JANET HUNTER explores the ins and outs of the Resource Teacher: Literacy service and how it can make a real difference to students’ literacy learning.
As a colleague approached a school gate one morning, she heard a welcoming cry from one of her students, “Aunty Lit, Aunty Lit, I read my book last night!” In fact, this wasn’t the child’s aunty but an RT: Lit, a Resource Teacher: Literacy.
The Resource Teacher: Literacy service was established in 2002 as part of the government’s National Literacy Strategy to help address the disparity between our good readers and our underachievers.
Previously, there were a number of Resource Teachers of Reading working, in the main, with individual students in a model much like that of Reading Recovery. Students were withdrawn from the classroom and it was the Resource Teacher of Reading’s job to ‘fix’ the child.
In 2001, these Resource Teachers of Reading positions were disestablished. Many Resource Teachers of Reading took up newly established RT: Lit positions and extra positions were created. There are now 109 RT: Lit throughout the country and all schools have access to the service.
The 109 RT: Lit work across a cluster of schools in their area, have an office at a base school, and are governed by a management committee. The number of schools in the cluster varies according to population and geographical considerations. One RT: Lit might have as few as ten schools while others have over 30 schools.
The geographical positioning of RT: Lit clusters can provide some challenges. While many clusters are in and around urban areas, there are a number of RT: Lit who work in remote areas. They travel long distances and have to contend with inclement winter weather and at times hazardous driving conditions. RT: Lit are the teachers who tear around from school to school, very often eating their lunch as they are driving to save time. They can be easily recognised by the coffee stains and tell-tale tomato pips on their fronts.
Some RT: Lit work in offices and clusters where there are up to three RT: Lit. Most, though, work alone. The professional isolation of the job takes some getting used to and is the reason that groups of RT: Lit regional groups meet a number of times each year for professional development and collegial support.
It is obvious that with so few RT: Lit and so many students with literacy learning challenges, it would be impossible to work individually with all referred students.
With the change to the RT: Lit service came a shift in focus from working with the child, to working with teachers to ensure all students have access to quality classroom teaching. This is not to say that quality teaching is lacking. Indeed our results in international studies of reading such as PIRLS and PISA demonstrate the excellent literacy teaching and learning taking place in our schools.
RT: Lit have a wealth of knowledge of and experience in working with learners with literacy learning challenges. They can offer advice, modelling, and guidance for classroom teachers specifically designed to meet the particular child’s literacy learning needs. They act as a support for the classroom teacher, adjusting programmes, providing resources, and making suggestions when required. The intention is for students to progress quickly to achieving at or close to National Standards.
Access to an RT: Lit is through a referral system. Schools identify struggling students from their school-wide data. There are three priorities for acceptance onto an RT: Lit roll. They are: students well below National Standards, students who are referred on from Reading Recovery, and students that have the highest literacy needs on RT: Lit waiting lists.
Once a student has been accepted onto the roll, the RT: Lit and the teacher work together to decide the best way to proceed. This means an examination of diagnostic data to determine the student’s strengths and needs and a discussion of the future needs of the teacher.
The teacher and the RT: Lit plan and deliver the instruction and monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of their approach. Working collaboratively in this way means that the teacher can transfer new skills and understandings to other students experiencing literacy difficulties.
RT: Lit support takes two forms, direct and indirect. Direct instruction is where the RT: Lit works with the child or a group of children without the teacher being present. It is used for diagnostic purposes or for a short burst of intensive instruction aimed at getting the student under way in the use of effective strategies.
Indirect instruction is the major focus of RT: Lit work. In indirect instruction, the RT: Lit, teacher and student(s) work together. The teacher and the RT: Lit take turns at observing, modelling practice, and providing feedback and they collaborate to make next-step decisions so that the student has the optimal programme designed specifically to meet their needs.
There a number of challenges faced by RT: Lit and the teachers they are working with. When classrooms are visited on a fortnightly rotation, it only takes the teacher or the student to be absent and it can be a month before the teacher and RT: Lit see each other.
Teachers are very busy and have to juggle any number of things. Sometimes amongst the busyness of daily classroom life, the impending visit of the RT: Lit can be easily overlooked. This is where technology is invaluable. A reminder alert on the teacher’s cell phone ensures that the visit is not forgotten.
A student will be discharged from the RT: Lit service for a number of reasons. Of course, we would like all students to be successfully discontinued. This happens when a student is working at or close to the expected National Standard.
Some students will not make accelerated progress while on the RT: Lit roll. Very often, these students have ongoing learning challenges in a number of areas and it may be that the RT: Lit service is not the most appropriate support. These students will be referred on for further support from, for example, the RTLB service or GSE.
Other students will be withdrawn for a number of reasons for example behaviour issues or they have moved from the area.
And yes, as is the way of itinerant teaching services under the present regime, the RT: Lit service is to be reviewed. This is an operational review and will take place this year. We are hoping to retain all that is good about the service so that teachers have access to quality professional development around struggling students.
All things considered, the work of an RT: Lit is hugely satisfying and rewarding. Teachers do want to make a difference with struggling students. When they can see that their pedagogical decisions and explicit teaching have accelerated the student’s progress, then real change to teacher practice results.
RT: Lit and teachers are working to improve literacy outcomes for New Zealand children. When we can boast about our good readers’ achievements in international studies, without having to acknowledge the long tail of underachievement, we will know we have truly succeeded.
Janet Hunter is president of the New Zealand Resource Teacher: Literacy Association.