Voices from the classroom: literacy beliefs and practices of two novice elementary teachers.
The preparation of both pre- and inservice teachers in early reading and the language arts is receiving extraordinary scrutiny due to federal legislation in the United States, such as the Reading First provisions of Title I and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (2002). A central challenge for teacher educators is to find effective ways of preparing both pre- and inservice teachers to teach young children to read and write in ways that both engage children and help them achieve at satisfactory levels (Teale, 2003). Although the beliefs and practices of beginning teachers have received increased attention in the literature in the past five years, little is known about how novice teachers develop effective literacy teaching practices during their first years of teaching. The purpose of this study was to investigate preservice teachers' beliefs about literacy instruction as they progressed from student teaching to their initial years of teaching. Specifically, the study sought to determine what factors influenced their literacy beliefs and how the literacy beliefs and practices of these novice teachers evolved over time.
In the past 20 years, researchers have focused on the relationships between teacher beliefs, knowledge, and practices to better understand teaching and learning in classroom settings (Anders, Hoffman, & Duffy, 2000; Fang, 1996; Pajares, 1992). The literature widely acknowledges the potential for teachers' beliefs to affect classroom interaction and instruction (Dillon, O'Brien, Moje, & Stewart, 1994; Fang, 1996; Kagan, 1992). For example, both Kagan (1992) and Pajares (1992) identified clear connections between beliefs and practices in which an individual teacher's beliefs influence her instructional behaviors. Although several studies have examined preservice teachers' beliefs about literacy instruction (e.g., Bean & Zulich, 1991; Linek, Nelson, Sampson, Mohr, & Hughes, 1999; Maloch et al., 2003; Smith, Sampson, Linek, & Raine, 2001), fewer studies have examined the evolving beliefs of preservice teachers as they moved from preservice field experiences into professional teaching.
Preservice teachers may have naive beliefs about what it takes to be a successful teacher, bring to their preparation program beliefs about teaching and learning influenced by their childhood experiences, and may not understand the importance of challenging their beliefs (Stuart & Thurlow, 2000). The process through which a teacher learns to make instructional decisions has been found to occur over the teacher's lifetime, with the induction period, including student teaching, being of particular importance (Kagan, 1992). Understanding how preservice teachers' individual beliefs influence their teaching and perceptions of literacy can inform and hopefully strengthen the preparation and induction of novice teachers (Barr, Watts-Taffe, Yokota, Ventura, & Caputi, 2000; Maloch et al., 2003; Whitbeck, 2000).
Many schools of education seek to prepare beginning teachers through a process of reflection, which focuses on problem solving, personal meaning-building, and multiple viewpoints related to the practical and moral issues that permeate teaching (Roskos, Vukelich, & Risko, 2001; Wolf, Ballantine, & Hill, 2000). The intent is that beginning teachers will establish child-centered classrooms where literacy is central to learning and teaching is guided by sound theoretical understandings (Barr et al., 2000). A general consensus exists in the literature that reflectivity leads to professional growth (Hanauer, 1997). Reflection is also an important part of inservice teacher education, as it provides opportunities and tools for teachers to reflect on their own practices systematically as they move toward change (Anders et al., 2000).
However, few claims about what constitutes effective preservice reading teacher education can be made from the current research base (Anders et al., 2000). In addition, there is limited empirical evidence that can inform teacher educators about how certain educative experiences affect teachers' long-term development (Anders et al., 2000). The research studies that have followed preservice teachers into their first years of teaching indicate that: 1) what preservice teachers learn in their education courses often does not transfer to classroom teaching (Zeichner & Tabachnick, 1982); 2) novices often experience "transition" shock as they move from teacher preparation to the reality of the classroom (Corcoran, 1981); and 3) novice teachers may allow the school culture to dictate their pedagogical practice (Puk & Harnes, 1999), and they may replicate existing school structures (Little & Robinson, 1997). Moreover, new teachers' instructional practice often is influenced by time constraints, high-stakes assessment, contextual factors, and content knowledge (White, Sturtevant, & Dunlap, 2003).
It is important to examine teachers' beliefs as they begin their careers, since they may continue to follow the patterns established in their induction years (Hollingsworth, 1989). Longitudinal studies of program effectiveness that follow graduates into their first year of teaching could provide valuable evidence related to teacher outcomes (Maloch et al., 2003). A central focus of the current study was to examine the evolution of beliefs about early literacy teaching during the participants' first year of teaching. The research questions guiding our study were: 1) What factors influenced the participants' existing and developing beliefs about early childhood teaching and literacy? 2) What are the participants' beliefs about early literacy teaching and learning? and 3) How did the participants' beliefs about literacy evolve over time?
