The art of teaching teachers how to teach reading

CNN's Kelly Wallace takes part in a game of Hedbanz during reading instruction at P.S. 94 in the Bronx.

Story highlights

  • Eight high-poverty schools in the Bronx are benefiting from coaching on early reading instruction
  • Universities don't teach teachers how to teach reading, one principal says

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.

(CNN)A lifelong educator and advocate for children, Principal Diane Daprocida of P.S. 94, an elementary school in the Bronx, says she has been waiting for one thing since she started running the school 10 years ago.

You might guess it's more money or resources, or smaller class sizes, but something else topped her wish list: a way to teach her teachers, many of whom have four years or less of teaching experience, how to teach reading.
"Our universities do not teach teachers how to (teach reading) at the undergraduate level," Daprocida said. "It's philosophy of education, sociology of education, classroom management. I mean, I can't even remember. It's been so long since I've been to school, but they are coming through a traditional track not knowing how to teach reading, just the overall basic components of it."
    Diane Daprocida is principal of P.S. 94 in the Bronx.
    As principal of a high-needs urban school with 1,260 students, up from 830 six years ago, she more than has her hands full just trying to keep her students and her 130 teachers on track. But she also is faced with narrowing a stunning word deficit: Children living in poverty hear 30 million fewer words by age 4 than children in higher-income households, according to researchers.
    Part of the challenge at P.S. 94 is overcoming a vocabulary word deficit.
    It's a struggle across the country. Reading scores on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation's Report Card, were steady for fourth graders since 2013, while reading scores for eighth graders declined. Additional 2015 NAEP results released this week showed that 12th grade students' reading scores remained flat since 2013. Thirty-seven percent of high school seniors performed at or above the "proficient" level in reading.
    Daprocida said she and her colleagues have tried different approaches to improve reading levels, but nothing was moving the students.
    Then, two years ago, she collaborated with Teaching Matters, an organization that works to develop and retain great teachers in some of the highest-needs districts in New York.
    "The reason I partnered with them is because I had so many new teachers, and we saw the difference immediately in the type of professional support that they provided for us."
    But it wasn't until last year that she truly got her wish: Thanks to a $600,000 grant from the New York Community Trust Brooke Astor Fund for New York City Education, Teaching Matters brought its program to improve reading instruction in early grades to eight high-poverty schools in the Bronx, including P.S. 94.
    "It's like going for a master's in reading," said Daprocida, who taught special education for 10 years before coming to P.S. 94. "If you really buy into it and you use the resources, it's getting a master's in reading."

    Following the research of reading instruction

    During a recent visit to P.S. 94, I had a chance to see some of what the Teaching Matters focus on early reading is bringing to Daprocida and her colleagues.
    In each classroom, small groups of children work independently: In kindergarten, a table captain might say the sound of the beginning of a word while the other students write the letter on their smart boards. In second grade, students play the game Hedbanz, in which one person wears a headband with a word they can't see and gets clues from the other students to try to guess the word. In third grade, three boys read "Paul Bunyan," with each reading the text attributed to a different character.
    A student at P.S. 94 practices sight words with his classmates.
    In addition to these independent work stations, teachers lead small groups of students in guided reading instruction. In kindergarten, a teacher and students discuss a book about feathers and what clues they have to know that the book is not about birds. In third grade, students reading "Behind Rebel Lines," a book about a Civil War spy, discuss the motivations of the people they are reading about.
    This focused approach, which includes leading and encouraging students to think in more complex ways about the books they are reading, is based on bringing together all the existing research on teaching vocabulary, comprehension and guided reading, and coming up with a program that works, said Naomi Cooperman, senior director of new content and evaluation for Teaching Matters.
    "We've really done a lot of research in terms of what makes sense in terms of reading instruction," said Cooperman. "It's not quirky. It's not like sort of one philosophy. It pulls together the kinds of strategies that researchers are telling us are powerful."
    Kindergarten teacher Amy Colt does a guided reading lesson at P.S. 94.
    This research doesn't always filter down into the schools, she said. "The academics are sitting here, and they're writing the articles, and the schools are just often purchasing curriculum programs, but they're not seeing the links ... and our job is to help them make those links and see the strategies that are underneath it all."
    Those strategies, in the form of an online toolkit filled with easy to understand templates such as "What a Guided Lesson Should Contain," are made available through the Teaching Matters website to teachers and school leaders supported by the organization.
    Another core part of the Teaching Matters program is providing coaching, in the form of highly skilled and trained individuals who visit the school weekly and become a go-to resource for the principal and teachers.