Transformative Educational Leadership Journal | ISSUE: Fall 2022
In this article, Naomi Ross and Deanna Holitzki offer a map of their district’s successful whole scale shift to a literacy coherence model they created as a result of a Spiral of Inquiry into reading data in the primary years.
By Naomi Ross & Deanna Holitzki
Despite our concentrated efforts over time, our district data in School District No. 8 (Kootenay Lake) showed that a significant number of Kindergarten to Grade 3 learners were lagging behind in their literacy skill development, and continued to fall even further behind in reading and writing by the end of grade 3. We began a deep dive into what was at the root of the problem in order to then create a new path forward. The result? A “Literacy Coherence Model” for Kindergarten through Grade 3 across our district.
Our commitment to being solution-focused at the K-3 level provided an opportunity for district portfolios to collaborate. Using the Spiral of Inquiry model (Halbert & Kaser, 2022), we explored all data points, district programs, inclusion support practices, and resource allocation in the primary grades. It became apparent that many of our traditional models and practices were outdated and ineffective resulting in a waiting-to-fail approach rather than a proactive model to catch readers before they fall (Johnson & Keier, 2010). This approach gave us the evidence we needed to invoke a district-wide change.
The journey toward change began with a collaborative Think Tank. When asked “What’s working, what’s not working, and what’s next”, principals, teachers, education assistants, and district staff offered valuable insights about our K-3 literacy program. For example, we learned that literacy resourcing across schools was inequitable. Further, some schools were relying on outdated and culturally inappropriate resources. This finding led to a district-wide inventory of literacy resources and resulted in a reallocation of literacy funding to schools.
We also examined how schools were working with vulnerable learners in the primary grades. Our pull-out model lacked an evidence-based approach and was systematically segregating students (Allington, 2012). In addition, our literacy support program for ongoing emergent learners relied on education assistants to provide targeted literacy instruction to learners, thus putting our most vulnerable learners in the hands of our well-intentioned but least credentialed staff. Furthermore, removing these learners from the classroom meant they were receiving limited access to quality literacy instruction from their classroom teacher and were feeling the stigma and long-term effects associated with exclusion and deficit-model thinking (Harvey & Ward, 2017; Moore, 2016).
We agreed with Moore’s stance that “inclusive education is about providing opportunities with supports for all students to have access to, and contribute to, an education rich in content and experience with their peers” (2016, p. 17). So, guided by the belief that our inclusion support teachers (IST’s) and our speech language pathologists (SLPs) are integral in supporting literacy instruction in the classroom both universally and specifically, we shifted the district’s inclusion model to one of integrated co-planning, co-teaching, and co-assessing in primary classrooms during literacy time. Furthermore, following Allington’s (2012) model of catching readers early, we allocated IST and SLP support in elementary schools to provide 2/3 of time dedicated to primary classrooms.
In keeping with our goal of coherence across the district, we realized the need for a universal district literacy assessment. We enlisted the expertise of Early Literacy Consultant Dr. Donna Kozak, who co-authored the School District 23 (Central Okanagan), Early Literacy Essential Skills Profile. This formative assessment tool focuses on the early predictive essential literacy skills that both inform teaching and help inform allocation of resources in order to support the needs of all learners in the classroom. In addition, this universal assessment tool is foundational to enacting a school-wide collaborative approach of using class profiles (Brownlie & King, 2011) to locate and track learner’s literacy development over time.
To support the implementation of this district assessment tool, we engaged Kozak for an ongoing series of professional learning opportunities for primary teachers. “Ongoing professional learning communities are the bedrock of the work that creates a whole school of effective teachers” (Routman, (2012, p. 57). Our targeted literacy focus also includes a Community of Practice (Wenger-Traynor, 2015) for our primary teachers, SLP’s, IST’s and elementary PVP. These workshops, all delivered virtually, were mainly after-school sessions lasting approximately 30 minutes. These informal community of practice sessions created the space for teaching staff from across the district to share their ideas, inspirations, and challenges with one another. One of our Kindergarten teachers, endorsing the new model, states that “consistent assessment among our classroom teachers has given us a better opportunity to collaborate with each other and to problem solve how to attack the gaps we are noticing within the class profiles. My grade level colleague and I have aligned our resources and some of the literacy tools we use, which is great” (personal communication, 2022).
Finally, we built in opportunities for collaboration within school primary teams. Using a structure called Literacy Community of Practice for Primary ( LCOPP) twice a year, school primary teams consisting of K-3 teachers, the IST and the principal analyze their school’s primary literacy data and determine next steps in how to best meet the needs of all primary learners. In conjunction with this initiative, district senior staff meet with each elementary school principal, with a focus on their school’s primary literacy data. This gives the principal and the district senior team the opportunity to analyze trends in order to re-allocate support to schools where needed.
We are now in our third year of implementing our Literacy Coherence Model in primary. Evidence of success is readily apparent. A teacher shared, “I like how we can see how everyone is doing on a 1-page colour-coded class profile. It takes the guesswork out of what I need to focus on to support my students” (personal communication, 2022). Similarly, a principal offered this perspective: “This Early Literacy Profile we have implemented in our primary grades is the best example of coherence that I have seen in our district. Equity is being addressed through differentiation and allows us to scoop groups of students to address learning needs as they arise” (personal communication, 2022).
Alignment of staff and district resources, including ongoing “just in time” professional development in a community of practice model, and a collaborative inclusive approach to working with all our learners in the classroom, has resulted in a system-wide shift in philosophy, pedagogy, and practice. We are energized, inspired, and optimistic that we are now on track to achieve our goal of ensuring that every student will complete grade 3 with the skills and confidence of being proficient in literacy.
- Allington, R. (2012). What really matters for struggling readers, 3rd Ed., Pearson Publishers.
- Brownlie, F. & King, J. (2011). Learning in safe schools [2nd Ed]. Pembroke Publishers.
- Harvey, S. & Ward, A. (2017). From striving to thriving: How to grow confident capable readers. Scholastic Publishing.
- Johnson, P. & Keier, K. (2010). Catching readers before they fall. Stenhouse Publishers.
- Moore, S. (2016). One without the other. Portage and Main Publishers.
- Halbert, J. & Kaser, L. (2022). Leading through Spirals of Inquiry: For equity and quality. Portage & Main Press.
- Routman, R. (2012). Mapping a pathway to schoolwide highly effective teaching. Phi Delta Kappan, 93(5). 56-61.
- Wenger-Traynor, E. & Wenger-Traynor, B. (2015), Communities of practice: A brief introduction, downloaded from: https://wenger-trayner.com/introduction-to-communities-of-practice/