I recently read the article, “What matters for elementary literacy coaching? Guiding principles for instructional improvement and student achievement” by Susan L’Allier, Laurie Elish-Piper, and Rita M. Bean. This article was published in The Reading Teacher, 6(7), p 544 – 554. Because we have changed our delivery model at Northwest AEA to that of instructional coach/strategist, instead of consulting, this article caught my attention. I wanted to know the difference between an instructional coach and a literacy coach.
The research, apparently, is the same. Literacy coaching and instructional coaching both fall under the same approach to professional development that was researched by Beverly Showers in 1984, Costa & Garmston in 1994, and many others more recently. What the research discovered, regardless of the type of coaching, are some guiding principles.
1. Coaching requires specialized knowledge
The literacy coach or instructional coach must keep in mind that coaching is a type of professional development. Instead of only presenting to a large group, coaches may work with a small group of teachers who may be holding a study group. They may attend team-level meetings. Coaches may also support individual teachers. Regardless of the group size, coaches must possess knowledge of learning processes, acquisition, assessment, and instruction. In addition, knowledge of adult learning is crucial. For a literacy coach to be most successful then, s/he would need to hold a reading endorsement or reading specialist certification.
2. Time working with teachers is the focus of coaching
Coaching consists of job-embedded professional development. Some of the activities this entails are observing, modeling, conferencing, co-teaching, and leading study groups. In addition, coaches may attend or facilitate building leadership team meetings. What research has shown, however, is that coaches are only spending about 28% of their time working with teachers. Other time might be spent with students, analyzing data, or managing. The results of the research show that students make the most gains when the coach spends more time with their teacher. Students benefit when the coaches’ time is primarily spent working directly with teachers to help teachers improve their practice.
3. Collaborative relationships are essential for coaching
Establishing trust with teachers is the first step in creating collaborative relationships between the teachers and their coaches. Openly respecting teachers’ expertise is the foundation to establishing trust. Coaches must also follow through on commitments, and maintain confidentiality. Focusing the discussion on the needs of students, rather than on the teacher’s strengths or weaknesses is another way to build the collaborative relationship.
4. Coaching that supports student reading achievement focuses on a set of core activities
There are many activities in which coaches could engage: facilitate grade-level/building-level meetings, co-plan lessons/units, co-teach, and plan and deliver in-services. However, research found that some activities resulted in greater gains in student achievement than others. These activities were administering and discussing student assessments with teachers, observing teachers’ instruction and offering supportive feedback, conferencing with teachers about their instruction and about their students, and modeling instruction in classrooms. A coach engaging in these activities allows the teacher to gain ideas for differentiated instruction, and implement best practices.
5. Coaching must be both intentional and opportunistic
Coaches must be visible, available, and accessible. They must be able to provide more support to the novice teacher, and a different kind of support to the more experienced teacher, such as providing resources, etc. Regardless, intentionality is key to successful coaching. That doesn’t mean opportunistic coaching doesn’t take place, but often this, too, leads to intentional coaching.
6. Coaches must be literacy leaders in the school
Coaches may quickly become leaders in a school by helping to set goals or provide direction, providing professional development, or providing ideas for accomplishment of goals. Some examples of this might be working with the principle to establish literacy blocks, or planning for the best use of paraprofessionals. In addition, coaches need to stay current on local, state, and federal initiatives that directly affect the school and student achievement.
7. Coaching evolves over time
It takes time to develop relationships and from primarily planning, organizing, and working with data to primarily working with teachers—conferring, observing, and co-teaching. For most coaches, by the end of the third year, they were finding more time to spend with teachers.
What I learned from this article is that the guiding principles are the same, regardless of whether one is a literacy coach or an instructional coach. Knowledge in research-based instructional strategies and adult learning is necessary—not only to help improve student achievement, but also in building credence and collaborative relationships. Working directly with the teachers results in the most gains in student achievement. Be visible, accessible, intentional, and use every opportunity to support the teachers. Become a leader in the school. Above all, be patient, as coaching takes time.