A Journey for Content Area Literacy Development and PLCs

How to engage teacher teams in whole-school literacy and learning improvement

It’s 7:30 Tuesday morning and groups of teachers are sitting in their first meeting of the year for their professional learning communities (PLCs). Thick binders filled with colored tabs and volumes of files of student literacy achievement data are in front of them. Teachers look at each other with a variety of feelings ranging from cautious optimism to bewilderment to dread. All they know is that they need to come up with a cross-discipline literacy improvement plan based on all these reports of data. They just wish they had some type of roadmap to guide them to not only make sense of the data, but to implement a literacy improvement plan that really succeeds this time.

Unfortunately, this scenario describes a common beginning of well-intentioned attempts to use data for improving reading, writing, thinking, and content area achievement. Clearly, the idea of teachers working together in PLCs and reviewing data together is important, but without guidance and support in how to collect, analyze, and use data to inform the design of their initiatives, the effectiveness of their work will be diminished. There is plenty of evidence to support the use of high-functioning PLCs to increase achievement and reduce achievement gaps. But the effectiveness of teacher teams is often contingent on a shared commitment to and optimism for improvement, a viable plan, skillful execution of research-supported strategies, and sincere dedication to taking and monitoring decisive actions.

Many PLCs may feel hesitant to choose to go on a new journey to improve literacy and learning because prior attempts have been met with too many challenges and less than expected results, especially for struggling learners and underachievers. Teacher teams often develop low group self-efficacy and lack a group growth mindset because they have not succeeded in prior initiatives together as a team. The resilience of teacher teams also gets worn down, and solving a compelling problem like low reading and writing performance seems farfetched. When teacher teams don’t “win” (i.e., succeed) together, they often lose their desire to work together and lack the confidence and perseverance to improve student literacy and content achievement.

Taking the road to improving literacy and content area achievement can bring positive, measurable results for all students—especially for struggling learners and underachievers—and sparks new life and group efficacy into PLCs. The journey described below illustrates how teacher teams can “cause” student growth when the entire school is moving in the same direction, at the same time, and with sincere effort and skillful execution.

Determining the Vision

As with any successful journey, we need to have a clear vision. The school’s PLCs should answer the following essential question before the journey begins: What will it take to ensure that students become confident, self-directed, and successful when they read, write, think, and learn in content areas? There’s plenty of direction on reading, writing, and thinking expectations in state and national standards, and PLCs can benefit from unpacking those standards and literacy skills required for success across all content areas. Teachers often envision students who can independently read and summarize literary and informational text, process information, create meaning, and demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways including open and closed-end response tests, performances, and products. Teachers envision students who feel confident and competent in their literacy and learning skills and who demonstrate enthusiasm for learning. Finally, teachers envision PLCs that can work collaboratively to arrive at their destination because they had the will, skill, and ability.

Determining the Need

Teacher teams have to feel the need to leave their existing conditions to take even the first steps on the reading, writing, and thinking road to content achievement. The desire to embark on the journey results when teachers engage in guided and efficient collaborative examination of achievement data, student work, and learning practices. Groups use guiding questions to analyze and transform data into actionable knowledge so they can put it to work to improve student literacy and learning. Group process protocols efficiently yield rich conversations and useful insights about the data including patterns, comparisons, strengths, needs, and effects. Teams identify the strategies and interventions that have been previously used in the school to develop student literacy and content achievement and determine the effectiveness of previous actions, especially for struggling learners and underachievers. Finally, teams engage in an analysis of contributing factors that may cause literacy and learning problems. This actionable knowledge helps the school match strategies and plans for improvement efforts to the greatest areas of student need and the most prominent contributing factors.

Planning the Journey

There is no doubt that large groups can make planning for school improvement quite challenging. A smaller representative group of teachers from the PLCs—the planning team—can act as liaisons for their PLC and more efficiently draft plans for the improvement journey. The chief goal of this school team is to match the PLC’s and school’s vision of literacy and learning, knowledge about existing student performance, and contributing factors with research-supported practices. The planning team examines professional literature and research to identify promising instructional and assessment strategies and practices and best practices for effective school improvement and professional development. For example, published meta-analysis results related to literacy and learning demonstrate that the use of graphic representations, summarizing, focused skill questioning, explicit teaching, and differentiation yield percentile gains on a variety of measures, including content achievement. Also, professional literature illustrates that ongoing professional development, PLC collaborative inquiry, consistent progress monitoring and adjustment, instructional coaching, and administrative support yield positive results for school improvement.

