Teacher Knowledge Matters in Supporting Young Readers
Knowing what teachers know and how they practice is necessary to ensure that there are professionals in every classroom meeting the diverse needs of students. Researchers evaluated case studies from a group of teachers and revealed four different levels of knowledge, indicating that future staff development needs to be differentiated and individualized.
Young children need both overall language skills related to vocabulary and conceptual world knowledge and the literacy-based skills of letter knowledge and letter-sound correspondence (Carnine, Silbert, Kame'enui, Tarver, & Jungjohann, 2006). Those who struggle with emergent literacy have been described as young readers who have not learned "to orchestrate their knowledge of language, of the world, and of print, and how it works" (Pinnell, Fried, & Estice, 1990, p. 282). Such children need support in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, text comprehension, and vocabulary (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [NICHD], 2000).
While there may be some differences of opinion about what strategies promote growth in these areas, there is overwhelming agreement on the need for early intervention (Carnine et al., 2006). Programs such as Reading Recovery meet the early intervention criteria because they are for readers who are experiencing difficulty in the first year of reading instruction (Pinnell et al., 1990). By their very nature, daily tutoring sessions in which a child reads familiar and new stories, composes a message, and works with letters (Pinnell et al., 1990) help him or her develop oral reading fluency, text comprehension, an increased vocabulary, and phonological awareness (Stahl, Stahl, & McKenna, 1999). Despite formidable critics (Hiebert, 1994; Hoff, 2002; Shanahan & Barr, 1995), there is continued evidence that Reading Recovery techniques help young struggling readers reach grade level in reading (Allington, 2005) and stay there (Schmitt & Gregory, 2005). Early literacy support has also been shown to reduce special education referrals (O'Connor & Simic, 2002). Small wonder, then, that the success of short-term first-grade tutoring has sparked interest in making strategic, reading-support activities available in the regular classroom. Some places have successfully intensified and improved instruction for all first-grade students by pairing teachers trained in Reading Recovery strategies with regular first-grade teachers for one hour every day (Kinnucan- Welsch, Magill, & Dean, 1999). Others have chosen to develop whole-class programs that successfully extend strategic literacy instruction through the primary grades in their school (Miles, Stegle, Hubbs, Henk, & Mallette, 2005).
Aligning strategic teaching and exemplary literacy practices with instruction in the regular classroom becomes an ongoing professional development experience for the teachers involved (Kinnucan-Welsch et al., 1999). Through coaching, teachers need to internalize and be able to put into practice a number of specific understandings. Among these are the basics of describing the reading cueing systems (meaning, structure, visual cues) that readers use (Goodman, 1982), successfully completing and analyzing running records (Clay, 1991; Stafford, 2000), and using the miscue analysis of those records (Goodman, 1982) to guide instruction. Even when there is no specific school-mandated early literacy support program, teachers who have been trained in sound techniques, such as those found in Reading Recovery, implement them in their classrooms (Roehrig, Pressley, & Sloup, 2001). Because such changes in teacher knowledge and procedures are tied to student outcomes and achievement (Guskey, 2000), knowing the developmental nature as well as the depth and breadth of those changes becomes important.
Evaluating teacher knowledge: One school's story
One elementary school near Charleston, South Carolina, found itself in just this position. Knowing that highly qualified teachers positively affect student outcomes (Ferguson & Ladd, 1996) and that the use of ongoing assessment to monitor progress and plan for instruction is essential in the primary grades (Dole, 2004), the school's principal decided to implement staff development based on the sound literacy knowledge and techniques associated with Reading Recovery. The goal was to help all primary teachers be consistent in the terminology, strategies, and assessments (particularly running records) they used within reading instruction.
