A Canadian school’s approach to supporting literacy is fueled by a combination of online and in-person professional development.
By Cindy Young
The ability to read, and read well, is a skill that follows students for the rest of their lives and yet it’s shocking how many children lack the early education support they need to develop this essential competency. Providing proper literacy instruction in my district, the Northern Lights School Division in central Canada, has its own specific challenges. We serve more than 4,300 students spread out over half the entire province of Saskatchewan, and 87 percent of our students are of Indigenous descent, often speaking English. However, due to only being second-generation English speakers with some family members who still speak the Indigenous language, many of our students are not proficient in either language.
About a year ago, Northern Lights found itself with the lowest reading levels in the province, and we resolved to change this. To give our students every opportunity to improve their literacy rates, we first acknowledged that teaching language arts in one class alone wasn’t enough. Instead, we set out to provide our students with a complete literacy support system that would follow them to every class and every subject, reinforcing reading instruction alongside their math, science, and history lessons.
Teaching literacy in all subjects put a greater level of responsibility on the shoulders of all of our teachers, asking them to broaden their instruction in a way they weren’t used to. On top of that, Northern Lights has one of the highest teacher turnover rates in the Saskatchewan province. What we needed was a professional development plan that could get all of our teachers on the same page quickly and effectively. Here’s how we made it work.
Literacy PD for All Teachers
As Vice Principal at Gordon Denny Community School, I was part of the leadership team that led our transition to a school-wide literacy model. At the time, 32 percent of our students were testing below grade level in literacy. Once we assessed the situation we learned, as so many schools do, that a large part of the problem was that many of our language arts educators were not equipped with the skills to teach early foundational reading. This, of course, didn’t even begin to cover the members of our staff who weren’t providing any reading instruction at all!
We decided to teach our teachers first, to guarantee they would be ready with the knowledge and tools necessary to provide our students with the best possible literacy instruction in all subjects. To help guide our teachers on the literacy education benchmarks we expected them to know, we used online professional development webinars through Reading Horizons.
Incorporating literacy instruction into all subjects, classes, and grades has made a significant impact on the learning environment for our school. Not only have we measured improved reading proficiency, but we’ve seen a substantial influence on our teachers’ confidence as well. As they learn these new techniques, they can go back to their students confident that their lessons will be more beneficial for their continued literacy improvement. All we have to do is ask our staff to take a little time out of their day to watch the webinars and see how the method can be applied within their unique classroom setting.
Professional development is always important when welcoming teachers into a new school setting, never more so than when a district experiences as high a turnover rate as Northern Lights has. With roughly half our new educators coming from Ontario, and the other half from our surrounding local communities, only a small percent of incoming staff end up staying for very long. Many of the communities are remote and isolated. Some communities can only be accessed by small planes. Other communities have no grocery store, or gas station, and must travel 6 hours (round trip) just to get food and other items.
Regardless of the amount of time they decide to work with us, we’ve dedicated ourselves to providing each and every teacher with the literacy training they require to ensure the best learning outcomes for our students. Sometimes that means we give them the tools to teach our method only to see them leave right after their training is complete. But we always say goodbye to them knowing that wherever they go, they are leaving better equipped to instruct than they were when they came to us.
Teachers Teaching Teachers
In the fall, we are beginning a new collaboration with schools in Prince Albert, roughly two hours south of Gordon Denny Elementary in La Ronge. Our professional development is evolving to include a “teachers teaching teachers” approach. New instructors with fewer than three or four years of experience will be able to come together to learn and collaborate on best practices for teaching literacy.
To help the program grow, our division has started collecting monthly data that we can use when promoting educator professional development. Other administrators have seen the numbers from our school and are already taking interest. Our school now has more than 80 percent of our students reading at grade level. When asked, I tell people that our PD model is easy to duplicate. With access to online webinars to guide them, any teacher, whether they have an initial understanding of literacy instruction or not, can learn these fundamental techniques, and then take what they’ve learned to collaborative sessions with their peers to build and share more advanced skills.
The more teachers know about reading and how the language works, the more explicit they can be about assessing where their students are and what next steps they need to take to keep them moving on a forward path. Methods like these can be applied at any stage of a student’s learning journey, and at Gordon Denny Elementary, we hope to continue developing our approach to improved literacy instruction for generations to come.
Cindy Young is the Vice Principal and special education instructor at the Gordon Denny Community School in Air Ronge, Saskatchewan, Canada. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.