The Sounds-Write Podcast

Episode 11: The Future of Phonics in the US with Jill Nunez

June 06, 2023
Episode 11: The Future of Phonics in the US with Jill Nunez
The Sounds-Write Podcast
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The Sounds-Write Podcast
Episode 11: The Future of Phonics in the US with Jill Nunez
Jun 06, 2023

In the eleventh episode of The Sounds-Write Podcast, Sounds-Write's Business Manager for the US and Canada, Jill Nunez, talks about the future of phonics in the US. She discusses the spread of phonics in North America, some of the challenges we’re facing as we expand to the US, and how to advocate for an evidence based literacy programme in your school.  Enjoy!

Some helpful links:
Sold a Story Podcast
Sounds-Write's Facebook
Sounds-Write's Instagram
Sign up to our mailing list

Show Notes Transcript

In the eleventh episode of The Sounds-Write Podcast, Sounds-Write's Business Manager for the US and Canada, Jill Nunez, talks about the future of phonics in the US. She discusses the spread of phonics in North America, some of the challenges we’re facing as we expand to the US, and how to advocate for an evidence based literacy programme in your school.  Enjoy!

Some helpful links:
Sold a Story Podcast
Sounds-Write's Facebook
Sounds-Write's Instagram
Sign up to our mailing list

Laura:  00:02
Hello and welcome to the Sounds-Write podcast. I'm Laura, the host and in this episode I spoke to Jill Nunez. Jill is Sounds-Write's business manager for the US and Canada. Jill and I discussed the spread of phonics in North America, some of the challenges we're facing as we expand to the US, and how to advocate for an evidence-based literacy programme in your school. I hope you enjoy the episode. Hello Jill, it's so lovely to have you on the podcast.

Jill:  00:33
Yes, thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here with you today.

Laura:  00:36
So first off, could you just tell us a bit about your professional background and what your role is at Sounds-Write?

Jill:  00:44
Absolutely. I was a classroom educator for 17 years. I taught everything from Kindergarten, which is about five years old, all the way up through 8th Grade, which would be in UK terms, part of Key Stage 2 and everything in the middle. I held various roles throughout that as a classroom teacher, talented and gifted support, and my last 7 years were as instructional coach at an Elementary building.

Laura:  01:13
Amazing. And you are Sounds-Write's first US team member, which is exciting.

Jill:  01:20
Very much so.

Laura:  01:22
And so what are you going to be doing at Sounds-Write?

Jill:  01:25
At Sounds-Write, helping get everything transitioned over to US version. We've been training in the US and Canada for quite some time now, but really formalising the resources to support classroom teachers getting those switched over to US version. So, things like changing from 'Mum' to 'Mom' within our decodable readers and making sure the font is consistent with what the kids are learning. So, some of that type of work, as well as supporting schools and teachers who are joining Sounds-Write and going through that training and just helping set up that US entity and what our structures look like here as well.

Laura:  02:02
Brilliant. So, how did you first hear about Sounds-Write and what was it that made your school decide to head in the direction of a systematic synthetics phonics approach to literacy?

Jill:  02:14
Well, yeah. At my school, literacy was definitely a priority for us in teaching students to be spellers and readers, and I became interested in what was happening worldwide. I had looked kind of around the US market and not seen any programmes or products that were what I thought our students needed to move forward. We'd kind of tried everything. So I really became interested in what was going on around the world in English-speaking countries as far as literacy instruction. And pretty early into my search I came across what was happening in the UK. I read the Rose report that came out in the mid 2000s and the reading framework was really interesting to me at that time, so I really dug into the UK specifically because I felt like they were further ahead in the journey than we were here in the US. And what I saw made so much sense. It really talked about that systematic synthetic phonics programme and we didn't have that stringent guidance yet here in the US. So that was really interesting to me and I took it back to my team at my building, to get their input on what they thought about it as well.

