Doug Lillydahl

Doug Lillydahl is director of communication arts at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Illinois. He guides literacy interventions and ELA staff development, oversees assessment, and supports curricular and instructional evolution.

PLC Teams Work Hand in Hand with Literacy

There are plenty of good reasons to shape your school’s culture into that of a Professional Learning Community at Work™. However, I want to highlight how these big ideas provide a real punch that empowers literacy instruction in every team they touch.

In virtually every school, literacy instruction (usually reading and writing) is considered a top goal. Reinforced by common sense as well as high-stakes standardized testing, school leaders preach the importance of literacy improvement to a friendly congregation; we all agree that it is a cornerstone to our profession.

Yet too many students fail to acquire these skills, and too many teachers find that trying their hardest yields the same result year after year. It can leave a teacher feeling overwhelmed and mumbling, “I’m not a reading teacher,” to all who will listen as they turn toward the more friendly task: learning the content knowledge.

But the story doesn’t end there, because students aren’t databases or encyclopedias; they need to access and apply knowledge. Their literacy skills become the engine that drives their learning. Fortunately, the PLC at Work model helps collaborative teams discover this truth and spark the professional growth that teachers need to improve, step-by-step over a career, as teachers of literacy. Let me illustrate using the four key questions of a PLC (but especially the first two).

Q1: What do we want students to know?

Knowing that we don’t have time to teach everything in a subject, teams need to prioritize. Clearly, there is also not enough time for deep collaboration around anything except what matters most to kids. We must think big and high-leverage for our kids’ future success.

For example, knowing the causes of the civil war, the process of photosynthesis, or how to prepare a business plan—while something we want every student to learn—it will never measure up to “create an argumentative claim and defend it with evidence.” After considering the full set of standards or targets that might be worthy of team focus on a SMART goal, inevitably, literacy resurfaces.

The teacher and team learning then begins. Using standards and our knowledge about our disciplines, we can come up with the outline of what we need. For instance, the CCSS for social studies, science, and technical subjects ask that seventh grade students, “Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.2).

We also should consider how reading is used and performed by experts in our disciplines. In health class for example, a student can read an article about the health benefits of exercise and apply an accurate understanding of them to a plan for a simulated client. These resources help us learn to set a literacy course.

Q2: How will we know if they have learned it?

This is the groundbreaking question for teams when it comes to literacy instruction improvement. Because the process of reading is so hidden, we often jump directly to the end results. Was the question answered correctly? Clearly, when the answer is yes, we can award some points and move on.

Unfortunately, we often react the same way if a student’s answer is wrong: no points, and we move on. Yet, there are many paths for a student to stray off track and provide a wrong answer:

  • They misread the text
  • They don’t pick out key details from the text
  • They overlook reasonable inferences from the key details
  • They make unreasonable inferences from the key details
  • They misread the question … and the list goes on.

The key here is for each team and team member to develop more awareness of where a student is tripping up. Therefore, we should make assessments that reveal student steps and missteps. Then we at least have a chance to help!

Let me make two big suggestions for your work in Q2. First, look over your assessments and ensure there are opportunities for students to “think aloud.” Thoughtful short answer questions work well, and even on a multiple-choice reading test, attaching “explain how you chose your answer” next to a couple key questions allows a peek inside the process a child used. This provides a road for teacher understanding. When a team collaboratively develops these assessments for this purpose, student literacy growth in a building shifts into high gear.

Second, when teams gather to interpret these responses collaboratively—to choose anchors or samples of each score level or each pattern of errors—everyone also learns. There is no magic in how a teacher evaluates these responses—it is all practice looking for clues. Do not be intimidated by a teacher who seems to know it all; with your team you will grow!

Questions 3 and 4

That leads to the final two questions: “What will we do when students have not learned it?” and “What will we do when students have already learned it?” This is where you get to experiment as a team by reacting to the results your students have provided. With a list of the students who made strange inferences based off of the passage and also the list of kids who were thorough and thoughtful, you can react as they need.

When students’ literacy development stops improving, it is because teachers have stalled in their growth—but in teams within a PLC, the keys to restart the engine of growth are nearby. Once your team begins sharing thoughts, questions, and conclusions about student reading and writing performances together as part of the regular team learning cycle around skills, you are back on the road to success.


Maggie Bailey

Mr. Lillydahl,

So much of your post spoke to me and called to mind different things that I have experienced in the past as a teacher and now in the present. In my second year of teaching I was giving the opportunity to instruct an after school test taking strategies intervention. I fell in love with it and have implemented some of what I taught with that intervention with all of my students thereafter. Strategies such as identifying the line of question, searching for evidence in the text to support both literal and inferential questions, and elimination. One of the strategies that was new to me, because I had never been taught to and it had never occurred me, was questioning why you eliminated answer choices. What makes it incorrect and not the best answer. Through working on my students on this strategy I saw a lot of progress in my student's connections to how to more closely read and think about a text. Really thinking about, what made you think that? How did you make your inference.

Currently, I am at a new school in a new district. This district is struggling with test scores. There are a lot of conversations during collaborations and faculty shares that involve getting to the bottom of why our ISTEP aged students are failing, and the consensus is that they are lacking in the deeper leveled questions and how to successfully tackle multi-stepped questions/problems. I have heard disheartened teachers share that they notice their students become defeated before they have finished reading the question.

