Working on a job description for a literacy coach? Read the results of this national survey

iStock_000016876858XSmallWhat is a literacy coach?

A literacy coach is a new breed of educator without a classroom or students or even a very clear job description, but with a big job–to help often-reluctant colleagues, whatever their subject areas, focus on teaching adolescents to become better at reading and math.

But what specifically does a literacy coach do?

To find out, researchers recently surveyed literacy coaches across the country and asked them to indicate what activities they engaged in most frequently and least frequently, according to a study recently published in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy.

Four key roles a literacy coach plays

The literacy coaches reviewed 55 activities described in the “Standards for Middle and High School Literacy Coaches,” which was issued by The International Reading Association and its partner organizations in 2006; the survey was an online survey. The literacy coaches indicated which tasks they performed in their jobs and how frequently. The standards identify four key roles a literacy coach plays. These are:

  • coaching
  • collaborating
  • evaluating
  • instructional strategy

Guidance for job description

Coaches seem most comfortable with their roles as collaborators, according to the research. The most frequently cited activities were in the collaboration category, which had a list of 25 activities. The following are some of the most frequently cited activities:

  • respecting confidentiality (87%)
  • examining best practices (86%)
  • examining curriculum materials (86%)
  • responding to student needs (85%)
  • responding to staff needs (84%).
  • demonstrating positive expectations for students (83%)
  • responding to teacher requests (81%).

The least frequently cited activities for collaborating were:

  • encouraging reading specialist to serve as resource (37%)
  • meeting regularly with other coaches (38%), and
  • developing a literacy team (39%)

19 coaching activities

“There was generally less consensus among our participants in activities described as coaching; no activity was used by more than 80% of the participants,” write the authors.

From the list of 19 activities in the coaching role, the literacy coaches cited the following activities most frequently:

  • working with teachers individually (72%)
  • assisting teachers in instruction of content area text (66%)
  • working with teaching teams (62%)
  • demonstrating instructional strategies (61%)
  • providing ongoing support to teachers (60%)

Coaches seemed to be the least active in their roles as evaluators. Coaches were asked to indicate which of 11 evaluation activities they engaged in. The following activities were cited most frequently:

  • reviewed assessment research (48%)
  • helped teachers standardize scoring of writing (33%)
  • helped teachers determine which strate- gies support achievement (31%)
  • introduced teachers to ways to observe literacy skills (29%).

The following evaluator activities were cited least frequently:

  • helped teachers analyze trends in content area achievement tests (22%)
  • examined student work with teachers (16%)
  • introduced ways to observe English language learners’ language development (14%)

Ideal qualities of a coach

The survey was e-mailed to more than 8,000 individuals during a 3-week period in January 2007. About 443 opened the e-mail and 147 completed the survey. The 25-item online survey comprised forced-choice and a few open-ended questions which asked coaches to describe what attributes literacy coaches should have and what advice they would give future middle/high school literacy coaches.

According to the “Standards for Middle and High School Literacy Coaches,” ideal secondary literacy coaches are skilled listeners, problem solvers and relationship builders.

What did the participants feel were important attributes for a coach? “According to our coaches, the model secondary literacy coach is first and foremost an optimistic person. When confronted with challenges, he or she draws from a personal arsenal of patience, resilience, and flexibility to persevere.”

One respondent wrote: “Coaching is a difficult position, and in some instances you get a lot of resistance.”

In addition to optimism, a coach must be able to communicate effectively with teachers–listening to individual needs, offering ideas and making suggestions for improvement, the authors write. The respondents also said their job requires strategic planning.

Finally, the respondents said, while a literacy coach is an expert, he or she must also come to the position as a learner. “The coach is committed to learning new concepts and ideas relevant to literacy and content area instruction, actively pursuing venues for developing knowledge,” the authors write.

4 recommendations for future literacy coaches

What advice would they give to others who were stepping into the role of literacy coach? The coaches had four recommendations:

  1. Be deliberate in how you present yourself to teachers. It’s important for a coach to present as a credible teacher and to establish trust by fostering relationships.
  2. Provide differentiated instruction to teachers. Rather than a one-size-fits all approach, provide support based on need. A coach should find out what content teachers are doing then tailor strategies to that teacher.
  3. Use data. To inform decisions about professional development and instruction, coaches need to analyze classroom- and school-level data. Coaches said this is where they needed the most support.
  4. Be a strategic leader. Define and advocate for a specific role from the beginning. If coaches devote their time to performing other duties that fall outside the definition of literacy coach, they will not be able to properly do their jobs.

“Middle and High School Literacy Coaches: A National Survey,” by Katrin Blamey, Carla Kay Meyer and Sharon Walpole, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, Volume 52, Number 4, December 2008/January 2009, pp. 310-323.

Published in ERN January 2009

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