Over a school year, the literacy coach provided ongoing training to the teachers in grades 1 through 3. These sessions included the purposes of running records, running record symbols and conventions, and the calculation and conversion of the accuracy and self-correction rates. The use of reading cueing systems (meaning, structure, visual cues; or MSV) and the development of questions to guide miscue analysis of running records were also targeted. Other coaching included identifying the strategies of good readers, implementing self-correcting and cross-checking, using miscue analysis of running records to guide instruction, and monitoring the retelling of stories. An integral part of the training involved teachers actually completing running records on their students. As the teachers analyzed the running records, the coach provided ongoing support and assistance; teachers learned as they worked directly with students.
Current requirements for this school district mandate that running records be completed on all firstthrough third-grade students every nine weeks and on all kindergarten students at the end of the year. The teachers immediately put the training to good use, linking it to evaluating student outcomes (Guskey, 2000). Student improvement could be determined by analysis of their running record assessments. However, the relationship between student achievement and changes in teacher knowledge or procedures was not clear.
Typically, teacher knowledge develops from declarative knowledge (knowing what the strategy is and is meant to do), to procedural knowledge (knowing how the strategy works), to conditional knowledge (knowing when and why to use the strategy; Jones, 2006). Therefore, understanding any links between changes in different types of teacher knowledge (declarative, procedural, or conditional) and student outcomes (Guskey, 2000) became critical in planning for future literacy support.
Research in Action
Schools continually evaluate changes in student knowledge; often, they fail to do the same for teacher changes and rarely establish the link between the two (Anders, Hoffman, & Duffy, 2000). And yet, "teacher learning and student learning are the measures against which efficacy and accountability should be assessed" (Kinnucan-Welsch, Rosemary, & Grogan, 2006, p. 430). Fortunately, one of the school's lead reading teachers, a master's candidate at a local college, undertook the evaluation of the running record literacy coaching at the school as her thesis project. It was not an ideal solution; evaluation should be built into staff development from the very beginning (Lowden, 2006) but it was a beginning in exploring the link.
The action research sought to describe how well the staff support and coaching worked and how it affected the literacy knowledge of teachers in grades 1, 2, and 3 in one school. A second goal was to ascertain how best to proceed with future staff training and coaching to support literacy improvement. What did the teachers know and practice? Where were they on the knowledge continuum? Would teachers benefit from differentiated instruction sessions?
Answering the Research Questions
The teacher/researcher used a qualitative approach to answer the following questions:
- How do classroom teachers describe the reading cueing systems?
- How do classroom teachers analyze running record information?
- How do classroom teachers implement classroom reading instruction based on miscue analysis of running records and their knowledge of the reading cueing systems?
Observation, interviews, and analysis of records are the preferred tools for assessing staff-development participant outcomes (Guskey & Sparks, 1991). The researcher triangulated all three areas in gathering data from the six teachers in the primary grades (two each from grades 1, 2, and 3).
The background of the participating teachers ranged from 7 to 20 years of experience. Four of the teachers had master's degrees and two had 30 hours over their master's. One teacher did not have a master's degree while another was working on it. Three teachers had degrees in special education. All teachers had participated in previous professional development sessions and coaching. Two teachers had previously volunteered in a reading initiative led by a literacy coach in which there was systematic inquiry about issues in classrooms.
The researcher observed each classroom teacher as the teacher completed a miscue analysis of a running record and taped a formal interview. Each teacher described the three reading cueing systems and their relationship to teaching students how to read. They also identified how they use miscue analysis information and their knowledge of the reading cueing systems to guide reading instruction. The researcher then examined this information as a continuum of understanding and application. She used a literacy knowledge rubric to determine the stage at which teachers were functioning. The literacy stages delineated where each of the teachers ranked with regard to describing the reading cueing systems, analyzing the miscue analysis of the running record, and identifying their ability to use their literacy knowledge to guide reading instruction.
