1. What is your educational background and where are you currently teaching?
My educational background and path to get here were not traditional. I went to St. John Fisher College and got my bachelor’s degree in communications. I worked for a bank for a few years and realized that it was not my calling. So, I decided to go back to school and focus on what I always wanted to do: teach! I went back to school at Le Moyne College and received my master’s degree in childhood education and special education. I am currently certified as a regular and special education teacher, K-6. Through my student teaching experience, I was able to work for an elementary school through the West Genesee School District. From there, when my student teaching was done, I was able to get hired as a fifth grade teacher at Onondaga Road Elementary School. I have worked in three roles at that school: fifth grade for six years, third grade for two years, and now as an instructional support teacher for two years. I have been a teacher at Onondaga Road for 10 years now and feel so lucky to have worked with so many hard-working students, supportive families, and teachers who have served as role models and friends.
2. Can you elaborate on the role of an Instructional Support Teacher?
An instructional support teacher provides an intervention time for students, in our case, at all grade levels Kindergarten through fourth grade, to support their learning in the areas of reading and math. Within our school, our first priority is to intervene with students who need support with their reading skills. This looks different at every level and is very unique and specific to each child’s needs. We use diagnostic assessments to see where in the progression of reading students need support. We teach students in small groups, usually three to five students, or sometimes one-on-one, to give direct, explicit, and systematic instruction. The students that my colleagues and I work with are students who receive core instruction from their classroom teacher, and then additional support from us. We work together with all classroom teachers, special education teachers, and teaching assistants in this process.
3. After identifying a student’s academic concern, what is your treatment and assessment process?
An instructional support teacher sees each student individually and performs diagnostic assessments to determine their specific needs. Once we know where students fall in their progression of reading and their strengths/areas of improvement, we work through an intervention cycle. We use systematic, explicit instruction that focuses on the five pillars of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Within these five domains, we have different assessments that help us to monitor their progress.
An intervention cycle might look like this: A group of three to five students will meet with an instructional support teacher five days a week for 40 minutes. During that time, the instructional support teacher will deliver targeted lessons based on the skills they need. Every week, the teacher monitors their progress and gathers data. This data then informs instruction for the next week and the teacher adjusts their instruction. This repeats for about four to six weeks. This length of an intervention cycle is intentional because it allows time for a child to respond to the intervention and make progress. After this time, an instructional support teacher meets with the classroom and special education teachers to show if a student has made progress in the area they were working on. If yes, then that student may join a new group, working on the next set of skills. If no, then that student may continue with the instructional support teacher, or possibly even reduce their group size, or get more time with the intervention.
This process continues over the course of the school year. It’s such a collaborative process and as an intervention teacher, you are constantly thinking, what is the data telling me? How can I adjust? What does this child need? It’s a puzzle we try to solve every day, and when we do it’s amazing how much growth a child can make! A child’s reading trajectory is literally changing before our eyes and their confidence is too. It’s powerful stuff!
4. If a parent wanted to help their child improve their reading, what are some reading strategies they could work on at home?
This is a great question, as I know so many families want to help at home, but might not know where to start or what to do. The simplest way to help your child improve their reading at home is to read. It sounds obvious, and it is, but also extremely powerful. I always tell my students the only way to get better at reading is to read. For students who don’t love to read (believe it or not, I was one of them when I was a kid!), or for students where reading is a challenge, I would suggest parents read to or with their child. It’s important for children to hear stories that might actually be above their current reading level. So, if you have a third grader who is still learning the code to reading, find a chapter book, non-fiction book, or even picture book that’s of interest to them, and you as the parent read it. They can follow along, look at the pictures, etc. Through this technique, they will be learning new vocabulary, asking questions, and using those comprehension skills to make meaning. Depending on your child, they can read stories to their younger siblings, or even stuffed animals. Don’t worry so much about what they are reading and simply enjoy the fact that they are reading.
Another way that parents can help children improve their reading is to practice, what we call, heart words. Heart words are words that don’t follow our regular code rules. Words like the, what, some, have, and from. These are common words found in all types of text, and there are parts of the word that students have to know by “heart.” If students practice these words at home and learn them by “heart,” then when they go to read, they can read more fluently.
My last suggestion to families to help students improve their child’s reading is actually by playing “word games.” Students learn how to manipulate sounds even before they actually attach those sounds to letters and eventually words. Think of this as the building blocks of reading. I would ask your child’s teacher for any word games they suggest or any activities that have to do with phonemic awareness (the ability to hear sounds and manipulate sounds without letter correspondence). A free website that has many different types of games and activities to do this is the Florida Center for Reading Research.
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