“We Can All Be Teachers of Literacy”: Coaching Teachers Schoolwide to Help Adolescents Read

Jade Wexler at Event

About 30% of U.S. eighth graders are reading below basic levels of proficiency, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Students need to be able to read and understand complex texts in order to succeed in school and careers, access healthcare and participate in democracy. Yet many adolescents struggle, especially students with disabilities, students from low-income backgrounds and multilingual English learners. 

On February 22, Jade Wexler, the inaugural recipient of the University of Maryland College of Education’s Dean’s Impact Professorship, and panel of 12 educators and administrators from Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) discussed an innovative coaching model that supports teachers as they work to improve adolescents’ reading outcomes. Adaptive Intervention Model (AIM) Coaching provides ongoing, individualized support for middle school teachers implementing literacy practices in content-area classes like social studies, science and English language arts, as well as in supplemental intervention courses, such as special education. Because 60% of secondary school students with disabilities spend 80% or more of their day in general education classes, it’s critical for all teachers–not just reading specialists or special education teachers–to teach literacy practices. Although the pilot studies currently focus mainly on sixth grade, the ultimate goal is to create sustainable, schoolwide models that improve student reading achievement.

“We want to increase the dosage of evidence-based literacy instruction that struggling students and students with disabilities are getting throughout their day. Just doing this in one class isn’t enough,” said Wexler, associate professor of special education and director of the Adolescent Literacy and Professional Development Lab in the Department of Counseling, Higher Education and Special Education. Wexler and her colleagues at The University of Texas at Austin have received two four-year grants totaling $3 million from the U.S. Department of Education to implement, refine and evaluate AlM Coaching in six MCPS middle schools and five middle schools in Texas.

The AIM Coaching model supports teachers as they implement a set of evidence-based vocabulary and comprehension practices known as Promoting Adolescents’ Comprehension of Text (PACT), originally developed at The University of Texas at Austin. Teachers introduce background knowledge and key vocabulary to students before they read a short text.  Wexler said these practices work like “instructional velcro” to enhance students’ understanding of the text and help them read critically, and discuss and write about what they have read.

“When you get into middle school, you move from learning to read, to reading to learn, and what we find is that not all of our middle schoolers are there,” said Meg Knudsen-Gleason, pre-K-12 content specialist for MCPS. Students who are reading below grade level struggle to read dense, complex material in their content-area classes. “With PACT practices, we can help our students to feel less overwhelmed by what’s in front of them and give them strategies that teachers from across the school are using. It’s a language of the school and it’s a culture of understanding and approaching informational texts.”

Through the AIM coaching model, school-based literacy coaches begin by providing all teachers with the same level of support on the PACT practices. Then the coaches look at data on the fidelity with which teachers are implementing the practices (skill data) and how willing they are to adopt the practices and work with a coach (will data). Based on these data, the coaches can systematically target individual teachers’ specific needs and differentiate the types of support they provide–just as teachers use data to differentiate instruction for their students. The coaches continue to monitor teacher data and modify their support over time.

At one participating school, Gaithersburg Middle School, three team leaders are serving as literacy coaches, supporting different content areas across the school. They have a reduced teaching load to give them time to plan, model lessons, observe teachers, analyze data and offer feedback and professional development.

“As a former social studies teacher, I always felt like I was teaching reading and literacy. As a principal, I’ve always wanted a strategy that we could use across curriculum areas to make a difference for students,” said Ann Dolan, principal of Gaithersburg Middle School, “This is a proven strategy and because of that I feel confident in implementing it across the curriculum areas.”

Kathleen Jacobs, staff development teacher at Gaithersburg Middle School, has noticed a positive impact on teachers across the school. AIM coaching “has built bridges between departments because all teachers are using the same strategy,” Jacobs said.

So far, Wexler and her team are finding that to successfully adopt, implement and sustain PACT practices, teachers need this kind of ongoing coaching support. They’ve also found that the coaching model is successfully giving literacy coaches a systematic routine and guidance on how to support individual teachers. Finally, the fact that teachers can customize the PACT practices to meet their own students’ needs–while still preserving the practices’ essential elements–helps to encourage teachers to adopt and implement the practices. 

Wexler stressed the importance of working with partners on this project. “There is no way we can do this work without community partners,” said Wexler. “I love being able to partner with talented, experienced practitioners who can help us learn more as researchers but can also ultimately help us bridge the research-to-practice gap and help teachers and students. We need true mutualistic partnerships where both parties are enhancing the knowledge that we need in the field to improve instruction and achievement for kids.”

Knudsen-Gleason expressed her appreciation for the partnership as well, saying of Wexler and her team, “They’re teachers first and they think of kids first. The team understands what this means in the classroom.”

Jackie Lightsey, MCPS supervisor, secondary English language arts, said the project is a “perfect fit that aligns to our work and to the mission we have for our students.” The success of the project–which has already shown results in raising student scores on standardized reading assessments–has generated buzz within schools and countywide, with more teachers and schools wanting to get involved. MCPS has asked Wexler and her team for help scaling up the model across the county in more content areas and in more schools, including in high schools. Wexler has provided training for staff development teachers, learning and achievement specialists (who coach the literacy coaches) and countywide leaders of specific content areas for secondary schools. She and her team will soon train principals as well. MCPS administrators hope schools will use PACT and AIM Coaching to help meet the literacy goals in their school improvement plans.

“We can all be teachers of literacy. That's the goal: for all teachers who put text in front of students to understand that we all bear responsibility in helping students to access that text,” says Knudsen-Gleason. “We want to create students that are confident and ready for the world outside of school.”

Online modules and resources are available at the project website, AIMCoaching.org.