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Literacy Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

Engaging teachers in professional learning about literacy

Engaging teachers' beliefs

It is very important that you engage with teachers’ existing beliefs about literacy learning and teaching:

“Teachers are likely to reject new ideas that conflict with their current ideas unless, as part of the professional learning, their existing understandings are engaged. Without such engagement, teachers are likely to dismiss new strategies as unrealistic and inappropriate for their particular contexts. Similarly, they are likely to reject new content as irrelevant. Engaging teachers’ existing ideas means discussing how those ideas differ from the ideas being promoted and assessing the impact that the new approaches might have on their students... it is particularly important to engage existing theories when challenging teachers’ beliefs about, and expectations of, those students who have traditionally underachieved” (Timperley, 2008, p. 17).

Factors that influence engagement

Teachers’ willingness to engage deeply in professional development will be affected by how much they believe that improving students’ literacy:

  • is an important goal for the students they teach
  • will help students achieve better in their particular subject area
  • is a legitimate part of their responsibility as subject teachers
  • is something they can positively influence (that is, teacher self efficacy).

Building efficacy

The belief that teachers can make a difference is called teacher efficacy. The belief that teachers and leaders working together can make more of a difference is known as collective efficacy. An important part of the Literacy Leader role is to consistently promote individual teacher and collective efficacy.

Some ways to build individual teacher and collective efficacy include the following:

  • Accentuating the positive by showing evidence of teachers and groups of teachers making a difference. For example, even before an intervention, some teachers will be more effective than others in raising student achievement in literacy. For example, there may be a class in which Māori and Pasifika students made higher progress than others. Identify, promote, and celebrate what these teachers did together to make a difference.
  • Challenging explanations for low student achievement that ignore the role of teachers and schools. 

Key research and theory about adolescent literacy

Three important ideas that come through in the research literature are that:

1. Young people need advanced literacy to be successful citizens

“Adolescents entering the adult world in the 21st century will read and write more than at any other time in human history. They will need advanced levels of literacy to perform their jobs, run their households, act as citizens, and conduct their personal lives. They will need literacy to cope with the flood of information they will find everywhere they turn. They will need literacy to feed their imaginations so they can create the world of the future. In a complex and sometimes even dangerous world, their ability to read will be crucial”
(Moore, Bean, Birdyshaw, & Rycik, 1999, p. 3).


  • What purposes will our students need literacy for in the future?
  • What particular literacy skills will be most important for our students to have?
  • How can we better prepare our students for this future?
  • You could use this concept star to help teachers brainstorm personal, social, and economic benefits of improved literacy:

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2. Literacy has a major influence on overall achievement!

It may be useful to discuss these ideas with teachers:

  • All teachers are teachers of literacy because all students learn through language.
  • Language is fundamental to thinking and learning.
  • Language is the primary means by which we gather and communicate information.
  • Students’ literacy skills are a key determinant of their academic achievement in other content areas.
  • Academic English is nobody’s mother tongue (Pawley, 1984).

3. Literacy demands become more specialised at secondary school

No matter how effective their primary teachers were, your students will need ongoing literacy instruction because the literacy demands of secondary subject classrooms are so different.

Shanahan and Shanahan (2008) argue that the ‘disciplinary literacy’ skills needed in secondary school content areas are “more sophisticated but less generalizable”. They identify three stages of literacy development:

  • Basic Literacy: encompassing skills such as decoding and knowledge of high-frequency words that underlie virtually all reading and writing tasks
  • Intermediate Literacy: literacy skills common to most tasks including generic comprehension strategies
  • Disciplinary Literacy: highly specialised literacy skills associated with particular content areas

Click image to enlarge

The  Literacy Learning Progressions describe the literacy-related knowledge, skills and attitudes that students need at different levels.

From the time they start high school, your students will read and write texts that:

  • include more complex ideas and multiple items of information (in both longer texts and short, information dense texts)
  • have an increased range of academic and content-specific vocabulary expressing increasingly abstract concepts
  • are frequently organised in a non-sequential manner, for example, with a range of sections of running text, diagrams, and pictures, which are not clearly linked.

Students will need ongoing literacy instruction from their different subject teachers to meet these challenges.

