Teaching Idea

Entering the Teaching Profession? Using What Works for Effective Literary Instruction

Cindy Jones and Jennifer Throndsen


A group of teacher candidates asked Jennifer Throndsen, literacy and library coordinator for USOE, a number of questions regarding their needs and expectations as new teachers. This article reports some of the questions and summarizes Dr. Throndsen's responses.

Each year hundreds of elementary education majors graduate from colleges of education across the State of Utah and officially join the teaching profession. Many begin their careers working for Utah school districts. To help navigate this transfer from preservice teacher to practicing teacher, a group of teacher candidates approached Jennifer Throndsen, USOE preK-12 literacy and library media coordinator, with a series of questions. In this article, we share an overview of this exchange and the ensuing advice, supporting information, and additional resources offered to help beginning teachers promote elementary students' literacy development.

In her position as preK-12 literacy and library media coordinator, Ms. Throndsen currently maintains a variety of responsibilities:

  • Oversight of USOE specialists for areas of (a)prekindergarten, (b) kindergarten–third grade literacy, (c) enhanced kindergarten, (d) STAR tutoring, (e) social studies, (f) world languages and dual immersion, (g) secondary ELA, (h) college & career readiness (including international baccalaureate, advanced placement, and concurrent enrollment), and (i) gifted and talented education
  • Development of a K-3 educational software initiative
  • Advancement of the professional learning series
  • Supervision of reading and library media endorsements
  • Coordination with the state legislature
  • Outreach to local education associations (LEA) and schools
  • Communication with LEA literacy directors

What do you think is the most effective practice when teaching reading and writing?

Current evidence indicates that explicit and systematic cumulative reading and writing instruction is essential for student learning. The importance of explicit teaching of phonemic awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension has been confirmed by several national panels (August & Shanahan, 2006; NELP, 2008; NICHD, 2000). Explicit instruction includes the following elements: (a) stating clear and concise objectives, (b) providing direct explanation and demonstration of cognitive strategies, (c) scaffolding students' acquisition of skills, concepts, and strategies, (d) implementing guided practice through a gradual release of responsibility, (e) monitoring independent application, and (f) providing specific feedback (Chall 2002; Pearson & Dole, 1987; Torgesen, 2004).

Using these elements of explicit instruction when teaching reading has a positive influence on student learning. In fact, explicit instruction is one of the best tools available to maximize students' academic growth (Archer & Hughes, 2011).

Systematic cumulative instruction requires careful consideration of its scope and sequence. Its goal is to maximize the likelihood that children possess the appropriate prior knowledge and understandings to support efficient learning of a new skill (Adams, 2001).

Systematic cumulative instruction teaches complex skills in small manageable units of learning and then sequences the learning units from easy to difficult, while providing scaffolding to control the level of difficulty throughout the learning process (Murray, Coleman, Vaughn, Wanzek, & Roberts, 2012). When teachers carefully scaffold systematic cumulative instruction, student learning is further optimized (Dickson, Chard, & Simmons, 1993).

Reading and writing instruction that builds on the principles of explicit and systematic cumulative methods will help you to meet the needs of children. There is clear evidence that such instruction consistently produces "greater effects than implicit or embedded instruction in which students needed to infer strategies or instruction in which skills were left to natural development" (Coyne, Kame'enui, & Simmons, 2001, p.66). Incorporating these methods will help all students reach a higher level of achievement at a much faster pace (Loftus-Rattan, Mitchell, & Coyne, 2016). It is not enough to simply ask a student to read more; practice without high quality instruction to build skills is insufficient. 

What are some current challenges with teaching the English language arts standards?

There have been some shifts in instruction such as inclusion of more informational texts, text-dependent questioning, and text-based writing and responses. For example, the Reading Anchor Standards 7-9 focus on integration of knowledge and ideas through evaluating content presented in texts and other formats (NGA Center & CCSSO, 2010). This requires an organized use of reading skills and strategies to critically analyze evidence and then draw conclusions about the validity of authors' reasoning and claims. This has brought greater rigor to the literacy skills we are teaching children.