Creating and using the developmental literacy knowledge rubric was a challenging task. It required a well-defined progression of skill development that could be observed and then defined on a rubric:
- The rubric was based on the three research questions related to the reading cueing systems, miscue analysis of running records, and guiding classroom reading instruction. These three sections were then set up on a continuum-Beginning, Developing, Independent, Mastery-indicating stages or levels of ability. The Beginning stage included basic recall or recognition of information (declarative knowledge). The Developing stage included explanations of concepts and transference of the information to another similar situation (procedural knowledge). The Independent stage included the analysis or breaking down of information into parts to explore relationships (early conditional knowledge). The Mastery stage included synthesis or evaluation of information-putting parts together to form a new whole and using this information to justify a course of action (conditional knowledge).
- The researcher and the literacy coach identified what teachers were taught during the running record training-reading cueing systems, running record information, and guiding classroom reading instruction.
- The criteria on the rubric for describing the reading cueing systems and for guiding classroom reading instruction came from the running record training information and from resources cited in the beginning of this article.
- A running record form was analyzed for accurate information. The teachers' miscue analysis of running records was included as criteria for the rubric.
- The researcher completed the rubric by circling the appropriate criteria within each stage of development. Several of the teachers did not have all responses fall within one developmental level. In the analysis, teachers were grouped by where the preponderance of answers fell in each developmental level. The detail of the rubric made it easy to define what they did not know in the three areas and what they needed to learn more about.
Table 1. Developmental Literacy Knowledge Rubric
Beginning: During this stage the teacher…
Developing: During this stage the teacher…
Independent: During this stage the teacher…
Mastery: During this stage the teacher…
Reading cueing systems
- Names reading cueing systems
- Defines meaning, structure, visual (MSV)
- Shows examples on student's running record
- Describes what each reading cueing system includes
- Identifies reading cues as semantic cues (M), syntactic cues (S), graphophonic cues (V)
- Explains examples on student's running records
- Explains lower level reading cueing system prompts (Does it sound right? Look right? Make sense?)
- Examines purpose(s) for understanding reading cueing systems
- Chooses higher level reading cueing system prompt(s) from a list of prompts
- Evaluates integration of reading cueing systems
- Evaluates purpose(s) of understanding reading cueing systems
- Selects and evaluates appropriate prompt(s) from a variety of reading cueing system prompts (MSV)
Miscue analysis of running records
- Identifies running record symbols and conventions
- States/shows how to label cues (MSV) on running record form
- States/shows how to count errors
- Identifies self-corrections
- States/shows how to label self-corrections on form
- States/shows how to count number of self-corrections
- Explains running record symbols conventions
- Explains miscues
- Explains self-corrections
- Demonstrates/explains how to figure self-correction rate
- Demonstrates/explains relationship between accuracy rate and text level (easy: 95-100%, instructional: 90-94%, hard: 50-89%)
- Selects and explains two or three reading cueing system teaching prompts
- Organizes miscues
- Compares and contrasts miscues
- Analysts miscues
- Analyzes two or three reading cueing system teaching prompts
- Interprets accuracy rate and text level
- Interprets self-corrections in relation to accuracy rate and text level
- Selects appropriate higher level reading strategy prompts (for cross-checking, self-corrections, self-monitoring, searching)
- Evaluates higher level strategies (cross-checking, searching, self-monitoring, self-corrections)
- Evaluates whole self-extending system (use of higher level strategies)
- Judges how to extend higher level reading strategies
- Judges reader's progress through gradient of difficulty in texts
Guiding reading instruction
- States/shows how to document reading progress
- Explains organization of reading groups based on relationship between accuracy rate and text level
- Explains how to monitor text selection for reading group
- Organizes instruction for reading groups based on relationship between accuracy rate and text level
- Distinguishes appropriate time to change text level (up or down) for reading groups
- Develops whole-group reading instruction based on miscue analysis
- Develops small-group and/or individual reading instruction based on miscue analysis
- Reports on how information from reading cueing systems and runing record analysis is used to guide reading instruction
- Evaluates how to support and challenge readers
Case Study Analysis of Teachers
The researcher described the teachers' literacy knowledge within case studies. A summary of two studies provides insight on how the process worked.
