I have met many women and men who wholeheartedly want to be effective literacy teachers. They want, as much as anyone can, to impact the lives of adolescent readers. In our district, those teachers accept the belief that an excellent education is built on literacy as a civil right. When I am asked how to get an effective class or program started for struggling adolescent readers, the inquiry is typically about structure, standards, and resources, understandably. I also acknowledge that even the best research-based structure is subordinate to consistent building-wide and district-wide support for fidelity of that structure. Beyond that need, the greatest factor for success in the individual classroom is an effective literacy educator that believes in all students, responds to the needs of the whole student, remains knowledgeable on effective literacy practice, and builds a classroom structure that facilitates success for all students.
Although this might be a great place to write a literature review citing sources that validate my choice of essential elements, I will instead share my knowledge and beliefs through the lens of my education and my experience with hundreds of real students and dozens of teachers. Like many reading this, I have spent years, dedicated my life actually, to the work of helping teens read well, both in private and public contexts. I value data and spend a lot of time attempting to make sense of what the data says about what happens in actual classrooms. I am genuinely saddened that neither my best intentions nor my best efforts have made a significant impact on the system as a whole. I have seen the impact of my work and the work of my fellow literacy educators at the building level, and most certainly at the individual class/teacher level. Students have experienced long-term benefit in these contexts. However, even as a coach that supports middle and secondary literacy intervention in a large district, with a literacy model I developed and implemented over that past 5 years, I must admit I have yet to see our literacy work impact the system in a sustainable way. Our work is unique, innovative and research-based, but the moving parts are many and difficult to effectively support. Yet we continue to press forward, with our best resource: effective literacy educators.
In spite of my obvious frustration with system change and the state of affairs of literacy in our nation, I must continue to believe in the power of the individual teacher, site-based management, & effective instructional coaching. I would argue that one of the reasons systems change is so difficult is individual teachers, and frankly, individual students, are undervalued. Again, a blog for another time. With that said, I have bore witness to excellent practice in many classrooms. I don’t pop in and out, I sit through classes, typically many times with the same teachers, and I notice some commonalities among our most effective literacy interventionists.
Effective literacy teachers believe In all students. Above all else, effective teachers function from a belief system that accepts that all students can learn and grow as readers, writers, and thinkers. This is first on my list and of utmost importance. When a teen has spent years battling against reading challenges, he doesn’t believe in himself anymore. These students also don’t believe that anyone can help them change their reading stars. Frankly, many educators have fallen victim to the belief that some students are just not able to read well. “The good news is that we now have an essential research base demonstrating that virtually every child could be reading grade level by the end of first grade” (Routman, 2014). In a reality where that is not happening, the individual teacher must believe that the potential to achieve and grow still lives within each adolescent.
Effective literacy teachers employ responsive teaching practices. Of course, this happens as a result of believing in all students. It also requires a clear understanding of the strengths and challenges of each student. This is where gaining and maintaining a strong knowledge of literacy development and pedagogy is important. At the center of all of this is an awareness of the cultural knowledge, experiences, and beliefs students bring to a learning community. The curriculum and the accepted methodology for instruction are important, however knowledgeable, reflective, relationship-driven educators can be effective with students through nearly any curriculum and any model of instruction. (This is where you may want to refer to my disclaimer for this blog. This is my strongly-held opinion.)
Effective, Consistent, Safe, Fair Classroom Structure. The reality of teaching adolescent struggling readers is that they are not all that excited to take another spin at becoming a “proficient reader.” Depending on the district and the structure of the intervention in that district K-12, they may have experienced a great many instructional attempts to fashion them into grade-level readers. In some cases, those attempts, according to my discussions with students, made them all the more certain that reading is a boring waste of time. More than that, these students have undoubtedly experienced intervention attempts within classroom structures where the teacher’s credibility and clarity were constantly in question (Fisher, Frey, & Hattie, 2016). The culture of the classroom, dependent on teacher direction and modeling, must acknowledge mistakes and confusion as part of the path to growth. Creating a safe space for students who have not felt safe enough to take risks, may well be the greatest benefit of thoughtful classroom structures. In safe, consistent, responsive environments students begin to absorb the positive culture of the classroom, respect the teacher’s expertise, and believe that maybe, just maybe change is possible.
Are you seeking to develop a curriculum that changes the literacy stars for your students? A solid data-driven, research-based curriculum is essential, but the impact of an effective educator is paramount. Have I missed some fundamental elements of an effective literacy educator? Share your thoughts? Consider your practice and the practice of those effective, impactful teachers in your sphere. Students deserve dedicated, responsive educators that always seek to improve their practice and who care deeply about each individual student. What does student evidence of impactful instruction look like to you? How are we using the evidence of our students’ success or failure to enhance our practice to serve students better?