Selina Layla is a special needs instructor, linguist, and teacher trainer in a Tanzanian elementary school. In an effort to prioritize localization and develop stronger partnerships with those on the ground in Tanzania, STS recently asked her to facilitate a literacy workshop for teachers at focus schools served by the Whole Child Model. One skill she focused on was decoding, or “sounding out” words.
As you may remember from your reading lessons, decoding involves reading a word you’ve never seen before by pronouncing one letter or syllable at a time. You then say the word to yourself and ask “have I heard this word before? Do I know what it means?” If you do, you are prepared to encounter that word more quickly the next time you read it—a reading skill called “automaticity.”
While working with STS’s teachers, Selina realized two things. First, many teachers had never learned what decoding was. Second, teachers tend to teach through memorization—by writing syllables or words on the blackboard, then having children memorize and repeat them. Unfortunately, some studies show that memorization is an ineffective way to learn to read. Research indicates that many learners benefit from “,” which helps learners map sounds to letters, letters to words, and words to meanings. This process is best done on a one-on-one basis, where the teacher works with each child to see how far they are able to get before helping them to the next stage.
Selina faced a double hurdle in her literacy workshop: teachers not understanding decoding and teachers gravitating towards instruction through memorization. However, as an experienced trainer, she was not detoured. First, Selina unpacked the concept of decoding to help teachers understand its components and the importance of following the sequence from sounds to letters to words to meaning. While walking teachers through this process, Selina found that many attendees struggled with the idea of phonemic awareness—the ability to manipulate individual sounds. Attendees also struggled with phonemes, the smallest unit of sound in a word. In one workshop, Selina walked teachers through several examples, but in workshop evaluations, teachers said they were still confused.
In a follow-up training, Selina revisited phonemic awareness with the same teachers, allowing more time for discussion, presenting strategies with additional examples, and most importantly, giving teachers a chance to practice teaching phonemic awareness with each other. She discovered that for teachers to both understand phonemic awareness and know how to teach it, they must be given sufficient opportunities to practice.
While Selina had overcome the first hurdle, the second still exists—how to help teachers shift from whole-class memorization to individualized systematic phonics instruction. And this is where the Whole Child Model will continue its work. Luckily, a benefit of working with focus schools is that STS’s commitment continues beyond trainings and workshops. The Whole Child Model team will follow up with teachers in their schools to observe their lessons, discuss their progress, and provide additional support. During these visits, the team will look for signs that teachers are shifting—however slowly—from memorization to individualized instruction that helps their students move methodically through the sound-letter-word-meaning.