Literacy Program Speaks Volumes

By Wells, Michele; Turner, Wyona | Journal of Staff Development, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Literacy Program Speaks Volumes

Wells, Michele, Turner, Wyona, Journal of Staff Development


It was a professional developer's dream. The phone rang. A school's literacy leader asked, "Can you come help us with our next steps?" The school was not merely willing to allow visitors in classrooms, but reaching out to invite visitors in for critical feedback in developing a professional development plan to improve literacy.

So early one morning, a small team of volunteer literacy leaders met to do a walk-through of the school to collect observations and data. At the debriefing, all agreed the teachers were struggling with how to design and use assessments more productively. The next step for their professional learning was clear. And the team walked away with a clearer understanding for themselves of the process of schoolwide implementation.

Literacy in Action, a program focused on improving literacy skills for all children in urban El Paso, Texas, was realizing its dream. Schools were seeking "critical friends" to help teachers evolve and improve their practice.


In 1999, the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence began to focus on literacy after middle and high school faculty in the three urban districts found students were having trouble with the reading and writing involved in the Connected Mathematics Program, a mathematics curriculum at the core of the collaborative's work since its inception in 1991. (See "El Paso collaborative for academic excellence" on p. 22.)

The collaborative continued its work in mathematics and science, but began Literacy in Action to develop teachers' skills and abilities to teach higher-level reading and writing. Collaborative leaders and education consultants designed a standards-based program grounded in a 2½-hour daily literacy block where students spend one hour each on writer's and reader's workshops and a half-hour on skills development. The most intensive efforts were aimed at pre-kindergarten through 6th grades, although the initiative continues through 9th grade.

Literacy in Action schools have shown results. The percent of students reaching proficiency levels on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) in reading and writing has increased significantly in participating schools. The first schools to participate, for example, increased proficiency after four years for 4th-grade reading and writing, as well as in mathematics. From 1998 to 2002, proficiency grew by 11.1% in reading, 9.5% in writing, and 11.7% in mathematics more than schools not in the program.


While the core of the literacy program is intensive teacher professional development, the collaborative's role is to grow leadership and knowledge in the schools. Each participating school agrees to:

* Make the initiative its first priority rather than one piece of many efforts;

* Fund a full-time literacy leader with strong content knowledge;

* Allow the literacy leader to work full time with teachers, attend a week-long summer professional development session, and attend professional development one day a week during the academic year;

* Have the principal's commitment to lead the initiative, demonstrated by the principal's participation in principals' seminars and support for the school literacy leader;

* Redirect resources to the initiative for teacher released time, substitutes, and stipends;

* Provide $1,000 for each classroom to develop classroom libraries and $100 per teacher for professional collections; and

* Engage parents in a meaningful way.

In exchange, the collaborative agrees to:

* Provide weekly professional development for literacy leaders grounded in professional readings. The collaborative provided books as anchor texts (titles listed above) for both literacy leaders and teachers;

* Provide monthly professional development and support for principals and assistant principals grounded in professional readings such as Going Public, by Shelley Harwayne (Heinemann, 1999), and selected readings on leadership and implementation by Richard Elmore and others;

* Provide professional development in specific literacy content areas like genre and author studies primarily to literacy leaders, but also to teachers; and

* Provide an eight-day Cognitive Coaching Foundation Seminar to literacy leaders, principals, and assistant principals. …

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