Coaching in Early Grade Reading: Voices from the Field
Many programs are underway around the world to support improvement of early grade reading instruction and student performance. Each of these programs is striving toward improvement by providing resources, engaging teachers in intensive training and supporting local capacity-building among stakeholders at all levels. One way in which many programs are working toward independent program implementation is to build coaching strategies into their existing models, including coaching of teachers, coaching of leaders and even coaching of coaches. While large-scale intensive training and provision of large sets of resources is not a long-term solution to instructional improvement, coaching just may be.
Hear the voices, ideas and research of three reading program implementers who are focused on coaching as one method of sustainability. These pieces are based on the speakers’ presentations at a Global Reading Network webinar on Coaching on a Macro Level.
Kerri’s Voice – The Importance of Coaching: Coaching is a vital part of the success of Room to Read’s Literacy Program, which includes literacy instruction, libraries and book publishing. Room to Read implements coaching for both teachers and librarians, which provides the reinforcement that supports teachers’ behavior change and, ultimately, student achievement.
The journey of a Room to Read coach begins with the interview process. The key characteristics that staff recruit for in a coaching candidate are a background in education, a willingness to learn and the people-skills to work well with teachers. It is often difficult to find candidates with all the qualifications, but all coaches receive 49 days of training over 4 years. Trainings focus on practicing literacy activities and coaching behaviors, as well as learning the theory behind them. Technical supervisors provide ongoing support to coaches through monthly visits.
Whether a coach is observing a literacy lesson, library reading activities or the management of the library, she or he uses observation tools to guide the teacher. Each tool is divided into priority areas that identify the most important areas of improvement. When giving feedback, coaches select the area for improvement from the first priority area until the teacher has mastered all of those behaviors. Coaches give teachers a chance to reflect on their own practice, provide positive feedback and target one item to work on before the next visit. Coaches and teachers brainstorm how the teacher will change his or her practice before the next fortnightly observation.
Having a coach support a teacher through learning new skills makes it more likely that those new behaviors will become habit, enabling us to meet our goal of making children independent readers. Thanks to a comprehensive literacy program that includes coaching, Room to Read students read on average nearly twice as fast as students in comparison schools.
Emily’s Voice – The Process of Coaching: Sometimes, literacy projects’ limited time and funding can prevent coaches from providing the intensive support that teachers need. The good news is, coaching doesn’t have to be provided by only one person. Coaching responsibilities can be dispersed across a variety of actors at the school, district and project level. Dispersing coaching responsibilities in this way can be both cost-effective and technically sound. In fact, the 2014 USAID-commissioned paper The Power of Coaching: Improving Early Grade Reading Instruction in Developing Countries draws on a variety of studies and concludes that “a combination of group and individual coaching appears to be the most effective approach for enhancing instructional practices.”
In the DFID/UNICEF-funded Reading and Numeracy Activity (RANA), implemented by FHI 360 in Nigeria, project staff identified a variety of teacher support needs, including lesson observations and feedback, reflection and problem solving, success recognition, lesson planning and teaching accountability. RANA staff then considered available actors who could provide coaching support across these areas. Eventually, RANA staff selected a combination of Master Trainers (employed through the RANA program) and local School Support Officers (part of the existing school monitoring system) to conduct monthly classroom observations and provide feedback. RANA also called upon high-performing teachers in each school—called Lead Teachers—to observe classes once per week and conduct weekly school meetings that provide time for lesson preparation and peer feedback.
To ensure a degree of coherence across coaching actors and structures, RANA promotes a simple, 3-step coaching method:
- Let the teacher speak first.
- Point out something that is going well.
- Point out what can be improved.
This simple, 3-step method helps ensure a balanced approach to coaching. The first step encourages teacher empowerment and self-reflection. The second step encourages the teacher and builds trust between the teacher and coach. The third step provides the concrete feedback that the teacher likely needs. This 3-step method is simple enough to be adapted by school level, district level, and project level actors, thus providing coherence across the coaching system.
Karon’s Voice – Research on Coaching: Due to the success in high-income countries of promoting teacher change through ongoing, on-site teacher engagement with a pedagogical coach, many literacy interventions in low- and middle-income countries are investing substantial resources into this model of teacher professional development. To better understand how this model works in low-resource contexts, we used archival data from a 2014-2015 literacy intervention in 60 public primary schools in Nigeria to examine the relationships between improvements in literacy teachers’ instructional practices and characteristics of the coaching support they received.
Regression analysis showed that coaches with higher academic credentials performed significantly better on our measures of coach quality, which were based on positive coach-teacher rapport and reflective activities, but their credentials had no discernible effect on their teachers’ changes in practice. Secondly, while we found positive associations between the coaches’ prior experience as a teacher or coach (but not as a headteacher) and improvements in their teachers’ practices, their prior experience in supervisory roles (as a headteacher and coach) was negatively associated with our measures of coach quality. Lastly, the more coach visits the teachers received, the more likely they were to adopt the new instructional practices, but curiously, our measures of the quality of those visits actually showed a negative association with teacher change. Limitations in our data may have obscured the full impact of rapport and reflection in coaching, or perhaps more directive coaching spurs greater fidelity of implementation in this context and at this point in the teachers’ learning curve.
While the study was limited by a small sample size (46 teachers and 18 coaches) and a short intervention (8 months), it suggests the following implications for practice. Firstly, in recruiting and training coaches, projects need to consider how the candidates’ background can both contribute to and detract from their effectiveness as a coach. Secondly, early in a project, if ensuring fidelity of implementation of new practices is the main goal, sheer accountability may be the main driver of teacher change. Nonetheless, a reflection-based model of coaching may be more appropriate at a later stage of teacher development.
Amy’s Voice – Comments and Conclusions: Coaching has great potential to not only continue to support instructional improvement in the reading classroom but also to positively impact the professional culture of teachers, motivate them to focus on the quality of their own work and provide better instruction for individual students that will help them achieve their reading goals. Investigation into effective coaching models continues, and more research is needed in this area to identify: 1) the best models to impact teacher practice, 2) the most efficient approaches that work and 3) the ways in which ministries of education and local program leaders can take responsibility for using a coaching-based approach for long-term teacher support.