Laura:  03:22
Could you talk about that process in a little bit more detail? Because I'm really curious to know kind of what your thinking was when you first started looking for a new approach. And I imagine a lot of teachers in the States or around the world, kind of go through that same process don't they, when they're looking for something that really works. So, how did you do that?

Jill:  03:43
Yeah, and it is a very difficult process. Many educators don't have a lot of background in research necessarily, so desegregating research and knowing which research is really valid, all the companies have support and case studies that support their data, so being able to sift through that and sort through it to see what is really happening can be really difficult. There were a lot of resources I found along the way to support my learning in this area. David Kilpatrick had a book out, 'Essentials of Assessing, Preventing and Overcoming Reading Difficulties'. That was a helpful resource that I began with as well. And I continued to research and learn, just how do you go through the data and how do you realise and learn about what is actually moving students forward versus what is just, they're growing because they're human and they're breathing and they're getting older. So, learning how to see what was statistically significant and what programmes as well. You just did an episode, Laura, with Anna, Head of Research here at Sounds-Write, about the research and data Sounds-Write did as they were beginning their journey as well, which was really interesting to learn about, following those students all the way through.

Laura:  05:05
Yeah, I found that podcast so interesting to record because it's not something that I'd ever really thought about. All of those ins and outs of collecting data in phonics and how truly challenging it is doing research in the education sector. So, yeah.

Jill:  05:21
Absolutely. It's really hard to tease out what is changing as a result of your instruction. There are so many variables with children, as we know, and so looking out and teasing out that research is really challenging and hard to do across time longitudinally as well.

Laura:  05:39
Yeah, absolutely. So how did you go about convincing others at your school to adopt the new approach? So, once you'd kind of already, you'd read through some of the research, you'd said, Sounds-Write is the right fit. What advice can you give teachers who are trying to advocate for an evidence-based approach in their schools?

Jill:  06:04
Well, I was really fortunate that I worked with a great team and wonderful administrators. We had an additional team looking at reading and literacy across our curriculum outside of the school day. So we had dedicated time and resources there and I took it to them and asked them to look at it with their lens of evidence based instruction and what we know about good literacy instruction, making sure Sounds-Write aligned. So, I really tried to bring the evidence to them and look at what we had going on in our school as well. What we had going on was a programme and instructional methods that were not being successful for all children. And so looking at which students it wasn't successful for was something we had to dig into as well. For me, my 'why' is for the kids whose life opportunities were dependent on our school teaching them to read. For whatever reason, the families had barriers as far as seeking outside tutoring if what we were doing didn't work. So we had one chance to get instruction right for children and we were very cognizant of that in our choices of selecting Sounds-Write.

Laura:  07:13
Yeah. I find it so frustrating that often the children that get left behind are not ones whose families can afford tutoring and all the extra help. And actually it just kind of widens that gap between children, which is really frustrating. And we need to find things that work for everyone from the beginning.

Jill:  07:34
Absolutely. And that's something the UK in the reading framework and Rose report really touched on, too, is that importance of Tier 1 wave or instruction that they talk about. And how, if you get it right in Tier 1, it reduces that need for Tier 2 and Tier 3 intervention. Oftentimes we know that, but we don't stop to think about it. We just start thinking, 'okay, what do we need to do in Tier 2 and Tier 3 when Tier 1 isn't working, instead of really looking closely at that Tier 1 instruction and how it can be adjusted.

Laura:  08:04
Yeah. And I loved, I think I mentioned it in the Anna episode, you know, the guys who went to the conference in New Orleans said that you kept saying, is what you're doing working? And if not, then you need something else.

Jill:  08:21
And I think we'll get to that, talking about Emily Hanford 'Sold a Story', but we really have been sold a story by really good marketing, I think, in other programmes sometimes, as far as what works and what we've believed, and myself as an educator been led to believe as gold standard in literacy maybe really isn't such.

Laura:  08:40
Yeah, so on that topic, my next question was going to be on 'Sold a Story' anyway. So, phonics is kind of a hot topic at the moment. Made especially so by Emily Hanford with the 'Sold a Story' podcast. I know we've mentioned it a few times before, maybe some of our listeners are getting sick of me saying listen to 'Sold a Story', but it's very much worth listening to. What did you make of the series and did you recognise some of those patterns from your teaching career or from other schools around you?

