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Effective professional development in early literacy programs.

In this article the authors report on the evaluation of a professional development program aimed at facilitating change in the learning and teaching of early literacy. Elements underpinning effective professional development programs are identified and examples of these elements in NSW schools highlighted.(1)


During 1995-96 an evaluation was conducted of the Early Literacy Component (ELC) of the National Equity Program for Schools (NEPS), as implemented in government schools in NSW. The ELC program aimed to improve the learning outcomes in literacy for K-3 students and, in particular, the participation and achievement of educationally disadvantaged students. The primary focus was the delivery of professional development programs for K-3 teachers so that they could facilitate improvements in early literacy pedagogy and support effective intervention strategies for the targeted students. This article reports on one aspect of this evaluation program: the elements of effective professional development programs.


Professional development and student outcomes are integrally linked, in that `the ultimate worth of professional development for teachers is the essential role it plays in the improvement of student learning' (Cook & Fine, 1997: p. 1). The aim of teacher professional development is to produce change in teacher knowledge and teacher practice and, through these, change in student outcomes. Effective professional development `establishes new expectations for students, teachers, and school communities' (Cook & Fine, 1997: p. 1).

Professional development programs should also aim to `equip teachers individually and collectively to act as shapers, promoters, and well-informed critics of reform' (Little, 1994: p.1). In the current educational context, where the call for reform is constant, teachers are required to manage change on many fronts simultaneously. For example, they must consider changes in subject delivery (such as the implementation of a new syllabus) and changes in recommended ways of responding to students' needs (equity issues) as well as structural change. Effective professional development programs address issues central to such changes and help teachers manage the associated reforms. However, there may be reluctance among teachers to change, even when improved student outcomes are likely, as `learning new practices often involves changing old habits that have made teaching comfortable and predictable. Because teachers have to both learn new habits and unlearn old ones, as one teacher put it, "the comfort is for not changing"' (Cohen, McLaughlin & Talbert, 1993: p. 93).

In the context of ELC, the professional development programs aimed to improve the literacy outcomes for students through a change process which started with teachers. Changes in the English K-6 Syllabus (Board of Studies, NSW, 1994) -- particularly in the nature of assessment and reporting in early literacy -- had been mooted following the review of the outcomes-based approach (Eltis, 1995) but not yet promulgated. As well, there was seen to be a need for change as a result of increasing awareness of the specific literacy needs of girls, boys, students from non-English-speaking backgrounds and Aboriginal students. In this climate, many teachers were seeking guidance about early literacy and the ELC program provided support in this area.

Evaluation of professional development programs

Any evaluation of teacher professional development programs should assess the nature and quality of changes at the three levels of teacher knowledge and practice, school organisation and student learning (Cook & Fine, 1997).

Change at the first of these levels, educator practices, involves participants describing their involvement in the professional development program and consequent changes in practices and beliefs. Participants describe their own professional growth and evaluate the program in terms of how well it meets their own professional needs (Guskey & Sparks, 1991).

The second level, assessment of organisational change, provides evidence of the ways that general changes in the school support the professional development. For example, changes in school culture and an improvement in collaboration between executive staff and classroom teachers are indicators of ways in which school organisations may promote change in teacher practices.

Assessment of the third level of change seeks to determine the effectiveness of the program in relation to student learning outcomes. In addition to formalised testing procedures, schools may measure such changes by considering how involved students are in their own learning, the degree of responsibility that they take for learning, and their ability to pursue issues or question in depth (Asayesh, 1993). In addition, the observations of parents are important, in order to ascertain how the changes at school are transferred to other settings.

The two major goals of any evaluation of a professional development program are to `improve the quality of the program' through formative evaluation and to `determine its overall effectiveness' (Cook & Fine, 1997: p. 3) through summative evaluation. Formative evaluation occurs throughout the program and allows for fine tuning of the program in response to the needs of participants and their students. Summative evaluations are based on data collected at the three levels described earlier and are used to assess the overall effectiveness of the entire program.

