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How to Support Literacy Development in the Classroom: Coaching & PD as the Foundation for Strong Instructional Practices

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Meet George. George is an adult man who lives in Florida, speaks perfect English, and holds a high school diploma. And yet, George cannot read.

Seema Tejura, Founder and Managing Director of The Literacy Architects, first met George in 2003 while volunteering at an adult literacy center. After a quick diagnostic assessment, Tejura verified that he struggled to read most of the three-letter words presented to him. Right away, she set to work using explicit, systematic, multisensory phonics teaching strategies to develop his foundational literacy skills. 

One day during a tutoring session, George was progressing well with accurately decoding a list of new words. Suddenly, he stopped mid-word, looked directly at Tejura, and asked, “Why didn’t I learn any of this in school?”

George’s story reflects the experiences of the 93 million adults in the U.S. who struggle with reading. It’s these stories that underscore the importance of evidence-based literacy instruction in early childhood classrooms. That way, people like George become lifelong readers well before graduating from high school. 

Tejura and her colleague Caitlin Deckard, a Science of Reading Specialist with The Literacy Architects, recently joined TORSH to discuss the implications of the science of reading for early literacy support and how early learning programs can embrace these findings. This article offers a glimpse into the power of professional learning, a foundational pillar to strong instructional practices that cultivate literacy skills in our youngest learners.

Watch the full webinar recording here, or learn more about TORSH’s partnership with The Literacy Architects here

 

Table of Contents

 

 

Why Evidence-Based Literacy Development Matters — Now More Than Ever

 

Oral language skills evolved in humans nearly 100,000 years ago, but reading and writing skills developed far more recently. This means that our brains have had time to localize oral language to use only one part of the brain, while literacy requires no less than four parts to do successfully. 

The result? Reading is not a natural process like spoken language development. While students may naturally learn how to speak through repeated exposure and immersion, they need much more explicit, systematic instruction to learn how to read their favorite books. 

 

[Image: The Reading Brain from The Literacy Architects]

supporting literacy development

 

Additionally, reading requires more cognitive load (or effort and energy by the brain) to understand written texts. Tejura stressed that this matters for high-quality instruction with young learners: “Instruction should help students spend less cognitive energy on [basic skills like] decoding and word recognition in written texts to learn and comprehend those texts.”

 

Understanding the Science of Reading

 

A body of empirical research commonly known as the science of reading highlights the critical building blocks for learning how to read and shifting this cognitive load. Though these findings are not new, they have recently been expanded and are improving educators’ knowledge of which evidence-based teaching strategies cultivate strong reading skills.

In short, the science of reading stipulates that students must develop the following foundational literacy skills, in explicitly and systematically structured ways: 

  • Phonemic awareness
  • Phonics knowledge, decoding, and encoding
  • Vocabulary development
  • Fluency
  • Comprehension

As educators re-examine how to support literacy development in the classroom, they are increasingly recognizing the value of evidence-based reading strategies for young learners — strategies demonstrated through research to improve literacy in students. Research findings from the science of reading underpin the most effective instructional approaches. 

Learn more about the science of reading with The Reading League’s comprehensive overview. 

 

What the Science of Reading Tells Us About Early Literacy Support

 

This research is incredibly important for early learning programs to understand and embrace within early childhood classrooms.

Remember those five skills emerging from the science of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics knowledge, etc)? There’s a particular order in which students best learn them; each skill builds upon one another to unlock stronger reading abilities and higher reading levels. This order should inform literacy strategies to support instruction.

Young students must first develop their phonological awareness (recognizing sounds in spoken language) — specifically their phonemic awareness (manipulating the individual sounds in words). In turn, these skills are required for kids to become adept at alphabet awareness (recognizing written letters) and sound-spelling correspondence (understanding which letter(s) and letter combinations represent each sound).

Here’s an example of one instructional practice that brings this order of operations to life. Recent empirical literature suggests that linking phoneme awareness to letter-sound knowledge strengthens a student’s use of phoneme awareness, improving their reading and spelling performance (Brady 2020). Literacy support strategies that reflect this evidence may look this:

  • First, students practice isolating phonemes (like /s/) as they read and spell them.
  • Next, they blend phonemes (such as /s/ /a/ /t/) to form a word and read it (‘sat’).
  • Last, they practice segmenting phonemes in words (such as segmenting ‘ship’ into /sh/ /i/ /p/) and spell words with segmented phonemes (s-h-i-p).

“The classroom implications of this [research] are significant,” Deckard underscored. “If teachers stack phonemic awareness and letter-knowledge instruction, they can maximize instructional time while making stronger connections for their students.”

But Tejura explained too that, despite the importance of adopting such practices for early literacy support, actually changing instructional approaches isn’t easy: “To improve school readiness, early education programs need to focus on early phonemic awareness with kids, yet many instructors across the U.S. may be struggling to make this seemingly simple shift in practice.”

What can administrators and program directors do to support staff to shift classroom practice and ensure all students experience positive literacy skills development in preparation for kindergarten?

 

Professional Learning & Impactful Instruction Go Hand-In-Hand

 

Any change in a classroom or across a program requires time and consistent support. Some research estimates that it may take up to four years for educators to successfully shift instructional practices to embrace evidence-based programs and strategies (Fixsen et al, 2009). 