Challenges are also evident in teaching the writing standards. Writing is a complex skill that requires considerable time, effort, and instruction to master. It is essential for children to receive clear and explicit instruction about how to use writing strategies and methods. Furthermore, there is considerable evidence that writing about content in science, social studies, and other subject areas enhances how much students learn (Bangert-Drowns, Hurley, & Wilkinson, 2004; Graham & Perin, 2007).

Handwriting standards were added to the Utah Core Standards in 2013. Handwriting is a foundational skill that influences literacy development. The Utah Core Handwriting Standards build on the current evidence base of effective literacy instruction to gradually scaffold student acquisition of handwriting skills (Jones & Hall, 2013). It is important for you to be aware of these handwriting standards and to address them in instruction. (For more information, see The Utah Journal of Literacy, fall 2013).

Ms. Throndsen and other personnel at the Utah State Office of Education are working to support teachers in meeting these challenges as they teach the English language arts standards.

They are currently working on a writing project, which includes creating writing prompts and text sets and collecting writing samples. The prompts and text sets along with the scored and annotated student samples will be shared across Utah to support teachers in understanding the expectations of the K-6 Core Writing Standards. 

Do you have any recommendations to reduce the stresses of beginning teachers?

Classroom management is the first building block for success as a teacher. To better understand the needs of beginning teachers, Ms. Throndsen conducted an informal survey of teachers at the end of their first year. In response to the question "What would you do differently?" every first-year teacher noted the need to be more methodical and explicit with setting up a classroom management system. Ms. Throndsen noted, "This is the reason people leave the field." The time you take at the beginning of the year setting up routines and procedures will benefit you throughout the year. The first four to six weeks can be the most difficult time each year because that is when you teach the expectations for behavior. You must clearly define and explain your expectations to your students.

The next areas to work on are instructional pacing and engagement structures. Use techniques to get students engaged to increase their learning. The way you engage students will not come naturally—you have to intentionally plan it. It may be tempting to focus exclusively on lesson planning and delivery, but a wonderful lesson without classroom management and student engagement is "teaching to the wall." Don't hesitate to ask for help, because if you don't have classroom management, you won't have the rest.

What kinds of lesson plans are required of beginning teachers?

Some schools require lesson plans for every day. Ms. Throndsen explained that she once worked in a school that required every lesson plan for every day to be submitted to the principal at the beginning of the week.  Usually this won't be the case. However, until you become an experienced teacher, you will need to plan at least some of your lessons in full, extensive detail. As an elementary teacher you will be teaching multiple lessons each day. This makes it difficult to plan every lesson in full detail, but you can do this with some lessons. The skills you develop in planning those lessons will transfer to other lessons.

Lesson planning helps you to identify the components required to teach the skill successfully. Writing your lessons also helps you to strengthen your teaching. As you plan your lessons you can incorporate ways to engage students. For example, if you are teaching a fluency lesson, students could echo read or whisper read. As you plan your lessons take time to think about the predictable failures— "What happens when . . ." Plan back-up strategies or routines to address foreseeable problems.  

Lesson plans will also be required for the teaching evaluations conducted by your principal or instructional coach. You will be observed several times throughout the year. Some evaluations will be planned, announced visits; others will be unannounced. The more practice you have in lesson planning, the better you will become. Work each day to become better at lesson planning and preparation.

How much work will I take home?

Elementary teaching includes a lot of planning because you are responsible for all subject areas. Ms. Throndsen's advice is to take home the work that is going to be purposeful. For example, consider the timeliness of feedback with assignments. If you will have to spend days providing extended feedback on an assignment, by the time you give that feedback to young children it may no longer be meaningful to them. Prioritize your time. Remember that time spent planning instruction is more beneficial that time spent cutting out laminated bulletin boards.

Teaching is not a job that you can walk out of the office and set aside. You will most likely spend some time at home preparing for work. This is a job that requires you to write plans for the substitute teacher if you are not going to be at school the following day. It takes skill and practice to learn to balance the demands of work with your personal life.

