Skip to main content

Professional Development to Improve Adolescent Literacy

Beyond general best practices, what sorts of professional development will help teachers improve the literacy of their older students? This article by the National Council of Teachers of English advocates building professional communities among secondary school teachers, encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration, and consulting literacy coaches.

Extended time for teachers to move from little or no knowledge to being able to mentor others in specific approaches; the involvement of all stakeholders; connection with the local infrastructure; and the creation of a professional community — all of these contribute to effective professional development. In addition, some features of professional development apply specifically to those concerned with adolescent literacy: professional communities in secondary schools, interdisciplinary collaboration, and literacy coaching.

Professional communities in secondary schools

Collaboration among teachers is always important to student learning because it enables students to see connections across the curriculum. Such collaboration is especially important for fostering achievement in literacy among adolescents because literacy enables and requires learning across the curriculum. Unfortunately, as research shows, professional communities among teachers are most common in elementary schools and least common in secondary schools (Louis & Marks, 1996). Features such as shared values, focus on student learning, de-privatized practice, and reflective dialogue are much less common among middle and high school teachers than among their peers in elementary schools.

Reform aimed at improving the literacy achievement of adolescents will need to encourage professional development that helps teachers create professional communities. The implementation of new approaches offered by professional development requires the existence of a strong professional community that creates a safe environment for teachers to experiment with innovation (Bryk & Schneider, 2003). Professional development can help create professional communities in schools. As the research of Louis & Marks (1996) shows, characteristics of professional communities include:

  • Shared values
  • Focus on student learning
  • Collaboration
  • Deprivatized practice
  • Reflective dialogue

Interdisciplinary collaboration

Adolescent literacy is necessarily interdisciplinary because middle and high school students must read and write in such fields as science, mathematics, and social sciences as well as English. This means that they need to learn the forms, purposes, and other textual demands specific to multiple disciplines (Kucer, 2005). Students who have opportunities to read and write many types of texts become fluent, broaden their vocabularies, and expand their abilities as readers and writers. In particular, students who participate in discussions that develop their understanding of discipline-specific content learn to read and write efficiently and effectively (Applebee et al., 2003). They develop the ability to recognize how texts are organized in different disciplines and begin to consider the various social, political, and historical contexts and purposes that surround all texts.

Whether they are in a science or English class, adolescents need to understand literacy as an array of related and complex mental and social activities rather than a set of discrete skills. This, in turn, will lead them to competence and engagement as learners (Allington, 2001; Alvermann & Moore, 1991). When students in middle and high school experience effective literacy instruction, they develop the ability to think critically about their own reading and writing practices. They also become able to explain the meaning of a text and to recognize when they do not understand, which is a first step in helping them move to understanding. Willingness to monitor their own literacy learning is one indication of student engagement, and research shows a high correlation between such engagement and improved literacy learning (Taylor et al., 2003).

Research shows that professional development associated with writing across the curriculum leads to more effective interdisciplinary collaboration among teacher learners (Winchester School District, 1987). When teachers from several disciplines work together in the context of professional development, they are much more likely to develop working relationships. Furthermore, when teacher learning extends across disciplines it also enhances student achievement (Arbaugh, 2003; Burbank & Kauchak, 2003).

Multi-modal literacy, literacy practices that can be used in the context of multiple sites/texts/media, supports and is supported by interdisciplinary. Multimodal texts are inherently interdisciplinary because creation of them draws upon several fields of inquiry. Similarly, the multidisciplinary nature of literacy leads naturally to multi-modal forms that combine visual and verbal texts in various ways.

Literacy coaching

The most promising form of professional development overall appears to be literacy coaching (Kamil, 2003). In this work, literacy specialists consult with content teachers to help them infuse literacy instruction into their teaching. Although qualifications and responsibilities of literacy coaches vary from one site to another, most agree that coaches model instruction, observe teachers and make suggestions, lead teacher inquiry groups, and disseminate research findings. Qualifications include 1) a strong foundation in literacy, 2) leadership skills, and 3) familiarity with adult learning. Unlike reading specialists who spend most of their time working with students, literacy coaches focus on teacher learning, concerning themselves with increasing the knowledge and skills of teachers and administrators.

Literacy coaches can help teachers:

  • provide a bridge between adolescents’ rich literate backgrounds and school literacy activities
  • work on school-wide teams to teach literacy in each discipline as an essential way of learning in the disciplines
  • recognize when students are not making meaning with text and provide appropriate, strategic assistance to read course content effectively
  • facilitate student-initiated conversations regarding texts that are authentic and relevant to real life experiences
  • create environments that allow students to engage in critical examinations of texts as they dissect, deconstruct, and reconstruct in an effort to engage in meaning making and comprehension processes.

Together with the International Reading Association (IRA) and other professional associations, NCTE has developed standards for what literacy coaches should know and be able to do to help teachers. These standards provide guidance for schools seeking to include literacy coaching in their professional development plans. Briefly, the standards (see list on page 15) include general ones directed toward all coaches and content-area-specific ones grounded in the disciplines.

NCTE is addressing this challenge by establishing, in cooperation with the International Reading Association, the Literacy Coaching Clearinghouse. The Clearinghouse will provide research-based information and service to literacy coaches and educational leaders in schools across the nation. In addition, the Clearinghouse will lead further research on literacy coaching in order to answer questions such as these:

  • In what domain-student learning, teacher learning, or school climate-is the impact of literacy coaches greatest?
  • How can schools collect their own data about the effects of literacy coaching on student achievement?
  • How can we compare literacy coaches across contexts?
  • What are the characteristics of highly effective coaches?
  • What is the relationship between coaches’ familiarity with content area standards and effective integration of literacy instruction into content area lessons?
  • How does a coach’s knowledge in a given content area affect the teacher’s sense of expertise?
  • Which qualities of literacy coaches correlate most highly with enhanced student achievement in literacy?
  • What reading comprehension strategies are best received by teachers?
  • Which comprehension strategies and practices are most effective for students?
  • What is the optimum context for teacher-literacy coach planning and evaluation of instruction?
  • How do coach-led teams allocate literacy and content area instruction?
  • What differences between content-area teachers’ practices can be attributed to participation in coach-led teacher meetings?

Answering questions like these can be described as a practice-embedded research (Donovan, Wigdor, and Snow, 2003). Such research starts with the practice as it exists and, building on successful teacher practices already in place, addresses practitioner questions while also accumulating data across sites. The findings will inform the training and evaluation of literacy coaches. Ultimately, of course, the Clearinghouse will be an instrument of reform focused on improving student achievement by enhancing the development of under-literate adolescents.

Standards for literacy coaches

  1. Skillful Collaborators
    Working with the school’s literacy team, literacy coaches determine the school’s strengths (and need for improvement) in the area of literacy in order to improve students’ reading, writing, and communication skills and content area achievement.
  2. Skillful Job-Embedded Coaches
    Literacy coaches work with teachers individually, in collaborative teams, an/or with departments, providing practical support on a full range of reading, writing, and communication strategies
  3. Skillful Instructional Strategists
    Literacy coaches lead faculty in the selection and use of a range of assessment tools as a means to make sound decisions about student literacy needs as related to the curriculum and to instruction.
  4. Content area literacy coaches are accomplished middle and high school teachers who are skilled in developing and implementing instructional strategies to improve academic literacy in English language arts.
  5. In English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies literacy coaches are familiar with the content area and know how reading and writing processes intersect with the given discipline.
Experted with permission. The National Council of Teachers of English. (2006). NCTE Principles of Adolescent Literacy Reform, pp. 12-16. Retrieved Nov. 7, 2007, from