Jill:  09:16
Absolutely. It really resonated with me as an educator. When I began my journey as a teacher in the early 2000s, all of this was happening unbeknownst to me, just kind of thrown in. So it really resonated as to what was happening at that time, why I didn't have the knowledge, kind of how those political pieces were at play. So she really gave a history I wasn't aware of. I was involved in it at the time, but I didn't realise what was happening around me.

Laura:  09:46
And something that I found particularly interesting that came up in 'Sold a Story' was the politicisation of reading instruction in the States, and it's obviously inevitable that education policies will always be tied up with politics in some way. But it sounds like political divides seem to kind of be mirrored in the reading instruction debate, especially in the early 2000s, which was something that kind of shocked me and was really interesting to hear.

Jill:  10:14
The same goes for me, Laura. I was shocked as well. Like I said, I was going to college at that time. I had my first teaching job and I didn't realise what was happening around me. Reflecting back on it now, I really didn't learn anything about how to teach kids to read in college. I was taught that if I just immersed them in instruction and read books to them and just had them write, eventually they would learn to love literacy. I was never taught how to teach the skills needed to be proficient readers and spellers.

Laura:  10:48
That always kind of surprises me to hear, actually, that teachers don't learn very much about how to teach reading and spelling when they train. Professor Pamela Snow actually wrote an op-ed about this recently and she was kind of talking about Australia, but I think it's applicable to, you know, the worldwide anglosphere, where she kind of talked about how important it is to include the science of reading in university programmes for teachers. This is a huge body of research, from decades old research that is widely accepted, so why is it not being included in those programmes.

Jill:  11:25
That was shocking to me as well to realise how old the research was. I graduated from college in 2005. We certainly had the research at that point. The US had our report from the National Reading Panel on recommendations. None of that was ever addressed or taught. I really learned about that history through Emily's podcast. I appreciate the lens she shed on the historical perspective of how we ended up where we are. It's been fascinating as well to learn, although that podcast really focuses on the US context, the story is so similar worldwide. Yeah, listening to Episode 3 of the podcast where she tells the story of what was happening in the early 2000s really emphasises for me the importance of being a critical consumer of information, learning how to desegregate that data and the information. It was astonishing to learn how reading recovery simply modified their description to be eligible for the funding and comply with the law. I was just shocked.

Laura:  12:30
Yeah, me too. It's almost comical, isn't it? When you hear that story.

Jill:  12:35
You know, I understand the how and the why of how it was a threat to people who were so invested in the three cueing system. It's just a shame that children had to pay the price for that.

Laura:  12:47
Yeah, and I feel like literacy instruction should kind of transcend all of this kind of polarisation and these divides. But even in the space of literacy, I see Twitter wars going on all the time. People can get so heated with these conversations. So what you said, it's cutting through some of the noise in these conversations and figuring out what actually works. Like with so many other topics as well. This is just another instance where we really need to use that kind of data analysis and critical thinking skills to find the best solution.

Jill:  13:26
And I think we really need to be open minded in listening to other perspectives. I was just in a conversation on social media of someone talking about how Emily Hanford did not get it right in her podcast. And I listened to that argument and I think it was a misinterpretation because nowhere does Emily Hanford's podcast say teaching vocabulary instruction and that top end of Scarborough's rope aren't important. But that's how this op-ed was interpreting that data. So, I think being really critical and listening to the argument, because we do have some coming together points. Yes, vocabulary instruction is super important for children. When I'm teaching a read aloud to kids, yeah, I'm encouraging kids to look at the pictures for additional information. That's not how I'm teaching them phonics, but I want them to get a visual of what's happening in the story as well, so those pictures are huge and a really critical point with learners and thinking about that and learning how to, the concepts of print with students, how do we, you know, all of those aspects. It isn't just phonics, which I think some people were saying Emily presented, I did not interpret her podcast at all that way. But I think it's that willingness to be open-minded and to listen to other people. People are going to fight for what they believe in. Teachers so often, I think, identify as a teacher and so when you tell them a method they're using is incorrect or maybe not the most effective, they take that personally because that's who they are. So we have to find ways to have these conversations without attacking other people, but really finding that common ground and helping them develop their knowledge and understanding as well. One of my favourite people who's an outspoken advocate for literacy instruction is Steven Dykstra. And he comes to it from a psychological aspect and a counselling aspect and he really speaks to the convergence of knowledge that it's not about counting studies in isolation on one programme or another. And that really is a recipe for disaster.

