The University of Iowa

Literacy Professional Development Provides Evidence-Based Practices and Instructional Consistency

Julie Neal Question and Answer Graphic

Sean Thompson

Communications Specialist, Iowa Reading Research Center

Posted on: April 17, 2018

Editor's note: The modules discussed in this post are now part of the Early Literacy Blueprint Initiative.

One of the seven legislative purposes of the Iowa Reading Research Center (IRRC) is to provide “professional development strategies and materials to support teacher effectiveness in student literacy development” (IAC 281-61.2(256).5). As part of that effort, we have been creating modules on Effective Literacy Strategy Instruction that can be used by IRRC-trained facilitators at the Area Education Agency or school district level to support the implementation of best practices among teachers in kindergarten through third grade. Our literacy experts used evidence gathered from literacy research to make sure we were building the modules using strategies that will work in any classroom, regardless of the local curriculum, and will have an impact on student literacy outcomes.

The initial five modules include an overview of effective practices, and example strategies for teaching grapheme-phoneme correspondences, morphology, vocabulary, and text structure. There are interactive activities built into the professional development, some of which center on sample lesson plans that illustrate various stages of instruction (i.e., modeling, guided practice, and independent practice). Each module also includes film clips of the instructional strategies being used in actual classrooms. We wanted to combine reading and hearing about the strategies with the opportunity to see teacher colleagues implementing the strategies as they teach their students.

To make the modules available to as many teachers as possible while ensuring fidelity to the principles around which the modules were built, we held two training-of-trainers (TOT) events in the fall of 2017. We began training literacy leaders from school districts and Area Education Agencies around the state to serve as providers of the professional development, using our digital and print materials. A total of 171 literacy leaders completed the TOT events and are in various stages of delivering the professional development and putting the evidence-based strategies into action in their home districts or regions.

We are excited about the success of this professional development and are developing more modules to add to the mix. We also plan to implement robust fidelity of implementation monitoring systems for maintaining both the quality of the professional development and the integrity of how these instructional strategies are applied in classrooms. The Iowa Department of Education and TOT participants will be instrumental both in gathering the fidelity data and in tracking the reading proficiency of students taught by teachers who have participated in the professional development. The data will be analyzed to gauge the modules and to identify any needed changes to the training or materials.

In order to provide some insights about this literacy professional development from one of the trainers, we spoke with Greene County Community School District Reading Specialist Julie Neal. Julie has been delivering the professional development to teachers in her school district and reflected on her experiences.

Q: What Interested You About Becoming a Trainer for the Iowa Reading Research Center’s Effective Literacy Instruction Modules?

Julie Neal (JN): Greene County Community School District Instructional Coach Lisa Wilkins and I were excited to hear someone created modules that are evidence-based literacy practices that we could share with our staff. These modules give teachers across the state the same starting point of instructional best practices. Because we live in a mobile society, having some common practices ensures students would be able to receive similar evidence-based literacy instruction no matter where they attend school. If students move to a different school, having consistent literacy strategies from place to place will make it less likely that the students will experience gaps or regress in their literacy development. 

In addition to giving beginning teachers a scaffold or a place to start, these evidence-based practices offer a great refresher for experienced teachers. Implementing practices that are proven to be effective is what we strive to do in Greene County Elementary. If all teachers are able to implement the same practices, follow the same structure for lessons, and use the same language to describe the literacy and strategy components, there will be better vertical alignment across grade levels. 

Q: In What Ways Are These Modules Different From Other Literacy Professional Development You Have Experienced?

JN: Our instructional team was excited that we would actually come back with something to present to our staff. Instead of hearing about best practices and creating our own way to present to our staff, we had a presentation and instructional materials to guide us through the implementation of the literacy strategies. The modules provide all the materials necessary to explain the strategies in an easy-to-understand manner. Attending the training done by Iowa Reading Research Center Director Dr. Deborah K. Reed gave us an explicit and clear understanding of how to deliver the presented materials to our staff.

The modules are very structured and systematic. The videos of teachers using the strategies are very helpful to the teachers because they can see it in action in other classrooms. The gradual release of responsibility, transferring from teacher-directed instruction to students independently applying the strategies, is clearly modeled throughout the video series. Overall, these modules give our teachers strategies to use with all types of readers in their whole-and small-group instruction.

Q: How Will This Professional Development Help Address Your School System’s Goals for Improving the Literacy Performance of Elementary Students?

JN: One of our district's goals is to increase performance through evidence-based practices. We have worked together to create grade-level essential standards and ways to enrich or intervene, as needed, to assist all students in becoming lifelong readers. We adopted a phonics program about three years ago to alleviate the holes in phonics instruction we were seeing in our student data as students progressed through school. I was pleased to see that these modules supported the need for systematic phonics instruction with scientific research.  

Q: What Suggestions Do You Have for How Schools Can Integrate the Modules into Their Professional Development Plans?

JN: We used these modules to help build rigor in our current literacy instructional strategies.  The strategies serve to strengthen and enrich our existing curriculum, and they give teachers systematic approaches to helping all students be successful—not only in the literacy block but in other content area lessons as well. For example, the morphology lessons help with the math and science vocabulary we expect our students to learn and apply. 

Noting our paraeducators are important in delivering reading support, we intend to offer in-service sessions to educate them in these beneficial instructional techniques. Our building leadership team has decided each new teacher coming into the system needs to be aware of the philosophy that is stated in these modules.

Q: How Will You Follow-Up with Teachers After They Have Participated in the Learning so That You Can Support the Implementation of the Strategies in Their Classrooms?

JN: Our instructional coaches will follow up during the teachers’ professional learning community, or PLC, time. Teachers will be asked how they plan to implement the strategies, and instructional coaches will offer to model the strategies for the teachers in their classrooms.  Individual coaching on implementation of these practices will be offered to assist anyone that is in need of further understanding of these important strategies so that every teacher can be confident in their delivery and in their ability to appropriately support students’ literacy development.