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During an interview for a faculty position, Karen was asked how teaching 1st graders compared with teaching undergraduates. Karen replied jokingly that there were more similarities than differences. That comment, made in jest, has come to mind many times in our work with preservice teachers and has framed this research. In this self-study, we explore the ways that one instructor scaffolded the development of preservice teachers, noting parallels to teaching young children. We do not discount the significant differences between adult and child learners, but do suggest that scaffolding and prompting are equally applicable, and that one's expertise with young learners might be leveraged in teaching preservice teachers. For clarity, throughout this paper we adopt the convention of Dillon et al. (2011) and use the term preservice teacher (PT) to refer to the students in our university classes. The children in the PTs field experience classrooms are referred to as children or students.

Karen's experience in reading instruction in Reading Recovery (Clay, 1993) has had a profound influence on her teaching. The principles of starting with the known, following the child, and strategic prompting within the zone of proximal development (ZPD) are ingrained in her teaching interactions, with both children and PTs. This parallel was not apparent at first, but emerged in the course of our analysis of transcripts of Dialogic Inquiry Groups (DIGs); small groups that met regularly during the semester to support PTs during a case study assignment and to foster collaborative inquiry and problem-solving.

Our reading methods courses are structured to build a community of practice in which the PTs, as newcomers to teaching, develop a teacher identity by engaging in authentic practices (Lave & Wenger, 1991). As part of this process, we initiate our PTs into the Discourse of the profession, defined by Gee (2004) as ways of "talking, listening, writing, reading, acting, interacting, believing, valuing, and feeling" (p. 124). The DIGs were designed to promote both the community of practice and the use of professional discourse that we believe are essential for the development of our teacher candidates.

Teacher educators who conduct research on their own practice operate simultaneously in various dimensions and to several purposes as they instruct their classes. We are members of the reading research community and seek to extend the knowledge of the field. We are part of a group of faculty at a particular institution who work together to continually revise and refine our teacher preparation program. We are instructors seeking to improve our own practice through reflection on our teaching decisions, assignments, and interactions.

We began our collaborative work as partners interested in exploring whether the DIGs were serving their intended purposes and meeting the needs of these students at this time. In our initial study, data analysis focused on identifying evidence of growth in knowledge, skills, and dispositions in our PTs (see Authors, 2011). It was Cynthia, coding data independently, who noticed many ways that Karen was scaffolding the PTs to notice critical concepts related to purposeful tutoring of beginning readers. Cynthia discussed her interpretations with Karen, taking the role of "critical friend", to learn more about the intentions behind Karen's questions and comments in the group sessions. What began as a collaborative research project became a collaborative self-study as we focused our attention on the interactions between Karen and the PTs. In this paper, we explore these instructional dialogues with the intent to identify those key moves and prompts made by the instructor that seemed to facilitate deeper thinking, and the development of content knowledge, skills and dispositions.

Related Literature

Three bodies of literature, reflecting the various dimensions of our profession, inform our work. As reading teacher educators, our work is grounded in the research of effective literacy teacher preparation. The individual and personal nature of this work is situated in the context of self-study in teacher education. Finally we draw on the literature related to scaffolding, specifically within the framework of classroom discourse.

Reading Teacher Education

Several large scale reviews of the reading teacher education literature appear in various handbooks and other published works (e.g., Anders, Hoffman, & Duffy, 2000; Dillon, et al., 2011; Snow, Griffin, & Burns, 2005). The design of Karen's course is consistent with the recommendations in the literature for effective teacher preparation in three key areas. First, the course integrates an early field experience with content development. Secondly, the case reports assignment provides opportunities for PTs to move beyond declarative knowledge of teaching practices and apply them in a scaffolded teaching experience. Finally, the small group discussions in the DIGs provide opportunities to develop reflection, collaboration, and problem-solving skills.

Teacher education programs are moving toward earlier and more extensive field experiences with a focus on increasing the quality of interactions with students during those experiences (Gift & Brady, 2005). In a review of literacy teacher preparation programs, Sailors et al. (2005) found that early field experiences in effective programs shared five common characteristics. They developed reflective teachers, carefully scaffolded field experiences and coursework, scaffolded PTs by knowledgeable others such as classroom teachers and university supervisors, offered field experiences in a variety of contexts, and provided PTs with tutoring experiences in which they worked with a child one-on-one. Similarly, in a review of preparation programs that had earned Certificates of Distinction from the International Reading Association, Lacina and Block (2011) found that such programs included supervised, relevant field-based experiences. One of the challenges of teacher education is helping PTs connect theory and practice. Programs that seek to integrate coursework and practice experiences, strive to develop declarative and situational knowledge together, bridging the theory/practice divide.

The tutoring project, in which the PTs work with a struggling reader throughout the semester and document their work in a case report, is a feature in many teacher preparation programs. Assignments of this type helps PTs to apply the course content in authentic ways in a very specific context, which is a feature of effective programs (Snow et al., 2005; Sailors, et al., 2005).

Snow et al., (2005) suggest that a goal of teacher education programs should be to teach PTs how to learn so they and continue to grow as professionals throughout their teaching careers. Thus, in addition to content knowledge, methods courses need to provide opportunities for PTs to "analyze novel situations and, perhaps most important, to seek out additional information to solve problems and improve instruction" (p. 213). Reading teacher educators should structure courses in ways that guide PTs in analyzing instructional situations and constructing appropriate responses to these real-life teaching contexts (Anders, et al., 2000). The small group meetings, which we termed DIGs, provided such a context for opportunities to "seek out additional information as needed to solve problems that arise in the daily routines of teaching" (Snow et al, 2005, p. 213).