Participants and Context
This study reports on two participants, Maggie and Natalie, after they completed their first year of professional teaching in a large suburban school district. They volunteered, along with two other students, in response to a description of the study presented to elementary education majors in the fall of their senior year at a small private college in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States. The students were informed that data would be collected over several years, which limited the number of possible participants as many students from the program leave the area following graduation. One volunteer dropped out after the first year of data collection, stating that, as a new teacher, she did not have time to participate. The other volunteer, Betsy, has continued with the study and is reported on in another article (which focuses on her experiences in an urban school where 95 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch). Due to the extensiveness of the collected data, it was not possible to provide a comprehensive analysis of influences and beliefs of all three novice teachers in this article.
Maggie and Natalie shared similar family and socioeconomic backgrounds. Both are white and come from traditional professional families in the northeastern United States, with whom they communicated and/or visited often. They both attended public high schools and then graduated after four years of college with a bachelor's degree in elementary education, a minor in special education, and a 3.4 cumulative GPA. Their teacher education program espoused a constructivist approach to teaching and learning and was in the process of gaining NCATE accreditation. As part of their coursework, the participants completed four reading courses--foundations, language arts, strategies and literature, and assessment--and five special education courses. Maggie and Natalie completed at least four field experiences, spread across public, private, urban, and suburban schools.
Both participants successfully completed a three-semester internship in a professional development school (PDS), which began during the spring semester of their junior year. The director of teacher education placed both participants at Forest Creek, a suburban school situated in a middle-class community with many professional families. Forest Creek is a pre-kindergarten through 5th-grade school constructed in 1993. The student body is 81 percent white, 9 percent African American, 8 percent Asian American, and 2 percent Hispanic. Of the school's approximately 650 students, about 3 percent receive free/reduced-price lunch and about 6 percent receive services from special education.
Following their internships, Maggie and Natalie were both hired to teach at Forest Creek School. Team planning by grade level was an integral part of Forest Creek; each team had a team leader who coordinated team planning and interfaced with the administration. Forest Creek used a literature-based program in which phonics and other skills often were taught through mini-lessons. Although a literature anthology was available, most teachers, including Maggie and Natalie, preferred to use trade book sets. Each grade level had a variety of trade book sets available, although Maggie considered the supply to be limited and frequently used her own money or PTA funds to purchase additional sets. Teachers were accountable to the school system benchmarks, which were tied to the state standards, but encouraged to use a variety of approaches and resources to teach literacy. Resource guides were available but did not appear to be readily used. In general, teachers had a high degree of autonomy regarding materials and methods.
Although Maggie and Natalie followed similar career paths, their initial interest in teaching as a profession and school experiences differed. Maggie entered college planning to major in international business. Instead, she became an education major as a result of a summer job teaching swimming to children and an Introduction to Education course she took during her freshman year. She explained that she loved children and that teaching intrigued her because "I liked being a student and I like to learn." During her internship, Maggie was assigned to 1st- and then 3rd-grade classes. Both of her mentor teachers had previously worked with interns and were in the early or middle stages of their careers. Maggie was hired as a 2nd-grade teacher and began her teaching career at Forest Creek, but with a team she had not worked with directly during her internship.
Natalie came to college knowing she wanted to be a teacher. Deeply affected by her grandmother's death, she "realized that I knew that I wanted to help people with whatever I did in my life, that I couldn't sit behind a desk or at a computer." Originally, she considered a career working with elderly people but ultimately realized that she wanted to work with children. Natalie completed her internship with experienced mentor teachers in 5th- and 3rd-grade classrooms. Both mentors were nearing the end of their careers. Natalie joined one of her mentors on the 3rd-grade team following her internship.
Data Collection and Analysis
A case study methodology was selected, because it "offers a means of investigating complex social units consisting of multiple variables of potential importance in understanding the phenomenon" (Merriam, 1988, p. 32) and is therefore well-suited to investigating teachers' evolving beliefs. Additionally, the study was approached from a compatible social constructivist framework that acknowledges the participants in a culture-determined reality (Berger & Luckmann, 1967). In striving to understand and portray teachers' beliefs, the researchers recognize the critical role that context plays for both the participants and themselves.
This paper will present data from Phase I (preservice and the first year of professional teaching) of our study. At least three times each academic year, data were collected through structured interviews, classroom observations, participant reflections, and artifacts. Initial data collection began when the participants were preservice teachers completing their field experiences in professional development schools. During this period, the first individual structured interviews were conducted by one of the researchers at the college campus in December. This interview lasted approximately 45 minutes. Subsequent interviews and formal observations were conducted in March and May in the participants' classrooms or the teacher workroom. Interviews were conducted during planning time and lasted 45-60 minutes. The researchers informally visited the participants' classrooms from February to May. The participants kept informal reflections in the form of abbreviated notes during the first year of the study. During year two of the study, all interviews were collected at the school site. The researchers interviewed and formally observed Natalie in September, March, and June and interviewed and formally observed Maggie in September, April, and June. Informal visits were again conducted during the school year. These visits varied, but generally involved a classroom visit and an informal conversation with each participant. Maggie and Natalie were co-presenters at a conference with one of the researchers in the fall of the second year, and they used their reflective notes to share their beliefs and experiences related to literacy learning. As first-year teachers, the participants reported that they did not have time to keep reflective notes during professional teaching year one (PTY 1). Samples of student work were collected and used as evidence of reading strategies and teaching practices, such as learning centers.
