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Why the Quality of Literacy PD Makes All the Difference

Updated on
Modified on June 22, 2023


As a young girl, I remember “traveling” to faraway places, living vicariously as I enjoyed the Bobbsey twins' adventures. Reading became my getaway, my solace, and my joy. Sometimes, I imagine how different my life would have been if I had struggled to learn to read. Perhaps that’s why my passion today is literacy research and helping teachers reach all students.

How can this be done? By developing teacher expertise through quality literacy PD.

To illustrate my point, let’s consider two scenarios, both centered on a struggling second grade student. In Scenario one, I am a teacher with little understanding of what it takes to teach reading. (That was once a true scenario for me.)  In Scenario two, I am a teacher equipped with the deep content knowledge necessary to reach most every child.

Moving toward a diagnostic-prescriptive approach to instruction

Scenario one

Charlie read haltingly, made frequent errors, and relied on pictures to guess at unfamiliar words. He was falling behind his peers, and he noticed. Sadly, Charlie became the class clown, avoiding work, and diverting attention away from his difficulties. My approach? I told him to try harder, kept him inside at recess, had after-school sessions, and employed his parents to make him read more.

Like most inaccurate readers, Charlie was a weak speller, too. He misspelled these words on a spelling inventory:

Target wordMisspelling

I had Charlie write each misspelled word five times, in rainbow colors. Then, I wrote each word on a 3x5 card and asked Charlie’s parents to drill him for homework. As you can guess, more of my ineffective, uninformed instruction led to the same disappointing results.

Scenario two

Charlie continued to read and spell inaccurately, but this time I understood the “why” behind his errors. For example, I identified phonological confusions in his inaccuracies. I knew which letter patterns he had mastered, and which still stymied him. Most importantly, I knew what to do about it. Let’s revisit Charlie’s misspellings to identify what an expert teacher knows and does.

Target WordErrorInitial letter soundFinal letter soundMiddle letter soundsInstructional implications
fanfncorrectcorrectMissing vowel sound; weak phonological representationDirect instruction segmenting and blending 2- and 3-sound words.
petpitcorrectcorrectWrong vowel sound representedUse mirrors; talk about chin drop.
digdegcorrectcorrectWrong vowel sound representedUse mirrors; same issue with pet/pit!
mobmodcorrectincorrectcorrectReinforce letter formation.
roperopcorrectcorrectincorrectUsed letter name for sound; teach silent e convention.
waitwatcorrectcorrectincorrectUsed letter name for sound.
chunkjukincorrect correctMissing nasalFeel throat for voicing; Tap sounds.
sledsadcorrectcorrectWrong vowel sound, missing liquid lUse mirrors for vowel; tap sounds.
sticksikcorrectcorrectMissing liquid sound, error with –ck conventionTap sounds, review –ck convention.
shinesinincorrectcorrectincorrectUse mirrors to see and feel initial sound; teach silent e!

Overall, Charlie had weak phonemic awareness. I could tell based on his frequent vowel errors. Intervention included discussions about airflow and the placement of his tongue/teeth/lips, using mirrors. Basic phonics and spelling patterns were taught within a predetermined scope and sequence, making note of his –ck and VCe errors. This, coupled with multiple opportunities to read and write taught patterns, rounded out his word work.

Currently, only 39 percent of 820 surveyed undergraduate programs address the National Reading Panel’s five essential components of reading (NCTQ, 2016*). 

Sadly, most college courses misunderstand or omit these basics. To make up for the lack of rigor in teacher preparation, we turn to quality, in-service PD. LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) 

contains the powerful knowledge necessary to support teacher expertise. By developing an understanding about how the English language is organized, learning the science behind how brains process text, and teaching in a diagnostic-prescriptive manner, teachers are armed with the knowledge to impact change.

When educators know better, they do better. Every student deserves a well-informed teacher. We should expect no less. 


About the Author
Dr. Carol Tolman
National/International Literacy Consultant

Carol Tolman, Ed.D, was awarded a doctorate in Educational Psychology with a concentration in literacy and has been a consultant at the state, district, and school levels for over 15 years. Prior to earning her doctorate, Dr. Tolman was a classroom teacher and Special Educator with more than 25 years of experience in public schools at the elementary and secondary levels. She spent 12 of those years designing and implementing an innovative, exemplary reading clinic for academically challenged middle and high school students.

In addition to spearheading many successful, long-term literacy initiatives throughout the country, Dr. Tolman has published Working Smarter, Not Harder: What Teachers of Reading Need to Know and Be Able to Do and The Relationship between Teacher Knowledge and Effective RtI: When we Know Better, we Do Better (IDA Perspectives). Carol is co-author of LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) Presenter’s Kits, co-author of LETRS Modules 1, 2nd Edition, co-author of LETRS Module 10, 2nd Edition, and co-author with Dr. Louisa Moats of the LETRS 3rd Edition series of text and on-line supports for teachers of reading and spelling. Dr. Tolman has presided over the LETRS Leadership Board, created LETRS On-Line, and provides LETRS Trainer of Trainer (TOT) workshops to prepare others for the rigorous study involved in becoming a Certified Local LETRS Trainer.

Learn more about Dr. Carol Tolman