What is Evidence-Based Professional Development for Literacy?

by Dr. Margarita Calderón

Now that the ‘science of reading’ has been resurrected, school districts are scurrying to buy programs that prepare teachers to teach reading. Most are online courses. This is good because teachers should have the flexibility to sign in and work at their convenience on learning about reading.

Yes, there is a ‘however.’

However, exposure to new information online without additional information processing and checking on the progress or quality application does not ensure transfer into the teachers’ active teaching repertoire nor on the positive impact on the students who need to be taught through these methods.

We see with Mississippi, North Carolina, and other states that such attention to reading (actually phonics) is beginning to make an impact on elementary students. However, we also see that the NAEP scores on reading and math (which requires a lot more reading than in years past) have dropped and I project will continue to drop.

Robert Slavin, my former boss, and others predicted this drop when the U.S.D.O.E. funded programs such as Open Court that went too far on phonics while the constructivist whole language proponents went in the opposite direction. This divide was set up for failure – failure for emergent bilingual/multilingual learners, that is why they are performing so many points below white and Asian students on NAEP.

Yes, there is still a middle ground, grounded in research and empirical testing in schools in collaboration with many teachers. There are professional development programs that include all the components of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension). One such program for elementary levels is BCIRC (Bilingual Cooperative Integrated Reading and Composition) and the one for secondary schools is ExC-ELL (Expediting Reading Comprehension for English Language Learners).

Whereas most schools/districts request only the vocabulary, reading comprehension and writing parts of these programs now-a-days, once upon a time the professional development began with phonemic and phonological awareness, decoding, etc. We still see how all this works for newcomers and SIFE in secondary schools with the program called RIGOR. When RIGOR in English and Spanish is implemented with fidelity and care, students and their schools experience gargantuan results (See References in the ExC-ELL website).

For middle and high schools who have a majority of Long-Term ELs, students, who have been in their elementary schools and still haven’t passed those reading tests, ExC-ELL works most effectively. Long-Term ELs accelerate their reading, language and content learning.

Another however – It only works to its highest capacity when these professional development factors are in place:


  1. Involve the whole school — every teacher, administrator, counselor, coordinator, psychologist, paraprofessional on how to teach vocabulary and reading for English learners/emergent bilinguals/multilingual learners (and writing too of course).
  2. Conduct active professional development over a two- or three-year period
  3. Coach every teacher in the school after every component workshop
  4. Provide resources – books, teachers manuals and ideas for other tools for teachers and students
  5. Participate in Teachers Learning Communities (TLCs) to share, discuss, solve and celebrate
  6. Plan on collecting evidence that shows how successful students and teachers were by the end of the year


1. Comprehensive coverage during the training of how to:
a. Select the best words to teach from the text students are about to read
b. Preteach those words with the 7 steps in 10 minutes
c. Effectively write the appropriate sentence frames for Step 6
d. Present the social emotional competencies for the 7 steps

2. What to do before students read:
a. Introduce text features, text structures, literary devices, comprehension skills specific to a subject area
b. Set up partner reading and summarization for success
c. Present social emotional competencies such as self-regulation, collaboration, joint decision making, and critical thinking
d. Monitor, record and learn from partner reading and summarization

3. What to do after reading:
a. Anchor language, reading and content learning
b. Use a variety of strategies for authentic assessment of those anchors

4. How to teach collaborative text-based writing:
a. Drafting
b. Editing
c. Revising
d. Second editing
e. Writing conclusion and title
f. SEL competencies for writing
g. Self- and team-assessments

While this may seem a full plate, if we leave out any component from the process of learning or contents for learning, the results will be minimal. This happens when schools/districts do not want to invest time, funds, and commitment to English learners (emergent bilinguals, multilinguals, newcomers, SIFE, SLIFE, LTEL).

We are currently working with 27 marvelous schools in NC and TX about to begin their second year of ExC-ELL learning and implementation. Therefore, we are so excited for the new school year to begin!! We know you are too. And the last however – However, keep in mind the whole enchilada plate about reading and professional learning. You’ll double your students’ positive results and your self-rewards.

Best wishes for 22-23,