Collectively these reviews suggest that while we know a lot about teacher education, there is still a lot that we do not know. Many of the studies conducted in the field, such as this one, are small, scale studies of a very specific and personal nature, aimed at improving particular aspects of coursework, rather than large-scale efforts that examine programs as a whole (Sailors, et al., 2005). Such gaps in the research led Anders et al. (2005) to recommend that future research in teacher education include, among other actions, more self-studies in which reading researchers examine their own programs and practices, and more dialogue between reading teacher educators in which ideas are shared and change is promoted.

Self-study in Teacher Education

Qualitative methods in general, and self-study in particular are well suited to studies in teacher education. Erickson (1986) identified five reasons for qualitative research including "the invisibility of life, the need for specific understanding through documentation of concrete details of practice, the need to consider local meanings, the need for comparative understanding of different social settings, and the need for comparative understanding beyond the immediate circumstances of the local setting" (p. 124). Although Erickson was writing about qualitative research in a general way, his first three reasons are particularly applicable to self-study in teacher education. Through self-study we search for the invisible factors that impact our PTs' learning by examining concrete details of our practice in a specific social and institutional context.

In teacher education, self-study approaches are common, serving the dual purpose of creating a "combination of practical relevance and the development of public knowledge" (Lunenberg, Zwart, & Korthagen, 2010, p. 1280). In the past twenty years, researchers from a variety of disciplines have aligned themselves with self-study research in teacher education as a common interest while focused on diverse research techniques and topics. Loughran's (2007) assertion that a central feature of self-study research is the "desire of teacher educators to better align their teaching intents with their teaching actions" (p.12) is particularly relevant to our work. Although we had been systematically striving to improve the assignments and experiences in our literacy methods courses, we realized that our best aims and intents were not leading to the results we expected. In reviewing the data we had collected, we shifted our thinking from looking for evidence of what PTs had learned to looking at the interactions among participants and the instructor; essentially "reframing" our study in a way that "transforms practice" (La Boskey, 2004). The shift caused us to focus on the comments that the instructor (Karen) made in these DIG's and ways that her intended scaffolding of her students shifted the conversations over time.

Looking at one's own words and actions presents challenges. Since we have focused extensively on our PTs in our other research, "putting and keeping the self in the study" (Lunenberg, et al., 2010, p. 1287) proved to be challenging. Making one's self the unit of study in teacher education is transformative in that it increases introspection and reflection.

Additionally, self-study methods personalize research in a way that sheds light on the role that context and the individuals within that context play in teacher education (Zeichner, 2007) in ways that other research designs do not. The insider perspective provided by self-study in teacher education makes an important contribution to our field that is currently held hostage by outsiders. As Zeichner stated, "Statements about 'what we know' about various aspects of the field are determined by reference to studies that do not include the inside perspectives of those who do the work of teacher education" (p. 38).

Finally, self-study in teacher education may be viewed as an extension or public sharing of the learning, enactment, assessment and reflection cycle that is the "way excellent teachers work" (Snow, et al., 2005, p. 2). In a sense, self-study is a formalization of the way we teach. Structuring the process in this way elevates private musings and countless discussions to findings that have not only informed our own practice, but we hope may inform others as well.

Scaffolding in Teacher Education

Scaffolding can be defined as the actions taken by an expert to enable a novice to perform at a higher level (Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976). Scaffolding serves as the mechanism to move the novice from his/her current level of achievement to a new level within the ZPD (Myhill & Warren, 2005). In the context of teacher education, scaffolding might be defined as actions taken by the instructor that allow PTs to assume the role of teacher in ways that they are not yet able to do independently. Thus, appropriate scaffolding has the potential to increase our PTs' capacity to learn and develop as teachers (Myhill & Warren, 2005).

Scaffolding is consistent with constructivist views of education since "the things that a teacher points out to her student will influence what that student 'constructs'" (Bodrova & Leong, 2007, p. 9). In the context of teacher education, our own understandings of literacy development and instruction mediate our interactions with PTs, "determining which ideas the student will learn" (Bodrova & Leong, 2007, p. 9). Although Bodrova and Leong make these statements regarding early childhood education, we are struck by the parallels to pre-service teaching. Indeed, the things that we draw our PTs' attention to in the course of classroom discourse will be the things that they deem important and most certainly will impact how they envision effective reading instruction. Instructors make on the spot decisions regarding what to address at that time, what misconceptions must be dealt with immediately and what is best saved for another context.

Garvey (1986) says that when we are working within a child's ZPD, we are in essence talking with the future child. In much the same way, when we are talking with our PTs in classroom or small group discussions, we are talking with the future teacher. As we engage in small group discussions with teacher candidates focused on authentic problem solving tasks, we gain far better understandings of where the PT is in terms of his/her development of knowledge, skills and dispositions. Drawing parallels again to early education, "through sensitive and thoughtful exchanges with the child, the teacher discovers what the child's concept is" (Bodrova & Leong, 2007, p. 10). Scaffolding can also take the form of structuring situations in ways that make the task manageable for the novice. Features such as planned redundancy, modeling, and repeating directions (Rogoff, 1986) can support PTs in the tasks associated with the case study in the same way that teachers structure reading tasks for young children.

The case study assignment, with the supportive scaffolds of the DIGs, allows PTs to engage in teaching that might be beyond their current abilities to perform independently. By engaging in the activities of teaching, with supportive dialogues and interactions in the DIGs, PTs develop competencies through performance, consistent with Cazden's (1981) belief that performance comes before competence. Although the literature makes a clear case for the role of scaffolding, there has been considerably less focus on how teacher's prompts and comments facilitate learning (Myhill & Warren, 2005). However, the work that has been done in the area of classroom discourse provides a bridge between the type of specific prompting in the guided reading literature and our work with PTs. Specifically, we find the idea of instructional dialogues to be applicable to our work in this self-study. Instructional dialogues can be defined as "interactive explanatory classroom conversations that serve to both build and transmit knowledge among and to students; they are the visible, public trace of a community's invisible, private reasonings" (Leinhardt & Steele, 2005, p. 88). The quality of the instructional dialogues is of paramount importance as they can either "empower learners" or "result in a confusing array of fragmented knowledge full or errors" (Leinhardt & Steele, 2005, p. 88).

