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Early childhood educators and literacy leaders: powerful partners.

Learning to read is one of the most critical and powerful achievements in life. Ensuring that all young children reach their potential in literacy development is the shared responsibility of many, though as emphasis is placed on establishing literacy leaders in many schools, literacy coaches and classroom teachers are being looked upon as having the primary responsibility. As a result, there is an unprecedented opportunity for literacy coaches and early childhood educators to become powerful partners who work collaboratively to meet the needs of academically diverse young children.

From the onset, literacy coaches and classroom teachers must share a common belief system regarding developmentally appropriate practice. As this belief system is established, early childhood educators must be aware of the roles and responsibilities of literacy coaches so they can effectively communicate their instructional needs to their literacy coach. Additionally, literacy coaches must make themselves accessible to early childhood educators, with emphasis on flexibility in regard to meeting the needs of the teachers with whom they work. Ultimately, there are endless opportunities for powerful partnerships between literacy coaches and early childhood educators when the focus is on improving student achievement in developmentally appropriate ways.

Necessity of Partnering

Expansion of literacy coaches in elementary schools throughout America has occurred through the revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 2000 (Dole 2004). As this expansion has taken place, communication between the classroom teacher and the literacy coach remains the cornerstone for professional collaboration and success. However, often times early childhood educators are unsure about how they can obtain the help and support of their literacy coach to facilitate classroom instruction, especially as current resources have shifted from providing additional instruction to students struggling in reading to providing building-level support to classroom teachers. For the teacher of young children, a strong partnership with the literacy coach can be powerful for the teachers and children.

Communicating Developmentally Appropriate Teaching

To begin with, the literacy coach and classroom teacher must share the same belief system regarding how young children best learn. With this in mind, the International Reading Association and the National Association for the Education of Young Children partnered to determine guiding principles when considering young children's literacy development (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1998). These principles should be embraced by both the coach and classroom teacher as they develop a developmentally appropriate approach to their partnership: (1) capitalizing on what is known about children's development and learning to set achievable but challenging goals for literacy learning and to plan learning experiences and teaching strategies that vary with the age and experience of the learners; (2) using results of ongoing assessment of individual children's progress in reading and writing to plan next steps or to adapt instruction when children fail to make expected progress or are at advanced levels; and, (3) to consider social and cultural contexts in which children live so as to help them make sense of their learning experiences in relation to what they already know and are able to do. Ultimately, to teach in developmentally appropriate ways, coaches and teachers must understand both the continuum of reading and writing development and children's individual and cultural variations.

Further, as these guiding principles form the foundation of the partnership, there are eight research-based strategies identified as effective early literacy instruction that encourage early forms of reading and writing to develop into conventional literacy (Roskos, Christie, & Richgels, 2003). As the coach and early childhood educator collaborate, these strategies should be considered foundational to their instruction. The first strategy is to engage the students through rich teacher talk through the use of uncommon words; more descriptive, mature statements; discuss challenging content; and make thorough responses. The second strategy is to spend large amounts of time reading aloud to the students, including engaging in conversations before, during, and after reading. The third strategy is to engage in daily phonological awareness activities to increase awareness of the sounds of language.

The fourth strategy is to provide many activities that promote the identification of the alphabet. The fifth strategy is to provide support for emergent reading through a well-designed classroom library; repeated readings of favorite books; and links to functional print. The sixth strategy deals with providing support for emergent writing by modeling writing for the students and providing many opportunities for the students to write with various media.

Shared book experience is the seventh strategy that allows the class to join in with the teacher as the teacher focuses on basic concepts of print. The final strategy is to provide students the opportunity to engage in integrated, content-focused activities. As the both the classroom teacher and literacy coach acknowledge and implement these strategies as foundational to the early childhood classroom, the needs of all students are more likely to be met.

The Literacy Coach: A Brief Description

Establishing a common belief system is imperative in the beginning of a partnership. However, once that is established, the classroom teacher must know and understand the duties of a coach in order to maximize the resource. Generally, the coach's roles and responsibilities fit into three broad categories: leadership and administration, instruction, and assessment and diagnosis (Bean, Cassidy, Grumet, Shelton, & Wallis 2002; International Reading Association 2004). In the leadership role, the reading specialist is involved in school program development and coordination, staff development, and as a resource to other educators and the community. In instruction, the reading specialist is involved in planning and collaborating with teachers, supporting classroom instruction primarily through modeling instructional strategies, and providing specialized instruction for struggling readers. When diagnosing and assessing students, the reading specialist may be involved in developing and coordinating assessments as well as actually administering them and interpreting the results.

The Partnership Potential

Now that a general idea of what a literacy coach/specialist does has been established, and an overview of their roles and responsibilities is present, the next step is to maximize the resource by taking the initiative to communicate the needs of a teacher of young children. Several variables in relation to your students must be considered.

Knowing the Students You Teach

Early childhood educators must commit to the on-going process of knowing students as readers. This commitment is seen through the administering of reading assessments, conducting reading conferences, assessing phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary in order to meet the individual needs of your students. However, commitment is only the first step in the process!

Instructional Support

It is possible that a teacher lacks the confidence necessary to administer the various reading assessments, even at the initial stage of knowing where to begin. Alternatively, a teacher may know how to administer the assessment but is not comfortable using the results to plan instruction. Teachers must be able to recognize when variations among individual students are within the expected performance ranges and when intervention is necessary, because early intervention is critical (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1998)!

If any of these possibilities exist, soliciting help from the literacy coach is a powerful option. The literacy coach can come to the classroom during a time when the teacher can observe the coach model the administration of an assessment instrument. The teacher should follow through by asking for pointers on how to organize the data collected. The coach should spend time writing instructional plans alongside the teacher, focusing on individual student's strengths and areas of need.

