Making a Difference in the Classroom with Early Literacy Instruction

By Smith, Sylvia B.; Baker, Scott et al. | Teaching Exceptional Children, July/August 2001 | Go to article overview

Making a Difference in the Classroom with Early Literacy Instruction


Smith, Sylvia B., Baker, Scott, Oudeans, Mary Karen, Teaching Exceptional Children


-Designing Instruction to Support the Success of ALL Students

How can professional development programs help early childhood teachers with their instructional programs-so that children at risk of having reading delays instead show great improvement in skills and understanding? We found two effective dimensions of a professional development program in early literacy:

* Adoption of a dynamic early literacy assessment system.

* Teacher implementation of researchbased early literacy practices.

In this article, we focus on the link between changes in teachers' conceptual knowledge and student performance. We show how teachers used the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) assessment system (Good & Kaminski, 2000), and we describe significant changes in teacher practice and student performance on foundational skills in early literacy.

Evolution of Instructional Changes

Every kindergarten and first-grade teacher wonders, "How can I help all children in my room learn to read successfully and on time?" A kindergarten classroom teacher and a Title I early literacy teacher at Glendale Elementary School wanted to better prepare their students for reading and made some major changes in how and what they taught every day in the classroom. The solutions they came up with resulted in significant improvements in how prepared their students were for learning to read. These teachers work in a school that presented a number of challenges to their goal of preparing all students to be successful readers. The percentage of children on free or reduced lunch was approximately 85 %, and many students came to school not well prepared to learn the academic and social routines of kindergarten. The school had the highest poverty level in the district; it also had the highest mobility rate. In addition, approximately 15%-20% of the children were English-language learners.

Despite these challenges and as a result of participating in the 4-year professional development project, the success these teachers had in preparing all their students for reading was substantiated. Other kindergarten teachers in the district heard about the success these teachers had in changing the Glendale kindergarten program; typically, the first thing they wanted to know was what curriculum the teachers used. The two teachers responded by saying, "It's not the curriculum-it's the way the curriculum is used that really seems to make the difference.

The next section describes two themes that emerged from a recently completed 4-year professional development project that seemed to be most influential in leading to effective and sustained changes in teacher practice (Baker, Smith, Kame'enui, McDonnell, & Gallop, 1999).

Themes of Sustained Change in Teacher Practice

Two themes underlie why the Glendale teachers suggested that the way the curriculum was implemented (and not the specific curriculum they used) made the difference between successful and problematic learning for many of their students (Baker et al., 1999). The themes were recurrent throughout the cases where changes in teacher practice were most effective and valued by the school (see Figure 1).

Teachers acquired a deep instructional understanding of the rationale for the changes being considered. They had multiple opportunities to try new instructional practices in the classroom, and they received specific feedback about implementation during ongoing professional development activities.

The presence of a school-based assessment system provided sensitive and frequent information on how well children were learning important concepts.

Together, these two themes complemented each other in a way that demonstrated a bridge between research and practice.

Acquiring Conceptual and Applied Knowledge About Now Instructional Practices

We gradually introduced teachers to relevant aspects of the early-literacy research base during a series of professional development meetings. …

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