Elevating Teacher Expertise: Key to Literacy for All Children

irene_fountas_2012_webby Irene Fountas, Author and Director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative at Lesley University

Over the decades, we have witnessed a variety of perspectives on the essentials of high quality literacy opportunities for children. Though we have seen a variety of approaches to instruction and arguments about content, the key role of teacher expertise in schools must be at the forefront of systemic change if we are serious about educating every child.

This means abandoning the notion that adopting a new set of materials, another new program or getting better units will be the most important factor. Of course we want beautiful books and high quality materials that support global learning but we need to reckon with the fact that what teachers know and understand as they make minute-by-minute decisions within the act of teaching is what will make the biggest difference in student learning. This will mean an investment in continuous professional learning with a focus on creating a culture of teacher growth in our schools.

Four key areas of expertise are essential for literacy teachers:

1. Expertise in Systematic Observation and Assessment  

Teachers need to be able to observe carefully what students know and are able to do as readers, writers, listeners, talkers, or viewers and they need to be skilled at using this information to guide teaching. Skilled observers note the precise language and literacy behaviors the child reveals and understand how the behaviors reflect the child’s building of a processing system for literacy. They can use that knowledge to make their next teaching move. Responsive teaching meets the learners where they are and brings them forward with intention and precision.

2. Expertise in Understanding the Reading and Writing Process and How it Changes Over Time  

Teachers need to know what proficient reading and writing looks like and sounds like. Through observing effective processing and how it changes over time, teachers build understandings of how readers and writers build a literacy processing system and can teach towards those competencies. This means teaching forward with a clear view of the competencies and the ability to note changes along the way.

3. Expertise in Understanding the Demands of Texts  

When teachers understand the ten characteristics of texts (Fountas and Pinnell), they can anticipate the demands and scaffold each reader in taking on new ways of processing increasingly complex texts. When teachers are able to analyze mentor texts, they can help writers learn how to write for a variety of purposes and audiences from effective writers of every genre. Knowledge of texts also enables the expert teacher to use different texts for different purposes.

4. Expertise in Core Instructional Procedures  

Teachers need to develop an expertise in a set of highly effective instructional procedures that can be linked to student learning. The procedures need to reflect elements of high impact teaching such as good pacing, intensity, and transfer. This includes knowing when whole group teaching, small group teaching, or individual teaching is appropriate and effective for the students. This also requires knowledge of the texts that provide the appropriate amount of support and challenge to assure new learning.

We have long known that what teachers know and can do is the most important factor in student learning. This means going beyond scripts and one size fits all lessons delivered the same way to students to complex teaching that is grounded in teacher understanding. We argue for the kind of thoughtful teaching that means not just changing what teachers do, but how they think about what they do. This means a school filled with educators who value and actively seek continuous professional learning and administrators who understand the investment in teacher expertise is the soundest long-term investment in student learning.

Our team at the Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative provides a high level professional development for teachers and administrators to support these areas of expertise. We hope you will join us for an institute, a seminar series, or a long-term partnership to create the systemic change that assures every child grows up literate in our schools. www.lesley.edu/crr 

6 thoughts on “Elevating Teacher Expertise: Key to Literacy for All Children

  1. I totally agree. You have stated this much better than I ever could. I wish all administrators understood how important good teachers are and how crucial teachers’ quality ongoing professional development is to growing each teacher’s expertise.

  2. Irene,
    I would also add that teachers must be experts at forming meaningful relationships with their students as a key component of teaching literacy. So much of what we do hinges on the nature of the relationship between teacher and student, and those who lack the social intelligence to read their kids and understand their backstory will find themselves operating with a less than receptive audience. I have known many masterful teachers in my career, and have the privilege of working with several in my current school, and the one thing that I feel characterizes them each is an innate ability to sympathize, empathize, and relate. It is a trait that I feel is shared by all master teachers (think of the best teachers you know), and it is something that cannot easily be taught or coached. Rather, it is a part of their personality that allows them to forge relationships with children that incites within them a willingness to learn, to buy what is being sold, and to trust in the person who is leading the expedition of learning.

  3. I have been wondering if you have considered publishing an e-version of the Continuum of Literacy Learning. Even better, it would be great to have it in an app. I would really like to be able to refer to it on my iPad.

    Julie Artz

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