Around halfway through their first year in school, students across the Cayman Islands sit down to an unusual reading test.
The word list goes something like this: lug, dez, waz, pud, dak, keb.
It might seem counter-intuitive to teach invented words to beginner English speakers, acknowledges Brad Wilson, the literacy specialist at the Ministry of Education.
But nonsense word fluency, which tests the ability to recognize symbols and letter combinations and blend sounds to form words, is considered an essential decoding skill needed to become a reader.
The phonics test is considered a reliable screener to identify students at risk of developing reading difficulties.
It is one of a series of “diagnostic tests” given to youngsters during Year 1 of primary school as part of the new Response to Intervention program.
The program has been credited with making inroads in resolving some of the most significant issues facing Cayman’s youngest students. Officials say an intense focus on reading in the early years will help deal with a slew of issues later on.
Interventions helped 86 percent of Year 1 students in the public school system meet the expected literacy level for their age group in the last academic year – the first time the intensive intervention program has been used in Cayman’s schools. At the Edna Moyle Primary School in North Side, 100 percent of students reached the required level.
The aim of the program, which has now been expanded to Year 2, is to identify and correct reading difficulties early, to prevent them spiraling into bigger problems as reading gets more complex.
Mr. Wilson said the basic concept of the RTI program is simple and revolves around intensive, additional tutoring for those who are struggling.
While students at age five are not expected to arrive at school able to read, they are expected to have acquired certain language skills in identifying sounds and symbols – the building blocks that will help them become readers.
The range of abilities for early readers is as diverse as their backgrounds.
Some children have to be taught to hold a book and manipulate the pages. Mr. Wilson has encountered students who attempt to turn the page by swiping as you would to flick through pages on an iPad or a smartphone.
Others have memorized “sight words” but haven’t mastered the decoding skills needed to learn new words.
“A lot of people think you just put books in a child’s hand and they can read, and for a portion of children that is true. For others, you have to explicitly teach some skills that they don’t already have,” said Mr. Wilson.
“It is not just about teaching a kid to read, it is about identifying their specific problem and putting additional instruction in place that is appropriate.”
Those who have not developed the necessary skills get a six- to eight-week “intervention” in small groups, initially involving an additional 20 minutes of instruction per day. If that doesn’t correct the issue, then longer one-on-one sessions are added.
Students are screened three times per year to check their progress against expected levels.
At Year 1 level, Mr. Wilson said, the problems encountered can be addressed with five basic interventions.
For the cohort of students who started their school lives in September 2015, the program, which is being rolled out in stages, will follow them through their school careers. The constant monitoring and coaching should ensure that the range of problems they might encounter as older readers are less complex and easier to manage, Mr. Wilson says.
Students in Year 1 get 90 minutes of literacy teaching a day. Mr. Wilson and three literacy coaches are working with teachers at all primary schools to ensure consistency of method across the school system.
Clive Baker, senior policy adviser, said focusing on phonemic and phonological skills, among others, has proven effective in transforming results in school systems across the English speaking world. He said intense focus on literacy in the early years will pay dividends for Cayman’s students in the long term.
“It is a slow process that focuses very much on early learners – four- five- and six-year-olds. You won’t see it show up in external results for several years.”
He said there had been “pockets of excellence” in the past, but the Response to Intervention program was designed to make it the norm. He said the challenge for the Ministry is to put the resources and checks and balances in place to ensure the system is followed with “fidelity.”
He said many of the 40 new posts announced last month would go toward providing the classroom assistants needed to make the program work.
“What we are doing is what has been proven to work. If there has been fidelity, if we have hired the right people and filled the posts it will get results, but it will take time.”