The Coach Is the Catalyst: Creating Conditions for Effective Comprehensive Literacy Instruction

The school-wide implementation of a core set of literacy practices in every classroom, regardless of content area, reinforced by activities planned to engage students in higher order thinking is the Adolescent Literacy Model (ALM). ALM was developed by the Collaborative for Teaching and Learning and is a model that can increase the effectiveness of teachers in order to bring about improvements in student outcomes in all five literacy processes (reading, writing, speaking,  listening, and viewing). Our work with schools to implement ALM is a three-year process of teacher professional learning; on-going, multi-layered coaching; a team approach to literacy leadership; and a focus on student outcomes. The foundation of this work is a multidimensional approach to and emphasis on coaching with the school literacy coach at the center. 

Written By Staci Eddleman

On December 13, 2022
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By Roland O’Daniel, Ph.D. & Staci Eddleman, Ed.D.

In a middle school science class, students stand in circles of 3-4, presenting unanswered questions from an article they read from National Geographic about a baby dinosaur discovered in a fossilized egg. As one student states the question, the other students offer possible solutions, citing examples from the article or previously learned content. The teacher circulates among the groups listening and probing as needed. When the timer sounds to end the activity, the students return to their seats and begin organizing their thoughts in a Quick Write to capture their thinking about the conversations in which they just engaged.

Across the hall, in a social studies class, students have crafted compelling questions about human migration across continents in the period 600-1200 and are having a Silent Conversation with peers by passing their question to other students for written responses. Occasionally, students glance over at the Interactive Word Wall to find content-specific vocabulary to strengthen their responses, and one student adds a new term to the Word Wall they identified from the activity.

In another room, a group of teachers are meeting during planning time to share examples of student work to determine if students have demonstrated understanding or to analyze where breakdowns occurred, while a literacy coach asks targeted questions to push the teachers’ thinking about how deeply students are mastering standards. An assistant principal checks in on her way to do a content literacy walkthrough in a math class.

The work happening in these three rooms is not random or sporadic. The school-wide implementation of a core set of literacy practices in every classroom, regardless of content area, reinforced by activities planned to engage students in higher order thinking is the Adolescent Literacy Model (ALM). ALM was developed by the Collaborative for Teaching and Learning and is a model that can increase the effectiveness of teachers in order to bring about improvements in student outcomes in all five literacy processes (reading, writing, speaking,  listening, and viewing). Our work with schools to implement ALM is a three-year process of teacher professional learning; on-going, multi-layered coaching; a team approach to literacy leadership; and a focus on student outcomes. The foundation of this work is a multidimensional approach to and emphasis on coaching with the school literacy coach at the center. 

Training and Coaching

In the initial phase of ALM, teachers engage in a traditional professional learning experience with the teacher as learner, using the strategies to be adopted in the classroom as they are strengthening their understanding of the content of the ALM model. The foundations training allows teachers to both experience the literacy strategies while debriefing the components of effective implementation. All work in the initial introduction is focused on classroom implementation, and the literacy coach participates in this training side-by-side with teachers to gain deeper understanding of the foundations and expectations.

Once the foundational training is over, the model shifts to support teachers in thinking through effectively implementing instruction that engages students in reading, writing, speaking and listening, and viewing to process content learning. The shift to classroom implementation is very intentional. No longer are teachers focused on their own knowledge, but rather shifting to application of that knowledge, and teachers’ support structures must also make a shift. Coaching for effective implementation must now address teachers’ specific needs. ALM uses lesson planning as the first step in the shift. Teachers put into practice what they are learning, and coaching is designed to help teachers think through what they will be doing and what they want students to do as a result. It is important to recognize that as teachers are implementing new practices, the literacy coach is learning how to support those practices. A relevant point to note is that as teachers introduce new strategies in the classroom, their students, then, are also learning new practices and routines. This doubling of learning can lead to an implementation dip where initial outcomes are not always in the positive (Fullan, 2007). In this phase, the goal of the literacy coach is not to remove the dip but instead to minimize how long teachers struggle with implementing new practices. Coaching works to help teachers understand the issues, plan effectively, and, perhaps most importantly, reflect on their practice as they move forward. In the reflection process, teachers adjust their actions and develop a better sense of which supports their students need to be successful and what they want students to produce. 

We realize that impactful coaching, however, is more than just exchanges between the coach and teacher, and to that end we prioritize learning and tools for literacy coaches to help them develop in their role. For ALM, we have adopted a series of protocols to guide and deepen the reflective conversations teachers have in collaborative learning communities while also providing a model for the literacy coach to learn from and adapt for future work. The protocols help establish a common set of expectations and deeper understanding of lesson design. The main protocols include lesson refinement, peer-to-peer observation, and student work analysis. All three protocols move coaching away from a focus on the coach as the expert in order to develop the capacity of the teachers to work with peers to collaboratively improve their practice. The coach still has an important role in setting up the protocols for success – establishing clear expectations, following through on each component, and mediating the process to ensure all stakeholders feel comfortable participating. In many ways, as the coach is removed from the center of the coaching cycle, the role becomes even more important in order to focus on the individual needs of each teacher throughout implementation. 