Laura:  15:32
Yeah, I think what you said there about teachers kind of identifying as teachers and getting, kind of, feeling kind of almost personally attacked if their teaching method is criticised. I think I really understand that actually, you put your heart and soul as a teacher into trying to nurture your students and do the best by them. And I'm sure that finding out that maybe what you're doing isn't the best way possible, that must be really crushing, Actually.

Jill:  16:08
You know, something at Sounds-Write we do with our students, and I think this is an opportunity to do it as well, is find the strengths, find what that practitioner already does know and start with that. And then push them, as we would call it, with our students, to that error correction. So, start with what that teacher does know and then help support them maybe as to where their misconceptions are as a really gentle way of supporting them in their literacy journey as well.

Laura:  16:34
Yeah. So what do you think is next for phonics in the US? And what are going to be the next steps for phonics advocates to kind of get the message out there and what we're doing at Sounds-Write to do that?

Jill:  16:50
Yeah. So we definitely have a big gap to bridge between the science of what we know about how the brain learns to read and that research, to what happens in the classrooms and getting programmes that are already existent to reflect that, I think is going to be a huge challenge. It's something we've been trying to do since the early 2000s, I would say, but we're not quite there yet, so we still have a lot of work to do in that regard. I think continuing to have the conversation shed a light on literacy and where we are as a country and how we move forward is really important. And I think you can find there are teachers everywhere. This is definitely a movement, you hear a lot about it. So there are people in your area or state or on social media you can connect with to find out what they're doing, maybe get some ideas. I think we have to learn to work smarter and not harder. We don't have to create the wheel every time. What can we learn from each other that's working and how do we bring that to our children as well? As Margaret Mead said, never doubt a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens that they can change the world, because indeed it's the only thing that ever has. And I feel like this is a grassroots effort from parents and teachers in the field, that we need to make some systematic changes, but I believe we will.

Laura:  18:10
I love that. So, you've been working with the rest of our team in the UK and Australia. As I said, you're our first US team member. Exciting. What are some of the differences in the US and what kind of unique challenges are we up against in the US with phonics specifically?

Jill:  18:32
To be honest, Laura, I think we maybe have more challenges here because we are such a large country and we believe in local control. So each state and district has their own guidelines and laws that must be followed. So instead of one set, we have 50 different. As it stands, I believe many individual states, last I heard 30, have passed laws around reading, but we're not getting that guidance at that federal level that maybe is happening in the UK and Australia. What I've been amazed to see since joining Sounds-Write is that we were really all sold that same story across the world, not just here in the US. I was recently at a conference in Canada and just last year, Ontario released their Right to Read report, which recognises that learning is not a privilege, but a basic and essential human right. So these conversations are happening everywhere and we can definitely learn from each other on this journey.

Laura:  19:29
Yeah, absolutely. Something else that I think is a considerable challenge for us too, that we've been working together to contend with a little bit, is that it's easy to forget, I think, from the outside, that all of the resources need to be changed when a programme like Sounds-Write decides to expand to the states. It's everything, all of our vocabulary for example, the Phonics Screening Check in the UK and Australia, we have to change the wording for the US and rethink what advice we give for that. A lot of the sounds and spellings are different. Jill, we've been having lots of conversations about this recently with our decodables, so it's really eye opening, in a way that I think the differences between the UK and Australia are not as pronounced. So, yeah, it's been an interesting challenge to navigate.

