Succeeding in a Reading World:
A Case Study of the Professional Development of a
Remedial Reading Teacher
By Charlotte J. Boling
While secondary educators anticipate the national shift from early to adolescent reading, many wonder if adolescent reading teachers are ready for this change. This problem is further complicated by the lack of reading professionals in our nation’s high schools. What do we know about reading teachers at the high school level? What does a successful high school reading teacher do? What attributes contribute to her success? This case study seeks to describe the journey one high school English teacher took in her quest to become a reading professional. The journey documents Ms. Jones’ (pseudonym) progress and reveals characteristics of a successful secondary reading teacher. Results indicate that secondary reading professionals need 1) a culture that supports literacy learning, 2) opportunities to explore evidence-based instruction, 3) a variety of assessments used to inform their instruction, 4) a classroom environment that encourages literacy learning, and 5) continued professional development.
“Do you know why I do this?” Ms. Jones (pseudonym) asked her ninth-grade remedial students. They sat in silence; unsure of an answer. “I teach you these strategies so you understand what you are learning and how you learn. Not only here in your reading class, but also in biology, world history, algebra, and English. This is not a bump class. This is a learning class.” With this statement, Ms. Jones demonstrates positive self-efficacy and her battle cry: “Reading leads to succeeding.” She believes that she can do more than help her students survive in a reading world; she believes her students can succeed in a reading world.
Ms. Jones is clearly concerned for her students. These students have not been successful in their previous reading experiences. Each scored below the twenty-fifth percentile on last year’s reading section of the national achievement test and performed unacceptably on the state performance-assessment program. They were placed in Ms. Jones’ class for intensive reading instruction.
Unfortunately, these students are not alone. According to The National Report Card (Seastrom, 2005), twenty-seven percent of eighth graders are performing below a basic reading level. A majority of these students enter the ninth grade without the necessary skills for academic success. While the task seems futile, there is hope. Qualified reading professionals provide the optimism needed for student success.
The problem is that certified, secondary reading teachers are few and far between. While a small number of schools have teachers with reading educational majors or certification, even fewer secondary schools have teachers with advanced reading degrees (Seastrom, Gruber, Henke, McGrath, & Cohen, 2004). Thus, high school principals are left to their own resources to find an English, literature, or special education teacher who may be interested in teaching reading. Such is the case with this study.
This study sought to examine the journey of one teacher as she became a reading professional. To begin this inquiry, a review of literature was conducted to analyze the infrastructure needed in becoming a reading professional. Specifically, the following areas were explored: 1) the culture for creating reading professionals, 2) the standards that guide the reading professional, 3) characteristics of the reading professional, and 4) attributes that support learning.
The Culture, The Standards, The Professional, and The Student
Educators thrive in environments where they have an opportunity to question, learn, explore, and dialog (Guskey, 2003; Richardson & Anders, 1994). The International Reading Association, the National Reading Conference, the College Reading Association, and the National Council of Teachers of English are a few of the organizations that seek to create a literacy culture for educators. The philosophy of this culture embodies in-depth research, scientifically-proven techniques, and evidence-based materials that can truly make a difference in student learning. Additionally, this culture creates an avenue where teachers learn new information, examine new instructional techniques, and discuss the information with other educators.
One product to emerge from this culture is the Standards for Reading Professionals (Chesler & Romeo, 2004). The Professional Standards and Ethics Committee of the International Reading Association (IRA) developed the Standards for Reading Professionals in partnership with the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). This document serves as a guideline concerning the teaching proficiencies and knowledge required of professionals in the reading field.
The Standards for Reading Professionals are performance-based criteria that describe expectations for five levels of reading professionals. There are five categories of standards: 1) Foundational Knowledge; 2) Instructional Strategies and Curriculum Materials; 3) Assessment, Diagnosis, and Evaluation; 4) Creating a Literate Environment; and 5) Professional Development. Each category defines knowledge and expertise required of a reading professional (Chesler & Romeo, 2004).
