*For more insights about strong classroom instruction, head over to the Edthena blog. 

Watch this #PLtogether Lounge Talk with Natalie Wexler on how instructional coaches can best support teachers deliver strong literacy instruction.

You can find the full transcript below:

– Welcome to another “#PLtogether Lounge Talk.” I’m Adam Geller, founder and CEO of Edthena, where we make tools that enable video power professional learning. Today, we’re talking with Natalie Wexler. She is an education journalist and a senior contributor to “Forbes,” and she also writes a regular newsletter called “Minding the Gap,” which you can find for free on Substack. Natalie, thanks so much for joining us.

– Delighted to be here.

– So we’ve been talking about literacy. You framed that up and how people might wanna think of it as the knowledge gap, really getting into the knowledge in addition to just the skills when teaching reading in classrooms. I’m curious to kinda shift us into talking about coaching, which you know, is a high-powered way to help teachers implement the how of their curriculum. So you know, let’s get into that. Let’s think about the coach who’s getting up to speed or maybe is new to coaching. You know, they have some background knowledge for coaching, but you know, where do you advise that they start in terms of building a plan to support their teachers in their building?

– Well, I think the place to start is really understanding the curriculum, and I think that the best coaches will be those who are really familiar, not just with the content of the curriculum that’s right in front of them, but also the curriculum as a whole across grade levels, across the school year, and also across grade levels, to see how, where does this piece that a teacher may be working on right now, where does it fit into the overall picture. I recently talked to a coach who had been a classroom teacher, and she said, when she was a classroom teacher, she really didn’t have that big picture. And now as a coach, she’s able to provide that to the teachers she’s working with so that they understand, “Oh, I’m teaching this now because next year, these kids are gonna be learning this other thing that is related and will build on what I’m teaching now.” And that really can be helpful. I think also, knowing, you know, sometimes there’s a lot of content in a content-rich knowledge-building curriculum. And so it can be helpful to know what, first of all, what kids already were exposed to through the curriculum, so what knowledge to activate now. And the curriculum should supply some of that in the form of suggested questions, but a coach could be really helpful there. And also, what is it that is really great to emphasize from the mass of information that is in front of you that kids need to retain to understand what they’ll be expected to learn next month, next year, whatever? And I also think that, and again, this is something I think that a curriculum can help with, but I think asking questions is such a crucial part of teaching. And I don’t know that it’s one that teachers get a lot of training in, and it’s not easy. Like figuring out how much of the burden of thinking to place on a student’s shoulders, as opposed to the teachers doing that work and where to strike that balance. And also, establishing first that students have actually understood in a literal sense the material you’re teaching. Because I think there is often a tendency, you know, they look like they’ve understood it, and if you ask, “Anybody have any questions?” they might not raise their hands, right? But if you ask a comprehension question, and I’ve heard teachers, I’ve taught a bit myself and I’ve had this happen, you know, you say, if you just ask a sort of literal comprehension question, you’d be surprised at how many people and how many students in the classroom didn’t understand what you thought you were saying or what the text was saying, just at a literal level. So yes, we do wanna go on to those higher-order questions, but students aren’t gonna be able to get much out of those higher-order questions if they don’t have a literal understanding of what they’ve just read or what you’ve just read aloud or whatever. So I think coaches can help with that kind of thing, is just, you know, an observer will say, “Well, wait a minute, you know, you assumed that they understood that, but do you really know that they understood that thing you just covered?”

– And I’m gonna guess here, it’s not by accident that your answer for where should coaches start was in, you know, the knowledge piece. It was what knowledge should be discussed, and in some ways, maybe to the exception of talking about checks for understanding, very little here about the skills, you know, the blocking and tackling of how to teach reading. But you know, I think coaches are still gonna be, obviously, doing that work. And they’re curious, of course. Like, “I’ve gotta be talking about how to do phonics instruction in a certain way,” in addition to the knowledge piece. So help them shine a light in their kind of toolkit. What have you seen is an area, a skill area, that might be overlooked by coaches in their effort to support literacy instruction?

