Editor’s Note: The following article summarizes Margie Gillis’s presentation at 2020’s annual PBIDA conference.
By John R. Kruidenier, Ed.D.
Sufficient evidence exists that struggling readers, including students with dyslexia, can be taught to read using evidence-based or scientific approaches that include direct and systematic instruction in word analysis (basic and advanced decoding skills), reading fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. On the other hand, according to Dr. Margie Gillis, PBIDA’s keynote speaker at its most recent annual conference, there is also ample evidence suggesting that many reading teachers do not have the knowledge and experience necessary to apply these approaches effectively. Dr. Gillis used her keynote address to describe a teacher training program, called Literacy How, that successfully addresses this gap in teachers’ knowledge and experience, ensuring that they develop a deep knowledge of evidence-based literacy instruction through long-term coaching as well as more traditional professional development focused on current literacy theory and practice.
Dr. Gillis is a Research Affiliate at Haskins Laboratory in New Haven, Connecticut, where she has worked for many years in research and professional development. She is also the founder and President of Literacy How. After presenting the research base for Literacy How’s approach to teacher training, Dr. Gillis presented preliminary research evidence for its effectiveness and the role that state departments of education, foundations, parents, and others can play in advancing professional development among reading teachers.
Gillis asserted in her keynote that teachers need to know, first of all, the science of reading, derived from the experimental research on learning to read that has accumulated over the past twenty to thirty years. She used some of the Literacy How training materials to illustrate ways in which Literacy How teachers learn about the science of reading. One, a graphic organizer used by Literacy How teachers to understand the development of language and literacy in children, illustrates the relationship between listening and speaking, reading and writing, decoding and encoding, mental representations and written symbols, and the central role that spoken language plays in these processes. This organizational framework is also used to help understand how children’s brains process spoken and written language and how the brains of children with dyslexia change as the result of effective reading instruction.
Another Literacy How graphic organizer is used to teach the essential components of reading instruction, similar to the components found in the National Reading Panel Report (NRP) and in IDA’s Structured Literacy Instruction, a set of research-based knowledge and practice standards. The core components in this “Reading Wheel” include phonemic awareness; phonics and spelling; syntax or sentence level skills; vocabulary and morphology; text comprehension and written expression; and oral language. Key differences between the Literacy How and NRP components include the substitution of the syntax component for The NRP fluency component and the addition of an oral language component, the central process in the Literacy How language and literacy model mentioned above.
Other important aspects of the Literacy How approach presented by Gillis are modeling and assessment. Teachers are taught directly how to apply their knowledge of the science of reading when they teach, first through modeling and then when they practice on their own. With a detailed scope and sequence for literacy instruction provided by Literacy How, they can also assess students to determine where they are in the development of their literacy skills, and how they are responding to instruction in a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS). In Response to Intervention models, Tier 1 includes regular instruction using scientifically based classroom instruction; Tier 2 includes strategic interventions to bring students back up to grade level; and Tier 3 includes more intense one-to-one or small group instruction.
Perhaps the most important part of the Literacy How approach, however, is coaching. Through research, especially research at Haskins Lab conducted from 2004 – 2007, Gillis and others found that good professional development can increase teachers’ knowledge and lead to the implementation of research-based instruction. Longer periods of guided practice or teacher coaching were needed, however, before transfer to student learning, or increases in student reading ability, took place. A more recent, successful quasi-experimental study of Literacy How coaching described by Gillis included 23 teachers who received coaching. The 418 students in their classrooms were compared to 418 students in a control group matched on grade, race, gender, and special education status. Gillis reported that a “statistically significant difference was found between students in Literacy How coached classrooms and comparison students.”
Another significant aspect of the Literacy How approach to teacher training is “ensuring that the model is sustained by building internal capacity.” Those implementing change in teacher training need strong administrative support at the building and district levels. In fact, Gillis asserted that widespread change in teacher knowledge and practice will occur only with widespread support for teacher change. Partnerships among local or district level agencies, state departments of education, philanthropic and non-profit organizations like Literacy How, individual legislators, higher education, and parent organizations are important. Dr. Gillis concluded her keynote presentation by describing many examples of positive partnerships, or outcomes from partnerships:
- Literacy Scan (literacyscan.org), a literacy instruction self-assessment tool for school districts, funded by the Grossman Foundation and developed by the Connecticut Association of Schools, Literacy How, and HILL for literacy;
- The Connecticut Department of Education’s Director of Reading who oversees all reading initiatives in the state, providing needed coordination and guidance;
- The National Council on Teacher Quality’s action guide for states;
- The Broad Prize for Urban Education awards for programs using data-driven instruction;
- The Parent Leadership Training Institute (parentswholead.org);
- The Early Language and Literacy Development Initiative to provide high quality instruction and school readiness in partnership with The Stepping Stones Museum and Literacy How;
- The Early Language and Literacy Initiative;
- Legislation passed by the Connecticut state legislature to fund studies promoting best practices in early literacy; fund extensive and ongoing assessment of all aspects of students’ reading to inform instruction; and require teachers to take a reading instruction examination.
Dr. John R. Kruidenier is a literacy consultant based in Horsham, PA.