Some of the interview questions, such as "How do you think children learn literacy best?," were repeated during several interviews to document how the participants' responses changed over time. In addition to questions that were asked of both participants, individual questions were developed that were based on classroom observations and prior interview responses. For example, Maggie voiced a concern at the beginning of PTY 1 that parents would be upset that students did not bring home a lot of papers at the end of each week. The researchers queried her about this concern during each successive interview. Consequently, the researchers collected a common set of data from both participants and pursued an understanding of individual interests, concerns, and context. The individualized nature of this approach provided rich descriptive data, which facilitated analysis of the complex world of these two early childhood teachers.
Additionally, classroom observations revealed how the participants' teaching practices related to their professed beliefs about literacy instruction. Observations were scheduled either before or after each interview to allow the authors sufficient time to observe a complete lesson. All lessons had a literacy focus and used trade books, although some occurred during other content periods. The researchers observed small-group and whole-class instruction, as well as the participants working with individuals, including students with special needs. Parent volunteers often were in the room assisting students or helping with paper tasks.
As noted, interviews were scheduled during release time, when children were at special classes, such as music and physical education, and lasted approximately 45 to 60 minutes. All interviews were tape recorded and transcribed verbatim. Field notes were taken during observations and then entered into a database. Data were analyzed using a constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) and a combination of descriptive and emergent categories. Data analysis began with broad descriptive codes, such as influences and beliefs about learning, that were expanded and then refined as new categories emerged. The next stage of analysis involved determining linkages between the descriptive and emergent codes, clustering similar categories together, and determining appropriate codes and subcategories for each group. For example, workshops, mentors, successful lessons, and parent interaction emerged as themes under the descriptive code of "influences." As data analysis continued, the emergent themes were collapsed into three main categories of influence: context, teacher preparation, and dispositions. This process provided opportunities to explore multiple paths for analysis. As the data analysis process progressed, the participants completed formal and informal member checks, and Maggie and Natalie reported that they enjoyed the interviews and the study provided support for their knowledge of practice (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999).
During Phase I of the study, Maggie and Natalie identified a variety of factors that influenced their beliefs about literacy (see Table 1). The influences discussed by the participants are grouped into two categories: context and teacher preparation. The participants readily identified and described individual components of their teaching context and teacher preparation program that influenced their beliefs. Their responses also revealed qualities of self that appeared to contribute to their beliefs. A third group of influences not identified by the participants was also explored. This third group, dispositions, included personal history and emerged as an implicit theme in the data. This category brings together such factors as reflection, self-efficacy, family input, and teacher models. Based on the data, the authors suggest that these personal dispositions must be acknowledged as important influences, along with context and teacher preparation.
Many of the factors in each category were consistent across both participants but varied in the value each participant attached to them. Both participants indicated that school context was the most influential set of factors during Phase I. Most of the factors they identified were considered positive influences, although the number of perceived frustrations or negative influences increased during their first year of professional teaching.
Maggie. Within the context of the school, mentors, children, school administration, and experiences in different grade levels positively influenced Maggie's literacy beliefs during student teaching. Her mentors appeared to be the most important influences. She frequently talked about them as excellent role models and teachers. For example, toward the end of student teaching, she commented:
My mentor teachers are on complete opposite sides of the spectrum. Both are fantastic teachers.... I think it's cool that you can have two personalities that are completely on opposite ends of the spectrum but are both so good at what they do.
The students were the next most influential factor. During her student teaching, Maggie recognized the need to listen to and know each student individually and to use this knowledge to set appropriate expectations. In addition to listening to children, Maggie also talked about being receptive to children's answers that might not be expected but that were insightful. Maggie also considered the school administration and her experiences in different grade levels as positively contributing to her professional development and supporting her beliefs about literacy learning.
Several aspects of Maggie's teacher preparation program contributed to her beliefs about literacy learning. She discussed using a number of literacy teaching strategies from her coursework, including jigsaw, contextual redefinition, and anticipation guides. She also considered her field experiences and the support of her college supervisor to be positive influences. The only factor Maggie identified as a negative component of her teacher education program was the limitation of being in her internship for only one day each week during the fall semester, prior to full-time student teaching. Once she began her full-time student teaching in the spring semester, she noticed and remarked on the benefits of working with her students and the curriculum on a daily basis.
Finally, Maggie's success as a student, her natural inclination to reflect, and her summer job experiences played a role in the development of her beliefs. She described herself as a student who continues to enjoy learning. As a student, Maggie had a mixture of teachers but selectively chose which ones she wanted to use as models, noting that the teachers who were "very positive and who had high expectations definitely were the people who would influence me in my learning." Maggie's predisposition to spontaneous reflection was evident during each interview and appeared to explain many of her beliefs. For example, she described the connection between how she learned and how she hoped to teach as follows:
Just to take a look at how I learned and ... methods that I was introduced to as a student, and then to look at ... myself in their [students'] position and, and think about how I want to teach my students in terms of how I know that I learned best and how people, like even my sister learns completely different from the way I did. And to have that understanding that everybody has a different way that they learn best.