Leslie (first-grade teacher with 10 years of experience and a master's degree plus 30; all names are pseudonyms) identified and explained all running record conventions and symbols such as wait time, rereading, self-corrections, omissions, insertions, told, appeal, and child's response written on top of the correct word (e.g., fetch/throw). On a running record, Leslie correctly coded self-corrections. Leslie accurately counted and labeled errors and self-corrections on the running record form. She demonstrated how to calculate the accuracy and self-correction rates. When Leslie analyzed the running record, she explained the relationship between self-corrections and accuracy rate. She reported that a self-correction rate of 1:3 is not too high and is an acceptable rate.
From the miscue analysis of a running record, Leslie demonstrated knowledge of the cues the child used and neglected. When the child read likes for liked and sisters for sister, Leslie wrote a note on the running record and stated that the child needed to work on endings. She noted that most of the time the child substituted endings instead of omitting them (e.g., storing/string). Leslie correctly coded and analyzed the child's errors and self-corrections on the running record form. She evaluated three of the four higher level reading strategies (cross-checking, self monitoring, self-correction) when she stated that the child used the visual cue on errors and used meaning and structure cues to self-correct (e.g., school/shoes and stripe/stripes-visual cue used on errors, meaning and structure cues were used to self-correct). Leslie's analysis of the running record included teaching prompts for meaning ("Does that make sense?") and structure ("Does that sound right?"). Leslie stated that if the child had listened and self-monitored more "she would have gotten things." Leslie continued by saying that for students, especially in first grade, it is hard for them to become self-monitoring readers. See Figure 1.
Leslie named and described the reading cueing systems. She stated that meaning means that a child can make sense of the text and that it helps with comprehension. Leslie explained that the prompt for meaning is "Does that make sense?" She reported that she asks herself if the child understands and monitors him- or herself to gain information from the text. Leslie stated that the structure cue relates to grammar and how sentence structure works when students decode words. According to Leslie, part of structure involves the wrong verb tense being used (e.g., token/taken). Leslie stated that speech problems and the dialect for some Spanish and African American students create more structure problems. She stated that the prompt for structure is "Does it sound right?" Leslie reported that the visual cue involves decoding a word and what the word looks like. When using the visual cue, students are looking for chunks within words, word families, and the visual part of the word. Leslie reported on two prompts for the visual cue: "Get your mouth ready for the first sound" and "Does that look right?"
Leslie evaluated the purposes and integration of the reading cueing systems. She stated that "Efficient and well-rounded readers need all three systems. They can't have one without the other." Leslie reported that well-rounded means that students use everything they know about strategies to decode words. The visual cue alone will not help with certain words. She stated that students must use all three cues in order to gain meaning and to make sense of text and for the word to look right. Leslie did not include the structure cue (sound right) when discussing the integration of the reading cues.
Leslie reported that the reading cueing systems are used to drive instruction. Instruction should include cueing systems that are neglected and prompts to help students integrate all three systems. Using the running record to guide instruction, Leslie stated that mini-lessons would reemphasize inflectional endings (e.g., like/likes, put/puts). Leslie explained that classroom reading instruction was individualized to meet the child's needs through conferences during fluency (oral reading). According to Leslie, running records show patterns of progress or patterns of errors that need to be addressed.
Kathy (third-grade teacher with 6 years of experience and a master's degree in process) identified six out of the eight running record symbols and conventions: reread, self-corrections, told, omissions, insertions, and child's response written on top of the correct word (e.g., fetch/throw). She did not know two conventions: wait time and appeal. Kathy described the symbols and conventions used on a running record that she analyzed (e.g., child self-corrected on his own-and/had-and repeated whole sentence to make sure he knew what was going on-rereading). She accurately marked the correct responses made by the child.
