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Schools' learning journeys: Evaluating a new approach to professional development in literacy at Viscount School

Irene Symes, Linda Jeffries, Helen Timperley, and Mei Kuin Lai

A 1999 report showed that causes of delays in student achievement were more complex than the teachers had previously thought. One was the low expectations teachers had of the students. In an effort to raise student achievement, Viscount School offered the teachers in-house professional development in literacy, “tailor-made” to the needs of their staff. The results revealed gains in student achievement and confirmed the school’s decision to continue down this pathway.

Journal issue: 

Evaluating a new approach to professional development in literacy at Viscount School1

Irene Symes, Linda Jeffries,

Helen Timperley, Mei Kuin Lai

School of Education, University of Auckland

The key to effective change in education is teacher development. No major reforms in schools will occur without the involvement of and commitment from teachers (Hawley and Valli, 1999). The literature on professional development stresses that it is most effective when it is ongoing, embedded within the context of the school, and emphasises the day-to-day work of teachers (Grossman, 1992; Guskey, 1995; Little, 1993; Smylie, 1995; Wested, 2001).

Introducing Viscount School

In Term Two 2000, Viscount School began a new approach to professional development in literacy that encompassed these attributes. Viscount is a large, multicultural, full primary school in Mangere, South Auckland. It has a decile one rating and a school roll of 750 predominantly Pacific students. The positive roll growth experienced over recent years indicates that it has the confidence of the community as a quality education provider. Despite this, many of its students were achieving well below national levels in literacy. In an attempt to counter this trend, Viscount developed an on-site teacher development centre and employed a literacy consultant2 to work with teachers of all Year 1 and Year 2 students.

What had the staff already learned about literacy achievement in their school?

An earlier report (Timperley, Robinson and Bullard, 1999) described how a Viscount School self-review in 1998 revealed that 50% of the students in Year 3 were achieving at one and half to two years below national norms, and that this delay continued throughout the students’ primary schooling. This was not what the school wanted for its students, as a member of the senior management team explained:

When pupils leave here at 12 or 13 years old we want them to be reading at a 12 – 13 [years] reading level. That’s our baseline. We don’t want them to be below that. Of course we want them to be above it if possible…

Junior teaching staff had largely attributed these results to the low skill levels with which children entered school. For example, one teacher believed that her new entrant class was well behind new entrant classes she had taught elsewhere, and attributed this directly to the students’ family background:

Students come to school not even knowing how to hold a pencil…they lack the general skills people need in daily life and I would interpret this lack to be a result of their family upbringing…

However, an assessment of children’s entry skills carried out by the school in 1998 revealed that teachers had seriously underestimated the children’s skill levels. Rather than assume that home-based factors were the cause of the problem, the school realised that it needed to turn inward to include the possibility that its own practices might be contributing to the children’s achievement levels. A senior manager said:

We decided to look at ourselves, as we’d come to the conclusion that the problem was us. We started to look at our programmes. We could see we had a huge job and we needed somebody who could really help us to hone in on the gaps.

The new solution to the literacy problem focused on raising teacher expectations and providing them with the necessary skills and strategies to teach literacy more effectively. Many of the teachers employed at the school were trained overseas, and were unfamiliar with the practices used by New Zealand trained teachers in the teaching of reading. Alongside this issue was the need to introduce consistent assessment procedures, so that more accurate achievement data could be obtained.

A new approach to professional development

Essentially the problem demanded an effective professional development programme for staff. The school had previously invested considerable resources in professional development, so the issue was not one of spending more, but rather of spending more wisely. Both management and teaching staff came to the conclusion that one-off, off-site professional development was ineffective. What they wanted was professional development that was “tailor made” for the needs of their staff, with direct links to lifting student achievement.

Thus, in 2000 Viscount School established the on-site teacher development centre, in which all professional development took place. In Term Two of that year, the school employed a full time literacy consultant to work with all teachers of Year 1 and 2 students. It was intended that this person would provide the expertise and support that these teachers needed. A senior manager said:

We knew we wanted someone who had actually been at the chalk face… we didn’t want a theory person. She is a New Zealander and has worked in New Zealand. She is quite well known among junior class teachers for her literacy expertise. She was at the time doing literacy consultancy in London…

This person was to provide teachers with on-site expert advice adapted to their individual needs. In an interview held at the start of the investigation, the literacy consultant explained that she would do this by providing and organising teaching resources, presenting workshops and modelling teaching and assessment strategies. She would then observe the teachers and give advice as the teachers put what they had learned into practice.

The professional development was designed to provide an intensive, sustained and individualised classroom-based intervention. Training in assessment was also part of the professional development, so the school could track student achievement more accurately and evaluate the effectiveness of the professional input.

The consultant started by setting up a management system for the teaching resources needed. She then established a consistent approach to assessment that would provide teachers with accurate data on student achievement at monthly intervals. Before working with each teacher, the consultant tested every student in the class to establish a baseline against which to measure the impact of the new programme. These assessments were repeated every month. The teachers took over from the consultant once they were sufficiently skilled. During the course of the research, one teacher had begun her own assessment and another was being introduced to it.