Identifying subject-specific literacy challenges

Teachers may need support to identify the particular literacy challenges of their subject. One good starting point is to have subject teachers bring examples of subject texts (for example, text books, assignments, NCEA tasks) to a staff meeting. You could then ask them to identify potential difficulties these texts might pose for students (for example, in terms of reading, writing, understanding vocabulary, and organisation).

You could then support teachers to see that many of these literacy demands could only ever be addressed in their own subject area. For example, an English teacher will probably never teach students to:

  • read information from a table
  • write an explanation of a scientific process
  • understand and use specialised economics vocabulary
  • identify relevant variables in a mathematics word problem
  • read or write complex technical instructions.

Using student achievement data

Three important concepts when using student data to engage teachers in literacy PD are the following:

Benchmarks: To make a judgment about a student’s achievement you need to have something valid with which to compare it. Useful benchmarks include curriculum expectations and national means. It is most useful to compare student achievement in your school with external benchmarks (such as national means or similar schools).

Level and Progress: It is important to analyse both students’ levels and their rate of progress. Teachers should obviously be concerned about students who have relatively low levels of literacy and are making low progress. However, they should also be concerned about students who have relatively high achievement levels but who are making low progress.

Disaggregation: It is important to look at the achievement of different groups separately. Important groups to look at include groups based on ethnicity, gender, and language background. It is particularly important that teachers understand the achievement patterns of Māori students, Pasifika students and English Language Learners (ELLs). A key focus for schools is to lift the achievement of diverse learners though effective literacy teaching and learning practices. Understanding how different groups are currently achieving is vital if teachers are to realise the potential of all learners.

Student voice

At the beginning of a literacy intervention, student voice can be used to find out their knowledge and beliefs about:

  • what types of texts they prefer to read and write
  • what kinds of teaching they think are most effective
  • their home literacy practices such as oral traditions (story telling, chants) worldviews
  • their background: cultural capital, worldviews, prior learning and the knowledge and experiences they bring into the classroom
  • how challenging/interesting they find literacy tasks
  • why literacy is important in different subject areas
  • their aspirations at and beyond schooling, and what role they think literacy has in realising these.

Further reading about engagement

Ministry of Education (2007).  The New Zealand Curriculum. Wellington, New Zealand: Learning Media Limited.

Moore, D. W., Bean, T. W., Birdyshaw, D., & Rycik, J. A. (1999). Adolescent literacy: A position statement. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 43, 97-112.

Pawley, A. 1984. School English is nobody's mother tongue: reflections on vernacular and school acquired language. In A Berry (ed.) Communication. Papers from the 20th extension course lectures. Auckland: Auckland Institute and Museum.

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content-area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 40-59.

Timperley, H. (2008).  Teacher professional learning and development. Educational Practice Series – 18. Netherlands: International Academy of Education / International Bureau of Education.

Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H., & Fung, I. (2007).  Teacher professional learning and development: Best evidence synthesis iteration (BES). Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education.

Case study: using student voice to engage teachers in Te Kotahitanga

In order to engage teachers in rethinking their theories, Te Kotahitanga employed a Kaupapa Māori strategy of ‘collaborative storying’. Early in the professional development experience, teachers were presented with stories that had been compiled during an earlier phase of the project. These stories came from students (both engaged and non-engaged), their parents/whānau, principals, and teachers and concerned the influences on students’ educational engagement and achievement. There were marked differences between the descriptions of daily realities provided by the students themselves, those parenting them, principals, and teachers. The extremes were represented by the teachers and the students.

Teachers attributed the difficulties experienced by Māori students to personal deficiencies. They pathologised the daily experience of Māori students—many believing that Māori learners were simply less capable of educational achievement because of limited language skills and poor home backgrounds. But the students’ powerful stories focused primarily on their classroom experiences and their relationships and interactions with teachers. They recounted the negative attitudes and beliefs they experienced, and their sense of being excluded when teachers mispronounced their names and Māori words. They were also able to identify positive relationships—with teachers who knew and trusted them and made an effort to know them as Māori. In addition, they described how their achievement could be enhanced through a range of alternative pedagogical approaches that essentially were more discursive and inclusive than the expert–novice transmission model that that was their experience in many classrooms” .

Timperley et al., 2007, p. 171

Published on: 05 Jan 2018