In the ELC evaluation which is the subject of this article, assessments of the effectiveness of the professional, development: programs in each of the research sites were conducted at the three levels described. Both formative and summative evaluations were undertaken, although feedback to the participants was limited during the formative stages. Nevertheless, this analysis pr provides a framework for reporting the evaluation.

Models of teacher professional development

There are many different models of professional development, ranging from a focus on individual inquiry through to involving experts in course delivery and action research (Sparks & Loucks-Horsley, 1989). Several professional development programs involve a combination of these models. This was certainly the case for ELC, where different projects drew on different models, or different combinations of models, as a means of focussing on specific aspects of early literacy. Within the context of ELC, three focus areas were identified, relating to teachers, parents and programs.

1. Professional development programs for staff were characterised by the release of teachers from regular classroom responsibilities for significant periods of time (for example, five full days), the establishment of collaborative networks within and between schools and systems, and an emphasis on the cycle of theory-practice-reflection-action. Such programs provided opportunities for individual inquiry, interaction with experts and collaborative action research.

2. Parent and community education programs aimed to actively involve parents and community members in the early literacy development of students. Several schools instituted the Talk to a Literacy Learner (TTALL) program (Cairney & Munsie, 1995), while other programs were developed locally in response to specific needs and issues. In each case, programs were characterised by innovation and a strong belief that education must be a partnership between schools and the community. In this way, parents engaged in a process of collaborative inquiry and interaction with others. Professional development of teachers was effected by their increased awareness of parent perspectives and issues and opportunities to share, explain and demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of early literacy.

3. Implementation of specific teaching/learning programs included the introduction of the First Steps program (Education Department of Western Australia, 1995) and several variants of the strategy, `guided reading'. Some programs were published, and therefore available commercially, whereas others were based on sets of broad principles developed by school communities. In the case of guided reading, there was considerable variation in implementation, although all revolved around the notion of levelling reading materials and matching students to materials at an appropriate level of difficulty. Collaborative inquiry, often with the guidance of experts or mentors, was usually a feature of these programs. Some programs involved individual schools, others were delivered across schools, while still others had a regional focus. In some instances, programs reflected a combination of these focus areas, for example, by starting with a regional conference which offered participants a range of possibilities that were then followed up in different ways in different schools, with appropriate professional support.


The evaluation involved collaboration between the state-wide management committee, the evaluation team and the individual schools. A case study methodology was employed.

An initial analysis of project documentation, including original proposals for funding, individual school plans and progress reports, enabled the evaluation team to become familiar with the programs of the individual schools and provided a benchmark against which changes from the proposals could be measured. Validation of the documentation at school and regional level was carried out during the school visits by the evaluation team and at state level through discussions with the management committee. Following this came a series of four visits, over four school terms, to the selected schools across NSW.

The programs operating in twenty schools across NSW were selected by the evaluation team and the management committee to provide a representative sample of programs being conducted within the Early Literacy Component. The selection of schools used purposeful sampling approaches (Gall, Borg & Gall, 1996) which took into account the variables of geographic location, school size and the program model. On the basis that ELC funding was directed at schools with high numbers of students from low socio-economic backgrounds, regional Disadvantaged Schools Component (DSC) enrolments were considered.

Each of the schools was visited by two members of the evaluation team over four school terms as outlined below. While the focus changed, on each occasion the evaluation team was keen to speak with teachers, school executive, parents and students in focus group interviews. Several visits also involved classroom observations.

* The first visit aimed to: make all involved aware of the purpose and nature of the evaluation; validate the documentation about the funded project; and familiarise the evaluation team with the expectations held by various participants.

* The second visit focussed on reading and ways in which the funded project had influenced reading practices within the early school years.

* The third visit focussed on writing and ways in which the funded project had influenced writing practices within the early school years.

* The fourth visit focussed on draft reports, which had been circulated to the school prior to the visit. This proved a valuable strategy in terms of emphasising collaboration among the participants and highlighting any misconceptions that may have arisen during the progress of the evaluation.

Wherever possible, and with permission, interviews were audio-taped. Some interviews were conducted by phone, as parents were unable to be at the school at the same time as the evaluation team, and some interviews with parents and children were undertaken with the assistance of interpreters.