The teaching components of the programme were those found in many junior classrooms in New Zealand. They included poems, letter / sound associations, shared books, guided reading and a variety of independent activities designed to reinforce the face-to-face teaching time.

What did senior management want to learn from the research?

The principal and deputy principal welcomed this investigation into the effectiveness of the programme, because they wanted to know if this was the best use of resources, not only in terms of changing teachers’ beliefs about their students, but also in terms of helping them to adopt classroom practices that would raise student literacy levels. The senior management and researchers identified two key questions on which to base the investigation:

•&&What effect has the professional development had on student achievement?

•&&How has the literacy consultant influenced teachers’ beliefs and practices about student literacy learning?

How did the researchers investigate these questions?

Over a period of approximately six months, information was gathered from senior management, the literacy consultant and teachers involved in the professional development. Data collection methods included questionnaires, interviews and observations of both the professional development workshops and the classroom practice of two Year 1 teachers and one Year 2 teacher. The observations allowed the researchers to ascertain whether those practices taught and demonstrated by the literacy consultant were being transferred to and practised in classrooms.

The three teachers were selected on the basis of their responses to an initial written questionnaire completed by all eight teachers of Year 1 and 2 students at the school, and discussions with senior management. These teachers represented a range of teaching experience (from two to thirteen years) and attitudes towards the professional development (from very enthusiastic to reluctant). Two teachers were overseas trained, the third was New Zealand trained. All those asked to participate in the research were willing to do so.

Interviews with the three teachers and the consultant were conducted at the beginning and end of the six-month investigation, to establish whether their beliefs and/or practices had changed over time. After the first round of interviews, classroom observations were conducted to ascertain whether the practices taught and demonstrated by the literacy consultant were evident in the classroom. By this time, all the teachers had attended a workshop, and two teachers had observed a model lesson, during which the literacy consultant demonstrated a “reading hour” lesson in their classrooms. In addition, the literacy consultant had observed these two teachers and given them feedback on their teaching. The other Year 1 teacher was about to begin working with the consultant in her classroom.

What did the research show?

Preliminary results on the impact of the professional development on student achievement are reported first, because this aspect was of greatest concern to the school. These results are followed by a report on observed changes in the teachers’ teaching literacy practices, and their reported changes in beliefs.

(a) Student achievement

The intervention by the literacy consultant appeared to have had an impact on student achievement (Figure 1). The reading level of children before implementation of the reading programme was higher after two months of receiving the new programme.

Figure 1 is based on data comparing the same Year 1 students before and after the programme. It represents the expected reading level for students against their length of time at school, according to national norms established through Reading Recovery. Thus, students who have been at school for between five and eleven months should be reading within the range of Levels 3 – 9. Using those ranges, students were sorted into below, at and above national norms. These results are considered preliminary, and the school is continuing to collect achievement data during 2001.


(b) Teacher practices and beliefs

Before the literacy consultant’s intervention, delivery of literacy programmes at Viscount was highly variable and mostly different from that taught in the professional development. One overseas trained teacher, for example, explained how she taught in very formal ways, with an emphasis on vocabulary, word drill and grammar:

In South Africa we had a programme called “Breakthrough” and we had 108 foundation words to teach. … that was the starting point of our entire reading programme.

Another teacher described the reading programme she used previously as one that required students to work quietly and independently on a generic work sheet, thus allowing the teacher to provide individual reading instruction. She explained the difference in the two approaches like this:

[Before I] kept the children occupied with work sheets, silent, while I worked with them …the work sheet was colouring in or cut and paste and they weren’t achieving much….Here there is more reading. I know it is a bit noisy but I know it is meaningful.

Senior management and the literacy consultant believed that the literacy programme should be based on recognised New Zealand teaching practices, including a letter / sound focus, shared books, poetry cards, guided reading and independent reading activities. These components were to be carried out in a particular sequence and were designed to involve students in their learning. While the overseas trained teachers were familiar with some aspects of this programme, the pace, the approach taken and the sequence used were new to both of them. The New Zealand trained teacher was familiar with most aspects of the methodology; however, there was no evidence prior to the professional development that she used a consistent approach in delivery.


During the researchers’ classroom observations, all three teachers clearly demonstrated the skills taught during the professional development (see Table 1).

Interviews with teachers confirmed that they were trying to follow the sequence that had been taught in the workshops and modelled by the consultant in each teacher’s class.

Interviewer: So all the things I observed this morning were a direct result of the literacy consultant’s intervention.

Teacher: Yes, definitely, it is directly the literacy consultant who is responsible for that.

Approaches to assessment also changed. Before the professional development, the overseas teachers assessed students’ progress by testing vocabulary using word sets, rather than running records, which are more typical of New Zealand assessment practices. After being introduced to running records, they were quite happy to use them, but were apprehensive about the one-month time frame. When asked if this time frame was realistic, one teacher responded:

I don’t really think so because firstly it’s time consuming and secondly you have so many things to cover…

In the second interview with this teacher, the same concerns regarding time constraints were still expressed and this issue had clearly not been resolved.

