The Importance of Professional Development and Teacher Quality in Reading Instruction

Over the past 35 years, researchers from a variety of backgrounds such as education, psychology, linguistics, and neuroscience have converged on the problem of illiteracy, and we have learned volumes. There has been a tremendous amount of growth in our collective understanding about how children learn to read and why some children struggle and sometimes fail to learn to read.
At this point, I would say that we have a fairly complete understanding of how children learn to read. I would say that we have a sketchy understanding about how best to teach children to read. And I would say that we have very little understanding about how best to teach teachers to teach children to read. While there is considerable knowledge about reading acquisition in the research community, we have had limited success bringing that research information into practice.

Research-into-practice is a battle that must be fought by researchers, educators, policy makers, publishers, parents, communities, and professional development service providers. There is a wealth of good research information that too often does not find its way into classroom practice, and while the call for “more research” is well and good, I am more concerned with making better use of the research information that we already have.

Tens of thousands of people visit this website every month, and I’m gratified by that, but creating good, understandable reviews of research information is really only a first step in this battle. I am quite positive that, even though thousands of people download all of the various documents that have been created for this website, those documents by themselves are not helping children learn to read. First of all, the teachers (and administrators) who most need this information are often the ones least likely to get it. And secondly, the documents provided on this and other similar websites do little to actually change practice.

There is a good deal of research about professional development that we must pay better attention to, and clearly, good professional development requires more than simply creating a teacher-friendly document and encouraging teachers to read it. That won’t change practice. The real question that we have to address in the research-into-practice battle is, what will?

A few years ago at the National Reading Conference, I remember Scott Paris describing characteristics of “Beat the Odds” schools — high-performing schools that happened to have demographics which are typically associated with low-performing schools. He described various aspects of school improvement that all sounded compelling, but he said that nearly all of the hallmarks of the “Beat the Odds” schools were not universal — that is, some schools had them, others didn’t. They had different reading programs, they had different leadership styles, they had different resources — there was a lot of variability from school to school, but all of them were consistently “beating the odds.”

According to Paris, the only hallmark of a “Beat the Odds” school that was universal — a characteristic that every one of them shared — was a knowledgeable person on staff who was responsible for improving reading on that campus (or in that district). He said that person was not primarily responsible for working directly with the students, but instead was responsible for working with the teachers — providing ongoing, job-embedded professional development and support. That person was not just a “curriculum coordinator” — that person was an expert on reading research and reading instruction who provided job-embedded professional development to build the capacity of all of the staff.

Similarly, at another National Reading Conference, I remember Robert Calfee describing some work that he and his team of researchers had done to improve reading instruction in schools. Calfee described the focus of the work, and the type of information that was shared and used in instruction, and all of it was sound and compelling. He also mentioned that to conduct the work, they had people playing the role of a reading facilitator, working with the teachers, helping them to incorporate theory into practice — essentially providing job-embedded professional development for the teachers.

I have started tuning into this element in research studies because it think it is a very important element in school improvement that is often overlooked. Frequently, when successful reading improvement initiatives are described, the “what” is examined critically, but the “how” is elided. While there have been many studies that have celebrated the successes associated with teaching vocabulary, background knowledge, phoneme awareness, and the like, most of these studies have paid little attention to how best to support teachers in their efforts to include these important elements in their instruction. It is one thing to say that all children should be taught to be aware of the phonemes in spoken language — it is quite a different thing to say how teachers should be taught to teach phoneme awareness.

I can cite many references that describe the hallmarks of effective reading teachers — usually they include a sophisticated understanding of the process of reading acquisition, an understanding of reading assessment, and a rich treasure chest of instructional activities they can use to address the learning needs of individual children. Catherine Snow’s research indicates that strong support from a knowledgeable teacher for a period of two years early in a child’s schooling can make all the difference in a child’s reading development (See I is for Instruction). Bond and Dykstra’s research also emphasizes the importance of teacher quality. Gerald Duffy and Dale Willows have, through the course of their work, found that teachers’ knowledge and understanding of reading is critical to any reading improvement efforts. I’ve seen it over and over in the research literature: good teachers are knowledgeable about the research literature (understanding various theories and the empirical support those various theories have), and they are dynamic, flexible teachers who respond to the individual learning needs of their students with a variety of creative instructional strategies.