Literacy Leadership Team

While teachers have the greatest impact on student learning, they do not do it alone. That is why the implementation of ALM also ensures that instructional change is supported beyond the classroom, with the literacy coach again playing a pivotal role. Leadership in schools impacts as much as 25% of student learning (Dagen, Bean, and Kern, 2020; Marzano, Waters, & McNulty, 2005). That is why, as with any whole-school model, the successful implementation of ALM demands active participation by other leaders in the school and/or district. To that end, we facilitate the establishment of the school or district Literacy Leadership Team (LLT). The LLT works to create the vision for the work, communicate that vision, and support teachers and coaches in implementing that vision. It is important to note that the LLT includes both literacy coaches and teacher leaders who are implementing the work to ensure distributed input into the vision. The LLT works to ensure coaching efforts are prioritized and that data is collected to show progress toward the goals. 

The principal and assistant principals bring positional power to the LLT. By nature of their roles, they already have the authority to allocate funds, schedule time for the work, and hold teachers accountable for participation and implementation. The principal’s influence on culture and organizational priorities cannot be overstated, and that influence is key to the success of any initiative. However, principals and assistant principals may or may not have experience or training in literacy and literacy instruction, so it is imperative they learn side-by-side with teachers throughout the process. The literacy coach, then, plays an integral role in this construct by providing instructional expertise to leadership and ensuring that leaders and teachers are pulling in the same direction. 

Through the LLT, the literacy coach participates in determining the vision for the work and serving as a catalyst to bring that vision to life in classrooms. The coach works to make sure everyone understands the goals and has a common understanding of what literacy instruction looks like. The coach also helps communicate progress made toward adoption of new instructional practices by engaging in continuous improvement cycles. Part of the cycles include collection of multiple data points. The ALM provides opportunities, including teacher and student surveys, results from lesson refining efforts, and quality student work, to allow for implementation tracking and progress monitoring. The coach plays an important role in the process of collecting these data and also in helping the LLT calibrate its expectations, making sure that teachers, teacher leaders, and administrators all have common understanding and language to keep the process moving forward. It is the expectation that the work of the LLT, through the inclusion of literacy coaches and teacher leaders, will create shared ownership and goals and empower these teacher leaders to make decisions and influence their colleagues. This ultimately leads to the creation of systems within the school so that the work is not dependent on specific individuals and will be sustained over time.

Coaching Coaches

As illustrated, the role of the literacy coach in the implementation of ALM is critical. However, in reality, many coaches are new to their roles and/or do not necessarily have literacy expertise and/or are supporting a variety of initiatives; therefore, they have their own needs for professional development and support. One of the unique attributes of ALM is the built-in support for the literacy coach through multiple means.

During the first year of ALM implementation, assigned specialist co-facilitates guiding teachers through collaborative conversations using our lesson refinement, peer-to-peer observation, and student work analysis protocols. The goal is intentional gradual release for each setting. This modeling of teacher reflection and talk facilitation prepares the literacy coach for the eventual transfer of responsibility. Then, as the coach takes over, our specialist observes the process in order to provide targeted feedback for the coach. Just as with teachers, CTL program staff work with the coach to identify focus areas before interactions and provide specific targeted feedback as part of the reflection component.  This one-to-one coaching for the coach is tailored to meet the needs of the individual, based on experience, expertise, and context. A coach with years of experience and literacy expertise can use occasional check-ins to keep the work moving or consultation on a specific challenge, whereas a new coach or one with no background in literacy instruction may require much more targeted support.

Another way in which we address the professional learning of the literacy coach implementing ALM in a school or district is our Literacy Coaching Cadre. The Coaching Cadre is composed of instructional coaches, assistant principals, principals, and other district personnel from different schools and districts who seek to grow in their understanding of how to support implementation of a comprehensive literacy program. The purpose of convening this diverse group is to help everyone understand their different roles and how together they can maximize the impact of the programming on their schools/districts. They come together 5-6 times a year for training, facilitated discussion, and problem solving to help them reflect on and improve their work and learn from colleagues in other districts. Members of the Coaching Cadre develop an action plan for supporting comprehensive literacy in their school and district and brainstorm, get feedback, test, and revise with each other as well as our staff. The work of the cadre is organized around the International Literacy Association’s Standards for the Preparation of Literacy Professionals (2017) and supports a culture of continuous improvement by creating an interdistrict network of literacy coaches and leaders.

As we revisit the scene from a school at the beginning, it is evident that successful implementation of a school-wide model of comprehensive literacy requires commitment and changes to practice at all levels. In that spirit, we seek to ensure that the ALM is more than a collection of classroom strategies for teachers to assign, students to carry out, and administrators to monitor. Teachers engage in new learning and go through the discomfort of trying something new while processing the experience openly with colleagues. School leaders distribute the work and responsibility to others to ultimately get to deeper, systemic changes. But central to all of this work is the literacy coach, bridging the space between the classroom and the principal’s office, modeling and teaching others while simultaneously learning new skills and practices, and ultimately serving as the catalyst for change and improved student outcomes. 

References

Dagen, A. S., Bean, R. M., & Kern, D. (2020). Best practices of literacy leaders: Keys to school improvement (2nd ed.). The Guilford Press. 

Fullan, M. (2007). Leading in a culture of change. John Wiley & Sons.

International Literacy Association. (2018). Standards for the preparation of literacy professionals 2017. International Literacy Association.

Marzano, R., Waters, T., & McNulty, B. (2005). School leadership that works. ASCD.