Reading & Literacy

States and Districts Send Literacy Coaches to the Rescue

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — July 26, 2005 7 min read
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In the movement to improve reading instruction, many states and districts are building an army of specialists to help teachers apply research to practice.

In districts from Florida to Utah, a growing cadre of literacy coaches is helping new and veteran teachers alike craft lessons, hone teaching strategies, select materials, analyze student data, and find relevant journal articles.

Cliffette Munson has availed herself of such a resource. The 1st grade teacher had little time to build skill or confidence in teaching a complicated writing lesson to her pupils at Farnsworth Elementary School outside Salt Lake City. Instead of winging it, though, Ms. Munson asked a more experienced colleague, Cheryl Thorup, to demonstrate it for her. Ms. Thorup, a literacy coach in the 66,000-student Granite school district, has helped teachers at the school build skill and confidence in applying science to practice.

The literacy coach presented a mini-lesson on interactive writing. “She shared a reading, generated ideas from students, and after they finished their writing, they did their sharing,” Ms. Munson recalled. “If she saw a student struggling, she worked with them. It helped me to see how all that works together.”

Ms. Thorup is among the rapidly growing ranks of coaches around the country working regularly with teachers in and outside the classroom to improve reading instruction. Many of those teachers have not had access to the latest research on how students learn to read, or an understanding of how that research can best be translated into practice.

“I didn’t have a clue how to teach reading in the beginning,” said Ms. Thorup, who entered the field more than a decade ago. “I took the basal [reader] home and studied it, but nobody told me if I was doing it right or wrong.”

Now, the veteran teacher taps her experience to help colleagues draw on what is known about effective practice to better meet their students’ needs.

As with many new jobs for literacy coaches, Ms. Thorup’s position was established with the aid of a federal Reading First grant her district received. Many states require the use of such coaches to help ensure that teachers in participating schools understand the latest research in the field and get support in providing explicit and sequential reading lessons, assessments, and interventions.

But the coaching strategy has taken off in literacy instruction over the past several years well beyond the federal initiative. Literacy coaches are being deployed in elementary schools that don’t receive Reading First money, as well as in middle and high schools. As school and district leaders recognize that a critical factor in students’ reading achievement is the knowledge and skill of their teachers, they’ve put more resources into the kind of intensive, continuing instructional support coaches can offer.

“At their best, literacy coaches can … put resources into teachers’ hands that are directly applicable to their work,” said Cathy Toll, a Norman, Ill.-based consultant and the author of The Literacy Coach’s Survival Guide: Essential Questions and Practical Answers.“Lots of folks are trying to make it the best kind of professional development.”

Qualifications Questioned

As the practice has grown, however, so have concerns about the qualifications of those hired as coaches and the appropriateness of some types of coaching that particular schools and teachers are using. With the rollout three years ago of Reading First—the $1 billion-a-year federal grant program that now includes more than 4,500 schools nationwide—there was a shortage of professionals to fill the role of coach, chiefly at rural schools or at those with few skilled teachers.

Cheryl Thorup looks on while teachers at Farnsworth Elementary School in Utah review data on the reading proficiency of their students.

Many of the coaches were simply drawn from the ranks of the faculty. They were put through intensive training in the essential components of effective reading instruction and in the research outlined in the federal program. In those schools and districts where a commercial reading program was selected, the newly minted coaches were given extensive training in the careful implementation of the scope and sequence of the programs and sent out to ensure that teachers were following it closely and accurately.

Now, after many schools have had a year or two to put the program into action, they are trying to better equip the coaches to help teachers improve their instructional skills, according to Ms. Toll, who helps train reading coaches in Ohio and other states.

“Reading-coaching isn’t just knowing how to teach reading,” she said. “It’s about working with adults to support their growth, develop trust, and provide the context in which job-embedded professional development can take place.”

Such a model follows the standards for professional development set by the Oxford, Ohio-based National Staff Development Council. Professional development for literacy coaches should be based on collaboration, incorporated into the classroom, focused on students’ particular needs and context, driven by data, set up to provide different models and strategies of teaching, and designed to support teachers as decisionmakers and problem-solvers, under those guidelines.

The 80,000-member International Reading Association released a position statement last year calling for uniform roles and qualifications for reading coaches. The Newark, Del.-based group is drafting professional standards for coaches that recommend specific knowledge, education, experience, and duties for coach-candidates. The IRA expects to release those standards this fall.

“Reading coach is a powerful intervention with great potential,” the IRA statement says. “However, that potential will be unfulfilled if reading coaches do not have sufficient depth of knowledge and range of skills to perform adequately in the coaching role.”

In Reading First schools, though, many coaches work almost exclusively on changing teacher behavior and training teachers to follow closely a structured curriculum. Some experts say such a model is needed in many of the struggling schools selected for Reading First grants. So far, those coaches have worked to get many inexperienced teachers up to speed on the foundations of reading, said Sharon Walpole, a professor of literacy at the University of Delaware, also in Newark.

“In the federal reform initiative, literacy coaches are unable to provide teachers the kind of choice about what they do and how they do it consistent with the research on professional learning,” said Ms. Walpole, a professional-development consultant for Reading First programs in her home state and in Georgia.

“I don’t have much quarrel with that when you’re working in really targeted sites where you don’t have much time for choice,” she said, “but this model of fairly constrained actions of what literacy coaches do shouldn’t be transported to other settings.”

Tailored Coaching

Boston has taken a decidedly different tack on literacy coaching. The 58,600-student district was ahead of the trend when it began a pilot program in 1997 as part of its broader school improvement initiative. Nearly 80 literacy coaches work at least once weekly in each of the city’s K-12 schools to help teachers tackle a particular instructional topic or issue.

Study teams at each school work with an assigned coach to study student data to pinpoint an area of concern to explore during an eight-week learning cycle. The teams read professional articles on the topic, discuss their findings, prepare lessons for the coach to demonstrate, discuss and tweak the lesson, and then try it out themselves.

The coaching model fits well with the district’s workshop approach to literacy instruction, which focuses on building students’ critical thinking about texts and incorporates writing throughout the curriculum.

It is not as tight a fit with the commercial program used in the district’s Reading First schools, however. In the dozen or so Boston schools in the federal program, and several other low-performing ones, coaches are more involved in helping teachers follow the structured curriculum, said Cathleen Kral, the district’s instructional leader for literacy.

“We’re still trying to align the Harcourt Trophies [commercial] program with our approach to workshop instruction,” said Ms. Kral. “That professional development is more content-oriented, whereas we’re working on teacher thinking.”

The broader coaching strategy, Ms. Kral said, has helped build a professional community among teachers and allowed more practitioners to work with coaches to delve deeply into the research and available data to find solutions to the kinds of instructional problems they encounter regularly.

“We want our coaches to understand adult learning, not to think that, ‘I’m the expert here, and I’ve come to fix what’s wrong with you,’ ” said Ms. Kral. “We want them to think, ‘It’s part of my responsibility to facilitate your learning, and to bring you the information and literacy to help you do your job better.’ ”

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