With such a long runway for meaningful change, early education programs can’t make just one or two quick swaps in literacy curricula and instruction. Change for a positive impact on literacy requires time and effort, both granularly and systematically.

This means going beyond one-and-done training on early literacy instructional methods and instead embracing a model of ongoing support, thoughtful professional development, coaching, and feedback. These components are must-have ingredients to alchemize reading instruction to support literacy development. 

Research shows that both students and teachers benefit from deliberate practices in sharing feedback and ongoing support. But it’s coaching that generates the greatest effects when assessed against other strategies for instructional improvement, including pre-service training and merit-based pay incentives (Fryer, 2017).  

With two-thirds of teacher preparation programs failing to adequately address phonemic awareness instruction — a critical piece of the literacy puzzle — the urgency could not be greater (NCTQ, 2023). Early childhood education programs must invest in professional learning and coaching to help teachers implement evidence-based practices in literacy.

 

3 Coaching & PD Strategies To Shift Literacy Instruction for the Better

 

From our expertise in professional learning for early childhood educators, here are three strategies that early childhood programs can adopt right now to support a stronger, impactful approach to early literacy.

 

Create a Safe Space For Educators From the Start

 

Change management is a natural part of any shift to programming or practice. For many educators, adapting evidence-based literacy practices may easily qualify as second-order change, which involves not only shifting instruction in classrooms but also adjusting educators’ mindsets. 

Naturally, the scale of such change can feel daunting and may conjure many different emotions and reactions. At the same time, second-order changes are also necessary for educational reforms to be achieved and sustained.

A safe, supportive environment is essential to help educators navigate second-order change. When teachers and administrators feel safe to share their concerns, ask for support, and experiment with new and unfamiliar approaches, the entire program can better move forward. 

Here are a few tips to help you cultivate a safe and supportive space for your team as you prepare professional learning to drive major changes in literacy instruction:

  • Start small. A huge list of new changes can quickly overwhelm even veteran staff members. Try focusing on one piece of the literacy puzzle at a time. For example, first spend time exploring how a child’s brain processes written texts and learns how to read. This gives you space to address teachers’ questions about the topic and gives teachers time to get comfortable with a new biological model for literacy development. 
  • Focus on actionable steps as much as theory. As you design each professional learning opportunity, ask yourself: what small, tangible, and practical steps can teachers take TODAY to shift practice? Again, keep these steps focused — it greatly supports educators to make incremental shifts to teaching practices without trying to tackle everything all at once. 
  • If exploring specific curricula or programs rooted in evidence-based literacy practices, assemble a diverse group of stakeholders for your selection committee. This means including the voices of teachers, administrators, and support staff in the review, discussion, and selection processes.

 

Prioritize Collaboration Among Teachers

 

Nothing builds positive camaraderie like collaboration. In adult learning, collaboration is often more effective than pure information sharing or solo practice. 

As a bonus, collaboration creates a spirit of shared learning and responsibility around major changes to literacy instruction. This experience can deepen staff’s buy-in for the changes themselves — IF collaboration is thoughtfully cultivated. 

Take a look at these suggestions to create collaboration opportunities centered on evidence-based literacy instruction:

  • Create professional learning communities (PLCs) dedicated to teachers’ collective growth in reading instruction. PLCs are excellent spaces for staff to share their insights, ask for support or guidance when navigating challenges, and surface resources that may help colleagues with their practice improvement. PLCs can be conducted virtually or in hybrid settings to connect early childhood educators across multiple program sites. Many early learning programs use TORSH Talent’s Communities feature to build PLCs for asynchronous collaboration.
  • If you seek support to facilitate targeted collaboration for early literacy instruction, explore the Literacy Masterminds program. This partnership between TORSH and The Literacy Architects offers a unique job-embedded professional learning approach for early learning professionals. 

 

Establish Ongoing, Varied Adult Learning Opportunities

 

Just as young students learn best through different methods, so too do adult learners. Offering a wide variety of ongoing learning opportunities is a powerful way to support your instructors in reshaping their mindsets and expanding their skill sets around literacy practices. 

Explore these tips for designing a comprehensive professional learning system that supports multiple learning styles and approaches among teaching staff:

  • Offer coaching through virtual, hybrid, and/or in-person methods to maximize coaching time with teachers. TORSH Talent contains all the tools you’ll need to modernize job-embedded coaching. From easy-to-use video recording tools to capture teaching practices in action and provide targeted feedback to digital portfolios to support coaches with managing mentees’ goals and resources, TORSH Talent catalyzes and centralizes professional learning for early childhood educators and programs.
  • Prioritize bite-sized learning sessions over marathons of training. For many learners, it’s easier to digest smaller chunks of new information repeatedly over time. TORSH Talent can support your program here with the innovative Learning Paths feature. Learning Paths allows administrators to craft customized journeys for their staff to layer information and skills practice through connected online courses linked to additional resources curated in your Exemplar Library

 

Lay the Foundation for Excellent Literacy Instruction with TORSH

 

Curious to learn more about the science of reading and how professional learning improves literacy instruction? Watch the webinar with TORSH and The Literacy Architects to dive deeper into the research and its implications. 

Ready to coach your educators through transformational change in early literacy support? Learn more about the Literacy Masterminds program or connect directly with one of our experts.

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