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Literacy Coaching in the Middle Grades

From time constraints to a de-emphasis on literacy to a limited research base, coaches in middle schools face challenges that do not exist in the elementary grades.

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How does coaching in the middle grades differ from the primary grades? It is tempting to say that “coaching is coaching,” and indeed there are many common responsibilities of literacy coaches regardless of the age of students, but there are also important differences. These differences, described in the table below, suggest that middle school literacy coaches have a job that differs considerably from their counterparts in the elementary grades. Moreover, the middle-grades coach faces challenges that either do not exist at the elementary level or are considerably easier to tackle in the lower grades.

Key differences between elementary-grades and middle-grades coaching

coaching contexts
coaching contexts
Based on Snow, Ippolito, and Schwartz (2006):
Fewer teachers Usually more teachers
Fewer students per teacher More students per teacher
Teachers organized by grade level Teachers organized by discipline
Fewer time constraints due to prolonged literacy block Greater time constraints due to short periods
literacy seen as central goal of teaching in all classrooms Literacy seen as tangential or irrelevant in content areas
More teacher awareness of literacy needs of students Less teacher awareness of literacy needs of students
Narrower range of student skills and proficiencies Broader range of student skills and proficiencies
Lack of departmentalization makes it harder for students to slip through the cracks Departmentalization makes it easier for students to slip through the cracks
Less sense of isolation from colleagues Greater sense of isolation from colleagues
Extensive research of effective instructional strategies Limited research on effective instructional strategies
Fewer competing social pressures More competing social pressures
Adequate attitudes toward school and reading Worsening attitudes toward school and reading
General recognition by teachers and administrators of need for differentiation and intervention Teachers and administrators may lack awareness of the need for differentiation and intervention
Based on Sturtevant (2003):
Curriculum is more flexible and reflects broad Curriculum is less flexible and reflects traditions leads to reliance on lecture
Some pressure to cover content standards permits varied approaches Heavy pressure to cover content standards leads to reliance on lecture

The role and qualifications of a middle-grades coach

What should a middle-grades literacy coach be able to do to meet these challenges? While the answer to this question depends in part on the school context, the potential of coaching “in the middle” has led professional organizations to propose new standards that define the role of the literacy coach at the middle level. Because middle schools are organized around content learning, these organizations include not only the principal literacy organizations (the IRA and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) but also the professional organizations for teachers of core subjects (the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), and the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). The standards paint an ambitious picture of coaching in the middle school, one summarized below. The first section of the standards targets the areas of leadership, professional development, and assessment; the second section specifies the demands of the curriculum areas.

Leadership, professional development, and assessment

To begin with, coaches are effective school leaders, and the standards identify examples of leadership skills and strategies that are consistent with our definition of coaching, maintaining their distance from the evaluative role of the principal. Middle-grades coaches are skilled at collaborating with other educators to effect change. For example, they work with the principal to build a literacy team and to supervise a schoolwide needs assessment to identify areas on which to focus. They communicate needs-assessment findings and facilitate problem-focused discussions in order to develop a literacy improvement action plan. They help align curricula to ensure that this plan will work, and they periodically evaluate the school’s progress in making the plan a reality.

Once they have a clear plan, middle-grades coaches skillfully manage time and resources. They promote productive relationships with and among staff. Toward this end, they showcase content-area teaching strategies. They listen to the concerns of teachers and are nonjudgmental. They build trust by maintaining confidences, and they make a clear distinction between coaching and evaluating. They respond promptly to requests for help. They keep administrators informed and elicit their support. If their school or district has more than one coach, they collaborate with those other coaches.

Middle-grades coaches lead with a deep understanding of the needs of their learners — both child and adult. Coaches facilitate team meetings regarding adolescent literacy issues. They understand the school culture and appreciate the social stressors that act on middle schoolers. They demonstrate positive expectations for students (including ELLs). They apply concepts of adult learning in their interactions with teachers, and they encourage language specialists to serve as resources to content teachers.