Maggie's summer jobs--teaching swimming and working at the International Dyslexia Association--also contributed to her ideas about literacy and learning. She was able to implement some of the multi-sensory strategies she learned at the International Dyslexia Association in her 1st-grade internship, where she tried to "take every approach possible as far as touching upon all the right areas" while working with emergent readers.
During Maggie's first year of teaching, she perceived that school context remained the most influential support. She considered her team leader and teaching team to have the most effect on her beliefs about literacy instruction. She described her team leader as "a phenomenal mentor and inspiration to me! She shares ideas and borrows mine. She has made me an even more confident teacher!" From the beginning, Maggie felt comfortable with her team; she valued the experience and knowledge they shared with her and appreciated their recognition of her skills and knowledge. Early in the school year, she commented:
They feel that I add a lot, too; I complement them. I have questions, I'm learning still, but it's exciting to have new things that maybe other people haven't seen before that I can add .... We're starting a new behavior modification checklist ... that I've done before in my Special Ed certification and ... they think it's cool and that's an asset.
Maggie also found that the flexibility and ownership afforded by having her own class motivated her to take risks in her literacy program. She was comfortable using "teachable moments," trying new grouping strategies, and trying a variety of teaching approaches.
At the beginning of the year, Maggie voiced concerns about parent support. In particular, she was concerned "that parents are going to wonder why there aren't so many papers in their Friday folders, but that's a risk I'm willing to take because I feel like I can support [it], and I have confidence in my strategies." By the end of the year, Maggie considered her students' parents to be supportive. Early in the year, however, three factors--not enough time, paperwork, and limited resources, particularly trade books--emerged as frustrations and remained challenges. When discussing paperwork, Maggie said, "I didn't expect it and I had papers coming out of my ears and I'm just trying to sort it all, prioritize it."
As a first-year teacher, Maggie continued to consider her mentors and coursework to be important influences; she especially valued the student teaching aspect of her teacher education program. Again, characterizing a reflective practitioner, Maggie explained:
Everyday attitude and just my presence in here wouldn't be the same if I didn't have my student teaching experience.... A lot of situations that you can read about in a book but never really know what to do unless they happen I wouldn't be able to deal with as well if I didn't have student teaching.
Finally, as illustrated above, Maggie's personal dispositions were also influential during her first year of teaching. Maggie continued to spontaneously reflect on her teaching and adapt her instruction as needed. Her developing sense of self-efficacy and her self-identified goals also contributed to her beliefs about literacy. She was comfortable with her knowledge of her students' developmental levels and the 2nd-grade curriculum, based on her experience with learners in the 1st-and 3rd-grade. Her goals for the year reflected her sense of self-efficacy. Specifically, she wanted to "stay positive, try new things, and refine some of the things that concern me as far as classroom management and paperwork."
Natalie. Context played a key role during Natalie's student teaching. Her beliefs about teaching literacy were influenced by children, mentors, school administration, parents, and her teaching team. The children in her classrooms during student teaching were one of the most important supports. She perceived her mentors to be the next most influential factor. Although Natalie spoke positively of both mentors during student teaching, she indicated that they were traditional teachers who did not use a variety of "current teaching techniques." She did acknowledge that both student teaching mentors were supportive and encouraged her to try different teaching methods, although they did not model them for her.
Natalie indicated that members of her teaching team influenced her beliefs. During student teaching, she viewed her teaching team as supportive when she said, "I think that my team, even though I am not everyone's student teacher, that they help me out all the time, that they offer up information." Natalie purposefully avoided participating in conversations about the administration. She felt that the principal was "not very popular" and described her as a negative influence in the school. This perception seemed to be related to the principal's lack of interaction with the staff on a daily basis and to bureaucratic issues related to assignment of special services for students. Natalie also considered the parents of her students to be an important supporting influence. She valued the contributions of parents as classroom volunteers and indicated that parental support was critical to her success as a teacher.
Natalie reported that two central aspects of her teacher preparation program contributed to her beliefs about literacy learning. Natalie's coursework in reading and special education provided her with a framework for developing lessons during her student teaching that she considered to be meaningful and responsive to the different needs of her students. Natalie often mentioned specific theories, such as Gardner's multiple intelligences, as useful for providing modifications to meet individual student needs. The interview data revealed that Natalie did not often refer to specific strategies or techniques she learned in her teacher preparation classes; rather, she described how she applied what she had learned in her own teaching. For example, when discussing her use of thematic units during student teaching, Natalie said:
So, I think I've learned that I really enjoy theme-based units. Because the whole class is involved and it's really high energy in here ... it's really neat because everyone is immersed in it and everyone is investigating.... I had them do a Webquest. A Titanic Webquest.