Methodological issues

In order to ensure the internal validity of the evaluation, triangulation, defined as the use of `multiple data sources, investigators, and theoretical perspectives' (Glesne & Peshkin, 1992: p. 24), was employed in several ways. Firstly, at the macro level, data were gathered through reference to documentation, to the case study schools and through interaction between the management committee and the evaluation team. Secondly, in the case studies, data for each school were gathered through focus interviews and classroom observations and, thirdly, the focus interviews involved classroom teachers, school executive, children and parents. Fourthly, at least two members of the evaluation team were involved in each school visit and, fifthly, data were collected from each school over multiple visits.

While the methodology selected had many advantages, there were limitations in relation to sampling. Several levels of sampling were used to access schools, teachers, parents and students. At each level, there were challenges to the aim to achieve representativeness. The selection of schools as case studies was guided by a number of variables rather than random sampling. Within each school, wherever possible, all teachers involved in the funded project met with the evaluation team. However, the evaluation team did not meet with all parents and students involved in the project, relying on staff in schools to apply a set of criteria, determined by the evaluation team, to derive a sample.

Interviewing a selection of parents raised a number of questions about representativeness. For example, the sample of parents tended to be largely self-selected and to consist of those who had a high level of involvement with the school. Despite attempts by the evaluation team to conduct telephone interviews or to involve interpreters, the team is not confident that the parent sample was representative of parents of state school children across the K-3 grades.

Results and discussion

The results of the evaluation are discussed in terms of the three levels of evaluation described previously: changes in teacher practice, school organisation, and student outcomes. In several instances, these levels are interwoven and complementary.

1. Teacher practice

There was considerable variation across the programs in terms of the strategies that constituted effective teaching practice in early literacy. For example, among teachers who classified their programs as based on `guided reading', there were several implementation strategies. Some programs focussed on a segmented approach to teaching literacy, with emphasis on features of language and literacy, while others focussed on literacy as a holistic phenomenon. Effective practice generally relied on the use of a range of strategies and the ability of teachers to adapt their strategies to the individual students involved and the task at hand (Freebody, 1992). Effective programs emphasised an awareness of individual students and their needs, strengths and interests in literacy.

Regardless of the literacy approach advocated, effective professional development programs were based on a coherent theoretical and philosophical foundation. Some of these programs were purchased as a package of materials; others were developed by consultants or teachers with specific expertise in early literacy.

Regardless of the source of the program, the importance of teachers having an understanding of why they planned specific literacy experiences, and how these related to students' learning and use of language and literacy, was crucial to the success of programs.

As one example, the program in School J was based on an implementation of the First Steps program. This was seen as a way of extending the focus that already existed in the school, of helping staff to develop their own philosophy of teaching through the confirmation of some current beliefs and understandings and the challenge of others, and as a means of extending teaching practices.

In other instances, the program evaluated had been in operation for several years and the allocation of ELC funding allowed its maintenance and extension. In School C, teachers had been implementing a functional approach to literacy and chose to continue this through revisiting the area of reading. Teachers new to the school had the opportunity to become a part of the school focus, and to help shape the direction of that focus, and teachers who had been a part of the program for some years had the opportunity to reflect upon their beliefs and practices and to share these with others. Input from consultants and others with expertise assisted teachers to reflect upon what they were doing and to extend this in a number of ways.

The result was a clear example of a group of teachers working as a team with a common sense of direction. This was evident in classroom observations, where students participated in a wide range of literacy experiences which were based on the functional use of language. These experiences were the basis for future experiences in other grades. Students were aware of the purpose of their involvement in these experiences and took delight in explaining these to the research team.

Teaching practice did not change merely as a result of receiving input from experts about a particular issue. It was much more likely to change when teachers were actively engaged in the construction of knowledge as, `like students, teachers must be actively involved in learning and must have opportunities to discuss, reflect upon, try out and hone better instructional approaches' (Newsletter on Issues in School Reform, 1996: p. 1). Effective programs were those that provided opportunities for teachers to see the professional development as a worthwhile investment and where there was active involvement in questioning and analysing current practice (Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin, 1995).

