Online Courses for Reading Teachers

9/15/2003 By: Iris Obille Lafferty, Ed.D.

This year's renewed emphasis on teacher quality has prompted a boom in e-learning options for professional development. And given the emphasis of No Child Left Behind, the current topic of choice is reading. Today's sources of such programs are numerous — with training embedded into curriculum offerings from Compass, Plato, and others; targeted instruction by Lexia, IntelliTools, and other publishers traditionally addressing a special education population; and a range of solutions from universities (see "Professional Development: 21st Century Models" in the August 2003 issue).The online professional development courses reviewed this month are some of the most current and visible for the mainstream K-12 reading market. Offering instruction independent of specific language arts texts, these four products bridge findings from recent literacy research and translate them into fresh, practical, and effective ideas for the classroom.

Connected Educator Reading: Teaching Phonics Grade K (Classroom Connect)

This brand-new offering will rouse teachers to make positive changes in the way they teach reading skills. Classroom Connect is producing a series of 20 courses that target the National Reading Panel's fundamental components of reading instruction. The series — which currently includes four courses in teaching phonics and text comprehension to elementary students — allow teachers to pursue their own specific interests and classroom needs.

Though the courses vary in topic, sessions are uniformly organized into Research & Practice, Model Activities, and Reflect & Review pieces. In Teaching Phonics Grade K, for example, eleven 45-minute sessions cover topics such as research, teaching phonemic awareness, teaching phonics, and assessment and intervention. The bulk of the content is delivered in a slide show-like format, with bits of animation, interesting graphics, printable worksheets, and mouseovers that reveal noteworthy facts, teaching tips, an occasional multiple-choice review question, and video footage. In fact, one of Connected Educator Reading's best features is the video segments that model teaching ideas. For example, in one segment, a teacher demonstrates how to teach syllable blending and segmentation.

After the Research & Practice session, the Model Activities component provides more ideas for the classroom (e.g., assessing students' emerging literacy, making consonant cards for phonics practice, analyzing spelling stages). In the Reflect & Review section, teachers can discuss issues with online faculty or answer a set of review questions for credit on their Classroom Connect transcript, which tracks teachers' progress through the course and can be viewed by administrators.

Classroom Connect has laudably put the K-6 teacher at the forefront of course design and content. Navigation is easy, with large tabs, "back" buttons, and a course indicator bar to allow swift movement throughout the course sessions. The content is interactive, practical, and relevant to today's teaching. And while at press time the program is not linked to outside Web sites, it houses an abundance of printable resources, such as "Reading Program Selection Criteria" and "Sequence of Phonological Awareness."

Teaching Reading to All Students, Grades 6-8 (Holt, Rinehart and Winston)

This offering is an elegant, research-based, online professional development course for teachers working with struggling middle school readers. The program smartly syncs interactive Web pages of tested teaching strategies with supporting video on CD-ROM to skillfully deliver 16 professional development modules.

Modules 1 through 16 are dedicated to specific areas of reading instruction, such as building student interest, teaching decoding, or assessing student reading. Each module contains a lesson, printable supporting documents, and online discussion opportunities. Typically, modules get a jump-start with a brief video welcome by a reading expert. Video segments are also used to capture student testimonials, educators demonstrating methods of reading instruction, and round table talks of teachers discussing their strategies.

Lessons within the modules focus on specific methods to boost the literacy ability of below grade level readers. The lessons cover issues such as standards-based instruction, ongoing assessment, organizational planning, and working with parents. Teachers will reflect on their own strategies, as they are asked such questions as "What can Jonathan's sixth-grade teacher do to address his reading needs?" or "What are some ways you prepare students to read text that may be unfamiliar or difficult?"

In addition to interactive cues, ideas are reinforced and extended through the model lessons, suggestions for exercises, and a bevy of other resources that include articles, assessment forms, and links to other Web sites.

While the Help, Journal (notepad), and Glossary features are limited, Teaching Reading to All Students as a whole is very polished. The course also distinguishes itself from the other offerings here in its emphasis on the collaborative relationship between student, home, and school for student success in reading.

The ABCs of Reading (Pearson Professional Development)

This engaging and methodically organized course provides teachers with a strong foundation in teaching reading and reading development theory. Once logged on to the course, teachers navigate to their "classroom" site, where they are welcomed by an instructor's message, an overview of the current week's work, and the course schedule. The classroom site screen looks like a tidy pile of file folders, with tabs that lead the user to other parts of the "school" (e.g., courses, community offerings).

In the main class folder, there is a menu of options: announcements, course documents, external links, and the opportunity to participate in a virtual classroom or discussion board.

