Phonics is the Fix: A Rural Kentucky School District Goes from Below State Standards to Surpassing Them

by Crystal Nay

Imagine a school in rural Kentucky that routinely shows below average performance for its young early language learners and readers. It checks all the boxes for what are commonly accepted today as norms: the boys trail behind the girls in learning to read, those coming from poverty level are behind those who are more affluent, those who are English language learners or those with developmental delays trail behind further still.

It seems like a never-ending cycle— and an all-too-common story— of a school trying to educate its students, implementing the plans and curriculum in place to do that, and still failing to turn out students on par with higher performance ranking schools.

For schools in Ohio County, Kentucky, this was the reality. “We had some concerns and wanted to look at what we were doing at all levels of literary instruction,” says Kara Bullock, assistant superintendent of Ohio County schools. “We needed something more systematic, and we knew we had to fix it before the accountability grades, so we had to go back to the very beginning.”

It was through a teacher in another district that Bullock was introduced to a lively and effective program called Zoo-phonics. This teacher, whose own child attended a private preschool that used the program, touted her own child’s literacy success, and suggested Bullock consider it for her public schools. Bullock did, and with the hope and intention that it would help turn around the statistics for her region. “The way the letters have been taught just seemed so random. Zoo-phonics was very systematic, very multisensory, so we gave it a try.”

Ohio County schools have used Zoo-phonics for six years now, and the instructors who use the program have seen drastically favorable results. Regular studies and mandated testing, which have been conducted on these early learning classrooms since 2013, continuously see great improvements as a result of implementation. “It’s quite shocking to see how quickly [the kids] can learn this,” says Bullock. “In one semester, they can know all their letter sounds and signals. It’s a wonderful start for children.”

For the 2014-15 school year, 15 state-credentialed teachers participated in a study of the program, and agreed to use Zoo-phonics with fidelity after receiving an intensive training on its use. 320 kindergarten students participated in the study as well, with 214 of these kids having attended either preschool or Head Start in the year prior.

The gender split was equal, with there being less than 1% more boys than girls. If the idea that boys’ reading levels are always behind those of girls at this age— and it’s something that can’t be helped— then surely the study would reveal that.

The same was true for those children coming from homes at the poverty level. As a school district whose reduced-cost lunch recipients total 68% of the students, it was safe to say that this district was primarily catering to an economically disadvantaged demographic. Would this also demonstrate differences in literacy levels?

There was also the fact that many of these young children were English language learners, had academic delays, or had disabilities such as speech or language delays or developmental delays.

So, with extensive training in how to implement the program, the teachers got to work, putting Zoo-phonics to good use and waiting to see what the results would be of the study.

“It was a complete change in thinking,” says Bullock, “and that was a process.”

Firmly rooted in current neuroscience, Zoo-phonics uses pictorial mnemonics, movement, and sensory exploration, which quickly gains— and keeps— children’s attention. The emphasis on movement, and the use of these techniques in conjunction with one another, maximize attention, understanding, memory, and utilization, which transfers to all areas of the language arts process.

Simply put, this means that new learning is quickly embedded into long term memory.

Uncommon to most other programs, the kindergartners learned the lowercase letters first, since these are the letters that occupy the vast majority of the English language. Each letter was associated with an animal, with the animal drawn in the shape of the letter. In addition, each animal letter had a corresponding body movement— better known as a signal— that helped solidify the letter’s sound with its shape. Combined with alliteration, these techniques help transform information that is rather conceptual to a child into something more concrete, which improves both the child’s understanding and mental access.

“Letters are abstract to children, especially for struggling readers or children who haven’t had a lot of literary exposure in their homes. But every child out there is going to like animals. Zoo-phonics takes an abstract concept and makes it relevant and real to children,” says Bullock.

When most kids this age are expected to dutifully sit behind desks and memorize the alphabet, the kindergartners of Ohio County are learning the letters through jumping, singing, dancing, running, pantomiming, slithering, tossing, catching, and much more.

When the sounds of the lowercase letters are mastered, the capitals make an appearance, along with letter names. Same animals, same sounds, but much faster absorption of the material. So much so that most kids have mastered the English alphabet within two months.

But, how was this measured? Using the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS-K) as the primary tool in this study, data was collected at four different times throughout the academic school year: once at the start of the school year, a second time in November after the first trimester, midway through the year in January, and again in June to mark the end of the school year.

The results at the beginning of the year showed that only 25% of students were at or above the benchmark, leaving 75% of kindergartners below benchmark and in need of interventions. By spring of the same school year, the percentage of children at or above benchmark jumped up to 67%, with those in the intervention or urgent categories also having improved by multiple levels.

Some other fantastic results were that boys were learning language arts skills at the same rate as girls, shattering the idea that boys inevitably trail girls in this category. The same held true for students whose backgrounds afforded them less enrichment or academic stability— they learned just as quickly as those students from families who were more affluent.

As for those who were English language learners and those with academic delays, the students in this group learned just as quickly as students in traditional settings.

With Ohio County also implementing Zoo-phonics at the preschool and daycare levels, over half of the incoming kindergartners are prepared for their grade level and have a good knowledge base of their letters. Given its rurality and socioeconomics, this region once lagged behind Kentucky state averages. Now, it surpasses the state average by over 4%.

Ohio County is a testament to both a highly effective learning program and the successful implementation of it. Zoo-phonics continues to consistently yield successful results for students, even in a market flooded with early learning programs and software. The techniques are scientifically validated, loved by kids, and unique in an environment that is still trying to catch up to the realities of how children actually learn well.

Bullock and Ohio County will continue to produce great results. “It’s just so playful and enjoyable that it brings a lot of joy to the students, the teachers, and the parents. Zoo-phonics is just a real bright spot in the educational piece of these younger students.”