How lenient are district leaders in allowing beginning teachers to implement new instructional materials and practices?

Principals and district leaders will look for three criteria: evidence or research base, effect size, and data evidence. It is not acceptable to just say "I found this on Pinterest." It is important to find sufficient evidence. The effect size of an intervention helps us evaluate "what works" vs. "what works best." For practices you are incorporating in your classroom, gather data to show the impact. Data are becoming transparent in education. Your classroom data will be shared with other teachers at your grade level and possibly beyond your grade level. You will have to own those data.

Ms. Throndsen explained that most districts emphasize the importance of teaching the standards. There may be times that you find district-adopted programs are not sufficiently robust in some areas. You will be expected to identify program weaknesses and modify instruction to address them. Over time districts will receive your feedback and work to address those areas on a district level.

Is teaching a good career choice?

Teaching is absolutely a great job. Being able to impact students on a daily basis is amazing. It is also a little scary because your teaching will influence children for years to come. Be dedicated to the profession and to providing quality instruction. Work to keep parents informed about what is happening in your classroom. You will develop relationships with parents and children that last a lifetime.

Other advice?

Learn from each day. Some days are going to feel like the best day ever; some days will be difficult. Hopefully the best days will outweigh the others. Stay current in the field; continue to take classes and participate in professional development. Observe other teachers. In education you will never stop learning. There is always something new; this makes the teaching profession exciting. Every year we learn more about what works better for students.

Don't be afraid to ask for advice and help. Most of Utah's elementary schools have instructional coaches. Use them. Everyone needs a coach. Even NBA players have coaches. They are good basketball players, but they still have coaches. Your instructional coach can help you implement what works well or offer suggestions to enhance your instruction.

Additional Resources

There are numerous resources available to help beginning teachers promote elementary students' literacy development. Here are four that address the topics discussed in this article. 

  • What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) at http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/ is a resource for informed educational decision making. The WWC provides guides, reports, and summaries about the effectiveness of practices, programs, and policies. Their goal is to inform educators as they work toward improving education for students.
  • The IRIS Center at http://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/ has a wide variety of resources on evidence-based practices and programs. They offer instructional modules and research summaries on topics such as behavior management, content instruction, and peer-assisted reading strategies. 
  • RTI Action Network at http://www.rtinetwork.org/ provides resources for effective implementation of response to intervention/multi-tier systems of supports. The comprehensive site offers guides, toolkits, videos, and professional learning resources designed to improve educational outcomes for all students. 
  • Florida Center for Reading Research at http://fcrr.org/ explores and disseminates information about research-based practices of literacy instruction for readers who develop typically and for those who struggle, including effective prevention and intervention along with formative assessment.

Concluding Notes

Teaching reading and writing requires specialized knowledge about how students acquire literacy skills, about methods of effective instruction, and about a variety of classroom management and engagement techniques to address students' diverse needs (Foorman & Torgesen, 2001). Respected teacher education specialist Linda Darling-Hammond noted, "In teaching, your effectiveness doesn't depend on your own efforts alone" (as qtd. by Scherer, 2012, p. 22). We hope that this article encourages other teacher candidates and beginning teachers to ask questions, seek guidance, and identify supports at the state and local levels to help them succeed in the rewarding, though sometimes challenging, field of education.

Cindy Jones is an associate professor and director of the literacy clinic in the Department of Teacher Education and Leadership at Utah State University, specializing in literacy education and classroom instruction. She holds a current Level 3 Utah Professional Educator License and continues to work in public schools providing professional development about reading and writing instruction.

Jennifer Throndsen has been an elementary and middle school teacher, instructional coach, district specialist, and adjunct professor. She currently serves as the preK-12 literacy and library media coordinator at the Utah State Board of Education. She has earned her math, ESL, gifted and talented, and reading endorsements along with her administrative certificate. She is currently working on her doctorate in mathematics education at Utah State University.


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