Beyond the assigned texts, the course is taught like a graduate seminar; during asynchronous chat room discussions, an instructor acts as a guide to ensure critical analysis of ideas and deep exploration of topics. Other support materials include instructional videotapes, an extensive list of online links, and a variety of assignments, such as "Develop a classroom bulletin board that fosters print awareness" or "Create a phonics-based lesson on sound-letter relationships to connect meaning to words." The course culminates in the completion of a constructive reflection paper that outlines a plan for a year-long reading program.

Though lacking in visual bells and whistles, The ABCs of Reading is built on a sound curriculum, with assignments clearly outlined to fulfill the course's "learn it today, use it tomorrow" mission. In the first portion of the 12-week course, teachers will be motivated to discover the best ways to effectively teach early literacy skills (i.e., emergent literacy, phonics, phonemic and alphabetic awareness). The second half of the course continues to provide a balanced literacy approach to teaching as topics progress to vocabulary development, key reading strategies, and the connection between reading and writing development.

TeacherUniverse Promoting Pre-K-3 Literacy (Riverdeep)

Like the other offerings here, Riverdeep's TeacherUniverse enables teachers to access highly interactive, professional teacher training. Its Promoting Pre-K-3 Literacy course for educators differs in that it not only includes the latest research in literacy learning skills, but also discusses speaking and listening skills as a foundation for literacy development.

As with the Classroom Connect offering, TeacherUniverse adeptly hinges its coursework on the NRP's primary components for reading. The curriculum proficiently covers six lessons focusing on symbols, fluency, meaning, and more. Lessons are sprinkled with sidebars that cite facts about speaking and listening standards and other interesting footnotes. Teachers will also find examples of age-appropriate interactive games to encourage students to play with language (e.g., "Try simple word games, like how many words can you think of that rhyme with 'bat'").

Graphics and navigation are simple and straightforward. The top of the screen carries text instructions from an illustration of "Emma," the course instructor. The dialogue between Emma and her student, "Greg," places the content for the course within the context of an interesting conversation. A menu bar offers access to a bulletin board, course contents, and progress bar, links to literature sources and activities on the Web, definitions to key terms (e.g., "onset", "rime"), and language arts standards for every state.

Iris Obille Lafferty, Ed.D., is an educational consultant and researcher.

Click here to read a recent review of Scholastic Red onlne professional development for reading teachers.


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Product Connected Educator Reading: Teaching Phonics Grade K Teaching Reading to All Students, Grades 6-8 The ABCs of Reading TeacherUniverse Promoting Pre-K-3 Literacy
Publisher Classroom Connect
(800) 638-1639
Holt, Rinehart and Winston
(800) 479-9799
Pearson Professional Development
(800) 348-4474
Riverdeep
(888) 242-6747
Format Web-based Web-based with Mac/Win CD Web-based with print and video supplements Web-based
Price $299; volume discounts available $325 $475; multicourse and group discounts available $95 single license; multi-license discounts available
Target Audience K-6 reading teachers 6-8 teachers with below grade readers K-8 teachers K-3 reading teachers
Description Gives an update on latest research and its translation to classroom teaching Provides research-based ideas for struggling readers Provides background on research in reading and strategies for teaching reading skills Emphasis on balanced approach to literacy, including theoretical foundations of language and literacy
Topics Covered Phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary Building student interest, decoding, reading instructions, and assessing student reading Phonics, phonemic and alphabetic awareness, decoding, vocabulary, and emergent writing Symbols, decoding, phonics, fluency, determining meaning, and encouraging literacy
Special Features - Model Activities with objectives, materials, estimated time, and procedure
- Teaching References
- Best-practice videos
- Layered multimedia environment includes video clips of student case studies, model teachers, and standards-based classroom design - Discussion rooms
- E-drop assignment delivery
- Clever links to other online literacy resources
Strengths - Well organized
- Printable blackline masters
- Teachers can "test out" of content they have already mastered
- Supports learning process with online community of educators
- Very practical tips for boosting literacy in the classroom
- Emphasizes collaboration between students, parents, and school
- Videos on CD-ROM minimize strain on bandwidth
- Work is extensive, yet manageable
- Course covers theoretical and practical topics that can be easily translated into the classroom
- Course counts towards graduate credit
- Provides a strong foundation to the theoretical underpinnings of language acquisition and literacy
- Key concepts are linked to windows with definition and other online sources
- Ideas for learning activities for parents and ESL students
Limitations Doesn't link to outside Web sources - Glossary needs a search engine
- Help link is limited
Textbook-driven curriculum may seem dry Simple visual appeal
Bottom Line Easily used as a school- or district-wide program to boost educators' understanding of reading research and instructional strategies in reading Encouraging ideas for middle school teachers with struggling readers Good for educators who want to strengthen their teaching reading skills while earning three units of graduate credit Provides a strong scientific foundation in language and linguistic research to help educators exceed Reading First mandates

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