Practical approaches for enhancing literacy instruction

Hands-on, research-based strategies that support teachers and administrators
By: | Issue: January, 2018 | Thought Leadership
November 22, 2017

What is the most effective way to teach educators effective literacy instruction?

We define effective professional development as that which leads to changes in teaching behavior that in turn lead to optimizing student outcomes. Most teachers are not taught any of the finer points of language structure that have to be taught explicitly to students learning how to read. Teachers also need to be introduced to credible scientific guidance about teaching activities, methods and approaches that are going to work best for certain kinds of students.

You wrote Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS¬Æ) for K12 teachers, and you say it’s not a “packaged program” but rather a “course of study.” Describe the difference.

It’s possible for people to go through a professional development program that has a set number of lessons without either understanding or applying them. The way we try to structure learning experiences is with checkpoints along the way to ensure that people who go through our course of study actually understand what they are being taught. Our goal is effective implementation to benefit the students, and to ensure that people who are going through LETRS learn change, and apply it. We build in accountability for thinking about and applying what we’re teaching.

How important is professional development in terms of helping teachers get better results with students?

There is a body of literature on teacher learning, teacher professional development, and the relationship between teacher professional development and student outcomes. In Knoxville, Tennessee, teachers went through a course based on LETRS. There is also a program of instruction for adolescent poor readers that incorporates systematic development of language skills related to reading, spelling and writing. The findings in Knoxville show that teachers who went through the professional development course that is generic in nature, or are implementing a structured program called LANGUAGE!¬Æ Live, are getting significantly better results with their students than teachers who have not had the professional development—those who are just given the program and are told to implement it.

Talk about the importance of a supportive administration for teachers and accountability in the form of coaching and observation.

It is very difficult for teachers to implement what they have been taught unless there is an administrative structure and context for implementing structured language and literacy practices, which are going to be more effective with the majority of students. The reality is that changing teaching behavior is challenging. It takes coaching. It takes mentoring. It takes collaboration. It takes modeling over and over again. It takes encouragement. It doesn’t work very well for administrators to be on the sidelines. The administrators need to learn enough of the content, especially about the psychology of reading and reading development. If teachers alone are involved in professional development and the administration is not leading the way, it’s like a headless horseman.

There are two kinds of accountability: first, what we build into the course of study, and second, the extent to which a teacher is making sincere efforts to apply what is being modeled and taught, and is receptive to good coaching and feedback from someone who knows what they’re looking for and who can be genuinely supportive and offer guidance about how to improve.

For more information about LETRS® and LANGUAGE! Live®, visit