– Well, I think we need to be really clear that when I’m talking about skills, I’m not talking about foundational skills, like phonics or phonemic awareness. Those do need to be taught as skills, you know, generally applicable skills that can be taught directly. And we’ve had a big problem in reading instruction, a bad aspect of reading instruction. The comprehension aspect of reading instruction, we’ve had, you know, it’s kind of like the mirror image. We’ve been trying to teach that as a set of skills that you can teach directly and it can be applied generally, but it’s not true of comprehension skills. If I’m reading about a topic I know a lot about, education policy, let’s say, I’ll have no trouble finding the main idea. But if you give me a text on molecular biology, I will not be able probably to find the main idea. So it’s not a generally applicable skill. It’s gonna depend on the text and how much relevant knowledge the reader has. But I would say, it’s also, you know, it would be a mistake to think that, if you are building knowledge, you’re not teaching comprehension skills and strategies. It’s not like you choose one or the other. It’s a question of what’s in the foreground. And with comprehension, it’s the content that needs to be in the foreground. And then, skills, I mean, I think there are lots of comprehension skills teachers have thought they were teaching. But it just as many have thought they were teaching phonics, but it turns out that their training and the materials they were given made it so that that instruction was not effective. Same thing with comprehension. Teachers certainly think they are teaching comprehension skills, but often, it’s really, not their fault, it’s just not working because that’s not how comprehension works. So I think what coaches can help teachers with, the way skills need to be imparted, is by asking questions that are embedded in content that require students to apply a skill, if you wanna call it that. So for example, instead of saying, “Okay, this week we’re working on making predictions,” ask a question about the content that implicitly requires kids to make a prediction. If we’re learning about the Civil War, “Can you predict which side is going to win and why?” You know, “What are you basing that prediction on?” That’s the kind of question that will really get students thinking deeply and analytically about the content and will eventually get them in the habit of thinking in that way.

– Kind of help us span upward in the kind of grades, you know. ‘Cause oftentimes, unsaid when we’re talking about literacy and ensuring good comprehension, people may be defaulting to those elementary years. But you know, how does the coach help that content-specific teacher who may or may not have deep training in how to teach reading. I mean, I know as a science teacher, that’s not something that I had personally, right? So how does a coach support in those instances? How can they help build that bridge for that teacher who wants to support students in this new way but may not have the background to do it?

– Yeah, I mean, I think that coaches probably have a very important role here. Because really, ideally, every teacher is going to also be a literacy teacher. Science teachers, even math teachers. I mean, all of these subjects, they require both reading ability and also, you know, to some extent, writing ability. And I would like to talk for a minute about how writing can enter in here. But I would say, for example, if you’re teaching science or social studies, one way to become more of a literacy teacher, and I wouldn’t just say reading, ’cause we’re really talking about literacy, is to focus on the vocabulary. Like have students maybe talk about the etymology of a word to help students remember it and also apply that knowledge to figure out future unknown, you know, words they may encounter that have the same component parts, an ending like ology, for example, geology. Well, there’s also paleontology, you know. And when you see that ending, that means it’s the study of something. That’s the kinda thing that can really serve students well when they encounter topics you haven’t necessarily taught them directly about. But then, writing also, so I am the co-author of this book called “The Writing Revolution.” And that is a method of writing instruction designed to be applied to whatever a teacher is teaching, any grade level and any subject area, including science, math, social studies, as well as ELA or English. And there are, I mean, probably with science and math, the most relevant aspects of that method are the sentence-level activities, which can be excellent comprehension checks while teaching things like how do you use a subordinating conjunction, you know. Although decimals and fractions are similar, then, you know, finish that sentence. It’s not just a method of teaching writing, and you know, a math teacher or a science teacher might think, “Well, I’m not a writing teacher. I don’t wanna take away from my instruction to teach writing.” But if they tried this method, and it has to be, you know, these activities have to be somewhat carefully designed, but if it’s designed well, the activity actually bolsters the teaching. It makes the teaching more powerful because it is getting students to really grapple with the content.

– As you were telling that story, it was cuing the memory for me of my middle school teachers, although a different type of conjunction, really, you know, making sure I knew how to use those coordinating conjunctions with commas and how that’s stuck with me so many years later, you know? Those kind of very tactical lessons that can happen in the English language arts classroom or out in the content area, as you’re saying, so. Natalie, we need to take a short break. If you are curious to learn more about what we’ve talked about or where we are going next, head to pltogether.org for the rest of this interview, as well as many more. Natalie, thanks so much for being part of #PLtogether.

– Sure, thank you.