The Process of Professional Development

In order to adopt research-based practices for teaching reading, teachers must be supported with quality professional development that helps them develop an extensive knowledge and skills base. This guide, written by Learning First Alliance (an organization of twelve national education associations), calls for changes in the context, process, and content of professional development in reading.

Adult learners, like children, need to inquire, reflect, and respond to new ideas if they are to embrace them. Making sense of experience and transforming professional knowledge into daily teaching habits takes time. Teachers need to implement practices they understand and that help them attain goals; otherwise, what is learned will be forgotten when a new trend comes along.

For a teacher to learn a new behavior and effectively transfer it to the classroom, several steps are involved:

  1. Understand the theory and rationale for the new content and instruction.
  2. Observe a model in action.
  3. Practice the new behavior in a safe context.
  4. Try out the behavior with peer support in the classroom.

Many successful attempts may be needed before the new behavior feels comfortable and well learned. Moreover, an individual teacher's efforts to improve practice are much more likely to succeed and persist if they are part of a schoolwide and, ideally, districtwide effort.

At present, teachers often expect that change will be mandated from an administration that is distant from their needs and problems. Departure from this norm would be a great step forward. To engage teachers more fully in their own professional development, the following conditions of change, growth, and learning should be respected:

  • Change occurs in definable stages.
  • Ideas need to be incubated before people are ready to act on them. In the case of reading instruction, foundation knowledge concerning reading development, the structure of English, and the research on instruction are essential.

    Such foundation knowledge and research should be studied and discussed before a major change in behavior is expected of teachers. For example, spring seminars might precede a new program implementation in the fall. Summer coursework could involve intensive learning of content, leading into gradual introduction of reading instruction changes as the school year progresses.

  • A variety of professional development activities will meet individual needs better than a "one-size-fits-all" approach.
  • Professional development programs should consider the fact that teachers' needs vary. Options could include study groups, collaborative teams, individual projects, peer observations, demonstrations, apprenticeships, classroom research projects, observations and feedback from those who are more expert, and pilot programs. These activities should be grounded in clear statements about the goals, content, and practices of evidence-based reading instruction. The content and practices that are most likely to result in better student outcomes do not need to be reinvented, but teachers will prefer some choice as to how, and in what order, that knowledge and skill is acquired.

  • Self-evaluation is part of an individual professional development plan.
  • Teachers' previous education, experience, interests, and aptitudes will vary. In a culture of collaborative learning it should become the norm for teachers to identify the ways in which they need to improve. The starting point for teachers' self-evaluation should be objective assessment of students for the purpose of improving student performance. If teachers identify an important aspect of student learning that is not being well taught, they can work together to design their own professional development activity.

  • After initial concentrated work, follow-up consultation and classes are offered.
  • Learning to teach involves learning a large repertoire of skills and exercising judgment about when to use what, with whom, and why. New teaching skills must be practiced and refined with support and coaching. Coaching?which may be provided by peers, content experts, or supervisors?is an important aspect of professional development. Sustained contact with teachers who are learning new skills and when to apply them should be part of the long-range plan.

  • Sufficient time is allowed before the outcomes of a professional development program are determined.
  • Again, a long-range vision for school change and instructional improvement may include three to five years of work toward a common goal, although measurable progress should be expected every year. That goal should reasonably assume that fewer than five percent of the student body will experience reading difficulties that require long-term special services. Student achievement tests and portfolios, classroom observations, curriculum-based measures, individual case studies, and teacher surveys will all have a role in determining if the professional development program is effective.


Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

National Reading Panel. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.

Snow, C., Burns, S., & Griffin, P. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Moats, L. C. (1995). The missing foundation in teacher education. American Educator, 19(2), 9, 43-51.National Reading Panel. Report of the National Reading Panel.

Scarborough, H., Ehri, L., Olson, R., & Fowler, A. (1998). The fate of phonemic awareness beyond the early school years. Scientific Studies of Reading, 2, 115-142.

Adams, M., Treiman, R., & Pressley, M. (1998). Reading, writing and literacy. In I. E. Siegal and K. A. Renniger (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology: Child psychology in practice (5th ed., Vol. 4, pp. 275-355). New York: Wiley.

National Reading Panel. (2000). Fluency. Chap. 3 in Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: Reports of the subgroups (pp. 3-1-3-43). Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.