During observations, the researchers observed Natalie using multiple instructional strategies and differentiating assignments for individual students.
Natalie's family, her previous teachers, her natural inclination to reflect, and her altruistic dispositions also influenced the development of her beliefs. Throughout her student teaching, Natalie referred to the influence of her family. She discussed specific values she learned from her family in such statements as:
My family has influenced me. I will never forget ... my mother always said, "Treat people how you want to be treated. If you wouldn't like it, what makes you think that anyone else would?" ... That's something that is often forgotten when you're dealing with children.... It's just as important, if not more for them, because they are so impressionable.
Natalie also referred to one of her own best teachers as one who was fair but motivating "in subjects that I wouldn't necessarily be motivated in."
Throughout her student teaching, Natalie demonstrated continuous and spontaneous reflection. Her reflections were indicative of her excitement about and enthusiasm for teaching and often focused on her successes as a teacher. Natalie often described such aspects of teaching as "figuring out what each child needs in order to learn best" as a "thrill." These reflections also incorporated theories and techniques she had learned in her teacher preparation program, such as scaffolding, as well as approaches to modifying instruction to address individual differences.
The supports noted during student teaching continued into Natalie's first year of professional teaching. The factors considered to be frustrations appeared to increase as she took full responsibility for her own classroom. She continued to focus on the influence of the children in her classroom to make instructional decisions. At the beginning of her first year of teaching, Natalie stated: "A lot of it is the kids. Their ability and their interests were and still are a big influence on how I teach." Natalie continued to view parents positively and used parent volunteers on a regular basis, because they allowed her to spend more instructional time with her students and they "love coming into the classroom to help out."
Unlike Maggie, Natalie did not perceive her team as supportive or receptive to her ideas and suggestions, and she noted that she was not getting any direct, ongoing support from a specific mentor during her first year of teaching. Although she saw her teaching team as informal mentors and felt she could seek assistance from her team members, she did not believe they valued her ideas and knowledge. Rather, Natalie felt pressure to conform to the team and viewed her team members as competitive. She explained that her teammates frequently gave her unsolicited lessons or worksheets and expected her to use them. Over time, consequently, she limited her interactions with them.
Natalie continued to view the school administration as a source of frustration that directly affected her classroom decisions. Natalie expressed specific concerns, such as feeling stifled by a lack of support for obtaining special education services for children who were having academic difficulties in her classroom. For example, she stated: "I think the most frustrating thing for me [is] to know that a child needs help and to know that it's beyond me." Natalie also began to reflect more about time as a limitation and challenge. For example, she said, "Time was frustrating. There never seemed to be enough of it ... and I wanted to provide for their needs."
During her first year of teaching, Natalie continued to mention her coursework in reading and special education as referents for differentiating instruction and providing a variety of instructional strategies to meet individual children's needs. She indicated a new awareness of aspects of teaching that had not been addressed in her teacher education program. For example, she explained that she was not prepared for the "paperwork" and for the diversity of students in her classroom. As she explained, "Diversity in the classroom [meant] I knew I was going to have kids at different levels, but I didn't know they would have so many different issues and so many different levels." Specifically, she felt unprepared to meet the range of social and emotional needs in her classroom.
Natalie's altruism and ability to spontaneously reflect were also evident during her first year of teaching. She continued to explain many of her beliefs in the context of what she felt would be best for the children in her classroom. For example, she commented, "Because starting new in teaching there are so many other things that I'm thinking about, but I really care about these kids so much." Natalie's reflections often included references to topics addressed in her teacher preparation program, as she had done with her student teaching. For example, at the end of her first year of teaching, she said:
As I look back on my first year, I think that I have had lots of different successes.... I think that it was exciting to see the students' progress as writers. I was able to accomplish this goal by scaffolding my instruction. Also, [by] engaging the students in real world [activities] and appealing to a variety of intelligences.
Influences Across Participants
As seen in Table 1, Maggie and Natalie described a number of similar influences in response to context, teacher preparation, and dispositions, although certain influences were described by Maggie as supportive and by Natalie as frustrating. For example, Maggie found her team to be helpful and accepting, while Natalie described her team as competitive and hesitant to acknowledge her as a peer. The number of perceived negative influences rose during professional teaching year one as both participants identified time and paperwork as frustrations. Maggie and Natalie each demonstrated a natural inclination to critically reflect on their teaching and learning, and this habit clearly influenced the instructional decisions they made. For example, during post-observation conversations, the participants would explain why a particular story, skill, or strategy was selected and often attribute it to a careful analysis of a preceding lesson. Additionally, Maggie demonstrated a strong sense of self-efficacy, while Natalie exhibited altruism.