Leinhardt and Steele (2005) identify three tools that support instructional dialogues: routines, intellectual climate, and metatalk. Teachers and students, aiding in classroom management and increasing productivity and time on task, jointly construct routines. Some routines also dictate the way that classroom discourse is structured and how the work of the classroom is accomplished (Leinhardt & Steele, 2005).

The climate of the classroom has a significant impact on the nature of the discourse that occurs therein. The intellectual climate influences the way students view, understand, and relate to the subject matter (Leinhardt & Steele, 2005). It is a factor in the development of students' identities as learners, teachers, and more specifically, as teachers of reading and literacy (Leinhardt & Steele, 2005). Additionally, the classroom climate establishes norms for the types of activities and ways of thinking and talking about teaching and learning that are valued in the specific classroom community (Leinhardt & Steele, 2005).

Analysis of the language used in classroom discourse highlights the use of metatalk, defined as "language that supports students' metacognitive functioning in the classroom" (Leinhardt & Steele, 2005, p.92). Metatalk makes the connection between activities and content explicit in the classroom and aids students in organizing and summarizing discussions. Of the five categories of metatalk identified by Leinhardt and Steele (2005), two are particularly salient in the context of teacher education. Activators are comments that indicate a piece of information is familiar and thus separate it from new learnings. Comments made by the instructor in the groups that refer the students back to the textbook, previous lectures and other discussions would be examples. Activators help make the connections which generalize the experiences of the individual to other students.

A second type of metatalk that is particularly relevant in teacher education is labeling. Labeling typically entails the instructor identifying a specific behavior, perhaps by attaching a key term, which reframes the behavior in a way that is relevant to the course content and to all students.

Guided teaching and guided reading parallels

Guided reading facilitates children's development of systems of strategic actions as they develop competence in beginning reading. Similarities between the DIGs and guided reading groups in classrooms became apparent as we discussed our coding of data. Fountas and Pinnell (1996) suggest that "teachers use questions or prompts to help children learn how to think about different sources of information as they put together a flexible system of strategies they can apply on increasing difficult text. The teacher listens carefully, observes the precise reading behavior, and when appropriate, makes a facilitating response" (p. 160). By replacing a few words (in italics) we can make this statement applicable to our vision of the role of scaffolding in teacher education. Instructors use questions or prompts to help preservice teachers learn how to think about different sources of information as they put together a flexible system of strategies they can apply in teaching reading to diverse learners. The instructor listens carefully, analyzes preservice teachers' comments and actions for evidence of developing competencies, dispositions and possible confusions, and when appropriate, makes a facilitating response.

The role of prompting is to provide a model of questions that novices, whether children learning to read or preservice teachers learning to teach reading, can internalize to use in their own problem solving. Effective prompts/questions encourage the novice to use "all sources of information in an integrated way" (Fountas & Pinnell, 1996, p. 160).


The discussions analyzed in this paper occurred during the second semester of a two course reading methods sequence. The same instructor taught both courses in the sequence, thus the PTs entered in the DIGs with a full semester of shared experiences with the instructor. As a result, the instructor had expectations for PTs' knowledge and skills that impacted the discussions. Similarly, the PTs had expectations regarding the instructor and had established patterns of interaction that influenced the discourse in the groups.

The key assessment for this course was a case study, in which PTs tutored a struggling reader who we refer to as their focus child. The DIGs were developed to provide a collaborative and supportive structure that would increase the students' understandings and competence in tutoring, as well as a formative assessment to guide the students in working with the focus child.

Group meetings were scheduled biweekly and focused on various aspects of the case study such as analysis of assessments, prioritizing objectives for tutoring, and developing an instructional plan. By the end of the semester, Karen had met with each group four to five times.

Sixteen of 21 students in the class agreed to participate in the study, and were representative of the class in demographics (2 African American, 1 Asian, 13 White). Data sources included digital audiotapes of the DIGs, which were analyzed for instructor behaviors and student responses using NVivo software. All recordings were transcribed by a graduate assistant and verified by Karen as the instructor of the course. Data from one group were excluded as four of the five students who opted out of the study were in this group leaving four groups for analysis. All comments made by the remaining non-participants were excluded from analysis and deleted from the transcripts.

Data were first analyzed independently by the two researchers at low levels of inference (Carspecken, 1996) using constant comparison (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). In this preliminary analysis, we focused on identifying categories of comments that were objective in nature and would not require insider-information. For example, a comment such as "So what tests are we supposed to do?" was initially classified as a request for information. Comments placed within categories were reviewed for consistency and adjustments made as needed. During regular peer debriefing, coding schemes were refined and revised and agreement reached on interpretations.

Following the initial coding, data were analyzed at a deeper level using both insider and outsider perspectives. Karen, as the instructor, was able to provide more details concerning the context of the discussions. Personal knowledge of and experience with the PTs resulted in some interpretations that an outsider would not be able to make. At the same time, Cynthia was an outsider and served as a critical friend who knew enough about the context to examine the data in ways that resulted in a wider range of possibilities and interpretations. Balancing the insider and outsider perspectives strengthens the analysis and resulting themes. For example, Karen had insider knowledge as the instructor that a particular PT had not been attending tutoring sessions with the focus child as scheduled. This information clearly impacted the interactions within the group and Karen's interactions with the PT. Cynthia, as the outsider, was not able to make these same interpretations. At the same time, it was harder for Karen as the insider, to recognize all of the scaffolding that was occurring. The inside/outside analysis was very productive for this collaborative self-study in that Cynthia was able to draw attention to specific actions that Karen discounted as just being part of teaching.