The Reading Professional
The professional is defined as the secondary classroom teacher who is “highly qualified” according to the No Child Left Behind Act and meets the Standards for Reading Professional requirements for the paraprofessional and classroom teacher. Furthermore, recent evidence (Lewis & Fabos, 2005; Heydon, Hibbert, & Iannacci, 2005; Sturtevant & Linek, 2003) suggests that secondary teachers are reaching beyond their content area and investigating instructional methods as well as characteristics of the adolescent learner. However, descriptions of the secondary reading professional in daily classroom activities are still missing. Thus, the question persists, “Why is it that we know so little about teachers who are … successful?” (Allington, 1997, p. 8).
The primary purpose of education is to develop functional citizens in our society;
citizens who are capable of reading complex material, thinking critically, making decisions, and communicating effectively (Dewey, 1916). In order to accomplish this goal, the student’s success is at the very center of instruction. Reading Next—A Vision for Action and Research in Middle and High School Literacy (Biancarosa & Snow, 2004) suggests a unique blend of 15 instruction and infrastructure elements.
Some of the instructional elements include a) direct, explicit comprehension instruction, b) effective instruction principles embedded in content, c) motivation and self-directed learning, and d) ongoing formative assessment of students. The infrastructure elements included items such as a) extended time for literacy, b) professional development, and d) ongoing summative assessment of students and programs. Although a teacher may not use all of the elements during one instructional setting, it is quite possible that the educator would use a combination in an effort to find the ones that work best for his or her students (Biancarosa & Snow, 2004).
The Adolescent Literacy Position Statement (Moore, Bean, Birdyshaw, & Rycik, 1999) also provides insight from the adolescent’s perspective concerning his or her instructional needs. According to the position statement, reading instruction should motivate the adolescent to read, provide explicit instruction that has been modeled for the student, and include formative assessment that monitors progress. As these elements are included in the classroom community, instruction for the adolescent becomes purposeful, engaging, and attainable (Santa, 2006; Tovani, 2002).
Purpose of Study
As national attention turns toward adolescent literacy and reading teacher positions become more available in high schools, administrators struggle to find qualified reading professionals. This leads to less-than-qualified teachers in reading positions - which has devastating effects for our students. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the reading community to identify characteristics of successful reading professionals and support those teachers transitioning from other teaching fields into reading. This study describes the journey of one secondary teacher as she became a reading professional. Specifically, this study sought to answer the question: In what ways does Ms. Jones meet the Standards for Reading Professionals?
A qualitative inquiry technique was used by the researcher to describe the journey in becoming a reading professional. The case study methodology (Stake, 1995; Merriam, 1994) was used to provide rich descriptions of Ms. Jones as she transitioned from an English teacher into a reading professional. A metaphor of steps is used to describe events throughout the journey.
The teacher. Ms. Jones is a high school English teacher transitioning into a remedial reading position. She is a four-year veteran who loves reading and hopes to instill a love of reading in her students. Ms. Jones, a Caucasian, 30-something educator, enjoys her life at the rural, high school in the southeast. She participates in many professional develop opportunities and is considered by the district staff to be “one of the best”. Ms. Jones is also enrolled as a graduate student in a reading education program.
The students. Students attending the high school are predominantly middle-class Caucasian. The academic range of students is typical of most high schools; some students are performing seriously below grade level while others are excelling beyond the expected. Students enjoy outdoor activities such as water sports, fishing, hunting, and field sports.
The researcher. I am a university reading faculty member. As such, I visit my students’ classrooms and observe reading instruction as much as possible. I observed Ms. Jones’ teaching shortly after she transitioned into the reading position. This observation led to the current study where I became a participant and non-participant observer of the events taking place in her classroom.
The setting. Ms. Jones teaches at a rural high school in the southeast. The school is the academic home to approximately 1800 students. Academic excellence is the focus of the administrators. The school is ranked among the top in the state concerning academics, sports, and extra-curricular events. The campus includes several large buildings, a few portable classrooms, gymnasium, a football stadium, and a baseball field. The school is the social hub for students in the community.