Some teachers indicated that they had not always felt comfortable about the challenges they had faced in the professional development program, but that considering alternatives and having to engage in a defence of what they were doing in their classrooms had resulted in important changes not only in their classroom teaching but also in their expectations of students. The importance of this occurring in a collegial atmosphere was highlighted, with teachers noting that working collaboratively provided a framework within which they could challenge current practices without feeling threatened. An important adjunct to this was the visits made by teachers to other schools or classrooms. Actually seeing what was happening, or even explaining to a group of visitors what was happening, was regarded as an important stimulus for change.

Elements of change in teacher practice and change in school organisation were essential features of these programs. Considerable benefits were reported by participants who engaged in presentations and discussions of their own practice and approaches to early literacy as well as those of others. Effective programs moved beyond the description of practice and challenged teachers to consider why they engaged in specific practices and what they aimed to achieve, and to identify alternative means of attaining the same outcomes. Programs which facilitated challenge also emphasised the importance of reflection and evaluation of teaching practices. Support for this was achieved in several ways, including the formation of teams of teachers both within a school and across several schools, and the use of mentors or support personnel with expertise in early literacy, who visited several different schools.

Mentors had a significant role in supporting changes in practice. In some programs, mentors were established among colleagues within the school, while in other programs, mentors operated at a regional level. At each level, mentors were involved in activities such as classroom observation and promoting collaborative planning. One teacher described the role of the mentor as helping her to `learn more about learning itself, and literacy learning in particular' (School N). Another teacher in the same school reported the benefits of a mentor as: `feeling valued as professionals, accessing shared perspectives on practice both from within the school and from beyond it and generally having regular contact with a credible expert who had interest and time to devote to them on an individual level'. Mentoring provides opportunities for teachers to share their expertise, perspectives and strategies, but needs to be based on both the teacher and the mentor viewing themselves as learners and teachers, hence relying on `a climate of mutual respect, interdependence and trust' (Novick, 1996: p. 9) between the participants.

Changes in teacher practice were seen not only in classroom practice but also in the roles adopted by teachers. In addition to their roles as classroom teachers, teachers became peer advisers, as they offered advice about particular issues or strategies, leaders in the school as they co-ordinated the implementation of new programs or approaches, and teacher researchers as they gathered information and reflected on the changes that had been made. In adopting such roles, teachers contributed greatly to the development of a professional community within the schools which promoted a culture of learning and change.

As an example, teachers at School P emphasised the importance of working with a group of trained professionals in the classroom. Where member's of the executive staff or consultants, had adopted the role of mentors, they described the development of a culture of learning within the school that promoted a strong sense of professionalism, based on respect for the expertise of others and a willingness to work collaboratively.

2. School organisation

The establishment and maintenance of a learning culture is one of the important elements relating to school organisation. Such a culture needs to be promoted and developed. When school organisation reflects this and when adjustments are made in areas such as timetabling, teacher release and time for collaborative planning, a professional culture can be nurtured.

Almost all teachers interviewed described the importance of establishing a climate of collegiality and professionalism. A collegial atmosphere was described as encouraging teachers to take risks by trying out new or different practices and evaluating their effectiveness. The use of collaborative planning to provide support to teachers and stimulus for change was also emphasised. In some schools, the ELC funding was used to release teachers for several joint planning sessions; feedback about the effectiveness of such sessions was overwhelmingly positive. In many situations, teachers had continued such sessions in out-of-school hours after the funding for release had been exhausted.

Such support reflects the findings of other professional development programs, with the indications being that when `teacher learning takes place within a professional community that is nurtured and developed from both inside and outside the school, significant and lasting school change may follow' (Newsletter on Issues in School Reform, 1996: p. 3). A professional community helps to reduce the sense of isolation felt by many teachers as well as supporting initiative and innovation.

