by Debra Zarling
Where do you go for help when you have a serious medical issue? Or when your car has a major breakdown? Or a pipe bursts in your home? Like many people, you might first try fixing things yourself but if the issue is significant you will likely need to consult an expert. We are currently embroiled in an era of renewed attacks on teachers and their expertise. Recent headlines have questioned the ability of teachers to teach children to read. Across the country, legislators are becoming more apt to pass legislation about the teaching of reading that does not reflect what the weight of research says and fails to honor the expertise of teachers.
The current attacks primarily appear to be focused on the role of phonics in learning to read but they also question the knowledge and expertise of teachers and in turn, may sometimes cause us to question our own judgment and capabilities. Nowhere is this truer than when working with students at risk of not being successful readers and writers.
Reading Recovery has not been immune to these assaults and recent posts on this blog have taken on some of those attacks about the research on which Reading Recovery is based (see recent posts by Williams and Schwartz). These ongoing challenges to teachers and their expertise have led some to question themselves, not in a way that encourages them to collaborate with colleagues and problem-solve the situation but in a way that causes them to question themselves and their ability to meet student needs. While it is good to regularly evaluate our instruction to determine whether what we are doing is working best for this student at this time, we need to rely on our expertise and the expertise of our colleagues to help us find the answers when the learning is not progressing. Others expect us to look to programs or products as holding the answers. Programs can provide content, perhaps a suggested scope and sequence but they can’t provide the expert knowledge of how to teach or how to be responsive to the individual needs of a child. As Scanlon illustrates, many programs are based on research, at least to some degree, but relatively few have any actual research supporting the actual effectiveness of the program. Her research and that of many others (Allington, 2002; Bryk, Hanushek, 2015; May 2016) confirms that the teacher matters more than programs.
Expertise doesn’t come from training in a particular program. A common criticism of programmed materials is that the more dependent teachers become on them, the less able those teachers are in differentiating and responding to student needs. At times, teachers themselves exacerbate the problem by downplaying their own expertise. When asked about the needs of a student, especially one who comes with a ‘label,’ they may downplay their own expertise, forgetting that a label doesn’t eliminate the need for expert, diagnostic teaching.
In an era where we see increasing recommendations for the use of scripted materials and computer programs for teaching and intervention, Reading Recovery stands out for its reliance on teacher expertise. There is no program, kit, or script that can be purchased, and no one profits financially from the intervention. Rather, the focus is on the initial and ongoing development of teacher expertise.
The online Cambridge dictionary defines expertise as “a high level of skill or knowledge.” For teachers of reading, that expertise comes from a deep understanding of the knowledge and skills needed to learn to read and experience in using that knowledge and skill to teach students.
The importance of this expertise was validated in the Reading Recovery i3 study. In addition to looking at student outcomes, May and colleagues looked for evidence of what made the difference between schools with higher outcomes and schools with lower outcomes. They found two characteristics that differentiated. In those schools that had the highest outcomes, the teachers demonstrated deliberateness and instructional dexterity to a higher degree than was found in schools with more typical outcomes.
In the study, deliberateness is defined as “an encompassing commitment to thoughtful practice.”
“Deliberate teachers engage in a particular set of behaviors, including:
- purposeful analysis of students’ progress that is guided by close, carefully documented observation;
- ongoing reflection on their own instruction; and
- active engagement with their own continual learning, both individually and through participation in a community of practice.” (pg 92)
Instructional dexterity was defined as the flexible application of deep skill.
“The expressions of instructional dexterity we identify take place within the lesson itself and include:
- supportive rapport that continually pushes the student toward maximal growth;
- in-the-moment decision-making that draws on both prior understandings and real-time observations;
- judicious use of language; and
- a sense of urgency that is evident in the pace of the lesson and the efficiency of instructional moves.” (pg 95)
As teachers, we can’t be totally prepared for every eventuality, every variation students show. We need to hold on to our knowledge and expertise and apply it to each new situation that arises. Rather than backing away when faced with a new issue regarding student learning, expert teachers, such as those trained in Reading Recovery, are more likely to face it head-on using their own expertise as well as collaboration with colleagues to address those issues. As Clay repeatedly reminded us,
“If a child is a struggling reader or writer the conclusion must be that we have not yet discovered a way to help him learn.” (LL 2nd Ed., pg 165)
In a report on professional development, Darling-Hammond and her colleagues highlight how Reading Recovery exemplifies the seven characteristics necessary for effective professional development (pg. 5). In Reading Recovery not only has years of strong research to show how and why it works, but it also has substantial evidence to show that it does work. We all need to heed Scharer’s advice and advocate for the importance of teacher expertise.
Debra Zarling is a PK-5 Literacy Coordinator in the Oshkosh Area School District, Oshkosh, WI, and a Reading Recovery Site Coordinator with the Valley Area Reading Recovery Consortium.