Harvard Educational Review
  1. Lenses on Literacy Coaching

    Conceptualizations, Functions, and Outcomes

    By Cathy Toll

    Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon, 2007. 181 pp. $26.95.

    Literacy coaching has received a great deal of attention in the past five years, in part because of federally funded literacy programs such as Reading First and Striving Readers. Coaches are appearing in large numbers at all school levels, and are commonly considered to be one of the keys to literacy reform in an era of increasing accountability: If literacy coaches help teachers improve their reading and writing instruction, then students’ literacy skills will surely improve as well. However, this is not nearly as straightforward as one might hope. Despite emerging standards and licensure programs, there is little agreement about the actual roles literacy coaches play in schools. Organizations such as the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English are pushing the field by producing standards and sharing new research about coaching through the online Literacy Coaching Clearinghouse; however, a good deal of uncertainty remains about how different conceptualizations of coaching may produce varied educational outcomes.

    This is where Cathy Toll’s book Lenses on Literacy Coaching: Conceptualizations, Functions, and Outcomes enters the conversation. As a literacy coach and coach-trainer who has worked as an educator in K–12 and higher education settings, Toll has translated her in-depth knowledge of literacy coaching into three books on the topic. Two are practical guides, whereas Lenses on Literacy Coaching is a more theoretical work that carefully connects three intertwined facets of coaching: the conceptualizations and definitions of the role of coaching; the functions of what literacy coaches do; and the potential results of literacy coaching as related to specific role definitions and actions. Toll begins by outlining five main conceptualizations of coaching that she currently sees being implemented in K–12 education settings: technician, service provider, supervisor, professional developer, and fresh alternative. Toll differentiates and defines each conceptualization. For instance, technicians “convey their skills and knowledge to teachers in a way that enables the teachers to develop similar abilities,” supervisors “stress to teachers that they must change practices significantly,” and professional developers are “responsible for the big-picture growth of the school staff.”

    In subsequent chapters, Toll delineates the functions and outcomes of coaching. She describes the three main functions of coaches — intervening, leading, and partnering — which are then further divided into concrete tasks such as demonstrating lessons and evaluating literacy programs. In discussing the outcomes of coaching, Toll is careful to acknowledge that research has yet to demonstrate causal connections between coaching and teacher change or improved student achievement; however, she does identify three possible domains of change — teacher change, political aims, and shifts in teacher identity. Each of these domains is detailed, yet Toll’s biggest leap comes in the fifth chapter when she attempts to bring together the conceptualizations, functions, and outcomes of coaching in three integrative tables. Although Toll admits that the tables do not do justice to the complex facets of coaching, the tables and her subsequent personal reflections on the synthesis process do give readers a window into the difficulties associated with describing and understanding the underpinnings of literacy coaching.

    Following the fifth chapter, the book loses steam. An intriguing yet somewhat tangential chapter is spent linking literacy coaching to complexity science, and another chapter provides several concrete suggestions for how to recognize and define coaching purposes in a district where, for example, the role definition conflicts with personal conceptualizations of the work. The book ends with two helpful cases of coaches working as “fresh alternatives” in a high school and an elementary school. Along with the first five chapters, these final cases may prove to be the most useful to coaches and other practitioners.

    Toll’s largely theoretical book is written in reader-friendly prose that teachers and coaches, as well as researchers, will appreciate. Ultimately, the questions and conversations this book prompts are exactly the conversations that must take place in schools and districts around the country if literacy coaching is to succeed as a form of professional development. Among the growing number of practical guides on how to operate as a literacy coach, this book stands out by taking several much appreciated theoretical steps that challenge readers to consider the connections among the conceptualizations, functions, and outcomes of literacy coaching.

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    Book Notes

    Lenses on Literacy Coaching
    By Cathy Toll

    To Remain an Indian
    By K. Tsianina Lomawaima and Teresa L. McCarty

    By Heather Andrea Williams

    Unfinished Business
    Edited by Pedro A. Noguera and Jean Yonemura Wing