The investigation was conducted through a series of discussions, an interview, and classroom observations over a two-year period. Approximately 20 discussions were held. Typically, the discussions began with a question Ms. Jones had concerning reading instruction, student progress, or assessment. At times she would email questions, other times, she would ask questions before or after class. Field notes were taken and expounded upon during and after her questions and our discussions.
One formal interview was conducted near the end of the first school year. The open-ended interview centered on the breadth and depth of her reading knowledge as well as information concerning the reading progress of her students. The interview was video taped, reviewed, transcribed, and analyzed.
Two formal classroom observations were conducted. The observations were also video taped, reviewed, transcribed, and analyzed. The classroom observations were used as documentation of her ability to teach reading and respond to the needs of her students.
There were 15 informal classroom observations. During these observations, I took note of the literacy environment, her choice of reading materials, assessment techniques, and the learning atmosphere.
Using the research question as a guide, data were organized, analyzed, and patterns discovered. Data were first organized according to type: discussion notes, interview notes, transcriptions, participant observation field notes, and non-participant observation field notes. Using a frequency chart, I tallied the number of times the concepts were present. Themes concerning reading knowledge, reading instruction, literate environments, reading assessments, and professional development began to emerge. Data were then organized according to the themes.
After careful analysis of the themes, specific encounters with Ms. Jones were selected to characterize the ways she met the Standards of Reading Professionals. Internal and external validity (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) was established. Credibility and dependability were established through the analysis phase, the member-check by Ms. Jones and a peer researcher.
THE CASE: MS. JONES
This case is presented in a series of vignettes, identified here as steps in Ms. Jones’ journey. These steps document the journey as Ms. Jones becomes a reading professional. Let’s step back in time and meet Ms. Jones.
Ms. Jones, an English teacher at ABC High School (pseudonym) recently found herself in a precarious situation. After four years of teaching advanced English to high school students, Ms. Jones was asked to teach remedial reading students. Her first thought was “I don’t know how to teach these students to read! They should already know how to read.” However, with her principal’s support and a promise for professional development, Ms. Jones agreed to the task and began her journey.
Step 1: I need to know more about reading.
As indicated earlier, Ms. Jones’ first thought was “I don’t know how to teach students to read.” Shortly after her conversation with her principal, her second thought was “I need to learn how to teach students to read.” Thus, Ms. Jones began her query to acquire foundational knowledge concerning teaching reading - Standard 1 for Reading Professionals. She counseled with the district language arts/reading supervisor concerning her options and found that she was able to attend a professional development workshop during the summer.
The workshop entitled, “Teaching Reading in the Content Areas: If Not Me, Then Who?” was developed by Billmeyer and Barton (1999) in cooperation with the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) consortium. Although the workshop was designed for content area teachers, Ms. Jones identified many ways that she could incorporate the information into her instruction. While this workshop provided needed information, it wasn’t enough for Ms. Jones. She needed to know more. Thus, she enrolled in the reading master’s degree program at the local university, practicing her craft by day and learning new information at night. She enhanced her foundational knowledge one step at a time.
Step 2: I need to create a literate environment.
Early in her quest, Ms. Jones’ realized she needed to create an environment where students would “want to read” – Standard 4 for Reading Professionals. She recognized motivation as a problem with these at-risk students and sought to provide an engaging environment suitable for high school students. Early one morning, I peered into her classroom.
The Classroom Observation. The classroom was neatly arranged and organized for learning. Five large tables each with four chairs were directed toward the board. The focal point of the classroom seemed to be the chalkboard where several pieces of paper were displayed. The papers included a list of vocabulary words, reading log directions, and instructions for using the Frayer Model. The words ‘feasible’ and ‘page 23’ were written on the board along with several sentences.
Three separate bookcases, two on the back wall and one on the left classroom wall, provided a variety of literature for the students. Books on the shelves included poetry, biographies, autobiographies, fiction, non-fiction, Reader’s Digest, old basals, and magazines. Contributing to the literature rich environment, Ms. Jones strategically placed a couch, an overstuffed chair, and four beanbags around the classroom. A mounted television set hung from the right front classroom wall. Two separate computer stations were in the room: one station with four computers on the left wall and the other station with four computers along the back wall. One station displayed a word processor and Internet connections while the other showed an Integrated Learning System by Computerized Curriculum Corporation ©.