Our analysis of the transcriptions at this point focuses on the Karen's interactions with her students, and particularly those that parallel the types of scaffolding seen in early reading instruction. We looked for patterns that might inform and refine our own practice as teacher educators. Grossman (2005) suggests that the primary motive for research in teacher education is often to improve one's practice rather than to build the broader knowledge base.

In analyzing the data, we identified four "key moves" by the instructor that appeared to facilitate the development of knowledge, skills, and dispositions in our preservice reading teachers. We define key moves as actions/utterances that impact the interaction in ways that promote learning and development. Key moves included a shift in instructor stance from authority figure to expert peer, using strategic prompts to promote inquiry, problem-solving, and critical thinking, modeling professional language, and the transfer of responsibility.

Shifts in Instructor Stance

Our use of the term stance, is based on the idea of a reader's stance (Rosenblatt, 2004). Analogous to a role, stance refers to the position one adopts relative to others. The stance one adopts reflects intent or purpose. Teachers might adopt a very authoritarian stance when disciplining a class, or a parental stance when consoling a hurt child.

Early readers look to the teacher as the authority. As they read, they seek confirmation that they are accurate. After decoding a tricky word, they may look at the teacher for an indication that they are right. When struggling, they may simply ask, "What is this word?" A teacher who supplies the word strengthens the authority role. A teacher who prompts the child to problem-solve (Does that look like a word you know? What can you try?) assumes the role of more knowledgeable other or expert peer.

In teacher preparation classrooms, the instructor is often viewed as an authority figure, holding a power advantage over students by right of position. S/he evaluates assignments, determines grades, and is considered a content expert. Through the course of the semester, a subtle shift is evident in Karen's stance in the DIG's from an authority figure to an expert peer. Our notion of an expert peer is analogous to a veteran colleague who is respected for his/her abilities, but is not in an evaluative position.

The initial DIG sessions were quite didactic, with the dialogue resembling reporting and feedback more than authentic discussion evidencing Karen's stance as authority figure. Each PT gave a report in response to the initial query, typically addressing comments directly to Karen rather than the group. PTs asked many questions, mostly focused on procedures and requirements, seeking to clarify expectations for the case study assignment. Karen tended to provide lengthy answers thus affirming her position as an authority figure.

Since the intent of the groups was to provide a supportive and collaborative environment for the PTs, the instructor-dominated nature of the initial discourse patterns was problematic. Karen realized that the PTs were expecting this interaction pattern and that her continued role as authority figure was a hindrance to problem-solving, inquiry, and collaboration among the PTs. Therefore, Karen made conscious efforts to talk less through the course of the semester and to ask prompting or guiding questions rather than to simply provide answers. The planned shift is suggested in the opening session where Karen emphasizes the importance of collaboration and learning from each other--not just from the instructor.
Karen: Through this kind of collaboration on it, talking about our
students and hearing what other--what you all are dealing with, with
your kids, that will help give you new ways of thinking about your
students, um, that will deepen your own thinking.

The small groups provided an opportunity for both instructor and PTs to experience new roles, blurring the "classic positions of "knower" versus "the unknowing" (Leinhardt & Steele, 2005, p. 88). Karen assumed the position of the unknowing, asking questions that positioned the PT as the expert on a particular student, further establishing her stance as expert peer.
Karen: The question I have about your child at this point is, does she
recognize the letter and she can't produce the sound, or is she
confused about both the letter names and sounds?

Another key move Karen used to shift stance was taking a question posed to her and redirecting it to the group. In working with young readers in guided reading groups, Karen used the same approach. A child's question about a word might be directed to the group by saying, "What can she try to figure out the tricky word?"

In the DIGs, group members were given the chance to respond, and then Karen would add her own comments.
Karen: So based on what we know about M, what would your suggestions

Karen: What are you all thinking about that?

Karen's role as expert peer was reinforced by the inclusion of personal anecdotes and examples from her own teaching rather than citing the evidence from the text books or research, thus emphasizing the role of a more expert peer rather than an authority figure. In this excerpt, Karen positions herself as a fellow teacher empathetic to a PT's reflection about what she might have done better in her tutoring.

Karen: I don't know that you ever get over doing that. I mean, I have been teaching for over 20 years, and 1 still go back and think--that didn't go the way I wanted--what could I have done differently. I honestly think that if you ever go through a week and think--Oh I'm good--then it's probably time to leave the profession because you're not noticing something. There's always something you can see differently and try differently.

The discourse patterns shifted during the course of the semester in all three groups, which provides evidence of Karen's changing role in the group. The initial sessions were dominated by instructor talk and PTs tended to address Karen rather than the group. As the semester progressed, the PTs increasingly directed their questions and comments to their classmates or to the group as a whole, rather than directly to the instructor.

Strategic Prompts

Many of the questions and comments Karen made to PTs during the groups meetings can be viewed as strategic prompts, which we define as language that promotes problem-solving processes (Dorn, et al, 1998) and critical thinking. In teaching young children, these prompts may be categorized as modeling (I know the word bat, so I can read flat), coaching (That sounds right, but does it look right?), scaffolding (How does the word start?), and articulation (How did you know?) (Dorn, et al., 1998). Again, we saw parallels in Karen's scaffolding of undergraduates.

