Collaborative, evaluative inquiry for school improvement in literacy
Where to start? What and how much do we need? Questions schools are asking about Literacy support.
For many years, I have been working closely with school leaders and teachers to support them as they undertake school improvement in literacy practices. For most schools since 2010, this PLD has been spearheaded by their national standards reading and writing data or from a current inquiry into assessment and teaching capability, programmes or resources.
I’ve found, as we get underway with our collaborative inquiry into literacy practices and improvement, it becomes much bigger than reading and writing and national standards.
Like an onion, as you start ‘peeling’ or discussing and inquiring, layers are revealed that require your focus and attention. Leaders can be overwhelmed with where to start, which layer to focus on and I find my role is to bring a coherence to all these layers and help leaders keep the main thing the main thing.
Step 1: Examining our beliefs about reading
I have found a great starting point can be to discuss and establish school-wide beliefs about literacy. Regie Routman sums this up well in her latest book; ‘Read, Write, Lead. Breakthrough Strategies for School-wide Success’.
"Practices are our beliefs in action therefore it’s critical that we make shared beliefs a first priority. Once we are clear on our beliefs and have had school-wide discussion to establish them, we can put curriculum, programmes, standards, and resources in perspective. We can align our beliefs with best practices and begin to move forward with sustainable, worthwhile change."
If teachers are asked to engage with thinking about their beliefs, you find that it is also an indicator of their espoused theories (i.e. This is what I believe to be the way to teach reading/writing).
- We first need to get down to the essence of what we believe and what we do to ensure our students become excellent readers who choose to read.
- If we don’t know how to teach reading and move students forward, we must take responsibility for learning how.
Activity for teachers
What are the top five things you do to ensure that your students become excellent readers?
- Write down what you actually do, not what you think you should be doing. (What you do reflects your beliefs about teaching children to read whether you articulate those beliefs or not.)
- Discuss your top five with somebody else.
- Share and record these with the wider group.
This activity gives all teachers an opportunity to think about and share their beliefs and practices about the teaching of reading. Teachers can refer to their own school curriculum statements about reading and writing to see if there is a match. In my experience, a typical list tends to look something like this:
- Use a variety of approaches – to, with, by, shared, guided, independent
- Link reading to the curriculum
- Provide an excellent classroom library and choice of reading material
- Make reading fun
- Explicit teaching of reading processing and comprehension strategies
- Monitor, evaluate and assess progress in reading.
Regie Routman would add:
- Demonstrate that I am a reader.
- Let students choose books they want to read and give them time to read them.
- Give students feedback and help them set goals.
Step 2: Classroom observations of literacy practice and subsequent practice analysis conversations (PACs)
Classroom observations help teachers and leaders discover if their espoused theories of action in the classroom match what actually takes place. Here I draw on the research of the Literacy Professional Development Project (LPDP) carried out by Helen Timperley and her team, with the findings published in her book ‘Realising the Power of Professional Learning’. The experience I gained as a facilitator of this successful project has helped me support schools in their own school literacy improvement. The research reports have also guided much thinking and professional reading for teachers and leaders.
Using a rubric and indicators for observations assists school leaders in the analysis and interpretation of the teacher observation data. Exploration of these indicators also supports the building of content knowledge for effective teaching and learning.
The following are the indicators from the Literacy Professional Development Project and the literacy PLD carried out by the Consortium of Professional Learning. They are what a leader would be looking for in a classroom observation:
- Explicit teaching of reading strategies
- Explicit teaching of writing strategies
- Explicit teaching of language structures and vocabulary
- Teacher’s interactions with children’s ideas, including feedback
- Informed and shared learning intentions, including learning intentions related to English language learners
- Explicit links to prior knowledge, both world and literacy knowledge (making connections to culture, language, identity and knowledge)
- Catering for the diverse groups of students and in particular English language learners
Rigorous discussions from data gathered from literacy observations and PAC can often indicate a mismatch between teachers’ espoused theories (from the beliefs discussion) and their theories in action (from the observations).
Step 3 : Identifying needs and working out a differentiated support process using available resources
Once literacy leaders have data from the discussions and the classroom observations, they can, with the help of the facilitator, work out the literacy PLD needs of the school, and then set about establishing a plan to make that happen.
There are many resources already available to schools to allow them to do this. In fact I have found that teachers are often overwhelmed with the number of resources, website links and quick fix ideas on social media as well as their purchased programmes for specific interventions.
I would encourage literacy leaders to be guided primarily by the Literacy Leadership site on TKI. It embeds the leading of literacy within teaching as inquiry, using Hattie’s eight “mindframes” to define the ways of thinking of a Literacy Leader, and will help leaders with the coherence of differentiating support within a school.
Additionally, the two Effective Literacy Practice handbooks provide evidence-based support for literacy teaching in years 1-4 and years 5-8. Based on the dimensions of effective practice (the honeycomb) they link to most MoE literacy documents, including the resources on Literacy Online and Assessment Online.
It is heartening to go back to these texts and frameworks for clarification about effective practice, for keeping the main thing the main thing and to be supported to build capability in our New Zealand context. These texts adequately support literacy teaching as inquiry and are available in all NZ schools.
But I can’t finish this blog about school improvement in literacy without mention of US educator, Regie Routman, who is quoted earlier. I look back on my long career in literacy facilitation and I realise how much I have been influenced by her work. Her latest text “Read, Write, Lead. Breakthrough strategies for schoolwide literacy success” marries very well with the thinking behind our supportive literacy texts in New Zealand.