At the sound of the bell, 22 Caucasian students began to file into the classroom: 15 young men and 8 young ladies ranging in ages from 14-17. Most of the students were dressed in camouflaged clothing or college sports attire. Discussions among the students addressed hunting, sports, driving, and possible dresses for the upcoming formal dance.
The classroom depicted a literacy-rich environment. Ms. Jones provided a wide variety of reading materials and genres. Reading materials were available in an assortment of mediums (print, electronic, television, etc.) ranging from elementary to college ability levels. Additionally, Ms. Jones provided furniture and accommodations appropriate for different types of reading. For example, students use the overstuffed chair to read novels but tables to research content area information. Ms. Jones has taken one more step on her journey toward becoming a reading professional.
Step 3: I need to use materials effectively and hone my instructional techniques.
Ms. Jones continued to enhance her foundational knowledge by taking more professional development workshops and graduate courses. As she gained knowledge and experience, she began to experiment with the concepts in her classroom. She identified ways that she could improve her instruction and make a greater difference for her students - Standard 2 for Reading Professionals.
During one lesson, I observed as Ms. Jones taught students how to use the Student Vocabulary Strategy (VOC) by Billmeyer and Barton (1999). In a post-observation interview, Ms. Jones explained that using the VOC strategy enhances students’ vocabulary knowledge by requiring an in-depth investigation of the word, context, and concept associated with the word. Additionally, students are required to make sensory connections that relate to their particular learning style. Ms. Jones found this strategy especially important because her students used it in their content area classes to discover new vocabulary words.
The Lesson. Ms. Jones began the lesson by distributing a Reader’s Digest and explained that the students would read a passage concerning an over-population of deer. She asked questions, probed for background knowledge, and gave students a few minutes to discuss the issue. Then she directed the students to a word on the board and said, “The word on the board is ‘feasible.’ Look at it. While we are reading, we will find the word ‘feasible’ and discover what it means in the story.”
Ms. Jones scaffolded the students’ learning by activating their prior knowledge concerning the problem and asking for predictions as to how the population problem should be resolved. She also provided the sentence from the passage with the word ‘feasible’ on it. The chart provided support for students without embarrassment.
Ms. Jones began to teach the six-step strategy by explicitly explaining the reasoning and mental processes involved in using the strategy (Duffy, et al., 1987). First, students identified the focus word and sentence in the text. Ms. Jones read the information from the chart while students simultaneously found the sentence in their text. Students wrote the sentence from the text on their worksheet. Ms. Jones then asked students to underline the word ‘feasible’ drawing further attention to the vocabulary word.
Second students made predictions about the definition for ‘feasible.’ Student predictions included “not easy,” “possible,” and “safe.” Ms. Jones prompted her students to use context clues by asking, “What was it about the sentence that led to your definition?” Students responded and discussed multiple-meanings of the term.
The third step of the strategy is to consult an expert. Ms. Jones generated a discussion on resources that could be used as an expert. Ms. Jones distributed dictionaries to each table. Students located the word, read the definition, discussed the meanings, and wrote the agreed upon definition on their individual handout. A discussion followed concerning the definitions students selected.
In the fourth step, students were required to write a sentence using the vocabulary word. In an effort to provide another guided example, Ms. Jones wrote a sentence using the word on the chart paper. The sentence was read and discussed by the students. Then students began working on their sentence. Ms. Jones monitored the students by walking around the classroom, asking questions, answering questions, and providing feedback.
Ms. Jones explained, “The fifth step is a little more difficult. Here I want you to create a mental image that will help you remember what the word means.” Students selected different mediums of expressing the word (illustrations, news report, spelling association, song, story, etc.). After a few minutes of working, students provided examples of how they would remember the word. One student related the word “possible to feasible because the spelling is similar. They both have –ible at the end.” Another student drew a picture of a truck with dollar signs around it and wrote “Not feasible!”