I love your ideas and suggested strategies. As educators in today's ever changing educational world a lot of groundbreaking shifts are being made and needed changes being facilitated. Of course we experience growing pains but we won't know how to build our practice of truly providing what will best serve our students unless we trial and error. We learn from past mistakes, such as missing the tree for the forest when failing to take the time to look into the reasoning for error. Hindsight is 20-20 and this information has the potential to help identify how to best target individual students needs in order to truly show what they've learned. My new school has also had many conversations in regards to preassessing at the beginning of a math or literacy unit to proactively provide for the needs of what our students are ready to learn and how to best approach it.

I really appreciate this article and look forward to hearing more.

Thank you,
Maggie Bailey

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Shayla Hampton

Hello Doug,

My school district just started back with PLC’s and I see the benefits of them manifesting in my classroom. I have really been focusing on the reasons why my students are not doing well in some areas. There are various reasons as you stated in the post. I find that the most common are students not focusing on key details and/or overlooking inferences. I try to make sure that I feed students information in the same way that I would like it given back. I also have quite a few of ELL students so making sure that they have proper accommodations is also making a difference. I also try to not base the students’ knowledge off of one form of assessment. Some students will do very well with multiple choice but cannot answer the questions in essay form and vice versa. I have students who can tell me information orally but not written. It is very critical to differentiate assessment. I really like the idea of asking students how they gathered an answer during multiple choice questions. I have never thought of that. This way I can know where students are. I am very excited to implement this in my classroom. I agree with some of the other comments about fitting all of the curriculum in and sometimes not pushing students towards mastery. Thank you for giving insight of PLC’s and for reminding me of how powerful they can be for helping our students.

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Angie Mitchell

Hi Doug,

As a member of a school that needs to work on striving towards making the shift to a profession learning community, I do greatly appreciate your insight on this topic and many ides you have discussed on implementing literacy instruction in the classroom. I strongly feel that with these realistic and manageable goals educator friendly to use in their everyday lesson planning, teaching, and assessing. What I found to be so empowering is your emphasis on the fact that teams need to prioritize. I believe this is incredibly important in order to be able to improve all student development in there learning. I have found that it is overwhelming with the pressure of being able to fit everything in that needs to be taught and making sure that it is rigorous enough for my students. However, after reading your blog, you have encouraged me to work more closely with my teaching team to really look at what skills we want our students to master and develop lessons that foster their developmental skills. This is especially encouraging because for the past three years, I have had the weight put upon my shoulders because I was my team. In the up and coming school year, I am looking forward to being able to collaborate with two other teachers to make sure that we are determining and developing the right lessons, instruction, and assessments for our students based on their abilities. The point that you made regarding students whose needs are not being met was very insightful. I will be completely honest when I say I am one of those teachers who move along because of the pressure of "fitting it all in" and I was told to just keep moving along and being told, "if they get it, they get it and if they don't then they won't ever get it." When I was told this, I was completely floored because that is not how I am. I want my students to be able to understand what is expected of them to be mastering. However, when you have the highers telling you what to do, you do it or get in trouble. I want to thank you for providing me with new strategies to implement in my classroom of second graders next year. I feel as though with these small changes, it will make the learning process much more meaningful and engaging for my students.

Thank you,
Angie Mitchell

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Rachel Peck

Hi Doug,

As a member of a school that is actively striving to make the shift to a professional learning community, I appreciate the insight you have provided on the topic. I also appreciate the ideas you have discussed on implementing literacy instruction in the classroom. I feel that these are realistic and manageable goals for educators to pursue. You put great emphasis on the fact that teams need to prioritize. I believe this is incredibly important to ultimately developing improved student learning. I find myself getting overwhelmed with the pressure of fitting it all in and you have encouraged me to work more closely with my teaching team to really look at what skills we want our students to master and to develop lessons that foster the development of these skills. Additionally, I think the point you have made regarding students whose needs are not being met is powerful. I am guilty of moving on at times because of, once again, the pressure of fitting it all in. However, I recognize that this is not a best practice and, instead, I need to be utilizing our classroom aide more and providing these students with different opportunities for learning. As our school continues to advance in instilling 21st Century skills in our students, I am going to encourage my colleagues to foster those critical thinking skills. I love the idea of attaching probing questions to an assessment. Thank you for providing me with new strategies to implement in my classroom of third graders next year. I am confident that these small changes will make the learning process more meaningful for my students next year!

Thank you!

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Chelsea Reed

Mr. Lillydahl,
Thank you so much for the practical strategies to improve literacy learning with the help of the PLC. Being familiar with the four key questions you mentioned, it was very helpful to read about strategies that are immediately implementable in the classroom to add depth of literacy skills rather than broad “database” knowledge. I especially love the idea of strategic “think aloud” questions even on multiple choice assessments. In the past, my fifth-grade team and I have definitely been guilty of just “moving on” when students have the wrong answer rather than digging deeper to determine what the student was thinking. I look forward to tweaking our assessments to include opportunities for students to provide “clues” to their cognitive thought processes. This boost in ideas for literacy assessment and planning was just what my team needed to make this next school year even better!
Thank you!

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