Beliefs About Instruction
Maggie. Before she began student teaching, Maggie believed that young children needed a great deal of instruction in phonics in order to learn to read. However, while immersed in her 1st-grade student teaching assignment, she came to recognize that the young children she taught already possessed many skills and experiences that supported emergent literacy. As a student teacher, Maggie's ideas about how to teach literacy reflected what she learned in her teacher preparation program and what she experienced in her 1st-and 3rd-grade placements in terms of curriculum, approaches, and students. In 1st grade, she observed and acknowledged the benefits of balanced literacy and time to read. Toward the middle of her student teaching, when asked how she would set up her own reading program, Maggie talked about finding a "balance between all four--listening, speaking, reading, and writing--but ... definitely place the most emphasis ... we'd read every day ... and ... I would definitely have reading groups." She thought a combination of small--and large-group instruction was most effective and that multiple forms of informal assessments were essential. Maggie also believed that reading across the curriculum was important. Classroom observations showed that Maggie did, in fact, actuate these professed beliefs. For example, the researchers observed students working in small groups as Maggie recorded running records with individual children and the use of trade books during math.
In her 3rd-grade student teaching placement, Maggie maintained her beliefs about grouping, integrated curriculum, and assessments, but broadened her beliefs about teaching and learning literacy. In particular, Maggie began thinking about what literacy should mean to the students and the importance of listening carefully to her students. For example, she strongly believed that "it has to be meaningful" and connect to their interests or lives. She commented, "I want a mixture of students taking ownership over their own learning, me guiding them, and them guiding each other and helping each other and working together." Maggie also emphasized that multiple strategies, particularly for comprehension and vocabulary, were essential to reading growth.
As a first-year teacher, Maggie recognized the complexity of teaching and drew from many of her existing beliefs about literacy instruction. She said, for example, that "children learn best through meaningful experiences with a variety of texts.... They need to feel ownership over the purposes for reading and be guided in experiences ... that are true to life." Her commitment to a balanced approach to literacy was punctuated by a growing awareness that reading is more than decoding. At the end of the year, she explained, "All students can be good readers despite their ability to decode text. I have students who were below grade level in reading yet, based on their use of other comprehension strategies, could speak intelligently and thoughtfully about what they read." Maggie's ideas about grouping also evolved to encompass flexible grouping as a result of her team leader's influence. She used a variety of criteria to group children, often organizing around students' interests, which she considered along with students' needs.
Natalie. During her student teaching, Natalie's ideas about how to teach literacy reflected her teacher preparation coursework in literacy and special education. Before student teaching, Natalie indicated that it was important to consider the different home experiences of individual children as well as address their emotional and social needs. At that time, she said, "Children need to feel confident and feel loved.... You have to understand that children come from different environments and need support." She expressed the need to differentiate instruction for learners in order to meet individual needs and used a variety of strategies to teach literacy. In moving from a homogeneous 5th-grade class to a heterogeneous 3rd-grade class, Natalie articulated her commitment to differentiating instruction by explaining how she implemented ability groups:
In the 3rd grade, the whole class was one ability and now I'm in reading groups.... I can see how some of the work that they have to take back to their seats isn't as meaningful as it could be for some of the groups.
In the 3rd-grade class, Natalie used cooperative learning groups and talked about the importance of a balanced literacy approach. She continued to emphasize the need to differentiate instruction through "modifications and using multiple intelligences." Natalie discussed how modifications through ability grouping are important for all children, not just those identified as having special needs. She also noted that she had learned that "taking cues from the children and following their lead is important.... I don't think I knew to do that in the past. I thought that everything had a rhyme or reason or certain order."
In her first year of professional teaching, Natalie refined and extended her beliefs about balanced literacy and differentiating instruction. Her beliefs about literacy began to shift to address more specific aspects of learning to read. For example, she mentioned the importance of encouraging motivation and the need to help children learn strategies to become independent readers. Moreover, Natalie indicated that, along with motivating children to read, "I learned that having them read right away is not what I want to do. Because that's not going to make them better readers. I need to arm them with the strategies a little bit longer." Natalie also considered reading fluency to be important. As Natalie implemented different teaching strategies, using a variety of texts, she also recognized the reality of formal assessments and accountability. For example, she stated that "my goal is to push the kids so they can get through the system." In addition, Natalie began to use flexible grouping as she continued to emphasize the need to differentiate instruction.
At the end of her first year, Natalie acknowledged the difficulty of differentiation when she said: "It's [differentiation] been really, really frustrating as far as the hours in a day; really, I'm struggling with that. I want to be organized and I want to be doing the best that I can for the kids." Natalie also mentioned how she was trying to use a variety of informal assessment techniques, such as taking anecdotal records to monitor students' ongoing progress and to help her plan appropriate instruction. She showed the researchers her system for recording notes during the school day and then logging them into each student's individual file.
