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Shari Frost: Who needs literacy coaches?

Shari Frost, who holds a doctorate in education, supports literacy coaches through her roles as editor of the National Council of Teachers of English’s Literacy Coaching Clearinghouse, editor of Choice Literacy (a newsletter that focuses on literacy instruction) and clinical coach instructor for the Illinois Partnership in Comprehensive Literacy. She’s also co-author of Effective Literacy Coaching: Building Expertise and a Culture of Literacy. A classroom teacher for kindergarten through fifth grade for more than 25 years, Frost is a frequent presenter at conferences. She lives in Lisle, Illinois. For more information, check out connectedcommunity.org, literacycoachingonline.org and www.choiceliteracy.com.

Q: What are literacy coaches and reading specialists and what do each do?

A: A literacy coach works primarily with teachers. Reading specialists work with children who are having difficulties learning how to read or making sufficient progress in reading. Both are teachers with specialized training in literacy (reading and writing), usually a master’s degree. Literacy coaches might have additional coursework in leadership, and skills in working with adults. Ideally, both were excellent classroom teachers. Literacy coaches offer professional development to school staff (school-wide, to groups and to individuals). They also manage data on student achievement, maintain materials for literacy instruction and teach at least one group of students to maintain their skills in working with them.

Q: What type of children benefit most from these professionals, and how does a parent know if their child needs one?

A: Studies show that all children can benefit from a school literacy coach, especially students with whom the coach works directly. A child failing to achieve at expected levels may benefit from a reading specialist, who works only with students experiencing difficulty with reading.

Q: What percentage of schools have literacy coaches and reading specialists?

A: That’s a moving target, but at least 20% of schools have a literacy coach, and 60% have reading specialists. These are in part a legacy of The Reading First grant, a U.S. federal education program that required literacy coaches. Literacy coaches first appeared in professional literature in the 1930s.

Q: Do today’s students need more literacy support than in the past?

A: Federal grants like the Reading Excellence Grant and No Child Left Behind are behind the growth. Once schools and community realize what an asset these professionals can be, they strive to keep them when the funding is no longer available.

Today’s students do seem to need more support with literacy instruction due to increased levels of poverty, more students speaking English as a second language, more special needs students mainstreamed into regular classrooms, technological distractions (e.g. video games, movies, computers), changes in values and attitudes, children being over-scheduled (e.g. sports, music lessons), society’s need for a workforce with highly specialized skills (decline in manufacturing jobs) and busy parents.

Q: Who needs literacy help – are there any gender or race factors?

A: Historically, 70% of children learn to read with no special support. The 30% who need extra support are predominately male, non-white and economically deprived. Education being a female-dominated profession, 80% of literacy coaches and reading specialists are women.

Q: What is your advice for how a parent can maximize the positive effect a literacy coach or reading specialist might have on their child?

A: Since studies show that the presence of either professional improves student achievement, all children in the school benefit. Parents can attend board meetings to request or support funding for them.

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