Saturday, March 01, 2014

Leadership in Literacy: Coaching in Secondary Schools as a Response to Professional Learning

EDHS Staff engaged in conversation on a fall PD Day

Do teachers have a moral obligation to engage in professional learning? Should schools have a moral and intellectual responsibility to learn from other schools and agencies and to contribute what they know to others?

Fundamentally, I would say that yes, teachers have an obligation to be engaged in their own learning – I would argue this is a measure what it means to be a “professional”; that is, rather than a moral obligation, teachers have a professional obligation to understand current pedagogy. I also believe that teachers need to be provided ample time, opportunity, and structures to allow for meaningful professional learning in order to share “effective practice”. School and board leaders have a responsibility to not only provide these opportunities, but also to cultivate a system culture that encourages learning for all – staff and students alike.

Framing the Problem for Secondary Schools in Ontario: “The Applied Strategy”

There is much concern about EQAO OSSLT data showing a widening gap in achievement between students in Academic classes and students in Applied classes, English as a Second Language/ English Language Development classes, and identified students.  The five-year trend shows that, despite best efforts to close the gap, only English Language Learners are showing some improvement.

Program of Study



Students with Special Needs (excl. gifted)


Board level data also reveal similar trends and therefore concern for achievement in Applied classes; in our school board, many students in our Applied classes do not experience the same levels of success as their Academic level counterparts. While many students in Applied classes gain credits, many of these students are achieving success at level 1 or 2, which means they enter College level classes at a disadvantage.

The Ministry of Education has explicitly expressed their concerns about course achievement data as well:
“2009-10 OnSIS data indicates that mark distribution and pass rates are not evenly and uniformly distribute between Academic and Applied course types. Students in Applied courses who failed courses with grades below 40% constituted 11% of the student population in these courses, while only 3% of students in the Academic course types received similar grades. Conversely, 38% of students in Academic course types had grades higher than 80%, while only 15% of those in Applied course types had a similarly successful outcome.”
School boards are to address the gap by creating an “Applied Strategy”.  So, what might improve adolescent literacy in Ontario’s secondary schools (especially for those not experiencing high levels of achievement)?  Some of the effective literacy practices, which I would argue, should be part of the “Applied Strategy”:

·      All staff need to identify as teachers of literacy.
·      Shared language and practices in a school (perhaps even school board) – for example, the use of a writing strategy for paragraphs that is named, visible, and taught by all staff.
·      Direct support for students who struggle – for example, through the use of assistive technologies, such as Google Read and Write; withdrawal for students who need extra one-on-one assistance; and scaffolded practices including shared and guided reading with appropriate texts.
·      Focus Professional Learning Communities in schools to address one or two school-wide or board-wide goals; use the Professional Learning Cycle (similar to the Teaching-Learning Critical Pathway in elementary) to plan, act, reflect and observe changes in practice that meet student needs
·      Use Literacy Coaches in secondary schools to develop a culture of learning and reflection for staff.  Literacy Coaches support staff to match the right instructional strategy with the right instructional material to support student success.

“When coaching is part of a coordinated and interdisciplinary literacy program, all of these educators can work together to create the real changes needed to support all struggling students.” (Egawa 296)

Literacy Coaching in Ontario Secondary Schools: Why and How

  • A respectful and collegial approach to professional learning: teachers are empowered to pursue their professional learning in a non-evaluative environment. Teachers are encouraged to be reflective of their own practice while being supportive of their colleagues in their learning. 
  • Teachers become metacognitive about their own content area reading practices, which in turn helps teachers more explicitly teach their students these strategies (Egawa 299). 
  • Coaches need to be highly knowledgeable of effective literacy and assessment practices, skillful in facilitating adults in learning and self-reflection (which includes the skills of listening and presenting), and able to effectively model practices in classrooms (which therefore includes the ability to easily connect with students) (Egawa 301).
Roland Barth’s research suggests that “the relationships among the adults in a school have a greater influence on the character and quality of that school and on student accomplishment than anything else.” (Egawa 300). Thus, the need for collegiality is paramount: administrators and teachers need to be lead learners in their building, willing to take risks and admit that they may not know the answer to something.

Teachers are encouraged to set meaningful goals – based on student needs – to expand their pedagogical knowledge. Teachers become engaged in job-embedded learning (the TLCP or PLCs): they are constantly collecting student data, analyzing it to determine next steps, researching best practices to close gaps, trying new ideas and then reflecting on the process. When teachers engage in this process in a collaborative inquiry, the learning can be even more impactful as best practice will spread across a school or a system.

Richard Allington’s work describes what he calls “Good teachers, effective teachers,” as those who “manage to produce better achievement regardless of which curriculum materials, pedagogical approach, or reading program is selected”. Allington further describes a few key practices of effective teachers, which he codifies as the 6 T’s:

·        TIME: About half of class time is dedicated to reading and writing. Extensive reading and extensive practice of reading strategies is imperative; instructional planning accounted for a scaffolded approach using guided and independent reading opportunities.
·        TEXTS: Appropriate texts are readily available. “Students need enormous quantities of successful reading to become independent, proficient readers.” Students need multiple opportunities to “perform with a high level of reading accuracy, fluency, and comprehension”; students need books that are appropriate to the level at which they read (not necessarily the grade level they are in). Students are motivated to read by success with texts they can read.
·        TEACH: Instruction is carefully planned and is direct. “Exemplary teachers routinely offered direct, explicit demonstrations of the cognitive strategies used by good readers when they read. In other words, they modeled the thinking that skilled readers engage while they attempt to decode a word, self-monitor for understanding, summarize while reading, or edit when composing.”
·        TALK: Students are provided multiple opportunities to talk – to other students, to teachers (and now, to others via the internet) – about reading. Talk is purposeful, structured, meaningful, varied, and relevant.
·        TASKS: Teachers focus on high-level thinking tasks which require student choice and are sustained projects over time. This is turn fostered student engagement with the material.
·        TEST: Achievement and grades are based on high-performance and a demonstration of growth rather than best performances getting the best grades. Teachers need to know their students and evaluate the growth of students based on clearly stated criteria (usually provided in a rubric).

Also significant to what Allington observed was the role of professional learning. Much of the district-wide learning and initiatives were not instrumental in the growth of these exemplary teachers. Instead, “most credited other exemplary teachers for supporting and encouraging them to become better teachers and to assume greater professional responsibility for the success of their students. These teachers seemed to understand that personal professional responsibility rested on the fact that they chose how to teach, what to teach, and with what sorts of curricular materials and tasks” (Allington). This self-direction in professional learning is fundamental to the culture of a school; staff need to be encouraged to experiment with instructional practices and assessment strategies to determine what will promote student success.

Similarly, school and system leaders need to foster system-level solutions to provide opportunities for professional learning.

Allington, Richard. 2002. “The Six Ts of Effective Elementary Literacy Instruction.” Reading Rockets.

Egawa, Kathryn. “Five Things You Need to Know About Literacy Coaching in Middle and High Schools.”  Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice. Eds. Kyleene Beers, Robert E. Probst, Linda Rief. Pp 295-302.

Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat (June 2008). “Teaching-Learning Critical Pathway.” Capacity Building Series #6.