Jill:  20:27
It has been, hasn't it? I've learned some really interesting vocabulary from my counterparts in the UK and Australia and we were just going through some decodable sentences and 'frock'. I don't think the kids here would know what a 'frock' was. That's a word we've had to change to 'dress'. My daughter, who's in 7th grade, said to me, 'a 'frock'? What's that?' As we were talking about the work I was doing. So, everything from those very basic vocabulary words that are used, it's hard to know when to introduce a vocabulary word sometimes and expand that versus when it might detract from the phonics lesson at hand, and that it probably would be better to alter that. But again, it's really challenging here. As you talk about the PSC, we don't have a national assessment, and I was talking with Anna about this. As we continue these case studies in the United States and looking forward to how do we measure progress? It's hard, because everybody does something different, so we are navigating it as best we can, but it's a continuous learning journey for sure.

Laura:  21:30
So going back to 'Sold a Story' quickly, it kind of tells the tale of several big companies that continued to ignore research on the science of reading that we've been talking about and schools that continue to trust in those companies. They've heard great things from them. They're trusted publishers, they're trusted companies. And schools buy into that because why shouldn't they trust them too? What advice would you give to teachers who are looking to move away from those programmes and methods specifically mentioned in 'Sold a Story'?

Jill:  22:02
Well, I would say awesome job to the teachers who are doing their research and they're learning and they're starting to ask those hard questions. It can be hard to do when as a classroom teacher, you aren't a decision maker, you don't get to make the decisions for your building or district on what tools are going to be used. So they're really in a difficult position, trying to navigate between resources they're given, using those with fidelity and navigating what they know is best practise. So, it's a challenge and my heart goes out to teachers that are trying to navigate that alone because it's hard to do with a team, much less individually. But first off, I would say train yourself. Know the research. Know the evidence. There are a lot of resources out there that can help you dig in and examine that with a critical eye. I do believe informed teachers are our best insurance against reading failure. But I believe teachers with their knowledge paired with a curriculum is what's really going to move this forward for us. We can't just give teachers the knowledge of you need to do something different and then give them tools that don't match, or have tools that don't match without a teacher knowing how to use those. So, I really do feel like it's those two pieces together that will move this work forward. And that's something I love about Sounds-Write is that we do give the teachers that knowledge and that tool of how to use it in the classroom. That's what I had been missing for so many years and it took me 17 years to find. So, continue to ask questions, advocate to your decision makers, whether that be your district administrator, your building administrator, at a state level, ask those questions, have those hard conversations and just don't stop learning. Every child deserves to be literate and I believe if we want equity, we start with literacy.

Laura:  23:50
Yeah, of course. And on that powerful note, what are you most excited to work on this year at Sounds-Write?

Jill:  24:01
Well, continuing our US launch, of course. It is so exciting.

Laura:  24:05

Jill:  24:06
Yes, it's amazing. We are, our work at Sounds-Write and the results Sounds-Write brings for children in learning to read and spell, the word is getting out there, so it's really exciting to see that spread. And of course I am excited because I'm finishing being, through the process of becoming a Sounds-Write trainer. So I'll get to support schools and teachers as they embark on this journey of structured linguistic literacy and teaching their students to be proficient readers and spellers.

Laura:  24:37
Amazing. Congratulations.

Jill:  24:39
Thank you.

Laura:  24:39
I know it's quite the process to become a trainer, so that's great. Exciting.

Jill:  24:45
Yeah, it's been a rigorous process for sure. And I think that speaks to the integrity and quality of Sounds-Write. We want to give teachers the tools to be the best instructors of phonics they can and then I say we have resources to support, but it really is about that teacher training and the curriculum or resources to support.

Laura:  25:05
Brilliant. Well, this has been a pleasure, Jill, thank you so much for coming on.

Jill:  25:11
Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Laura.

Laura:  25:14
All right. See you next time.