts to individual needs.


Even late intervention can make a significant difference to the lives of many of these students.



In the last decade English-speaking countries all over the world have expressed concern at the large number of children who are not learning to read well. Three of the largest, the United Kingdom , the United States and Australia , have set up inquiries at great expense, charged with identifying the best ways of teaching reading according to the latest and most rigorous research.


New Zealand has always prided itself on being a world leader in literacy and according to the 2000 OECD survey , NZ had the world's highest number of top-level readers (19%). But 31% of fifteen year-olds scored below level 3 on a 5 level scale, which aligns with the 33% of Year 9 students who arrived at Linwood College this year with reading ages from 2-9 years behind their chronological age. Research shows that few of this group will ever catch up .


New Zealand teaches reading through a predominantly whole language system. Children who are having difficulties reading are identified at 6 years old and Reading Recovery is used to address the problem before it has become entrenched. But despite these best efforts New Zealand still has an unacceptably large number of students who are not learning to read well enough to function easily in society. One OECD survey found over 40% of New Zealand adults did not have higher literacy skills.



In 2003 the Linwood College Resource Teacher of Learning and Behaviour returned from a conference with a little red book. She thought it might help a student who had been referred to her for difficult behaviour. He complained of reading difficulties and his tests showed he was almost able to comprehend at his age level but it took a painfully long time as he struggled to work out the words using the context; not surprisingly he hated reading and avoided it. He worked over the next 5 months with a tutor on the book, Toe by Toe, and his mother reported a changed boy; so did his teachers. He was engaged and no longer disruptive; he wanted to stay at school. He cheerfully extolled the virtues of Toe by Toe, and was happy to recommend the programme to any possible candidates, especially if they were dubious or unwilling.


These results were impressive and the efficacy of the programme was put to the test with more students in 2004. Again the results were good; most students not only improved their reading but their attitude, behaviour and self-confidence seemed to improve too. Parents were delighted and students were going on to achieve NCEA credits; the second student to complete the programme went on to earn over 130 credits and left for an apprenticeship, a result he and his mother felt would not have been possible without Toe by Toe.


In 2005 the programme needed to be expanded to really test whether or not it was as effective as it initially appeared, but at $100 per book and requiring one-on-one tutoring this was an expensive undertaking and since the book built in as much repetition as the student needed it was a programme that could take an unpredictable amount of time. The LANE project provided the opportunity to really put the programme to the test. The Trust was looking for a reading programme that could be used to teach young adults with reading problems in the Christchurch community. The school wanted the chance to use Toe by Toe with a larger number of students and to test whether or not it was as successful with a wider group.


At the same time the Trust wanted to investigate the international and New Zealand research about the most effective ways to teach reading and the school also undertook a small trial of an alternative phonics programme.


The Toe by Toe results were convincing enough to warrant a larger trial in 2006. The research investigation showed that the inquiries conducted in Britain, the USA and Australia had all found that phonics was a vital part of teaching reading particularly for beginning and delayed readers.

To learn about this aspect of the LANE Project, please download the full chapter above (pdf)




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