Reach teachers-in-training for long-term reading gains, say experts at CIES

By Jillian Slutzker

March 8, 2017

ATLANTA—To make sustainable improvements to early grade reading instruction, programs should look to teachers-in-training, said a panel of pre-service teacher training and early grade reading experts at the Comparative and International Education Society conference on March 6.

“We don’t know of any other piece that can ensure sustainability in a system,” said Fathi El-Ashry, Senior Associate in Instructional Systems at Creative Associates International, speaking at a session called “The Role of Pre-Service Education in Producing and Perpetuating (In)Equalities: The Case of Early Grade Reading.”

Before future teachers step foot into their own classrooms, and before they potentially settle into ineffective teaching methods, is the best time to prepare them with the skills and knowledge to effectively teach literacy to early grade readers, explained El-Ashry.

Fathi El-Ashry, Senior Associate in Instructional Systems at Creative, explained how the Pakistan Reading Project worked with partners to develop accredited reading courses for teachers-in-training.

El-Ashry presented on the pre-service teacher training component of the Pakistan Reading Project, which aims to improve the reading skills of 1.3 million children in first through third grades. It is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by the International Rescue Committee with key support from Creative.

In its early stages, the project identified a lack of specialized literacy courses in pre-service teacher training. Student teachers were earning degrees with little preparation for supporting new readers in the classroom, explained El-Ashry.

“Pre-service student teachers graduate and they don’t know how to do reading assessment. They don’t know how to deal with reading difficulties. They don’t know how to really teach the components of reading,” he said, referring to findings of the project’s curriculum mapping.

To remedy the gap, the project worked with Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission and National Curriculum Review Committee, as well as 29 teacher training institutes to develop, pilot and refine specialized early grade reading courses.

This focus on pre-service teacher training curriculum is a significant step toward systemic change in how early grade reading is taught, noted discussant Sylvia Thompson, associate professor at University of Oregon’s College of Education.

“If you want to go to sustainability, you can’t keep doing in-service. You have to go to pre-service,” she said. “Change in knowledge and skills, leads to change in practice.”

Today, educators-in-training in 110 institutes across Pakistan can take courses in subjects such as teaching reading and helping learners with reading difficulties. They can earn a Reading Specialization at the Bachelor’s degree level or take reading integrated courses at the Associate’s degree level.

“The content is relevant to them. They developed deeper insight into the courses,” said El-Ashry, reporting on the pilot’s feedback from pre-service students. “Now they speak the language of reading. They started to speak the reading culture.”

Most importantly, said El-Ashry, these new teachers are equipped to effectively teach literacy to young readers—skills they will carry with them and continue to refine throughout their teaching careers.

“What we’re really trying to do is ignite the fire so people become life-long learners, which is really what we need teachers to become,” noted Nancy Clark Chiarelli of Education Development Center, which supported the USAID-funded Teacher Education Project that pre-dated the Pakistan Reading Project.

Getting new teachers, current teachers and curriculum on the same page

“If you want to go to sustainability, you can’t keep doing in-service. Y​ou have to go to pre-service. Change in knowledge and skills, leads to change in practice.”

Sylvia Thompson, associate professor at University of Oregon’s College of Education

While equipping new teachers with the tools and methods to get through to young readers is critical, it is not sufficient, said panelists. Student teachers and new graduates need the support of veteran educators and administrators to implement their skills in the classroom.

“There is a disconnect between what students learn in pre-service and then they go out and face the harsh reality of what they find in classrooms,” said discussant Thompson.

Panelists agreed that in-service training for current teachers should be aligned with the curriculum in teacher training institutes so that all educators are on the same page and create a positive community of practice.

“We would like to see pre-service and in-service trainees in mentorship relationship so young teachers are able to implement what they are fired up about from pre-service,” said Thompson.

Additionally, new teachers trained in early grade reading will be far more effective when their education matches up with the curriculum, added Salome Ong’ele, Chief of Party for the USAID-funded Tusome early grade reading project in Kenya, implemented by RTI International.

In the Kenyan context, Ong’ele explained, “the lower primary school levels syllabus was not speaking to the pre-service teacher education curriculum and was also not speaking to the Kenyan national examinations assessment and that created a problem.”

For optimal and sustainable advances in both teaching and learning in reading, pre-service training, in-service training and curriculum should all be aligned, panelists agreed.

Build partnerships, know context

By equipping new teachers with tools and methods to get through to early grade readers and overcome challenges in the classroom, the Pakistan Reading Project aims to boost learner performance.

The chances of these systemic changes lasting and benefiting early grade learners for classes to come will be significantly higher if local partners are leading the effort throughout the process of curriculum development, implementation and adaptation, according to the speakers.

Consulting local stakeholders and understanding the existing teaching methods in place, as well as the gaps teachers and teacher trainers identify, will provide critical information for pre-service training content and design, said panelist Flavia Ramos-Mattoussi, Ph.D. of Florida State University’s College of Education, which supports the pre-service component of USAID’s Reading for Ethiopia’s Achievement Developed Technical Assistance Project.

“If [new graduates] are going to be teaching in that context, what is the infrastructure that the student teachers are going to find?” she posed.

In the case of the Pakistan Reading Project, these partners were essential, said Creative’s El-Ashry. They included the Ministry of Education, key curriculum bodies like the Higher Education Commission and National Curriculum Review Committee, and the students and faculty of teacher training institutes.

Pre-service reading courses will not achieve their goals if they do not resonate with the very students and faculty they are meant to serve. 

“We needed to make sure that they are really getting something out of what they are learning from these courses to really inform the curriculum revision and training and the roll out of the program,” said El-Ashry.

As 110 Teacher Training Institutes in Pakistan begin to roll out the new reading curriculum, with local commitment and enthusiasm, El-Ashry is optimistic about the future of reading in the country and the future of reading leadership.

“You can start building the literacy leaders in the country when you start at the university level,” he said.

To visit Creative’s CIES 2017 Special Report hub, click here.

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