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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

How Districts Can Use Literacy Coaching to Improve Classroom Instruction

How Districts Can Use Literacy Coaching to Improve Classroom Instruction

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With the ever-increasing focus on reading achievement in schools today, many districts are hiring literacy coaches to support current educational objectives and enhance classroom teaching.

Literacy coaching works the same way as any other kind of coaching: Coaches help teachers take important instructional concepts they learn and apply them (http://test.updc.org/assets/files/professional_development/umta/lf/randd...) in their classrooms.

Just like students, not all teachers perform at the same level in all facets of their teaching. A great coach can differentiate instruction to target specific but necessary areas of improvement to provide the most benefit to each teacher.

Literacy coaching is an ongoing, iterative process that helps the teacher master a full range of strategies to accommodate a diverse set of student needs. Coaching requires ongoing evaluation to measure its effectiveness, but when done correctly, it can increase teacher understanding and student engagement.

The Real-World Success of Literacy Coaching

There is mounting evidence to support the fact that literacy coaching impacts student achievement. In our work with four large urban districts, we observed statistically significant improvements in student learning in kindergarten and improvements in teacher practice and the classroom literacy environment in first grade.

This finding is supported by a review of nine studies (https://www.cli.org/content/our-solution), which found sustained professional development, such as literacy coaching, has a significant positive impact. Teachers receiving more than 14 hours of sustained teacher learning opportunities showed positive student gains, while teachers who received 30 or more hours during the course of a year showed proportionally larger student gains.

Literacy coaching doesn’t just enhance student achievement. It’s also perceived as being more innovative than traditional methods, which involve out-of-classroom training for teachers — who are then expected to return to their classrooms to implement the techniques learned. Literacy coaching, on the other hand, recognizes that engaging teachers in their teaching setting enhances teachers’ learning and enables them to more quickly and ably utilize the techniques they’re being coached on.

And while many argue that technology has become a key part of literacy education — students are inundated with digital, visually appealing platforms to tell stories beyond the written word — literacy educators view technology use in literacy as a “moving target” (http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/content/cntareas/reading/li300.htm). Because the platforms and functions change so quickly in products, they handcuff educators’ attempts to plan for or predict the success of reading students who use these technologies. The human touch remains the strongest influence on literacy.

The 3 Steps of Literacy Coaching

Effective literacy coaching often follows a three-step model:

1. Pre-conference: In the pre-conference, a teacher and a literacy coach will discuss lesson objectives, lesson plans, and key aspects of implementation, such as specifying how the teacher will check to ensure that all students are on track for mastering a lesson objective. The teacher and coach may highlight a few specific areas the teacher wants feedback on and use this information to guide the training.

2. Observation: As a teacher implements the lesson, the coach observes quietly and takes notes to provide an objective view of the elements of the lesson and the outcomes. By having another set of eyes in the classroom, it’s easier to determine how teacher behaviors are connected to student response.

3. Post-conference: This is the time for the teacher and coach to reflect on the lesson, examine the observation data, and identify things that worked, as well as areas that need additional attention. Often, a literacy coach and teacher will identify one or two concrete areas to focus on and create instructional goals for the next coaching session. 

An effective coach is able to pinpoint focal areas and give direct and specific feedback about how the teacher can make improvements. But good coaching requires more than providing direction. As with good teaching, effective coaching follows an “I-do, we-do, you-do” approach.

For example, it might first be helpful for a coach to demonstrate an effective practice to give the teacher an opportunity to see it in action. Next, the coach and teacher might plan a lesson or teach together. Finally, the coach may observe the teacher as she implements something she learned.

According to a 2004 study by McNeil and Klink, this gradual release of responsibility creates the kind of coaching relationship that allows teachers to translate new instructional concepts into effective instructional practice.

Hurdles to Literacy Coaching

Like any consulting relationship, the results of literacy coaching can vary. It’s not unusual for school districts to invest in literacy coaches and then be disappointed by the outcomes of this investment. There are several challenges to consider when implementing literacy coaching:

1. Hiring the Right Coach

School districts often struggle to find the right literacy coaches. It’s difficult to find people accustomed to teaching children who can transition successfully to teaching adults. Plus, districts often fail to screen for evidence of prior classroom success.

2. Training

Literacy coaching is different than being a teacher. Districts should ensure that the coaches have a shared understanding of effective early literacy skills and instructional strategies, as well as effective coaching practices like giving direct feedback or asking probing questions.

3. Setting Clear Expectations

Districts must be clear about the expected workload for a literacy coach. How many observations are expected? What kind of feedback and tracking do the teachers need? Without clear expectations, district literacy coaches may find themselves being called upon to address all sorts of needs that arise in schools. Setting clear roles and responsibilities and holding people accountable is essential for an effective literacy coaching system. 

4. Measuring Outcomes

Having both short- and long-term student learning objectives is key to succeeding with literacy coaching. School districts should have established mechanisms and metrics for monitoring progress every six to eight weeks (rather than waiting until the end to assess coaching effectiveness).

While literacy coaching may not be at the forefront of seasoned teachers’ minds, it’s important to remember that even elite professional athletes have coaches. Everyone has room to improve, and it’s always useful to have someone focused on teachers’ success so educators can improve student learning.


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