Literacy Coaches Up Kids’ Reading Game

Allan Appel PhotoInstructional Literacy Coach Lynn Kelly asked four East Rock Community Magnet School fourth-graders to come up with words like “rain” in which the “ai” vowel pattern makes the sound of a long “a.”

With the slightest prompting, the kids came up with, among other examples, “brain,” “drain,” and “jail.”

Earlier Kelly was in a full classroom of first-graders modeling for the teacher and paraprofessional a new systematic phonics program that on this morning helped the kids move Scrabble-like tiles around their desks to pick out the “glued” or extra consonants that stick to words like “wall” and “hill.”

Welcome to the world of Lynn Kelly, one of the Board of Ed’s 32 literacy coaches citywide.

The coaches are the shock troops or the leading edge of the campaign that Mayor Toni Harp inaugurated at this time last year with a “blue ribbon commission” to explore best practices and to coordinate the many non-school literacy programs to get all the city’s kids reading at grade level, and above. They are edging New Haven toward Harp’s goal of becoming “the city that reads” one dipthong at a time.

They call themselves “interventionists”: They identify which kids are scoring at or below the “basic” on reading tests. They plan how to boost those scores, then work with those kids in small groups, like the four fourth-graders with whom Kelly intervened this week, using a new phonics-focused program called Fundations.

Kelly used the first five minutes of her 30-minute intervention to have student Sahari Hermida read one of the books in the Fundations program, a story about two pals, Ty and Daniel, who like to build things, sometimes with unintended consequences.

With pencil circling missed or missed pronounced words, Kelly read alongside Sahari, marking on her sheet the number of “self-corrections” and the numbers and kinds of errors the student made.

One self-correction, for example, was at lines in the story that had ellipses.

At first Sahari read right through without pausing. Then she got it, and paused where the ellipsis indicated, showing she understood that point of grammar.

Sahari also several times pronounced “shot” as “shoot.” Kelly noted that, pausing to teach the the long and short “o” sound She paused only briefly, however, because this was not a teaching session on that point, but a record-making activity.


Kelly is the lead coach systemwide to help kids in the early grades get the basics of reading or catch up to those fundamentals of decoding and understanding language that they may have missed early on.

On an ordinary day this week, about 11 such individualized interventions would be conducted at the East Rock school alone.

Kelly did some of the sessions. Other small group sessions of kids grouped by data results, were conducted by non-teaching but teacher-certified “interventionists.”  They are all under the supervision of Kelley, the school’s literacy coach, said Lynn Brantley, the system’s supervisory of literacy coaches for the last two years.

The coaches — all experienced former New Haven classroom teachers — are divided into two groups, 27 who are, like Kelly, assigned to individual K-8 schools.

Another five circulate across the system. They coordinate interventions, organize professional development, help transition teaching to Common Core standards, and review the extensive testing data on which basis kids are group for the interventions.

“There is a crisis in reading. We have lots of kids not reading at grade level, but we [also] do have forward motion and strategic plans in place and we [also] have a weighted focus on the early grades,” Brantley said.

Those strategic plans include the introduction of the phonics program, which Kelly is in charge of helping to train fellow coaches and teachers in implementing.

Brantley credited recent gains in kids reading at “proficient,” or the acceptable level for their grades to the emphasis that former Schools Superintendent Garth Harries put on interventions in the early grades over the past several years. She made a presentation about the gains at the most recent Board of Education meeting.

One encouraging statistic involved a group of 1,543 students her office monitored since kindergarten. In the 2014-15 school year, in first grade, 51 percent of the group scored “proficient” on reading tests. That number rose to 65 percent in second grade.

Brantley and her coaches zeroed in on “at risk students” during monthly Roundtable Professional Development meetings. They drew up a plan to intervene, then kept testing the at-risk kids to make sure they were benefiting from the help.

She could provide that information handily because her Google Docs program allows her to access not only the scores but the specific reading strengths and weaknesses of every kid in the system from grades K to three, because they are contained in each child’s “monthly running records.”

These monthly running records, which Kelly and others at the school create by reading informally with one child at each intervention once a month, Brantley makes sure staff enter in a timely fashion into the computer system.

That way she and her coaches see what each kid is doing, and design further interventions if necessary; the informally administered monthly running records, one kid at a time,  have replaced the more formal, stressful periodic standardized testing the system used to employ throughout the year, which teachers and administrators have been pushing against in recent years.

Starting Out “Effective”

Kelly’s coaches are experienced teachers, with a minimum of five years in the classroom, who have been rated “effective,” by the evaluation terms of the teachers’ contract.

Many of them go on to get an advanced reading coaching license, called a “102,” and then work in their assigned schools. There they spend 40 percent of their time in classes modeling best practices or introducing new approaches, like the systematic phonics in which Kelly was engaged; and 60 percent doing the running-records testing and teaching small groups of students in interventions.

Brantley and her coaches know the reading profile of each and every kid. Some interventions for the kids who are snappy readers are of an enrichment, not a remedial nature. 

However, for every kid in the lower grades “who is not moving,” the aim is that “each kid who is a level behind, talk to them, give them the support to get to ‘proficient,’” she said

Coaches, Not Evaluators

It’s a huge job, and in many ways the role of the literacy coaches has evolved to meet the need.

“They are coaches, not evaluators,” Brantley said, a crucial distinction. “That’s the key to the model of coaching. Our philosophy is you can’t improve as a teacher if you are being evaluated. The role of the coach is to grow the teacher’s practice without characterizing it as good or bad.”

Kelly, who is in training to teach Fundations to other coaches and teachers district wide, said she loves the job, the variety, the new kids she sees every day,  and already she is seeing how the phonics training is making a difference.

“I see students tapping out their words,” she said, meaning a tap for each sound. That is a great plus for the kids in their writing.

Older kids’ spelling, evidenced in their writing, showed mistakes revealing that they never got the fundamentals of phonics, Brantley said. Hence the introduction of phonics.

Brantley, who sits on the mayor’s “blue ribbon commission,” said the work there is ongoing and not all the outside-of-school literacy efforts are yet as coordinated as they might be.

For example, while coordinators of a New Haven Free Public Library tutoring program have asked for data-sharing and received it for kids enrolled in that program, at least 30 kids, Kelly estimated, from East Rock School go across the street for the volunteer tutoring provided at New Haven Reads’ new site in the former Marlin Firearms building across the street.

Officials there have not asked for Brantley’s data on the kids potentially to accelerate the kids’ learning at the after-school sessions.

Brantley said New Haven Reads uses a different system, Lexia. Volunteers are not trained in the same way.

“We have work to do around literacy,” she concluded. “It’s all encompassing. It’s the school and the community,” she said.

While there should be more coordination among community partners to make advances even faster, what is outstanding is more staff.

Brantley cited the smaller class sizes and greater number of trained teachers in the systems of nearby towns. “We’re scrambling for resources, we’re working with what we have,” she said.

Currently there are openings not for literacy coaches, but interventionists and also for tutors. The interventionists require state teaching certification and that is preferred as well for the tutors, and both are supervised by the literacy coach.

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posted by: stan maclachlan on November 23, 2016  9:39am

Just like her firefighter father Pat before her, Lynn keeping up the family tradition of public service in New Haven. Nice job LYNN