Archive article #99–01

Effective Schools/Accomplished Teachers

Barbara M. Taylor, P. David Pearson, Kathleen F. Clark, and Sharon Walpole

Introduction
Method
Results
Summary
References

(To appear in the October 1999 issue of The Reading Teacher)

Introduction
To assist schools in reaching our national goal of "all children reading by grade 3," scholars have been combing research archives in search of relevant findings and good advice for teachers and administrators. Researchers and professional organizations have synthesized research on learning to read (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998), effective school reform programs (Herman, 1999), early reading interventions (Hiebert & Taylor, in press), and effective classroom practices for the primary grades (Learning First Alliance, 1998; Morrow, Tracey, Woo, & Pressley, 1999). Others have examined the characteristics of effective schools (Puma, Karweit, Price, Ricciuitti, Thompson, & Vaden-Kiernan, 1997; Stringfield, Millsap, & Herman, 1997) and effective primary grade teachers (Wharton-MacDonald, Pressley, & Hampston, 1998).

What is missing from this wealth of valuable information is research that weds effective classroom teaching and effective school programs. To fill this need, a group of us at CIERA conducted a national study of effective schools and accomplished teachers. These patterns of effective schools and accomplished teachers will become the foundation for CIERA’s projects with aspiring schools—schools that are committed to increasing the reading achievement of their students.

Our goal was to uncover the practices of accomplished teachers within schools that were promoting high achievement among students for whom failure is a common experience. To accomplish this goal, we investigated school and classroom practices in effective (unexpectedly high achieving) schools and compared them to what was happening in moderately effective and less effective schools.

Method
Seventy grade 1–3 teachers from fourteen schools in Virginia, Minnesota, Colorado, and California participated. To get a picture of their instructional practices, we observed each teacher for an hour of reading instruction each month from December through April. Additionally, we asked them to keep a weekly time log of instructional activities in reading/language arts for a week in February and a week in May, and to complete a questionnaire on school and classroom practices related to reading. We also interviewed a subset of teachers and all building principals.

In each classroom, we gathered performance data for two low and two average readers in the fall and in the spring. In the fall, grade 1 children were tested on letter names, phonemic segmentation and blending, and a word list (comprised of common sight words and some words with predictable spellings). In the fall (for grades 2–3) and spring (grades 1–3) students were assessed on words correct per minute on a grade level passage, retelling on an instructional level passage, and a word list (again comprised of common sight words and some words with predictable spellings).

To secure an index of overall school effectiveness, we created a composite score based upon the overall school mean for students’ gains on the individually administered reading measures (words correct per minute, reading words in isolation, and retelling of a passage) and the school’s average on whatever standardized test was used for grade 3 students. The resulting distribution of composite scores suggested three clusters of schools. Four schools were judged to be most effective, six were classified as moderately effective, and four were judged to be least effective. Relevant data on these groups of schools is presented in Table 1.


Table 1: School Effectiveness Level by Poverty Level and Reading Performance
Percentage Free/reduced-price lunch
Mean grade 3 standardized reading test percentile
3. Most effective schools
59
51
2. Moderately effective schools
69
40
1. Least effective schools
45
43


Based on the observations, logs, questionnaires, interviews, and case studies, we constructed several teacher
(classroom-level) variables as potential candidates to explain differences between more and less effective schools.

  • Level of home communication
  • Student engagement
  • Time spent in small or whole group reading instruction
  • Time spent in independent reading
  • Approaches to word recognition instruction (grades 1 and 2 only)
  • Approaches to comprehension instruction

Home communication and student engagement were ratings based upon a set of criteria we developed for scaling comments from our observations. The two time indices were taken from the weekly logs. The last two indices are not quite as transparent. In grades 1 and 2 frequently observed approaches to word recognition instruction included phonics in isolation, coaching in word attack as children were reading, and sight word practice. Additionally, in grades 1–3, frequently observed approaches to comprehension instruction included asking literal-level oral questions after reading; asking higher level, oral questions after reading; and having students write in response to what they had read.