The last step of the strategy is the most important. In this step, students reflect on the learning process and discuss ways to learn new vocabulary words. Ms. Jones reviewed the steps of the strategy. She emphasized that the students identified new words, read the sentence and gained an understanding of the concept, consulted an expert, used the word in a sentence, and created a mental image of the concept. She challenged students to use the strategy in their content area classes.
Throughout this lesson, Ms. Jones exemplified an expert teacher. She purposefully selected reading material that would interest and motivate her students. Then, she provided explicit instruction ensuring success for her students (Biancarosa & Snow, 2004). This lesson provides an example of how Ms. Jones used materials effectively and integrated advanced knowledge acquired in her graduate course work and professional development workshops to improve her teaching skills.
Step 4: I need to use assessments more efficiently.
Ms. Jones used formative and summative assessments throughout her instruction. She evaluated her students’ progress continually by monitoring their daily work, quizzes, and exams. She consulted results from standardized and performance-based assessments to review academic history and used informal reading inventories to inform her instruction. Student progress was monitored through a portfolio system where students periodically reviewed their work. Ms. Jones has made great strides on her quest to become a reading professional.
Step 5: I understand what it means to be a life-long learner; learning about reading never ends.
Ms. Jones is on a never-ending quest to learn – Standard 5 for Reading Professionals. She belongs to several reading professional organizations, participates in literacy clubs, and provides professional development for other teachers on a regular basis. She believes that continued development of her knowledge and skills will benefit her struggling readers.
Ms. Jones interprets her role as a “facilitator of learning.” She guides students through their frustrations and scaffolds the learning process in such a way that all students are successful. She quickly adds, “The success may be at different levels, but it is still success.” She feels that students begin her class with survival skills but few, if any, have true learning strategies. Her goal is to create a metacognitive awareness of the learning process and help students become informed learners.
Although Ms. Jones has come a long way, her journey is not complete. In fact, it is starting again. As Ms. Jones continues to explore new concepts and improved methods of teaching, she exemplifies an exceptional reading teacher. The Standards for Reading Professionals (Chesler & Romeo, 2004) are woven throughout her philosophy, classroom, instruction, assessment procedures, and professional goals. Her intent is to provide intensive reading and writing instruction. She responds, "Children learn to read by reading and write by writing.”
This study provides specific examples that define the characteristics of a secondary reading professional. While the results cannot be generalized to all reading professionals, we discovered specific ways that Ms. Jones exemplifies a secondary reading professional. Admittedly, Ms. Jones does not see herself as a perfect teacher. Through continual learning and reflective practices, she strives to learn a little more and do things a little better every day (Wold, 2003). She continues to struggle with ways to integrate assessment into her daily instruction and is on a continual quest to discover the latest teen “trends” or interests so that she may incorporate the topics into her instruction (Biancarosa & Snow, 2004).
However, based on the similarity of topics for Ms. Jones and the issues deemed important by the Standards for Reading Professionals, we can assume that Ms. Jones plight is shared by other secondary reading professionals. Therefore, her journey stands as an example for others who may be transitioning into a reading position.
An implication of this study suggests that adolescent literacy will be positively influenced by placing highly qualified reading professionals in middle and secondary classrooms. We know that qualified reading professionals are making a difference for elementary students (United States Department of Education, 2006); the same should be true of middle and secondary reading professionals. However, in order for secondary teachers to be successful reading professionals, they need a continuous, supportive culture (Wold, 2003; Massey, 2004).
Ms. Jones began this journey by reluctantly accepting the position of a remedial reading teacher. She, along with her students, faced monumental challenges. Ms. Jones now has advanced knowledge and skills which greatly impacted her students’ success rate. Final assessment results revealed that 20 out of the 22 struggling readers passed the state level performance exams and demonstrated significant gains on the achievement exam. These 20 students now have employment opportunities and a chance for success. According to Ms. Jones, “This journey was intellectually challenging, socially rewarding, emotionally draining, and professionally fulfilling. Ms. Jones proudly accepts her new role as a reading professional. She asserts, “My role is crucial if my students are going to succeed in a reading world.”
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