Kindergarten teacher Kiely Treschitta helps students with a spelling worksheet. Jane Vaughan / Lakes Region Weekly

WINDHAM — A new method for teaching literacy to kindergarteners has had a big impact on students’ reading and writing abilities in Windham over the past year, teachers say.

Jolly Phonics, a method for teaching literacy through synthetic phonics, was implemented in fall 2018 at Windham Primary School. In 2018, 46% of students were at or above the district’s benchmark for the development reading assessment, or DRA. The DRA is widely used across the country but is not a mandated assessment in Maine. In 2019, 76% of students were at or above that benchmark. 

“Of all the programs that we’ve had, this one has had the most dramatic impact of any program that we’ve ever used,” said WPS Literacy Interventionist Kelly Rich, who has worked in the district for 31 years. 

In synthetic phonics, words are never taught as wholes and are instead taught at the phoneme level. In addition, decoding, spelling and writing are all taught in tandem rather than separately.

Traditionally, literacy education in America puts an emphasis on learning the names of letters rather than on learning their sounds, said Jolly Phonics trainer Jennie Smith-Brock.  With Jolly Phonics, a program that originated in England in the 1980s, “students are taught very quickly the letter sounds as opposed to necessarily starting with the letter names. The focus is on the sounds and how to blend the sounds to read the words.” 

Students are taught a variety of sounds, along with a motion to go with each one. Rich says the approach is “done in a very engaging way. There’s singing, moving. It’s a multi-sensory approach, which makes it so fun.” The children sing, write on the SmartBoard and perform various movements. 

As a result, said WPS Principal Kyle Rhoads, “Kids were more confident because they had some of the basic skills. It made them more confident and more certain in their abilities. They were able to apply them quicker.” 

Rich said some teachers in WPS had dabbled in teaching phonics in previous years, but last fall, all 12 kindergarten teachers got on board with the program. This year, the kindergarteners moved into first grade, so all first grade teachers began using Jolly Phonics. Next year, second grade teachers will implement it as well.

Before Jolly Phonics, said WPS Instructional Leader Julie Young, “we didn’t really have a solid skills sequence for phonics instruction. There was no sequence of skills that we could guarantee all kids were getting, so not all kids got all of the same instruction. There were gaps.”

Students in kindergarten teacher Lindsey Pettus’s class practice making letter sounds as part of their Jolly Phonics instruction. Jane Vaughan / Lakes Region Weekly

Now, Rich said, “we’re not seeing children just randomly guessing (when they see a word they don’t know). They actually have some strategies.” 

Jolly Phonics is faster paced than traditional literacy instruction, Smith-Brock said. While many American programs focus on teaching one letter and its sound a week, Jolly Phonics teaches four or five sounds each week. As a result, “(students) are so much quicker to be able to put their knowledge to use in reading and writing.” 

Young said seeing the kids working on Jolly Phonics “is really, really impressive. The kids are thoroughly engaged and love it.” In a recent visit to two kindergarten classrooms, students took a spelling test and practiced making letter sounds with the corresponding motions, writing letters and matching uppercase and lowercase letters. 

Rhoads cautions that there are other factors that may have helped boost students’ reading and writing abilities this year, including more widespread use of a learning system called Lexia, a computerized reading program.

“We made it part of our regular programming. It used to be used only for kids who were struggling,” he said. “That played a part, too.”

Kindergartener Jadyn Cary-Blodgett works to match lowercase and uppercase letters in Lindsey Pettus’s classroom. Jane Vaughan / Lakes Region Weekly

But, he said, his own daughter was in kindergarten last year, and “the amount of progress she made in kindergarten as a reader and a writer was much more than I expected. A good part of that had to do with Jolly Phonics.” 

Smith-Brock has trained multiple schools on Jolly Phonics instruction, including Russell School in Gray, Waynflete in Portland and Calais Elementary School, and hopes that the program’s success will encourage districts to embrace phonics instruction.

Rather than asking “should we teach phonics?” she said teachers should be wondering, “What kind of phonics? Which approach is going to help the most students become skilled readers and spellers and keep the fewest from falling behind grade-level expectations?” 

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