Rather than simply giving directives or providing a solution, Karen's comments and questions were intended to promote deeper thinking, inquiry, and problem-solving behaviors in the PTs. For example, in one instance, a PT talked about the focus child's behavior, saying that the child wouldn't try to do anything without the PT almost doing it for her. Karen, using metatalk (Leinhardt & Steele, 2005), introduced the term learned helplessness, providing a label for the observed behavior and then prompted the group to consider actions they might take as teachers.
Karen: How can we make them take responsibility for their own learning?
Do you see evidence of learned helplessness with your own kids?

With this question, Karen prompted the PT to problem solve rather than just reporting a behavior, but also drew others into the conversation by generalizing the behavior beyond the single focus child. In the following example, Karen again takes a specific comment and uses the PT's observation as a prompt to reflection and action.
PT: I learned that she's not as struggling as everyone thought she was.

Karen: See that's an important thing because I've heard this from
several people. The teacher--here's the struggling kid--but when
someone stops and works to with them, they find out that they're not so
struggling. So how does that happen and how can you as a teacher make
sure that you don't do that with your own kids?

Some prompts served as scaffolds for the PTs by reminding them of content covered in assigned readings and class discussions. Prompts of this type are identified as activators (Leinhardt & Steele, 2005). The PTs were referred back to strategies they had discussed and practiced in class to consider their appropriate uses in tutoring.
Karen: Do you remember the Elkonin boxes we talked about? Do you think
they would be good for this child?

We also found many examples of procedural prompts. Students were provided with options for what to do next or were given a specific task to accomplish. In most cases, Karen embedded a rationale statement to emphasize the purpose for particular procedures, as in the following example, "You're going to want to do the complete phonemic awareness packet because you really want to see--children with speech problems--it often affects their ability to hear those sounds." At other times, PTs were asked to consider possible next steps in instruction which engaged them in problem solving behaviors. "Okay, after you do that, what would be the next step? When he masters that?" In the following example, a PT was determined to work on sight words with her focus child because the classroom teacher had recommended it. The PT's assessments indicated that the child was developing phonic analysis at this point, so Karen prompted the PT to focus on sight words that were appropriate for phonic analysis, combining the two skills. Without this prompting, the PT might have worked on sight words that are not phonetically regular (e.g., is, of, have) instead of responding to evidence from the assessment. Karen was tactfully finding a way to support both the child and the PT.
Karen: When you do the sight words, look at how you group them. Start
with the ones that are phonetically regular like in, on and it. Ones
that are phonetically regular and do those first.

Some prompts seemed to be used for clarification, redirection, or correction without calling too much attention to the PTs' misconceptions. It is not clear if these prompts to reconsider were too gentle or subtle to capture the PTs' attention. In this example, a PT commented that the child made only a few mistakes on a particular task and proposed that this was an area of strength. Karen corrected her misconception by reminding the PTs about the level of that skill on a developmental continuum.
Karen: So if she's--for a first grader those should be very easy, so
that's definitely an area of weakness for her.

In the following example, the prompt is intended to clarify why the focus child would have difficulty with the activity planned by the PT. The activity required the child to take the letters of sight words, mix them, up and reconstruct the word. The PT observed that the child was trying to decode the words using phonic analysis and had trouble 'blending' the sounds together. Again, Karen explained the reason why the activity was likely to be problematic in a way that teaches without embarrassing or intimidating the PT.
Karen: Yeah, the sight words--they're not phonetically regular, so
blending is going to be a problem.

Inquiry prompts posed questions that were intended to help the PTs think deeper in their interpretations of child behaviors and in their problem-solving. For example, a PT reported on a focus child having difficulty with spelling. Karen asked if the PT knew what the child's birthday was to prompt the PT to consider what effect maturation may have on a child in kindergarten and how that should be considered in interpreting the assessment data.

Identifying prompts that are effective in moving PTs forward in the development of knowledge, skills, and dispositions is an important step in improving our methods courses. Although many of the prompts used in this study appear effective, others did not have the desired effect. Using the analogy to prompts given in guided reading (Fountas and Pinnell, 1996) as teachers, we need to know our learners well and match our prompts exactly to the behavior we observe. And like guided reading, we cannot address all of the behaviors at one time, but must make on the spot decisions about which prompt is most appropriate for a particular student at that time. Karen's prompting seemed to be guided by her intentions to support and scaffold her PTs in their attempts to select effective tutoring strategies. When Karen saw errors or confusions in thinking, she found ways to teach, redirect, or prompt her PTs without undermining their growing sense of autonomy. In this way, she was using strategic prompts in exactly the same ways she had used them with beginning readers. She observed their growing strengths and challenges, honored their approximations, and built on their strengths while adjusting misconceptions.

Modeling Professional Language

Preservice teachers need to learn how to speak professionally using the discourse of the profession. By providing PTs with the terms they needed, they were able to incorporate these terms and ways of speaking into their own conversations. In this example, the PT describes behaviors she has observed in her practicum classroom.
PT: They can do it on their own and they would do it when I wasn't
there, but when I was there they thought I was there to do everything
they needed.

After a few more exchanges wherein the PT provides some details about her assessments of the focus child, Karen brings the discussion back to this behavior.
Karen: That concept of learned helplessness is something we encounter
with a lot of our struggling kids. Um where they really, I mean, you
described it perfectly, and it's almost a syndrome with kids that they
think you know, because we give them so much help that they can't do it
on their own.

This type of comment is similar to the labeling of metatalk described by Leinhardt and Steele (2005). By providing the label of learned helplessness to the child behavior described by one student, Karen was able to make one PT's observations relevant to all in the group. There was evidence that this type of metatalk was effective in developing shared professional language. We noticed that members of that group appropriated the language and the concept in their discussions of their own focus children in subsequent discussions.
PT: I am working with the same child I did my portfolio on last
semester, and I am going to have to watch this learned helplessness,
because I was a little concerned about that.