Results
Time spent in small group instruction for reading distinguished the most effective schools from the other schools in the study and was offered by teachers in these schools as a reason for their success. Reading instruction included teacher-directed reading of narrative and expository text, literature circles, and instruction in phonics, vocabulary, and comprehension. Across these activities, students in the more effective schools spent more time in small group instruction than students in the moderately and least effective schools (see Table 2).


Table 2: Time Spent in Reading Instruction by School Effectiveness Level
Minutes spent in small group
Minutes spent in whole group
Minutes spent in independent reading
Total minutes in reading
3. Most effective schools
60
25
28
134
2. Moderately effective schools
26
37
27
113
1. Least effective schools
38
30
19
113

3>2=1 3=2>1


This time for small group instruction was not achieved by each teacher working in isolation. To the contrary, all four of the most effective schools used a collaborative model for reading instruction in which Title I, reading resource, special education, and regular teachers (as well as ELL teachers in one school) worked together to provide small group instruction. In three schools, resource teachers came into the classroom for 60 minutes a day. In one school, children went to resource teachers to work in groups of two or three for 45 minutes a day. The staff in three of the four schools pointed to early reading interventions in grades K–3 for those students most at risk as one reason for their success.

The small groups in these four schools tended to be based on ability. The rationale given by teachers and administrators for this decision was a desire to maximize individual participation and ensure that all students were working on skills and materials that were "within their reach." While this practice may seem reminiscent of an earlier age when we tracked students in grade 1 into groups in which they would remain for the rest of their school lives, it was different in these schools. Movement across groups was common because of their commitment to regular, systematic assessment and to early interventions. The assessments gave them the evidence they needed to take stock of progress on a regular basis (at least three times per year); the interventions provided the means to accelerate the growth of those most at risk. Thus group boundaries were quite permeable; children were not "doomed" to lifetime, or even yearlong, membership in particular reading groups.

Children in most and moderately effective schools spent more time in independent reading (28 and 27 min/day) than children in least effective schools (19 min/day). Teachers in the most effective schools mentioned time for students to read authentic texts as a factor contributing to their success.

Phonics instruction provided an interesting contrast across levels of effectiveness. As documented in Table 3, explicit phonics was common in all the schools. However, what really set the teachers in the most effective schools apart from their counterparts was their use of coaching kids in how to apply the word identification skills they were learning in phonics while they were reading everyday texts.


Table 3: Percent of Teachers Frequently Observed Using Various Approaches to Word Recognition Instruction in Grades 1 and 2 by School Effectiveness Level
Coaching during reading %
Phonics in isolation %
Drill on
sight words %
3. Most effective schools
54
60
27
2. Moderately effective schools
17
61
0
1. Least effective schools
13
60
40

3>2=1 3>2,1>2


These differences struck us as important enough to illustrate more vividly. A majority of grade 1 and 2 teachers across levels of school effectiveness were frequently observed teaching phonics in isolation, including working with words on a whiteboard, chart, or worksheet; working with word cards dealing with word study or word families; making words; writing words; and reading words with a particular phonic element. However, in addition to teaching phonics in isolation, a majority of teachers in the most effective schools, unlike those in the other schools in the study, also taught word recognition by coaching children in the use of strategies to figure out unknown words while they were reading. Instead of the teacher or another child calling out a word when a child was stuck, the teacher used prompts such as,

  • "Why don’t you sound it out and think of what would make sense."
  • "Does that make sense?" ("pick" for "quick")
  • "Do you see a chunk you know?" ("ell"in "fell")

In other words, children weren’t simply practicing reading by reading aloud. Through their coaching, teachers were helping students learn how to apply word recognition strategies to real reading. While more research is needed, the results from this study suggest that conversations about systematic phonics instruction and opportunity to practice need to be broadened to include "on the spot" coaching as children are actually reading.

Table 4 portrays our findings on comprehension instruction practices. Differences emerged in the use of higher level questions, with the clear nod going to the teachers in the most effective schools. There were no reliable differences in the observed use of text-based questions or writing in response to reading. Two other trends are worth noting. First, the teachers in the most effective schools were more balanced in their use of instructional tools compared to their counterparts. Second, when all is said and done, there was not much comprehension activity in these classrooms in general.