This leadership strand in the standards is a tall order, and it demands constant learning on the part of the coach. Coaches endeavor to stay current and to strengthen their own professional teaching knowledge. skills, and strategies. To do so, they routinely examine best practices and materials. They demonstrate openness to new ideas, and they take part in professional development opportunities. The second set of skills and strategies targeted in the standards is job-embedded coaching. The standards imply that job-embeddedness sets the work of coaches squarely within their content-area goals, with coaches supporting teachers to understand the needs of their students and to improve the effectiveness of their content-area instruction by infusing it with reading and writing. Middle-grades coaches work with teachers individually, in teams, and/or in departments. They help teachers select diverse, multi-level content-area texts and other materials. They provide assistance in planning instruction around content objectives, and they suggest strategies, identify potential comprehension barriers, and offer suggestions for students who don’t get it the first time; such suggestions include scaffolding strategies for ELLs.

A large part of this job-embedded coaching targets specific instructional strategies effective for middle-grade learners. Coaches provide content teachers with professional development on effective before-during-after reading strategies and on research-based instructional models (e.g., modeling think-alouds, explaining gradual release of responsibility). They explore with content teachers cross-cultural communication patterns, and they can model effective instructional strategies for comprehension (e.g., reciprocal teaching, directed reading-thinking activities) and for vocabulary (e.g., the use of context to infer word meaning, morphology, cognates, derivatives and variants, and signal words). They also assist content teachers in increasing the amount of content-appropriate writing that students do. They acquaint teachers with useful Internet sources, including links to evidence-based research, which might be stored in a strategy binder for easy access.

The final area of job-embedded coaching is observation of instruction. Middle-grades coaches observe teachers and provide feedback, making clear that this process is not evaluative. A major goal of regular observing in content classes is to collect data about which instructional strategies are being used. This knowledge guides coaches in stimulating reflective dialogue before and after observations. Such dialogue helps to clarify objectives, determine assessments, identify successes and challenges, and focus on next steps. It also enables coaches to know when to demonstrate instructional strategies and provide follow-up support.

The final area in the standards is termed evaluation, which may have unfortunate connotations for coaching. Deep reading of the standards, though, clarifies the term and still separates the coach from the principal; we choose to stay strictly within the language of the standards to illustrate this point. Middle-grades coaches are skillful evaluators of literacy needs. They lead faculty in the selection and use of a range of assessment tools, and with these tools they develop a comprehensive assessment program. This might include formal measures such as standardized assessments in content subjects to track groups, literacy pre-post tests, ELL tests, content-area reading inventories, and authentic content-area knowledge assessments, and informal assessments such as journals and student surveys of outside literacy practices. Coaches schedule formative and summative assessments, help content-area teachers evaluate writing and assess whether new strategies are effective, and they stay current regarding assessment research and trends.

Choosing and scheduling assessments is not enough. Coaches conduct regular meetings with content-area teachers to examine student work and to monitor progress. They introduce content-area teachers to ways to observe student X, and they hold periodic meetings (monthly, or at the end of each marking period) to examine student work and assessment data. Coaches help teachers analyze trends in achievement. Doing so requires analysis by skill area (e.g., composition, vocabulary, comprehension) and by team or department. It also entails analysis of disaggregated progress data, especially for ELLs. Finally, coaches help teachers use assessment results to determine the best strategies to implement.

Academic coaching in the content areas

Middle-grades coaches must be able to coach in the four core content subjects: English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies; both our intuition and the results of the pilot survey referenced above (Blarney et al., 2007) indicate that most middle-grades coaches are more comfortable in their subject-specific knowledge of English language arts. Some of the standards affect all content learning, and others are specific to a given area. Relevant to every area is coaches’ knowledge of content and how reading and writing intersect with content learning. They must be able to relate their knowledge of adolescent development, literacy development, language, and cultural background to knowledge acquisition in all content-specific subjects.

English Language Arts

Within English language arts, coaches must be familiar with the IRA and NCTE standards and those of TESOL. They must be able to appraise text and textbook demands, beginning with readability and extending to the different demands of narrative and expository text — the task of distinguishing fact from opinion, the need to interpret technical vocabulary, the requirement of thinking critically and inferentially, and the ability to use visual aids and glossaries. Coaches must be able to help language arts teachers select multicultural texts, and they must demonstrate comprehension strategies related to specific text structures included in those texts (e.g., narrative, main idea-detail, comparison-contrast, chronological, cause-effect, argument-evidence, combined structures). Further, they must help teachers identify those structures and match their instruction to them. Finally, coaches must know and model ELL methods and process-writing strategies.