However, I have a harder time finding references that describe how best to cultivate a population of effective reading teachers within a school.

I have noticed that one theme that seems to be popping up time and again, however, is that effective teachers do not learn their craft in so called “sit-n-git” workshops. Instead, good professional development seems to be more job-imbedded, goal oriented, and most of all, ongoing. I suspect that one of the best ways to achieve that kind of professional development within a school is to make use of a literacy coordinator like the ones that Scott Paris described. Somebody on the campus who is responsible for helping all of the teachers to be better reading teachers.

I think the research that supports that kind of intervention does exist, but I think it is buried. We just need to dig for it. If we re-examine school improvement efforts, I suspect we’ll often find that, when a school improves, somebody in that school was responsible for providing ongoing, job-embedded professional development to the teachers to enhance their capacity and strength as reading teachers.

Further Reading on the Importance of Teacher Quality:

Block, C.C. (2000). A case for exemplary classroom instruction: Especially for students who come to school without the precursors for literacy success. National Reading Conference Yearbook, 49, 421-440.

Block, C.C., Oakar, M., and Hurt, N. (2002). The expertise of literacy teachers: A continuum from preschool to grade 5. Reading Research Quarterly, 37 (2), 178-206.

Duffy, A.M. and Atkinson, T.S. (2001). Learning to teach struggling (and non-struggling) elementary school readers: An analysis of preservice teachers’ knowledges. Reading Research and Instruction, 41(1), 83-102.

Meijer, P.C., Verloop, N., and Beijaard, D. (2001). Similarities and differences in teachers’ practical knowledge about teaching reading comprehension. The Journal of Educational Research, 94, 171.

Moats, L.C. (1995). The missing foundation in teacher education. American Educator, 19, (2), 9-19.

Moats, L.C. & Lyon, G.R. (1995). Wanted: Teachers with knowledge of language. Topics in Language Disorders, 15, 10-21.

Moats, L.C. (1994). The missing foundation in teacher education: Knowledge of the structure of spoken and written language. Annals of Dyslexia, 44, 81-102.

Intimacy With Language: A Forgotten Basic in Teacher Education Rose Bowler (Ed.). The Orton Dyslexia society, Baltimore, MD. 1987.

Brady, S. and L. Moats. (1997). Informed instruction for reading success: Foundation for teacher preparation. A Position Paper for the International Dyslexia Association.

Bond, G. L. and Dykstra, R. (1967). The cooperative research programme in first grade Instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 2, 5-142.

Cantrell, S.C. Effective teaching and literacy learning: A look inside primary classrooms Reading Teacher 52: 4 (JAN 1999) 370-378

Hedrick, W.B.; Pearish, A.B. Good reading instruction is more important than who provides the instruction or where it takes place Reading Teacher 52: 7 (APR 1999) 716-726

McCutchen, D., Harry, D. R., Cunningham, A. E., Cox, S., Sidman, S., & Covill, A. E. (in press). Reading teachers’ knowledge of children’s literature and English phonology. Annals of Dyslexia.

McCutchen, D., Abbott, R. D., Green, L. B., Beretvas, S. N., Cox, S., Potter, N. S., Quiroga, T., & Gray, A. (2002). Beginning literacy: Links among teacher knowledge, teacher practice, and student learning. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 35, 69-86.

Morrow, L.M., Tracey, D.H., Woo, D.G., & Pressley, M. (1999). Characteristics of exemplary first-grade literacy instruction. The Reading Teacher, 52(5), 462-476.

Paris, S. (2001). Developing readers. In R.F. Flippo (ed.), Reading Researchers in Search of Common Ground. International Reading Association, Newark, DE.

Westerman, D.A. (1991). Expert and novice teacher decision making. Journal of Teacher Education, 42 (4), 292-305.