Karen frequently engaged in language development tactics such as recasting and expansion to rephrase PTs' comments in professional language. In some cases, these techniques were used when the PTs talked about a specific concept without actually naming it. For example, in this situation, the PT talked about the child's spelling assessment, correctly describing the characteristics for emergent spelling, but did not use the term. Karen introduced the term as she responded to the PT's comment.
Karen: So he's kind of classic for the emergent speller stage.

Comments of this type serve an additional role of framing the discussion in terms that are relevant to all PTs. Thus, Karen is both expanding the conversation to include more participants while providing the labeling metalanguage (Leinhardt & Steele, 2005). In the following explanation, Karen interprets the child's spelling first using the words beginning and ending, but then substituting more professional terminology as she makes a generalization.
Karen: When she does /sell/ for smile, she's hearing the beginning and
the ending sounds and then she's just kind of making up the middle.
Developmentally they get initial, final, and then medial.

In another example, a PT described a lack of attention that she observed in her focus child using unprofessional terms. Karen posed a follow-up question providing a more acceptable word for the behavior.
PT: I watched him and he's all over the place,

Karen: What did you do about the distractibility in a one-on-one

Probably the most common interaction of this type came in the form of summary statements of PTs' comments in which a professional term was introduced as a label. The following comments are typical examples.
Karen: She is at the point, at the cusp of the alphabetic principle.

Karen: So she's using semantics and syntax.

Karen: He didn't have the automaticity.

A more detailed analysis of the transcripts is needed to determine whether efforts to increase PTs' use of professional language were successful. Initial analysis indicates that the effects were present for some PTs who quickly appropriated the terms in their own discussions, but that others evidenced little change. It is clear from our analysis, that Karen's moves consistently provided opportunities for PTs to develop the Discourse of the profession in ways that mimicked natural language development (Vygotsky, 1962) and instructional dialogues (Leinhardt & Steele, 2005).

Transfer of Responsibility

A final category of moves shifted responsibility for decision-making and outcomes away from the instructor and to the PTs. The goal of early reading instruction is to promote independent problem solving and the development of a self-extending system of learning (Clay, 1993). The teacher is cautioned to "be careful in her language does not find the error for the child, thus denying him the opportunity to problem-solve on his own" (Dorn, et al., 1998, p. 20). In essence, the teacher is shifting responsibility for learning to the child through these prompts or moves. Children take on the responsibility of independent problem solving at different rates, and so we think do PTs as they transition from student to teacher.

From our past experiences, we knew that PTs who took on the role of teacher during the semester were more effective in their work with the focus child and produced superior quality case studies than those who clung to the role of student. PTs who were assuming the teacher role were more likely to discuss their teaching decisions and to ask for suggestions, validation, or advice from the instructor and group. PTs who appeared mired in the student role continually asked procedural questions during the discussions rather than focusing on the child's needs and what they were learning.

Karen made conscious attempts to avoid giving specific directives, but rather to answer questions in open ways. She frequently presented two or three options of things the PT might do, but stressing that, as the teacher, the PT would have to decide which activity would best meet the needs of the child. In this way, Karen continued to put the responsibility for instructional decisions on the PTs.

Myhill & Warren (2005) identified interactions that were instrumental in what they termed the "handover to independence" (p. 59). Karen did this on two levels. First, responsibility for decision making was turned over to the PTs. Secondly, responsibility for problem solving was also passed on to the PTs. PTs were prompted through Karen's stepping back, to take on the responsibility for their teaching and the focus child's learning within the supportive environment of the group. Comments such as the following are representative of moves that shifted responsibility to PTs and reminded them that they were accountable for their decisions and the child's learning.
Karen: You're the teacher of this child. And so, as long as you have a
rationale for why you're making that decision, I'm fine with that. And
I may challenge your thinking and ask questions, but you're the teacher
of this child.

Karen: You're going to have to decide--what's the one thing I need to
work on with this child?

In some cases, responsibility was shifted when Karen suggested questions to ask and places to look for answers rather than just answering PTs' questions. Although this was not uniformly the case, a conscious effort was made to frame these questions as suggestions rather than directives.
Karen: See if you can get copies of her running records. And see what
is it that she's not getting right. Is she missing the sight words? Is
she not noticing the pattern?

Karen: What you might want to look for in this case, is you know, take
that list and look at it against the first 25 Dolch words and see the
ones that are not on the first list. You know, be observing her and
notice--when she's writing can she use them?

PTs frequently sought validation about their actions from either Karen or the group.

Some PTs seemed to need more support than others in this process. In these cases, Karen would provide guidance by offering two or three options. While the ultimate decision is left up to the student, Karen scaffolds the PT by narrowing the choices and setting some parameters.
Karen: So I would either focus on sight words, or focus on getting this
alphabet thing down, but I wouldn't try to do both at the same time.

In order to encourage collaboration, Karen often posed questions to the group. In this example, a PT follows Karen's model by asking for feedback on a specific strategy she was considering. In this manner, the group plays a role in the transfer of responsibility by providing a supportive context for vetting ideas.
Karen: Any questions or comments about Sarah? Can you think of things
you've seen that might help this little gal?

PT: I was going to ask you guys what you think about this.


The findings of any self-study, by definition, are most meaningful and applicable to the researcher. Our purpose in engaging in this study was to improve our own practice, but also to engage others in the profession in dialogue. From the findings of this study, a few themes rose to prominence in our analysis because of their significance to all engaged in the work of teacher preparation. We are particularly concerned about the PTs who were resistant to the shifting roles of the instructor, to accepting responsibility for their teaching, and to responding to scaffolding prompts. As literacy educators, we examine our PTs' use of professional language as evidence of their understandings of the literacy development of children. We also discuss the need to identify critical moments in teacher education that might aid us in our efforts to ensure that our PTs leave our courses with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions required for effective teaching. Finally, we discuss the critical importance of obtaining the outside perspective in self-study work of this nature.