Other teachers feel confident in assessing their students and using the results to plan instruction. However, there are countless other instructional issues that require collaborative efforts. For difficult issues, e.g., hard to motivate students who seem unreachable, or instructional situations that would be enhanced with the feedback from another professional, the teacher should seek specific instructional advice from the literacy coach.

It is time for classroom action! So much of a day in the life of an early childhood teacher requires individualized instruction. From assessing, to remediation, to extensions, teaching young children demands individual attention. How can the literacy coaches help? They can teach your whole group while the teacher works with individual students ! They can engage students in phonemic awareness activities, read alouds, shared reading, word work and countless other instructional activities. You can collaborate with them in planning what they will do during the time they work you're your students. Schedule a consistent time one or two days a week they come in to partner with you in this way.

Finally, an early childhood educator must know themselves as teachers of reading. They must be able to answer the question of effectiveness; are they effectively meeting the needs of all students, regardless of their reading level? Is there implementation of a reading program that is not effective with ALL students in the class? Is there evidence of implementation of a balanced reading program including read alouds, shared reading, guided reading, independent reading, and working with words? Is the teacher seeking to expand knowledge in any of these areas? It is time to not be intimidated and communicate with the literacy coach/specialist! The coach needs to be made aware of the staff development topics in which teachers would like to engage. Consistent times must be scheduled so the coach can model lessons in an area the teacher wants to focus, building in time to discuss the details of the lesson both before and after the teaching. The coaches need to know when teachers are aware of whom they are professionally and that they are committed to being life long learners. Doubtless, professional collaboration makes that even better!

The Responsibility of the Coaches

Working collaboratively with early childhood educators to develop practices that enhance and extend what teachers have in place will encourage teachers to take ownership of the initiative. Collaboration rather than directives is imperative! The literacy coach must communicate a commitment to knowing and understanding teachers' existing belief systems. As there is a continuing demand that reading instruction be based on scientific research, coaches must guide teachers in molding, adapting, and adjusting appropriate instructional practices. The scope and magnitude of the intended change must challenge and intrigue teachers without overwhelming them (Brownell, Ross, Sindelar, & Vandiver 1999; Ros & van den Berg, 1999). In this way, teachers will be more open and likely to modify instructional practices.

Flexibility in Coaching

Communicating with teachers and applying a model of flexibility is key to the effectiveness of a literacy coach. Contrary to the programmatic philosophy, rarely are there absolutes in reading instruction! Teachers and literacy coaches have teaching styles that are outgrowths of educational philosophies coupled with personalities. Both should be respected. Additionally, and perhaps more important, each student within each classroom must be viewed individually, with unique instructional needs. Therefore, many times an instructional approach that works with one student may or may not work for another. There is no such thing as a "one size fits all" program. With that in mind, a single program alone simply will not meet the needs of all teachers and students.

FLEXIBLITY IS ESSENTIAL! Teachers, not programs, are ultimately responsible for teaching children! The teacher who is the centerpiece of educational change, the active change agent, has the power to make a difference (Castellano & Datnow, 2000; Hurst, 1999). How can literacy coaches help teachers meet the needs of their students, using the resources they are provided, coupled with outside resources? The coaches are viewed as the experts, not the materials.

Generative Practices

Generative practices must also be addressed. The literacy coach should communicate that though assessments must be conducted to determine specific needs, teaching practices should enhance the teaching of reading in general as well as meet the identified needs. Research indicates that although some children may learn in spite of incidental teaching, others will never learn unless they are taught in an organized, systematic, efficient way by a knowledgeable teacher using a well-designed instructional approach (American Federation of Teachers, 1999). This research indicates that teachers should teach in wise ways, immersed in meeting the needs of their students. It is the responsibility of coaches to partner with teachers in planning and organizing so instruction will be maximized.

Focus on the Students

Another imperative is that the coach communicates a focus of improving student achievement rather than on "fixing" teachers. This occurs through school-based, embedded learning in classrooms, by cultivating the development of reading instructional strategies, skills, and knowledge (Hutchens, 1998). Coaching must be sustained over time and directly related to everyday teaching. Through effective communication, coaches must be able to lead their team of teachers by conducting pre-lesson conferences, demonstrating/ modeling effective whole group, small group, and individual lessons, and debriefing after the lessons. The coaches' roles gradually change as classroom teachers emulate what has been modeled. The pre-lesson conference should set teachers up for success! Debriefing should be a positive experience, focusing on no more than one or two elements of the lesson that teachers can rethink for future lessons in terms meeting the students' needs. Additionally, creating videos is an effective instructional strategy that will help teachers see students respond to effective instructional practices within their school.


An increased emphasis has been placed on reading achievement in the last decade. As the growing number of literacy coaches has grown, it is imperative that partnerships be developed with early childhood educators. These partnerships must begin by embracing developmentally appropriate practices for young children. Then, as teachers become informed of the roles and responsibilities of literacy coaches, it is time for teachers to take action and communicate with the coaches in order to better meet their professional needs. Additionally, the literacy coaches have a responsibility to respond to these needs. To be effective, they must coach teachers with a collaborative philosophy, emphasizing flexibility in terms of reaching all students in developmentally appropriate ways. Expected instructional practices should be generative in terms of wide applicability, but they must also meet the needs of individual students. Ultimately, the focus of this powerful partnership must be to meet the needs of all young children in schools today.


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Author:Kent, Andrea M.
Publication:Reading Improvement
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2005
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