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Five Tips to Deliver PD That Supports Reading Instruction

By Dr. Michael Hart

If we know so much more than before about the diagnosis and treatment of dyslexia, which affects one in five learners, why are so many children still suffering? The answer lies in the disconnect between what the science of reading tells us and what educators are being taught in their teacher training programs. The majority of teachers are not trained to understand language development and the connection to reading proficiency. Moreover, very few teacher training programs include curricula about reading and written language instruction.

So how can we expect an instructional team to implement early screening and intervention when they haven’t had the education, training and experience to do so? The short answer is, it’s not going to be easy. But school districts can make it a priority to provide thoughtful and comprehensive professional development to provide this essential training. The key is to acknowledge the substantial depth and breadth of training necessary to understand the key components of effective screening and reading intervention, and more importantly, how to put them into practice. Here are some strategies to make this training a success:

1.) Communicate district goals: At the school level, the leadership team needs to prioritize the goals of the district pertaining to dyslexia screening and intervention. It’s important that these goals are continuously communicated to the whole team and not just to the special education teachers. Clearly conveying high-level objectives will contextualize the work taking place in professional development sessions and provide a roadmap for participants.

2.) Seek input: Far too often the goals and objectives for professional development are derived from top-down decision making versus bottom-up collaboration. To counteract that trend, seek input from the teaching staff and other school team members on the areas on which they’d like to focus within the context of the district’s overarching goals. General educators as well as special education teachers, school psychologists, speech and language pathologists, learning specialists, and others should be given the opportunity to provide input.

3.) Provide continuous training: The duration of professional development must be significant and ongoing to allow time for teachers to learn new strategies and grapple with implementation. But we don’t want to overwhelm school teams. Rather, we should develop a plan for the long-term, stick to the plan and keep it doable. Keep in mind that ongoing professional development is an important strategy to compensate for the lack of in-depth education and training in teacher education programs. It will take time.

4.)  Make it active: Teachers’ initial exposure to a concept should not be passive, but rather should engage teachers through varied approaches so they can participate actively in making sense of a new practice. The one-and-done professional development model simply does not work. We know from the research that it may take up to 50 hours of instruction, practice and feedback to truly master a new teaching strategy.

5.) Support the change: True change is really, really hard. It’s not enough to learn new practices at a professional development training — teachers also need adequate support during the implementation stage to address the specific challenges of changing classroom practice. The secret to making it stick is making sure all invested parties are supporting each other in their efforts to effect meaningful change. To that end, ensure school and district leaders are supporting changes in their budgeting, scheduling, team development and collaboration time.

As reading proficiency levels stagnate, more states are taking a long, hard look at current practices and revamping their entire approach to reading instruction. Thirty-three U.S. states now have updated laws that include provisions for teaching students with dyslexia, and some of the new legislation calls for dyslexia screening and teacher training specific to the needs of dyslexic students. Despite these improvements, districts must contend with the fact that hundreds of teachers are already in the classroom without the benefit of this training. Districts must fill in this gap with a serious and sustained professional development that will equip teachers not only with a working knowledge of reading science, but also best practices for screening and intervention. Nothing less than our students’ futures are at stake.

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