Throughout the evaluation, there was evidence that professional communities were built in several ways. In some schools, teachers visiting other classrooms was a starting point for discussion, questioning and analysing practice. In other schools, visiting schools in the area was an important feature of such community development, as was the attendance or presentation at professional conferences or seminars. Once in place, a learning culture can lead to continued professional development as it becomes an expectation that learning together will occur (Lieberman, 1995).

Another important element of school organisation that promotes professional development is the organisation of time. Time is needed to acquire understanding, to practise and reflect on practice, and to collaborate with peers about change and its implications.

Some effective programs involved staff (or parents) from more than one school. School M, a small two-teacher school, chose to implement the TTALL program and to involve a larger school in order to increase the pool of potential participants, reduce the coordination load for the principal, and provide access to greater library resources. Organisational issues were vital to the success of this program. The ability of teachers to work collaboratively, and for executive teachers to support this process, was regarded as invaluable. Programs that provided support, and challenged parents' perceptions and expectations, also were regarded as highly worthwhile.

Teachers reported that it was often difficult to know what was happening in classrooms within their own school, let alone other schools. Programs which encouraged teachers to observe and discuss the teaching practices and approaches of other teachers and to plan collegially were regarded as effective. As noted previously, those programs which were regarded as most effective by the evaluation team went a step beyond this descriptive stage and involved teachers in a sustained focus and analysis of specific aspects of early literacy. Some programs involved mentors from outside the school who facilitated this analytical approach, whereas others had teachers with specific expertise in early literacy who were able to provide the guidance and direction required.

3. Student outcomes

Student outcomes were assessed through interviews with sample groups of students, teachers and parents and through classroom observations. Elements of effective professional development programs were identified not only through analysis of the responses of the adult participants but also through consideration of the impact of these programs on student learning.

One of the crucial elements of effective programs was the ability of participants to understand the theoretical base and articulate this in their practice. A similar element related to students, in that effective programs were characterised by the students knowing what they were doing and why, and being able to articulate that to others. Examples included Kindergarten students describing the genre of writing they were engaged in and indicating why that genre was appropriate, and students in Year 2 and Year 3 discussing the advantages and disadvantages of material gained from factual texts.

The issue of purpose was central to effective literacy practice. Effective teaching and learning experiences occurred where there was a clear purpose identified for all concerned. At times, this purpose was decided by the teacher and communicated to the students; at other times, the purpose emerged from discussions and interactions with students. During several of the school visits, teachers described strategies they used in order to construct or convey the purpose of literacy' experiences. Of particular note were planned visits or excursions for students that related to units of work and provided a range of first-hand experiences. In turn, these were seen to provide something important to read and write about and to provide the basis for speaking and listening experiences. These contrasted with experiences where students described their actions as `writing what Miss told us' or practising reading or writing with no apparent aim.

An important element of effective programs was the level of expectation relating to students from low socio-economic backgrounds. Some teachers regarded the relative paucity of language and literacy experiences of their students as a challenge to be met with energy and enthusiasm. Others seemed to regard this situation as a deficit which could not be overcome, an attitude which was reflected in their approach and expectations. In the latter circumstances, difficulties experienced by students tended to be related to their family or home backgrounds. Where teachers adopted high expectations of their students, regardless of their background, where all students were considered to have considerable learning potential and where the experiences students brought with them to the classroom were respected and used as starting points for meaningful literacy experiences, students responded in positive and exciting ways.

Parental reports of students' engagement in literacy activities at home as well as at school provided additional data relating to student outcomes. As a result of some programs, parents reported increased levels of interest in literacy among their children and, as a result of others, greater opportunities to talk with teachers as well as their children about literacy. Particularly effective were the ELC programs which focussed on enhanced parent involvement in early literacy. Parents who completed programs such as TTALL described a mixture of emotions as they moved from fear that they would be labelled as having poor literacy skills themselves through to elation at being able to work through projects with their children. Students expressed a sense of pride that their parents had been involved in the program and described their sense of achievement when they worked with their parents on a project for school. These positive attitudes were reported by teachers to carry over into classroom activities and to have a significant influence on students" interest and willingness to undertake literacy experiences. Parents who assisted in classrooms either as part of parent programs or as a result of these also indicated a sense of achievement and a recognition of their role in young children's learning.


