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THE LITERACY COACH: A Key to Improving Teaching and Learning in Secondary Schools

Never in this country’s history has the need for an educated, literate citizenry been so critical. The increasing complexity of rapid globalization demands a workforce that is skilled in reading, communications, and mathematics. The ability to maintain a growing economy depends on the availability of educated, productive workers. A democratic society requires knowledgeable and involved citizens.

As the previous article points out, however, the nation has a problem. Far too many of its young people are struggling to read at a level that will allow them to excel in school and in their future workplaces. These students have little chance of succeeding in the demanding courses of high school without interventions that will considerably increase their ability to comprehend complex material, expand their vocabularies, and develop strong study skills.

Schools, school districts, and state educational agencies across the nation are developing programs to improve adolescent literacy in our middle schools and high schools. Many of these programs consider the literacy coach to be an integral part of their structure and success. Although more research and evaluation on the effectiveness of these programs is needed, early results and anecdotal evidence are encouraging and indicate positive achievement in the most important measure-increased student literacy levels. The Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that, to meet the needs of the close to 9 million fourth- through 12th-graders who read at “below basic” levels, approximately 10,000 literacy coaches will be needed.

To meet this national need for coaches over the next several years, multiple training pathways must be created. Among the models currently proving effective are college or university programs that offer training leading to a master’s degree or reading specialist certification; certification programs offered by states or accrediting agencies; and collaborations between school districts and colleges in which teachers receive preparation both in college classrooms and at field-based sites. A new Alliance report, The Literacy Coach: A Key to Improving Teaching and Learning in Secondary Schools, helps to develop an understanding of what works in successful programs as well as successful strategies for training effective literacy coaches.

The report acknowledges that a curriculum to support secondary learning and literacy cannot be a rigid, one-size-fits-all program. Teachers and teams of teachers must be able to make professional, informed decisions based on their own students’ needs and ability levels, in relation to curricular requirements and context. To do this, teachers must be guided and supported in a continuous learning process to develop effective ways to combine their teaching of literacy and content in the secondary school environment.

Successful programs recognize that effective, continuing, and supportive staff development-for teachers, administrators, and certain district-level personnel-is critical to success. Key players in the change process are literacy coaches-master teachers who provide essential leadership for the school’s overall literacy program. This leadership should include a long-term staff development program that supports the creation and implementation of the literacy program over months and years.

In successful literacy programs, literacy coaches work with content teachers across the curriculum to help them implement and utilize strategies designed to improve their students’ ability to read, write, and succeed in content courses. Coaches can also work directly with students who have particular difficulties in reading and comprehension.

Coaches may organize literacy teams that review assessment data and develop literacy goals for their schools, participate in conferences and professional development seminars, and bring information and ideas for curriculum revision back to their school colleagues. They then can conduct or facilitate in-service training for those colleagues. Because coaches are incorporated into the school’s process for improvement and change, they can meet with teacher teams and individual teachers on an ongoing basis after training sessions are completed. They can also review student assessment data, guide lesson planning, and generally ensure that the strategies learned in workshops are effectively used in classroom instruction.

The report finds that the introduction of literacy coaches in schools and school districts has proven successful across the country-in specific, but limited programs. For the sake of the young people of our country who are most at risk of dropping out of high school or not going to college because of their limited reading and comprehension ability, and because their success or failure has such an impact on the nation’s economic and social future, coaching strategies and successful literacy programs must be expanded into schools nationally.

The complete report is available online here

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