I have just been hired as a reading coach in a school where I have been a third-grade teacher. My principal wants me to raise reading achievement and he says that he’ll follow my lead. I think I’m a good teacher, but what does it take to raise reading achievement in a whole school (K-5) with 24 teachers?
It’s easy J. Just do the following 9 things:
- Improve leadership.
Literacy leadership matters. You and your principal will need to be a team. The more the two of you know and agree upon the better. Over the next few years, your principal will be hiring and evaluating teachers, making placement and purchasing decisions, and communicating with the community. You need to be in on some of those things and you need to influence all of them. Your principal should tell the faculty that you speak for him on literacy matters and you both need to devote some time to increasing his literacy knowledge so he can understand and support your recommendations. I’d get on his calendar at least a couple of times per week to discuss strategy and debrief on what you are both doing, but also for professional development time for him.
- Increase the amount of literacy instruction.
How much reading and writing instruction and practice kids get is critical. Take a close look at how much of this kids are getting. Observe, talk to teachers, survey… find out how much teaching is being provided and how much reading the kids do within this teaching. Be on the look out for lost time. Mrs. Smith may schedule two hours of ELA, but she doesn’t start class until 9:12 most mornings due to late bus drop offs, milk money collection, Pledge of Allegiance, morning announcements and so on. And, her class takes a 7-minute bathroom break at about 10 each morning. She isn’t trying to teach for 2 hours, but only 1 hour 41 minutes (and the actual amount of instruction may be even less). That’s a whopping 60 hours less instruction per year than what she schedules! Try to get everyone up to 2-3 hours per day of reading and writing instruction, with a large percentage of that devoted to kids reading and writing within instruction (and, yes, a student reading aloud to the group, only counts as one student reading).
- Focus instruction on essential curriculum elements.
ELA often is used for wonderful things that don’t make much difference in kids learning. I watched a “phonics lesson” recently in which most of the time was spent on cutting out pictures and pasting them to a page. The amount of sounding and matching letters to sounds could have been accomplished within about 30 seconds of this 20-minute diversion. You definitely can send kids off to read on their own, but not much learning is usually derived from this. Instead, make a commitment to obtaining substantial instruction in each of the following research-proven components for every child.
(a) Teach students to read and understand the meanings of words and parts of words (decoding and word meaning): Dedicate time to teaching students phonological awareness (K-1, and strugglers low in those skills); phonics or decoding (K-2, or again the strugglers); sight vocabulary (high frequency words, K-2); spelling (usually linked to the decoding or word meanings); word meanings; and morphology (meaningful parts of words).
(b) Teach students to read text aloud with fluency so that it sounds like language (accuracy—reading the author’s words as written; appropriate speed—about the speed one talks normally; and proper prosody or expression—pausing appropriately, etc.).
(c) Teach students to read with understanding and the ability to learn from text. With beginning readers, this, like fluency practice, needs to be oral reading. However, by the end of Grade 1 and from then on, most reading for comprehension should be silent reading. Such instruction should teach students about text (like how it is organized, how author’s put themes in stories, or how history books differ from science books), about the kinds of information that is important (like main ideas or inferences), and ways to think about texts that will increase understanding (like summarizing along the way, or how to ask oneself questions about a text).
(d). Teach students to write effectively. This would include training students in various means of getting their ideas onto paper—printing, handwriting, and keyboarding, but it also teaching them to write for various purposes (narration, exposition, argument), to negotiate the writing process effectively (planning, drafting, revising, editing), to write for a range of audiences, and to write powerful pieces (with interesting introductions, strong organizations, sufficient amounts of accurate information, etc.).
All four of those are detailed in your state standards, no matter where you live, but make sure that kids get lots of teaching in each. (I’d strive for roughly 25% of the instructional time into each of those baskets—that comes out to approximately 90-135 hours per year of instruction in each of those 4 things).
- Provide focused professional development.
I suspect this will be where much of your time is focused; making sure your teachers know how to teach those four essentials well. This might take the form of professional development workshops on particular topics, organizing teacher reading groups to pursue particular instructional issues, observing teachers and giving them feedback on their lessons, co-planning lessons with one or more teachers, providing demonstration lessons, and so on. You need to make sure that every one of your teachers knows what needs to be taught and how to teach it well.
- Make sure sound instructional programs are in place.
It is possible to teach reading effectively without a commercial program, but there are serious drawbacks to that approach. First, there’s the fairness issue. Programs that are shared by school staff will not make all teachers equal in their ability to teach reading, but they sure can reduce the amount of difference that exists (especially when there is adequate supervision and professional development—see numbers 1 and 4 above). Second, programs can ensure that kids get instruction in key areas of reading, even when teachers aren’t comfortable providing such teaching. Basically, we want to ensure that every teacher has an adequate set of lessons for productive instruction in those four key components for sufficient amounts of time. If your teachers are skilled enough to improve upon the lessons in the shared core program, then by all means support these improvements and make sure they’re shared widely.
- Align assessments.
It can be helpful to monitor kids learning, at least in basic skills areas that are amenable to easy assessment. It is reasonable, depending on the tests and the skills, to evaluate decoding skills or fluency ability formally 2-4 times per year. Of course, teachers can collect such information within instruction much more often than that. For instance, if a teacher is going to teach fluency for several minutes per day, why not take notes on how well individuals do with this practice and keep track of that over weeks. In any event, if we recognize that some students are not making adequate progress in these basic skills, then increasing the amount of teaching they get within class or beyond class can be sensible. The amount of testing needs to be kept to an absolute minimum, so this time can be used to improve reading.
- Target needs of special populations.
Often there are particular groups of kids who struggle more than others within your ELA program. Two obvious groups are second-language learners (who may struggle with academics because they are still learning English) or kids with disabilities (who struggle to learn written language). Making sure that they get extra assistance within the classroom when possible, and beyond class (through special classes, afterschool and summer programs, etc.) would make great sense. If you are making sure that everyone in the school benefits from 2 hours per day of real reading and writing instruction, then why not try to build programs that would ensure that these strugglers and stragglers get even more? I know one coach who runs an afterschool fluency program, for instance.
- Get parent support and help.
Research says parents can help and that they often do. I suggest trying to enlist their help from the beginning. Many coaches do hold parent workshops about how to read to their kids, how to listen effectively to their children’s reading, how to help with homework, etc. Lots of times teachers tell me that those workshops are great, but that the parents they most wish would attend don’t show up. Don’t be discouraged. Sometimes those parents don’t get the notices (perhaps you could call them), or they work odd schedules (sometimes meetings during the school day are best for them—perhaps close to the time they have to pick their kids up from school), or they need babysitting support or translation (those one can be worked out, too).
- Motivate everybody.
Just like leadership (#1 above) is necessary to get any of these points accomplished, so is motivation. You have to be the number one cheerleader for every teacher’s reading instruction, for every parent’s involvement, and for every student’s learning gains. Information about what your school is up to has to be communicated to the community so that everyone can take part. Some coaches hold reading parades in their neighborhoods, others have regular reading nights where kids in pajamas come to school with mom and dad to participate in reading activities, there are young author events, lunchtime book clubs, and million minute reading challenges, etc. You know, whatever takes to keep everyone’s head in the game.
Like I said, raising reading achievement is easy. You just have to know everything, get along with everybody, work like a horse, and keep smiling.