Beck, I. L., McCaslin, E. C., & McKeown, M. G. (1980). The rationale and design of a program to teach vocabulary to fourth-grade students. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Learning Research and Development Center.

National Reading Panel. (2000). Vocabulary instruction. Part 1 of Chap. 4 in Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: Reports of the subgroups (pp. 4-15-4-38). Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.

Beck, I. L., & McKeown, M. G. (1991). Conditions of vocabulary acquisition. In P. D. Pearson (Ed.), The Handbook of Reading Research (Vol. 2, pp. 789-814). New York: Longman Press.

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Omanson, R. C. (1984). The fertility of some types of vocabulary instruction. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans.

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., Hamilton, R. L., & Kucan, L. Getting at the meaning: How to help students unpack difficult text. American Educator, 22, 66-71, 85.

Learning First Alliance (1998). Every child reading: An action plan. Washington, DC: Author.Pressley, M. (1998). Reading instruction that works: The case for balanced teaching. New York: Guilford Press.

Snow, C., Burns, S., & Griffin, P. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children (pp. 80-83). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

National Reading Panel. (2000). Text comprehension. Part 2 of Chap. 4 in Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: Reports of the subgroups (pp. 4-39-4-118). Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., Hamilton, R. L., & Kucan, L. Getting at the meaning.

Durkin, D. (1993). Teaching them to read (6th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Berninger, V., Vaughan, K., Abbott, R., Abbott, S., Brooks, A., Rogan, L., Reed, E., & Graham, S. (1997). Treatment of handwriting fluency problems in beginning writing: Transfer from handwriting to composition. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 652-666.

Berninger, V., Vaughan, K., Abbott, R., Brooks, A., Abbott, S., Reed, E., Rogan, L., & Graham, S. (1998). Early intervention for spelling problems: Teaching spelling units of varying size within a multiple connections framework. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 587-605.

Graham, S., Berninger, V., Abbott, R., Abbott, S., & Whitaker, D. (1997). The role of mechanics in composing of elementary school students: A new methodological approach. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 170-182.

Bear, D. Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (1996). Words their way: Word study for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Ehri, L., & Soffer, A. (1999). Graphophonemic awareness: Development in elementary students. Scientific Studies of Reading, 3, 1-30.Treiman, R. (1993). Beginning to spell. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fletcher, J. M., & Lyon, G. R. (1998). Reading: A research-based approach. In W. Evers (Ed.), What's gone wrong in America's classrooms (pp. 49-90). Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.

In addition to their mention in Every Child Reading: An Action Plan, these components are commonly delineated in documents such as research reviews, state standards on instruction, the Reading Excellence Act funding criteria, curriculum guidelines, and teacher instructional manuals.

Of course, as the National Reading Panel notes, "phonics teaching is a means to an end. . . . In implementing systematic phonics instruction, educators must keep the end in mind and ensure that children understand the purpose of learning letter sounds and that they are able to apply these skills accurately and fluently in their daily reading and writing activities" (Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institute of Health, 2000, p. 10). The panel's report also states that, notwithstanding the fact that explicit, systematic, synthetic phonics is the most effective approach, there remain unanswered questions on how to make this instruction as effective as possible. For example, the panel notes that more research is needed on questions such as how long single instruction sessions should last, how many letter-sound relations should be taught, and how many months or years a phonics program should continue. Moreover, some children will learn and appropriately apply phonics skills quickly and effortlessly, while others must be taught slowly, step by step. The individual variation in any group remains a continual challenge to teacher judgment, resourcefulness, and program management skill.

In the standardization of the Texas Primary Reading Inventory, these subtests combined predict the likelihood of success or failure with about 90 percent accuracy.

The readability of text, as reflected in sentence complexity and frequency of vocabulary, can now be assessed with software. Readability formulas tend to have more validity for children who have attained a reading level above 2nd grade than they do for those who are just beginning to read, and readability does not reflect the extent to which a text is decodable on the basis of what a child has been taught.

Every Child Reading: A Professional Development Guide. (November, 2000). Learning First Alliance. Reprinted with permission.

Copyright © 2000 by the Learning First Alliance. Learning First Alliance member organizations include: American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, American Association of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Council of Chief State School Officers, Education Commission of the States, National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Association of State Boards of Education, National Education Association, National Parent Teacher Association, National School Boards Association. For more information, see


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