Effective professional development programs in early literacy, as identified in this evaluation, demonstrated the following elements. In each case:

* funds are directed to these programs;

* there is a clear focus to the programs, often building on past programs and extending programs over several years;

* more than one school is involved;

* the beliefs, understandings, expectations and practices of teachers (and, in some cases, parents) are challenged;

* opportunities for the classroom application of new or different approaches and reflection on and evaluation of these efforts are incorporated;

* there is a coherent theoretical and philosophical base which informs classroom application;

* time and opportunities are provided for teachers to develop collegial ties with other teachers both within and beyond their own school; and.

* mentoring and other forms of support within and beyond the school are used to maintain the programs.

Each of these features is important, yet it is in combination that they lead to a professional development program likely to influence teacher thinking and practice, school culture and student learning outcomes.

Where these elements are in place, staff assume the role of learners as well as teachers, engage in diverse learning opportunities, establish and develop links between theory and practice that are meaningful for them, build professional communities based on trust and support, and move away from the sense of professional isolation that can characterise the daily life of a classroom teacher (Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin, 1995).

Further, effective professional development programs are those which extend beyond teachers and include parents and community members as well as students in making decisions about learning and what is important to learn. Such programs are supported by structural changes within schools that promote collaboration between teachers, as well as between teachers and parents, and where time is allocated for all participants to question as they seek to understand why new directions are required, chosen or supported.

The philosophy underlying such programs is one which focusses on the image of `teacher as intellectual' rather than `teacher as technician' (Little, 1994), and where teachers are regarded as active members of a professional community engaged in a process of genuine inquiry (Novick, 1996). Instead of promoting one particular perspective, such programs aim to enhance teachers' understanding of early literacy and appropriate teaching and learning experiences. They encourage school communities to embrace change in relation to their own context: and in a way which involves `a theory of pedagogy that advocates teaching for understanding and learning as understanding ... based on practical knowledge enriched by critical reflection' (Novick, 1996: p. 1).

(1) The authors acknowledge the permission of the NSW Department of Education and Training to publish certain material presented in this article. The support of the Department was integral to the evaluation that led to the article. However, the views represented herein are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSW Department of Education and Training. The authors also wish to express their thanks to Dr John Conroy and Amanda Miller, who acted as senior research assistants in this project.


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Freebody, P. (1992). A socio-cultural approach: Resourcing four roles as a literacy learner. In A. Watson & A. Badenhop (eds), Prevention of Reading Failure. Sydney: Ashton Scholastic.

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Lieberman, A. (1995). Practices that support teacher development: Transforming conceptions of professional learning. Phi Delta Kappan, April, pp. 591-96.

Little, J. (1994). Teachers' professional development in a climate of educational reform.


Newsletter on Issues in School Reform. (1996). Rethinking professional development.


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Sue Dockett is currently Associate Professor and Head of Division, Early Childhood Teacher Education, Faculty of Education, University of Western Sydney, Macarthur. Her research interests include early childhood education, children's thinking, children's play, and children's transition to school.

Address: Faculty of Education, University of Western Sydney, Macarthur, PO Box 555, Campbelltown, NSW 2560. Email:

Richard Parker is Senior Lecturer and Head of Division, Continuing, Professional and Adult Education. His research interests are language and literacy development, teaching English as a second language, teacher professional development and children's transition to school.

Address: Faculty of Education, University of Western Sydney, Macarthur, PO Box 555, Campbelltown, NSW 2560. Email:

Bob Perry is the Associate Professor and Acting Associate Dean, Faculty of Education, University of Western Sydney, Macarthur. His research interests are mathematics learning and teaching in early childhood and primary contexts, statistical thinking, teacher beliefs and practices, and children's transition to school.

Address: Faculty of Education, University of Western Sydney, Macarthur, PO Box 555, Campbelltown, NSW 2560. Email:
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Dockett, Sue; Perry, Bob; Parker, Richard
Publication:Australian Journal of Language and Literacy
Geographic Code:8AUNS
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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