Within mathematics, coaches must be familiar with the NCTM standards as well as state and local standards. They must understand the special demands that math textbooks place on students — a reality often overlooked in the fields of math education and literacy education. These demands involve concept density, how concepts build across a chapter or chapters, multiple-meaning words, equations and symbols, diagrams and graphs, using different representations such as words and diagrams, and the notation conventions used in mathematics.

Once these demands are identified, coaches must be prepared to demonstrate comprehension strategies to enable students to meet them. These entail an appreciation of the principal text structures used in math text, such as providing definitions, presenting main ideas and details, and the structure of word problems. Math comprehension strategies also involve how logic is used (e.g., conjecture, inductive reasoning, deductive arguments, proof by contradiction, understanding and producing proofs), and coaches must be able to model how to teach these strategies. They must also be able to model ways to actively engage students (e.g., jigsaw, think-pair-share, paired problem solving, fishbowl, and round-robin strategies) and varying ways to represent mathematical ideas (e.g., literal, symbolic, graphic).


Within science, coaches must be familiar with the National Science Education Standards, the Benchmarks for Science Literacy and state and local standards. They must know the specific demands of science textbooks (e.g., their dependence on prior knowledge, the density of ideas, the manner in which concepts build across a chapter or chapters, the need for continual review, the importance of distinguishing empirical facts from opinion, the need to use scientific knowledge to draw inferences and to discern cause-and-effect relationships, the importance of following lab instructions and of interpreting diagrams, abbreviations, and symbols). These demands are formidable, and, left unattended, they might discourage teachers and students from using the text at all. It is the job of the coach to highlight them for teachers and also to provide reasonable strategies for making these important texts more accessible and useful to students.

Coaches must also help science teachers use investigation, comprehension, writing, speaking, and listening strategies to become active learners of science. They must work collaboratively to implement effective strategies that help students understand materials. Strategies include identifying key concepts and the relationships among them, such as hierarchical concept relationships, cause and effect, and prediction, sequencing scientific information, and using scientific knowledge to analyze hypotheses. Coaches also work collaboratively to implement effective strategies that use logic and reasoning, such as testing hypotheses, reasoning inductively, making deductive arguments, establishing boundaries and conditions of knowledge, and using evidence to reject or support propositions. Coaches collaborate to implement effective strategies for writing in science contexts (e.g., questions, lab procedures, observations, reasoning) and for actively engaging students. Coaches also work collaboratively to implement model strategies for representing scientific concepts (e.g., textual, symbolic, graphic modes) and for teaching students to write or orally deliver for a wide range of audiences.

Social Studies

Within social studies, coaches must be familiar with the NCSS standards, as well as state and local standards. They must know the specific demands of social studies textbooks (e.g., the ability to distinguish fact from opinion, to distinguish primary from secondary sources, to think critically and inferentially, to acquire technical vocabulary, to navigate a wealth of factual information, including visual aids, glossaries, databases, indexes, and maps). Coaches must also assist social studies teachers by demonstrating how to teach students about a wide range of text structures (e.g., narrative, cause-effect, comparison-contrast, definition, main idea-detail, description, problem-solution, goal-action-outcome, proposition-and-support) typically included in social studies materials. They must follow up by helping teachers match instructional methods to these text structures. Coaches must know and model patterns of argument and rules of evidence used in social studies, and they must likewise know and model strategies for encouraging active student engagement, such as expressing and defending others’ viewpoints, visual discovery, experiential exercises, group problem solving, and Internet quests. Finally, they must know and model strategies for interpreting maps, charts, graphs, and other nonlinguistic tools.


Is there really a single person with all of these abilities? The authors of the standards point out that these are the ideal and they acknowledge also that few coaches will meet all of the standards at first. We suspect that the road to achieving the entire list of standards will be an arduous one for nearly any coach; our suggestion is that a middle-grades literacy coach begin with a list of objectives and use this list to conduct a personal and private self-assessment. Then, rather than attempting to target all of the objectives a coach has self-rated as 1 or 2 (“not sufficiently knowledgeable” or “somewhat knowledgeable … but need to know more”), a coach should select a manageable number of these to target for personal growth. One objective related to each of the nine criteria would make an excellent action plan for professional growth.

McKenna, M.C. & Walpole, S. (2008). The Literacy Coaching Challenge. New York: The Guilford Press.
Reprinted with permission of Guilford Press.