Beliefs Across Participants
A summary of the changes in Maggie's and Natalie's beliefs about literacy teaching can be found in Figure 1. The beliefs that they established during student teaching continued to develop and expand. During student teaching and their first year of professional teaching, both participants came to express similar core beliefs about literacy. These beliefs centered on balanced literacy, strategy instruction, differentiating instruction, and recognition of learners' prior knowledge, needs, and interests. These beliefs continued into their first year of teaching, when the participants also discussed the benefits of flexible grouping and exploring a variety of teaching strategies. At separate times, Maggie and Natalie also discussed the need for informal assessment and motivation. The most striking difference in their expressed beliefs was Natalie's focus on differentiation to meet learners' needs as an essential aspect of her literacy program. Classroom observations demonstrated, however, that both participants embedded differentiation into their lessons, even though Maggie did not discuss this strategy during the interviews.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
Maggie. During the study, many of Maggie's beliefs about literacy instruction were consistent and expanded with experience while new beliefs emerged (see Figure 1). For example, her beliefs about literacy expanded to "reading is more than decoding." Similarly, she advocated the use of strategies early in student teaching but was much more convinced of their value after she gained experience teaching different grade levels. Listening to students as an informal assessment technique broadened to planning literature units in response to students' interests.
Of the new beliefs that evolved, the value of flexibility appeared to be the overriding theme. As a first-year teacher, Maggie noted that having her own class allowed her the flexibility to help her children make conceptual connections. She said, "I integrate everything. I do not always try to.... It's usually the teachable moment. I love it because it keeps learning exciting and fresh." Based on a variety of criteria, she also embraced flexible grouping, rather than homogeneous grouping for reading. All of these beliefs reflected Maggie's growing willingness to take risks as a result of having her own classroom and a supportive team. Maggie's beliefs also included an awareness of the time required for non-teaching responsibilities. She repeatedly voiced the following sentiment: "I used to think that teaching was all about the kids, but now I know that there is so much more involved in a teaching day: communication with parents, administrators, other professionals, paperwork, data collection." Natalie. Similarly, Figure 1 shows that many of Natalie's beliefs about literacy instruction also were consistent and expanded with experience while new beliefs emerged. Natalie's beliefs about balanced literacy expanded to include an emphasis on teaching fluency and comprehension strategies so that her students would be able to "read to learn, not learn to read." Natalie's beliefs about differentiating instruction expanded to consider a wider range of strategies and approaches that were influenced by students' prior knowledge and family background. She refined her belief that children influence instruction to focus more on motivation and, as she said, to "follow the children's lead."
Out of all of Natalie's new beliefs that evolved, what became prominent was her desire to meet all of the needs of her students, including their social and emotional needs. Natalie's implementation of flexible grouping and informal assessments allowed her to more specifically address these needs. All of these beliefs reflected Natalie's growing awareness of the importance of using a broader repertoire of strategies for differentiating instruction and coming up with modifications. While seeking alternative ways to differentiate instruction, Natalie's beliefs also included a growing awareness of the political nature of referring children for special education services at Forest Creek. When describing her efforts to obtain special education services for one student, Natalie commented, "It's a process so convoluted and political. But I finally got him to go to IEP."
Evolving Beliefs Across Participants
As discussed previously, balanced literacy, listening to students, and strategy instruction were frequently discussed beliefs. As indicated in Figure 1, the participants began expressing these beliefs during student teaching and continued to emphasize and elaborate on them during their first year of professional teaching. As Maggie and Natalie gained more classroom experience, interacted with other professionals, and reflected on their own practice, their definition of balanced literacy continued to expand. Over time, they came to use and advocate for flexible grouping during literacy as a means to meet individual needs and interests. Additionally, the participants' beliefs evolved to recognize that such non-instructional factors as time, paperwork, and political agendas were unwelcome but constant aspects of literacy learning and teaching.
Conclusions and Implications
Based on the results of Phase I of the study, the authors provide the following conclusions and accompanying implications for future research. The findings indicate that Maggie's and Natalie's expressed and observed beliefs and practices related to literacy teaching were consistent with the work of Wharton-McDonald, Pressley, and Hampston (1998) and Pressley, Rankin, and Yokoi (1996). These researchers noted that influential and effective teachers have high expectations for all students, understand and know their students' instructional levels and abilities, monitor student progress, and encourage continuous improvement and growth. Similarly, Taylor, Pearson, Clark, and Walpole (2000) found that effective literacy teachers spent more time in small-group instruction, used flexible grouping, systematically evaluated student progress, asked children to write in response to what they had read, and had higher pupil engagement. The observational data demonstrated that Maggie and Natalie established child-centered classrooms, assessed student progress frequently, used flexible grouping, and maintained high levels of student engagement.