Overcoming resistance

We were surprised to note that some PTs seemed resistant to the teacher moves, particularly those related to the changing role of the instructor and efforts to shift responsibility for the child's learning to the PT. Some PTs were very quick to blame the child ("He won't do anything"), the classroom teacher ("And this is what the teacher gave me as the assessments she uses for sight words") or things beyond their control ("I just got started last week, so I didn 't have permission to do anything") for their lack of knowledge about the child and their preparation for the DIGs.

PTs who were resistant to accepting responsibility for assessing and teaching in the case study often appeared to be blaming the child.
PT: He didn't bring back the permission slip so I couldn't do anything.

PT: She just didn't want to do it [the assessment].

Other PTs shifted responsibility and/or blame to their cooperating teachers. In some cases, PTs attempted to avoid administering assessments by stating that the classroom teacher had already assessed the child.
PT: And the teacher--like she had already done--I guess the assessments
and whatever.

Another PT responded to a query about why she had not completed the requested sight word assessment by placing responsibility on the classroom teacher.
PT: And this is what the teacher gave me as the assessment she uses for
sight words.

PTs who resisted responsibility cited a wide range of external factors that inhibited their ability to accomplish their tasks. Weather certainly can be a problem in our part of the country. However, while all of the students were subject to the same weather conditions, only a few found it an insurmountable obstacle.
PT: Well I've only been there once because the first weeks it was
snowing and I didn't make it there. I almost got in a couple of
accidents so I didn't go......

Even when Karen tried to make it clear that the student was responsible for making decisions, some attempted to deflect responsibility.
Karen: Then the second piece is you are going to pick an instructional
goal based on your assessment data.

PT: After talking to the teacher?

Karen: You're going to decide--what's one thing I need to work on with
this child?

Some PTs also seemed to resist Karen's efforts to position herself as a group member. Resistance took the form of questions about assignments such as "Are we supposed to start with these things first?'" but also were evident in questions such as "What else did you want to know?" and "Is that enough for you to tell me what to do?" With these questions, PTs attempted to place Karen back in the role of authority.

We view such efforts to avoid responsibility for teaching and student learning as critical moments in our courses believing that failure to address them perpetuates undesirable behavior in the PTs. The DIGs provided us with opportunities to observe critical dispositions in a way that the whole class setting did not. Resistance behaviors were not widespread, but it is also important to note that when they did appear, they seemed to be symptomatic of a larger pattern of behavior. The PTs' comments provided concrete evidence of attitudes and dispositions that were of concern to us as teacher educators. We believe that it is critical to identify PTs who are resistant to accepting responsibility for their teaching and the child's learning and to develop strategic prompts that help PTs overcome this resistance.

Professional language as evidence of understandings

The language that our PTs used to describe or explain their tutoring provided evidence of their understandings of concepts about literacy development and instructional approaches. At first, we were concerned by the many examples of misunderstandings that were apparent in the DIG's. After reflecting on the complete sets of transcripts, we noted evidence that some PTs were using professional language more appropriately to describe the literacy behaviors of their children and their choices of instructional activities. We see parallels between Karen's scaffolding and Vygotsky's (1962) principles about the interplay between developing concepts through the use of language in scaffolded interactions. We believe that Karen was scaffolding conceptual development by providing language labels to identify and generalize some concepts that were emerging in the PTs' discussions. Professional terminology had been presented in readings and discussed in classes, yet the PTs were not appropriating this language independently to describe situations with their struggling readers. In fact, the PTs' choices for instruction indicated a lack of understanding of concepts such as the alphabetic principle. Indeed, a such a term may seem so simple to understand that its complexity in particular instances is not fully appreciated until PTs begin to use the term as a rationale for teaching a particular child. In DIGs Karen could help PTs differentiate between children who could engage in specific phonological tasks and clarify which PTs did or did not understand the alphabetic principle. Thus, she was developing conceptual understanding by providing labels when the concept was emerging in the minds of PTs. We believe that this type of teaching and learning in situ is extremely powerful in helping PTs develop authentic understanding of essential literacy concepts.

Labeling in instructional dialogues (Leinhardt & Steele, 2005) occurred as Karen supplied terms or differentiated meanings of similar terms in discussions about appropriate tutoring strategies for struggling readers. Karen frequently used professional terms when she would summarize situations described by her PTs and provide them with a professional term. In doing this she was scaffolding their understandings of concepts and reiterating appropriate labels at the moments when the concepts were most relevant to the learners. The parallel between this type of instructional move and Vygotsky's principles for language development (1962) are very strong.

Critical Moments

Myhill and Warren (2005) suggest that there are critical moments in classroom discourse, defined as "those moments in a lesson where something a child or teacher says creates a moment of choice or opportunity for the teacher" (p. 55). Critical moments in teacher discourse are those comments or questions made by the teacher that facilitate or inhibit the learner's development or missed opportunities where a place to develop was overlooked (Mayhill & Warren, 2005). We have identified several categories of instructor prompts that occurred within the context of small group meetings, which seemed to impact the trajectory of the discourse and of the learning. One type of critical moment occurs when PT comments make it clear that previously provided information was not understood by all. In this study, misconceptions about the purpose of sound boxes were evident. A student talked about sight words being the child's main problem and that phonemic awareness skills were strong, but then reported that she was going to use sound boxes as an instructional activity, following the lead of another group member.

Karen responded by reviewing the purpose of sound boxes for the group to clarify' the concept for all PTs. The DIGs present opportunities to determine that such misconceptions exist, and to clear up these misunderstandings. Dealing with such miscues effectively is critical to avoid PTs leaving the sessions with erroneous or unclear information (Leinhardt & Steele, 2005). In the example described above, it quickly became apparent that PTs had not grasped the purpose of the strategy, and were thus attempting to use in inappropriate ways.