Kathy demonstrated how to count errors on the running record. She accurately counted the self-corrections, but she also counted the self-corrections as errors. Because of this, Kathy recorded an incorrect accuracy rate and self-correction rate. That in turn led Kathy to choose the wrong level of instruction- Instructional level rather than Easy level. She correctly figured the accuracy rate but did not accurately figure the self-correction rate. She stated that the self-correction rate (e.g., 1:10) meant nothing to her, but she made a side note that the child "thinks and corrects himself." Kathy accurately recorded self-corrections when marking the child's responses. When labeling the MSVs, Kathy circled only the cue that she thought the child used. The other cue symbols were not noted. Kathy did not analyze any self-corrections.
From the miscue analysis of a running record, Kathy explained that the student self-corrected on his own and "gets credit back to help him" (e.g., fixhounds/foxhounds). She explained that dog/dogs is a visual error and that the child neglected the ending. On the error on/in, Kathy explained that the child self-corrected because he knows that on Alabama doesn't make sense. She explained that when the student changed the word, which did not make sense, it was a structure cue. Kathy found that on two running records, the student's errors interfered only a little with the meaning. The student's comprehension was still good. Kathy interpreted the accuracy rate and text level (93%-Instructional level for that student). See Figure 2.
Kathy named and defined the three reading cueing systems. She described basic information about each system: meaning cue-text and illustrations-children sometimes focus on words or look at illustrations (e.g., mule/donkey-child looked at illustration, not the correct word); structure cue-grammar-adding different sounds or changing verb tense (e.g., growed/grew); visual cue (e.g., adding s or taking off s and not using endings to help figure out what words mean).
Kathy stated that the reading cueing systems teach students that illustrations are important but they have to read more into the text to get the meaning. She stated that the upper grades focus more than the lower grades on comprehension rather than on how words look. Kathy reported that it is important to find structure cues. These cues can totally change the meaning of the text if, for example, the student adds s to a word. Kathy did not give an example of what she meant when she made that statement.
Kathy reported that knowledge of the reading cueing systems and information from the analysis of a running record would be used to guide her classroom reading instruction. She stated that she would tell the student to make sure to read carefully and to check word endings. During small-group reading instruction, Kathy stated that she would tell the students to slow down to get more meaning and to help them remember what they read. Kathy made comments about "poor retelling." She said that such a child was a "word caller." She evaluated how she would support that student by explaining that she would have the child read at a lower level for several weeks. She would administer another running record to determine if the child had made any progress on comprehension.
These analyses, plus the four other case studies, revealed varying stages of development in the literacy knowledge of the teachers. While they had received the same support at the school, the teachers' overall acquisition of new knowledge was affected by their educational background, years and level of teaching experience, involvement with special education, and previous coaching experiences. The teachers with the highest earned degree (master's degree plus 30 hours), previous literacy staff-development support (South Carolina Reading Initiative), and greatest responsibility for teaching children how to read (firstgrade teachers) had the greatest knowledge of the reading cueing systems and the most accuracy in the miscue analysis of the running records. It appears that educational level (degrees earned) and breadth of educational experiences (special education/literacy initiative) as well as the scope of professional requirements (responsibility for the initial breakthrough in reading) contributed more to a teacher's level of literacy knowledge than years on the job. The developmental growth from declarative knowledge to conditional knowledge is influenced by many factors.
Table 2. Teacher Profile
Special Education Degress
Literacy Training/ Coaching
School support and South Carolina Reading Initiative
Mentally disable, learning disabilities resource
School support and South Carolina Reading Initiative
Master's degree in process
No one in the field of public education today can escape the mandates for accountability (Allington, 2006). Often, teachers are evaluated on their student performance. State departments, schools of education, and school districts are being told that we need certified and highly qualified teachers in each classroom. Looking at someone's qualifications is not enough. This study shows the reality of inconsistent knowledge and skills within and across the grade levels. Six teachers, who had received the same coaching, demonstrated four levels of knowledge. In most school-level or district-level staff-development opportunities, these teachers would receive additional training as if they were all on the same page of music. We have embraced the concept of diversity of learners within our student population; it is now time to address the same diversity in our teaching population. Effective assessment of knowledge, skills, and dispositions is a critical component of the teaching-andlearning cycle. Helping teachers identify their own level of knowledge and skills turns the heavy hand of accountability into a supporting hand of professional growth.