The data also indicated that during their induction period, Maggie and Natalie demonstrated instructional skills and dispositions that have been identified as influential and effective. Their apparent success leads to questions about why they were successful and how this understanding can be used to strengthen pre-and inservice teacher learning and development. These findings extend our understanding of what factors influence novice teachers and suggest questions about how different factors, alone or in combination, influenced these novice teachers' development. Moreover, it may be productive to consider how teacher preparation, school context, and personal dispositions, all key influences for the participants, contribute to novice teachers' success and effectiveness. Specifically, it is important to consider several pertinent questions and related issues. Would these novice teachers have been as successful and effective if one or more of these three influences were not positive? How did Maggie's and Natalie's particular experiences in their teacher education program prepare them to apply theory to their practice? If Maggie or Natalie had not student-taught--and continued to teach--in a school that was compatible with the theoretical perspectives presented in the teacher preparation program and supportive of developing teachers, would they have followed the same course of development? Finally, if Maggie's and Natalie's dispositions had not led them to reflect on their practice, how would their development have been affected?
The study data indicated that all three factors (teacher preparation, school context, and personal dispositions) contributed to the participants' evolving literacy beliefs and practices and resulted in their development as effective literacy teachers. However, it is important to recognize limitations of the study. The participants, their teacher preparation program, and the Forest Creek community shared similar cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. The participants' backgrounds and teaching contexts were predominantly white and defined by a middle- to upper-socioeconomic status. There also appeared to be philosophical congruence among the participants, the teacher education program, and Forest Creek. Because there was a limited range of cultural backgrounds and differences within the teacher education program and school context, this study did not directly address issues of race, color, or racism (Delpit, 1995). Additionally, literacy in the teacher education and school contexts could be characterized as more functionalist (Edmondson, 2002), rather than critical (Knoblauch & Brannon, 1993). Functional literacy, according to Knoblauch and Brannon, is viewed as an interaction of reading and writing skills that makes it possible to collect and apply information and solve problems. This study did not question such important issues as ideology, class struggles, or power as they relate to literacy instruction (Edmondson, 2002), as it was framed by the existing representations of literacy in the teacher preparation program and school.
In light of these limitations, our findings corroborate previous research that identified school context as an important influence on novice literacy teacher development. As discussed, school context in this study appeared to be a pervasive influence over time. Specifically, the culture of the school context as well as the interactions between people contributed to the participants' development and sense of self-efficacy. At Forest Creek, Maggie and Natalie indicated that they felt supported and valued to varying degrees by formal and informal mentors, team leaders, and the community. The school culture appeared to encourage reflection and to respect teacher judgments and decision-making, and it provided time for grade level teams to meet regularly to share ideas and plan curricula. Consequently, Maggie and Natalie were comfortable taking risks and trying new instructional strategies. Recognizing that literacy instruction is context-bound necessitates adaptation as change occurs in schools and school systems (Duffy, 2004). Our results support a call for further research examining contextual influences on the practices of literacy teachers, with special attention paid to the presence or absence of philosophical, cultural, and socioeconomic congruence.
Maggie's and Natalie's personal dispositions led them to continuously place students at the center of their practice and regularly reflect on it. It is not clear to what degree the participants' dispositions were intuitive and to what degree their dispositions were developed in their teacher education program and the school context. However, it appears that both institutions valued and supported teacher reflection. Consequently, it is important for those who conduct research and teach in teacher preparation programs to consider how teacher candidates' dispositions can be developed and nurtured when candidates do not intuitively reflect. It is especially important that professional development efforts model and encourage explicit opportunities for reflection on practice. Thus, the more difficult question of how to best prepare novice teachers to critically reflect when they are situated in teaching contexts that are not supportive of continuous teacher development needs to be posed.
Finally, the nature of the participants' teacher preparation program needs to be considered. Maggie and Natalie completed a teacher education program that was aligned with specific content standards and emphasized a balance of content knowledge, field experiences, and reflective practice. Not only did they earn 12 course credits in reading, they also completed multiple field experiences and were required to write reflections regularly in their courses and fieldwork. Maggie's and Natalie's development as effective literacy teachers provides support for teacher preparation programs that are multi-faceted, in which reflection and school-based experiences, as well as content knowledge, are integral parts of the program. Consequently, the policies associated with the preparation of highly qualified teachers, as put forth in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, for example, need to consider the complex process of teacher preparation as it relates to teacher development and learning.
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Loyola College in Maryland
C. Stephen White
George Mason University
Table 1: Influences Student Teaching Professional Teaching Year 1 Natalie Supports Supports School context School context Children Children Mentors Parents Team Parents Teacher preparation Teacher preparation Coursework in reading and Coursework in reading and special education special education Dispositions Dispositions Reflectivity Reflectivity Personal history Personal history Altruism Altruism Frustrations Frustrations Administration Teaching team Administration Social and emotional needs of students Time Paperwork Maggie Supports Supports School context School context Mentors Team leader Children Teaching team Administration Own class Multi-grade level experience Children Parent support Teacher preparation Teacher preparation Coursework in reading Student teaching Field experiences College supervisor Dispositions Dispositions Reflectivity Reflectivity Personal history Self-efficacy Goal setting Frustrations Frustrations Limited time with students Paperwork Time Limited resources
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|Author:||White, C. Stephen|
|Publication:||Journal of Research in Childhood Education|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2006|
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