The culminating activity for the team is to create a template plan that will be used by all the PLCs. Figure 1 illustrates a plan that assists teacher teams in selecting two literacy skill targets for 30 to 60 days and identifying indicators, measurements, strategies/methods, and actions. PLCs complete their planning in their meetings, and team plans are then shared with all staff so cross-PLC sharing is possible, their commitment is public, and PLCs can create partnerships to accomplish similar goals.

 Figure 1

Taking Decisive Action

In the first implementation stage of the journey, PLC members and instructional paraprofessionals/aides participate in professional development on the use of graphic organizers, summary templates/frames, focused skill questioning, explicit teaching, and peer-to-peer interaction. Then teachers in each PLC select a compatible graphic organizer, summary frame/template, and question stems for the two comprehension targets identified in their planning template (see https://tinyurl.com/ybk4nyv7 for examples). Figure 2 illustrates instructional strategies for a specific literacy skill.

 Figure 2

Stage two of the implementation involves collecting and analyzing the baseline information needed to determine progress. Teachers assign students to read or listen to a text or topic in their content area, and students complete a graphic organizer and write a summary. Teachers examine their students’ work with a three-point rubric and then select a high, average, and low quality example from each task above to bring to their PLC meeting. Teachers use a group protocol in their team meetings to analyze student work and gain insights about the qualities of student work that made it high, average, or low quality. They discuss aspects that need to improve (e.g., key ideas, detail, organizational pattern) and share how each member will commit to helping students improve during the next couple of weeks. Teachers then keep student artifacts and lesson descriptions from at least two lessons per month in their teacher portfolio. Teachers are also provided with support for creating lessons that explicitly teach targeted literacy and thinking skills using graphic organizers, summaries, question stems, and peer-to-peer interaction.

During the third stage of the journey, teachers frequently utilize lessons or tasks in which students use selected graphic organizers and summaries and respond to question stems that match the PLC’s target literacy skills. Teachers also learn to use rubrics to engage students in self-assessment about the use of graphic organizers, summaries, and questioning. Once again, teachers select a high, average, and low quality example from each task above, and they use a group protocol in teams to analyze student work. The second group of protocols has PLC members share their lessons, observations of student use, and changes from the original samples. Teachers create student improvement needs and identify needed coaching and other professional development and support. They also continue to place sample artifacts of student work and lesson descriptions in their professional portfolio for this initiative.

Instructional coaches, teacher leaders, and administrators provide support for the improvement initiatives during this part of the journey. Coaches and teacher leaders can conduct demonstration lessons in the classroom. This type of support provides teachers with an opportunity to observe the process of explicitly teaching content and literacy skills concurrently. Coaches, teacher leaders, and administrators also work with teachers to design lessons that use the selected strategies. After the first 30 days it may be useful to use walkthroughs to determine levels of implementation and talk with students about their perceptions of the improvement initiatives and strategies.

During the fourth stage of the implementation, teachers bring their samples of student work to PLC meetings and they share how often they are using graphic organizers, summaries, question stems, and peer-to-peer interaction to determine that there is a high level of implementation. Different protocols are used for troubleshooting, measuring progress, and determining student and teacher learning needs. Teachers also respond to guided questions to examine artifacts in their professional portfolio. Professional development focuses on differentiation techniques that address the needs of high, average, and low achievers. Special Education, RTI, ELL, and other student services specialists provide additional strategies and coaching. Opportunities are created for cross-discipline and grade groups to meet and discuss the implementation progress and to reinforce a whole-school commitment to the literacy and learning improvement initiative during the first 60 days.

The last stage of the literacy and learning improvement journey is ongoing. PLCs continue to use group process protocols and their professional portfolios to recognize progress, make adjustments, and celebrate successes. PLCs reflect on what they are learning during the implementation and identify their professional learning needs. Instructional coaches, teacher leaders, specialists, and administrators continue to provide differentiated professional development and support for various PLCs and individual teachers.

Making It Successfully to the Destination

There really is no end to the journey to improve literacy and learning. Student learning needs, accountability, teachers, and the art of teaching and learning seem to always change. Yet, it is still important for schools, and especially PLCs, to check on progress toward their literacy and learning vision. Standardized test scores and content area achievement illustrate that this journey has yielded increases in student achievement and reduced achievement gaps. This journey helped many students develop confidence and competence related to literacy and content achievement. It has strengthened the professional efficacy of individual teachers and PLCs and helped them develop and sustain a culture of inquiry and continuous improvement rarely experienced before by some PLCs. Finally, this journey injects new life into a whole-school improvement initiative where PLCs work with students to make a literacy and learning vision come alive.