The changing role of the instructor was an additional critical move in the groups. We believe that Karen's conscious efforts to position herself as group member rather than group leader were instrumental in increasing the amount of collaboration and investment in the discussions and also in shifting responsibility to resistant PTs.

Additional focused work in this area will need to be done to identify which moves are most critical; i.e., result in the greatest impact on outcomes related to knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Identifying those critical moments in teacher education and engaging in classroom discussion with a renewed sensitivity to those opportunities is vital.

Outside perspective: Critical friend

The outsider perspective was critical in this self-study. In initial coding, Karen was not able to recognize the scaffolding and the critical moves she made that resulted in student learning. The concept of a critical friend provided the framework we needed to clarify our understandings of the teaching and learning context that was present in the DIG's. The ensuing discussions balanced the inside and outside perspectives enriching our understandings of the interactions. Cynthia's perspective facilitated Karen critical analysis of her comments and actions by helping her step back and out of the discussion--in essence becoming an observer of her own behavior.


When interpreting the interactions and the strategic prompts we identified, it is important to consider the context in which the discourse took place. Our program is structured in a way that allows us to have the same group of students for 2 semesters. Rather than starting anew with a different group of students in January, we are able build on foundations from the fall. We know exactly what was covered and what students should know and be able to do. Interactions between the instructor and individual students occurred within the context of a particular group session and were thus influenced by the conversations that had preceded it. Additionally, each group had its own patterns of interaction. Even in the initial session, interactions that had taken place in full class sessions and during the previous semester created expectations for behaviors/roles from the PTs for the instructor, for the instructor for the PTs, and for the PTs for each other. This collective history undoubtedly influenced the nature of the interactions and prompts used during discussions. For example, a PT who had already demonstrated considerable initiative in her coursework and teaching would be less likely to be prompted to assume responsibility than one who had a pattern of avoidance. The patterns of interaction and discourse would undoubtedly be different had this been the first course that the PSTs had with Karen, although we can only speculate what the differences might have been.

The collaborative self-study was essential in helping us understand how Karen was scaffolding learning and independence for her PTs in the DIG's. Further, the lens of self-study has helped us generalize how we might continually improve our own teaching and the growth of our PTs by considering ways to scaffold learning through discussions in our literacy methods courses. We offer our findings in this self-study as a response to Zeichner's (2007) challenge to provide detailed descriptions of our self-studies in ways that might be useful to our peers who face similar issues. We believe that this research could be particularly useful to other teacher educators involved in literacy instruction because the context for this self-study is related to a typical assignment in literacy courses and field experiences; i.e., tutoring a struggling reader.

It is our belief that by framing our analysis and discussion into the familiar contexts of scaffolding and strategic prompting within the metaphor of balanced literacy instruction, we can make the findings applicable to a wider audience and begin to build a framework for envisioning teacher education in literacy in terms that are related to our professional Discourse community.

In our work with preservice teachers, it is quite easy to become so focused on the routine, that "we do not realize the pattern in our actions as we perform them" (Erickson, 1986, p. 121). Indeed, in this study, Karen was not even looking at the patterns of her own interactions and the intricacies demonstrated therein until Cynthia, as the outsider, drew her attention to them. The outsider perspective that Cynthia provided served to make the "familiar strange" (Erikson, 1986, p. 121) in that Karen was able to see her own actions through a new lens. It is important to note that these teacher moves are quite subtle and in this case, were often unconscious. Some were deliberate, but many were not apparent to the instructor until the outsider perspective was brought in. This suggests that as teacher educators, we need to be more aware of our own words and actions in teaching to be most effective. We believe that an important aspect of this self-study is that we once again become self-conscious in our interactions and strive to make the most effective use of the time.

Further research

This study leaves us with many questions to continue to explore in our work with PTs. Although we are identifying a set of strategic prompts and critical moves in classroom discourse, we need to determine which prompts are most effective in developing the knowledge, skills, and disposition we desire for graduates of our program. Similarly we need to identify which moments seem to be the most critical for our PTs and explore ways of developing our sensitivity to those moments when they occur in the classroom so that we may respond to them in the appropriate manner and with intentionality.

Additionally, we hope to explore ways of directing the dialogue (Leinhardt & Steele, 2005, p. 151) to maximize learning for all PTs within the small group settings. Subsequent work we have done with the DIGs suggests that instructor involvement is critical in keeping these dialogues effective. At this stage in their development as teachers, the PTs in our classes overall do not appear ready to "go it alone". They need the scaffolding provided by the instructor and the prompts at critical moments. As we structure these sessions, we need to be mindful of the climate we establish. Unless PTs feel safe and free to question or challenge the instructor, we hinder the transfer of responsibility for teaching and learning. Effective instructional dialogues require such a climate "where it is all right to be wrong, to challenge another, to correct another, and more important, to correct oneself (Leinhardt & Steele, 2005, p. 88).

Through this self-study, we learned about our own teaching and have used this knowledge to continue to improve our practices. Karen has become more aware of her use of prompting language and is more intentional is its use with preservice teachers. Cynthia has embedded DIGs into other methods courses as a way to model professional learning. Self-studies such as this one make an important contribution to the field of teacher preparation. They raise important questions and shed light on aspects of teacher education that can only be seen by those who are engaged in the process as insiders. In a social and political climate where schools of education are under tremendous scrutiny and face accusations of limited effectiveness, it is essential that those of us who have devoted our careers to this important work accept the challenge of improving our teaching.


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Author:Kindle, Karen J.; Schmidt, Cynthia M.
Publication:Reading Improvement
Date:Jun 22, 2019

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