What the Findings Reveal
This study showed the power of using a developmental rubric and case studies to identify what teachers know and don't know about specific content and pedagogy. It used school-based literacy coaches to define the learning and the desired behaviors and to gather the data. The two teachers who received additional training from the South Carolina Reading Initiative scored on the Mastery level and were firstgrade teachers. Future research should address what the case studies revealed: The teachers' acquisition of literacy knowledge was affected by teaching background, previous educational and coaching experiences, and literacy needs of the students in their current grade level (miscue analysis might be more helpful in first grade than third grade). It is clear from this study that differentiated staff development is essential to support professional growth.
Recommendations for the future
The steps used in this study suggest some of the answers. A developmental rubric or scale, designed to describe characteristics of the desired level of performance, should be developed by a group of "experts." The experts could be teachers, administrators, or those highly trained in the defined area. The importance of the knowledge and skills within and across grade levels should be clear to all. For example, in this study the first-grade teachers were the focus for Reading Recovery training and for the additional state-level training. The role of the second- and thirdgrade teachers was not as well defined, yet they were in a position to extend and support the strategies developed in first grade. Programs and early interventions must be viewed across grade levels rather than as grade level or teacher specific.
Before and after training is conducted, the knowledge and skill levels of each teacher should be assessed. Each teacher should be given an opportunity for self-assessment using a rubric. A rubric provides clear expectations of the knowledge and behaviors of a teacher performing on the desired Mastery level. Each teacher can use the rubric to self-assess and identify areas for professional growth. Pairing or grouping teachers can provide additional feedback and suggestions and can enhance this process and create learning communities. Colleagues can provide feedback by observing teaching, analyzing student work or assessment techniques, and holding conferences with the teachers about their observations. The feedback confirms (or not) a teacher's own analysis of his or her level of performance and supports a continuum for that growth. Staff development, ranging from direct instruction to actual coaching, can be designed for different levels of knowledge. Teachers on higher developmental levels can be paired with those on lower developmental levels to provide many layers of coaching and collaboration. Professional development can be focused, personalized, and tied to student learning within a classroom, across grade levels, and within a school. Teachers can set incremental goals and evaluate themselves on a regular basis, just as they evaluate their own students' growth over time. To link the knowledge of the teacher to student achievement, the growth of each teacher needs to be viewed as an individual effort over time supported by a collaborative effort within the school and school district. This requires clearly defined expectations of professional knowledge and skills for all teachers as exemplified by Table 1. Clarity in setting goals for both teachers and students is essential in any school improvement plan.
Research addressing the impact of professional development for practicing teachers is a critical need (Anders et al., 2000). Because accountability and evaluation measures must be meaningful and effective (Kinnucan-Welsch et al., 2006), rubrics and case studies can provide insights and identify initial steps in the right direction. This approach could identify teachers who have additional knowledge and skills to support their role as literacy coaches or reading specialists. In an era when we need qualified teachers to support high-quality reading instruction (Allington, 2006), knowing what teachers know and practice is a necessity to ensure that there are professionals in every classroom.
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Fitzharris, Linda, Jones, Mary Blake, & Crawford, Allison (February 2008). Teacher Knowledge Matters in Supporting Young Readers. The Reading Teacher, 61 (5), 384-394.
Fitzharris teaches at the College of Charleston, South Carolina, USA; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Jones also teaches at the College of Charleston. Crawford teaches at Spann Elementary School in Summerville, South Carolina.