Table 4: Percent of Teachers Frequently Observed Using Various Approaches
to Comprehension Instruction in Grade 1–3 by School Effectiveness Level
Text-based questions %
Higher-level questions %
Writing in response to reading %
3. Most effective schools
37
37
47
2. Moderately effective schools
34
7
24
1. Least effective schools
45
0
27

3>2=1


Compared to the teachers in the moderately and least effective schools, teachers in the most effective schools communicated more with parents. They were more likely to

  • call home at least once a month,
  • send notes or newsletters home weekly, and
  • send home traveling folders weekly.

In two of the four most effective schools, teachers specifically mentioned good home-school connections as a reason for their success.

In all four of the most effective schools, teachers mentioned that reading was a priority in their building and that this was a factor contributing to their success. The teachers in the most effective schools spent 134 minutes a day on reading (including small and whole group reading instruction, independent seatwork, independent reading, and writing in response to reading) as compared to teachers in the moderately and least effective schools who averaged 113 minutes a day (in both levels of school effectiveness) on reading.

Summary
We hope that teachers and administrators find this brief overview of some of our results useful and provocative. In our view, nothing could be more important than documenting practices that help teachers in high poverty schools scaffold their students’ learning and achievement. While some of the news in these findings supports earlier research (small group instruction, overall commitment to reading, time for reading independently, and the importance of higher level questions), we hope it is welcome news, especially at a time when the policy pressures to focus our curriculum in particular ways are stronger than ever. Some of the news points us in new directions. We think the role that scaffolded word identification during reading of stories played in these effective schools is an important finding. Equally important, we think, is the strong relationship found between school effectiveness and teacher communication with parents (which, by the way, is even stronger when examined as a building level phenomenon). Finally, the interaction between strong building communication and the capacity to offer high levels of small group instruction is reassuring; undoubtedly, the one begets the other.

It is clear from this study that a combination of sound building decisions, such as the collaborative model for reading instruction, and effective classroom practices contributed to success in our most effective schools. What is needed now, we believe, is research on ways to help aspiring schools and teachers learn from effective schools and accomplished teachers so they too may "beat the odds" in teaching all children to read. This is the area some of us within CIERA are turning to next.

References

Herman, R. (1999). An educator’s guide to schoolwide reform. Arlington, VA: Educational Research Service.

Hiebert, E. H., & Taylor, B. M. (in press). Beginning reading instruction: Research on early interventions. In R. Barr, M. Kamil, P. Mosenthal, & P. D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of reading research, Volume III. New York: Longman.

Learning First Alliance. (1998). Every child reading: An action plan of the Learning First Alliance. American Educator, 22 (1—2), 52–63.

Morrow, L, Tracey, D., Woo, D., & Pressley, M. (1999). Characteristics of exemplary first-grade literacy instruction. The Reading Teacher, 52 (5), 462–479.

Puma, M. J., Karweit, N., Price, C., Ricciuitti, A., Thompson, W., & Vaden-Kiernan, M. (1997). Prospects: Final report on student outcomes. Washington, DC: Planning and Evaluation Service, U.S. Department of Education.

Snow, C. E., Burns, S., & Griffin, P. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children: Report of the Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Stringfield, S., Millsap, M. A., & Herman, R. (1997). Urban and suburban/rural special strategies for educating disadvantaged children: Findings and policy implications of a longitudinal study. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Wharton-MacDonald, R., Pressley, M., & Hampston, J. M. (1998). Literacy instruction in nine first-grade classrooms: Teacher characteristics and student achievement. The Elementary School Journal, 99, 101–128.


This research was conducted as part of CIERA, the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement, and supported under the Educational Research and Development Centers Program, PR/Award Number R305R70004, as administered by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education. However, the contents of the described report do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the National Institute on Student Achievement, Curriculum, and Assessment or the National Institute on Early Childhood development, or the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

© 2001 CIERA. All rights reserved.