The teachers’ feelings and beliefs about this approach to professional development changed over time. Before the professional development, teachers and senior managers both believed that effective professional development needed to be on-site and ongoing. Teachers were positive about the potential of this “tailor made” approach to professional development. They anticipated that the on-site intervention of the consultant would be more effective than previous off-site professional development, because this person would be able to give them sustained support:

So even if something is not working, we’ve got the expertise at hand, it’s very “hands on” where we can go back to her and say it’s not working.

During the first round of interviews, teachers expressed enthusiasm for and interest in learning the consultant’s approach to literacy teaching. For example, one teacher said:

It is very interesting. We have to follow Rosemary’s programme exactly, she does want us to do something in a particular way so by watching how she does it in a lesson, it actually helps me to see how I can do it.

When the teachers were interviewed six months later, although they were positive about the teaching model, all expressed some reservations about this style of professional development. The literacy consultant had challenged familiar practices. Some teachers wanted to adapt the skills taught in the professional development to make them more consistent with methods familiar to them. They were feeling frustrated at not being allowed to do this: As one said:

It’s very rigid, there’s no room to move.

All three teachers felt that their skills and input had been disregarded and, to some extent, undervalued. One teacher even wanted to attend an off-site workshop for a change, when previously she had expressed reservations about the effectiveness of such workshops.

The literacy consultant and senior management anticipated these reactions because of the prescriptive nature of the literacy programme. The consultant also believed that effective professional development involved both support and challenge. She made it very clear that while she worked alongside staff and supported them, her role was also to confront them and to deal with areas of weakness:

Once I get hold, I don’t let go…. it’s total commitment on both sides.

Once the basics of the programme had been mastered, the literacy consultant intended to reduce the support and allow teachers to individualise the programme as they saw fit. As this investigation was carried out at the start of the intervention, most teachers had not yet reached this stage. As a result, the teachers’ preference to incorporate their own methodology into their practices, and their frustration at not being allowed to do so, continued throughout the time span of the research, even though the children were demonstrating greater progress in literacy acquisition.

How will the school continue its learning?

As the teacher development centre is in its infancy, there is still much to be done on its development. The data collected to date and reported on in this research have encouraged the senior management to continue with the programme. They plan to continue to monitor the impact on student achievement throughout 2001.

Senior management staff believe that they have only just begun to scrape the surface of what they hope to achieve. They hope to maintain what the principal calls the “culture of success”, where both the school and the community have and maintain high expectations of the students.

The school also hopes to expand on the current success in improving student achievement by introducing on-site professional development in other curriculum areas, such as numeracy. The senior management team believe that success in literacy will set the foundation for success in other curriculum areas. As the principal said:

If we get this part right, then there’s more chance of getting the rest right.

Success will depend on a number of things, such as the availability of effective professional development contractors and the induction of new staff.

Perhaps more important than either of these two things, however, is the challenge of increasing the commitment of staff to making judgements about the appropriateness and effectiveness of their teaching in terms of the learning outcomes for their students. It is difficult for any teacher to change from familiar to unfamiliar practices. Improvement in students’ learning, however, must become the touchstone against which to judge the effectiveness of practice if student learning is to continue to improve at Viscount. This challenge is central to the continuing learning journey for schools.


Hawley, W. D., and Valli, L. (1999). The essentials of effective professional development: A new consensus. In L. Darling-Hammond and G. Sykes (eds), Teaching as the learning profession: Handbook of policy and practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp. 127-150.

Grossman, P. L. (1992). Teaching to learn. In A. Lieberman (ed.), The changing contexts of teaching. 91st yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Part I. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp.179-196.

Guskey, T. R. (1995). Professional development in education: In search of the optimal mix. In T.R. Guskey and M. Huberman (eds), Professional development in education: New paradigms and practices. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, pp.114-131.

Little, J. W. (1993). Teachers’ professional development in a climate of educational reform. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 15 (2), pp.129-151.

*Richardson, J (1997). Putting student learning first put these schools ahead. Journal of Staff Development, 18 (2), pp.42-47.

*Showers, B., and Joyce B (1996). The evolution of peer coaching. Educational Leadership, 53 (6), pp.12-16.

Smylie, M. A. (1995). Teacher learning in the workplace: Implications for school reform. In T. R. Guskey and M. Huberman (eds), Professional development in education: New paradigms and practices. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, pp.233-262.

Timperley, H., Robinson, V.M.J., and Bullard, T. (1999). Strengthening education in Mangere and Otara: First evaluation report. Auckland: University of Auckland.

WestEd. (2000). Teachers who learn, kids who achieve: A look at schools with model professional development. San Francisco, CA: WestEd. ED440102.

* Both these articles (Richardson, 1997; Showers and Joyce, 1996) provided the researchers with successful models of professional development that lead to improved student learning outcomes. From these articles, the researchers were able to develop a framework in which to identify the key factors of an effective professional development.


1&&&The support of the Board, principal and staff at Viscount School is acknowledged and greatly appreciated.

2&&&For further information on the literacy programme, contact Rosemary Fenwick, the literacy consultant, at