In her article, Teaching Reading is Rocket Science (1999), Louisa Moats EdD compares the expertise of reading teachers to other highly specialized, expert professionals. Teaching reading requires deep knowledge and skills in the science of reading, instructional pedagogy, and understanding the needs of all learners, especially students with reading difficulties. Moats (1999) proposes that reading teachers need to demonstrate competencies and skills in four core areas: (1) psychology and child development as it pertains to reading, (2) the research-based foundations in the structure of language, (3) implementation of best practices in reading instruction, and (4) application of varied diagnosis and assessment tools to monitor student progress. Any experienced reading teacher in the classroom would admit—delivering evidence-based reading practices with fidelity requires intense preparation, careful planning, continuous practice, specific feedback, and reflection.
Teaching reading requires deep knowledge and skill competencies in the science of reading and instructional pedagogy, and understanding the needs of all learners.
The National Reading Panel report (2000) and decades of related research explain that effective, evidence-based instruction and curriculum must integrate explicit, systematic teaching in five categories: (1) phonemic awareness, (2) phonics, (3) fluency, (4) comprehension, and (5) vocabulary (National Institute of Child Health & Human Development, 2000). Further research demonstrates the importance of early oral language and reading comprehension instruction, particularly for students at-risk of developing a language-based learning disability or developmental language disorder (Adlof & Hogan, 2019). High-quality, explicit writing instruction has also shown to support reading on various levels. Graham and Hebert (2010) posit that explicitly teaching writing strategies at the sentence and text structure levels enhances reading comprehension. Integrating their knowledge and competencies in research-based instructional practices, a trained teacher will be able to assess students’ skills and needs and implement instruction and interventions based on that assessment.
A Call for Better Teacher Education
Given that teaching reading requires highly specialized, prescriptive knowledge and skill competencies, it is necessary that teachers are adequately prepared to deliver instructional methodology before entering the classroom. Pre-service teacher preparation continues to fall short in preparing the next cadre of expert reading teachers. According to the National Council on Teaching Quality (2020), 51% of teacher preparation programs in the United States require courses in the foundations of the science of reading (Drake & Walsh, 2020). While these statistics show an improvement from previous years, more comprehensive preparation needs to occur across all pre-service programs.
Teachers may also hold misconceptions about the characteristics of learners with reading difficulties or disabilities as well as the best methods to provide appropriate interventions. For instance, Ness and Southall (2010) found that pre-service teachers demonstrated inaccurate perceptions about the phonological origins of dyslexia, while Washburn and colleagues (2017) presented similar evidence that novice teachers held misconceptions about the characteristics of dyslexia.
Three Considerations for Implementing Effective Professional Development
In order to support reading teachers’ effective implementation of reading instruction, schools need to be deliberate in how they align teacher professional learning with research-based standards and methodology. Here are three considerations for schools when implementing effective professional learning programs:
Maintain a consistent focus and alignment between content, methodology, and professional learning.
To ensure teachers understand and apply the methodology within the context of their classrooms, professional learning should consistently train teachers in the research-based foundations of language and literacy as well as instructional methodology (Darling-Hammond, Hyler & Gardner, 2017; Desimone & Garet, 2015; Learning First Alliance, 2000). The Learning First Alliance (2000) calls for the alignment of instructional programs and methodology to the appropriate standards and curriculum adopted by a school or district. Schools dedicated to teaching all students to read must ensure that all curriculum and methodology they adopt are founded in research-based, systematic instruction and curriculum. Unfortunately, some instructional leaders may choose to merely supplement existing, less effective reading programs with evidence-based programs, with the hope that additional supports may aid the students who need it. Others may change programs each year in response to student performance, without full consideration for the implications on professional learning. Adding or changing programs without adequate professional development too often results in lack of fidelity to evidence-based instructional practices and may not fully support the students who are in greatest need of explicit reading instruction.
Commit adequate time and resources to sustained professional development.
Professional learning must be deliberately planned to take place during the school day and across sustained durations of time (Jensen, Sonnemann, Roberts-Hull & Hunter, 2016; Learning First Alliance, 2000). While hosting one-day or short-term workshops for teachers may be well-intended, it is not effective for teachers’ agency and their ability to transfer newly acquired knowledge into sustained classroom practices (Clarke & Hollingsworth, 2002). Some studies have shown that teacher knowledge, skills competencies, and student outcomes have improved when teachers are engaged in at least 20 hours of professional development (Desimone, 2009). Other studies show benefits of continuous workshops focusing on literacy, language, and instruction at repeated intervals throughout the summer and the school year (Brady & Moats, 1997; Brady et al., 2009). Overall, professional development should be continuous and sustained to allow teachers to reflect upon their learning, collaborate and practice, ultimately building teacher agency and enactment of new practices (Clarke & Hollingsworth, 2002).
Offer multiple, varied opportunities that will provide teachers with expert support and enable teachers to integrate knowledge with practice and feedback.
Workshops that teach the evidence-based foundations of language, literacy, and reading instruction are effective for teachers to improve upon their instructional knowledge and skills (Spear-Swerling & Brucker, 2004). Workshops, however, are just one component of an overall scope of a professional learning program. Reading teachers need more opportunities that translate their learning into daily instructional practices. Every day, reading teachers integrate instructional foundations of literacy, oral language, and reading comprehension—skills that require expert knowledge, planning, and deliberate practice in classroom language and discourse. To fully support and engage teachers in the application of newly learned skills, professional development should include opportunities for teachers to practice with guidance and feedback (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017; Learning First Alliance, 2000).
Literacy coaching has shown promise for improving teacher instructional practices (Brady et al., 2009; Desimone & Pak, 2017; Ehri & Flugman, 2017; McCollum, Hemmeter & Hsieh, 2011). Effective literacy coaching and mentoring provide teachers with active, personalized learning opportunities (Desimone & Pak, 2017; Ehri & Flugman, 2017). With the research supporting literacy coaching, schools must also consider the complexity of this personalized professional learning opportunity (Bryk, Gomez, Grunow & LeMahieu, 2015). Defining the roles of coaches, maintaining high fidelity of the expertise of coaches, determining the most appropriate programmatic structure of coaching, and committing to a culture of trust are just some important considerations for schools before implementing a literacy coaching program (Bryk et al., 2015, Kraft & Papay, 2014).
At The Windward School, teachers participate in multiple, varied opportunities of professional learning including mentoring and coaching. For example, speech-language pathologists provide expert support and coaching in language and reading instruction to teachers. With the prescriptive, technical nature of literacy and language instruction, speech-language pathologists serve as valuable resources to provide coaching in early literacy and language expertise for teachers as well as to provide expert support for students with reading difficulties or language disorders (Girolamatto, Weitzman & Greenberg, 2012; Hogan, 2018). Accessing the expertise of speech-language pathologists for professional learning support is one area of exploration for both research and practice.
Professional development should include opportunities for teachers to practice with guidance and feedback.
Why Schools Should Cultivate Professional Learning Communities
Building effective professional development programs requires full involvement from all members of the school community. Just as children deserve schools that will foster their academic success, teachers deserve cultures of professional learning that will support their growth and ability to deliver highly effective reading instruction their students need. Studies show that teachers and students are most successful when professional development fosters collective agency amongst teachers, collaboration between all members of the school, and strong instructional leadership to set the course for best evidence-based practices (Kindall, Crowe & Elsass, 2018; Youngs & King, 2002). Teaching reading is a job of an expert, and it requires opportunities for expert learning. Our teachers and students deserve it.
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