International Literacy Day: The importance of thoughtful professional support for literacy educators

Posted on August 09, 2023 by Margie Coughlin

To mark International Literacy Day, Sinéad Harmey and Bobbie Kabuto share the importance of thoughtful professional support for literacy educators and the ethos that guides their new open access book, Teaching Literacies in Diverse Contexts

With the move towards scripted and commercial curricula and assessment filling classrooms, there has been a growing divide between Teaching Literacies in Diverse Contexts university-based preparation and the realities faced by literacy educators both in classrooms and in alternative learning settings (like adult education settings). As we described in the opening of this chapter, this divide has led researchers to rethink the preparation of literacy professionals in both placement and approach. Zenkov and Pytash (2018) emphasise the importance of critical project-based clinical experiences. Clinical experiences are framed in various ways and include fieldwork embedded into university-based courses, stand-alone practicum or practical experiences, or student teaching. Critical project-based clinical experiences can occur at any point in a programme and are intensive, short-term experiences that focus on justice-oriented approaches (see Zenkov and Pytash, 2018 for a detailed description and examples of these experiences). Similarly, Goia et al. (2019: 13) discuss hybrid spaces for developing teaching practices that are ‘typically outside of the traditional classroom but engaging with new ways of working in schools’. These spaces create a bridge between classroom practice and university-based knowledge. As Goia et al. (2019: 13) described, 

In fact, research has indicated that these hybrid spaces enhanced beginning teachers’ pedagogical knowledge and impacted their roles and beliefs about teaching. They were also spaces where preservice teachers learned to build and value relationships with children and families and reject deficit ideas about children.

Researchers (e.g., O’Neil and Chambers, 2013), in particular, have argued that there is little research on how university-based programmes prepare literacy professionals as literacy coaches who learn to take on the multiple roles and responsibilities (MacPhee and Jewett, 2017). MacPhee and Jewett (2017) write of United States educational policy, that ‘given the urgency with which literacy coaching came to be a common professional development practice in schools across the nation, little time has been devoted to examining the process of becoming a literacy coach’ (p. 409). With the majority of studies on the preparation of literacy professionals as coaches within school-based settings, research has suggested that literacy coaches do not always find themselves prepared to negotiate the power and politics associated with the role (Hargreaves and Skelton, 2012; MacPhee and Jewett, 2017). Kabuto, Wagner and Vasudevan (Chapter 8) and Bates and Malloy (Chapter 13), in this volume, address the need to consider how literacy coaches are supported.

Literacy professionals preparing to be literacy coaches are unique; they completed previous university-based education programmes and are taking advanced coursework in the area of literacy coaching. When entering into a preparation programme to become literacy professionals, these literacy professionals bring with them their structured in-service preparation and the unstructured professional knowledge that they have learned working as classroom teachers (Oliveira et al., 2019). University based preparation programmes, therefore, must find ways to meet candidates where they are in their skills and dispositions towards teaching and assessment reading and writing, rather than assuming that candidates come to the experience with  little knowledge of reading and writing support in classroom settings.

These types of pedagogies for preparing future literacy professionals are in stark contrast to professional development and learning contexts that treat developing literacy professionals as consumers of curricula and assessments (Wixson, 2017). Albers and Seely Flint, in Chapter 6, describe the ‘train the trainer’ model, which is connected to professional development related to teaching scripted curricula. This model, as Albers et al. (2019) and Goia et al. (2019) describe, occurs in many parts of the world and marginalises the need to include justice oriented approaches to preparation of literacy professionals that include dialogues about important issues like racism, inequality, and differences, as well as how literacy professionals are not limited to teaching and learning in classroom settings. In this book, we have collected writings by literacy leaders in multiple settings and multiple roles to shed light on the new ways we might begin thinking about the preparation of literacy educators in and out of school settings. In a sense, it is our hope that these chapters address the question ‘what is possible when you adopt an asset-based and justice-oriented approach to preparing literacy professionals to adopt diverse approaches, frameworks, models, and perspectives to literacy professional preparation?’. 

The ethos that guides this collection

To address the ways that we prepare future specialised literacy professionals to teach in diverse contexts both in and out of schools, we present a collection of chapters that cover a diverse range of contexts – both in terms of the settings in which the practical experiences took place and the professional backgrounds of the literacy providers, volunteers and families involved in the experiences. In bringing such a collection together, one challenge that we faced was trying to connect the diverse set of chapters while allowing each to maintain its own identity. We argue, however, that the uniqueness of the chapters reflects exactly the reality of who and how diverse literacies are being taught in a global context.

We have arranged this edited collection in three parts, each within its own introduction. The first part titled ‘Strategies for supporting literacy educators’ considers broad strategies for supporting literacy educators and tussles with issues of cultural relevance, restrictive policy mandates, and supporting responsive teaching across the spectrum of undergraduate, graduate and CPD contexts. The second part is titled ‘Teaching literacies in diverse settings with diverse populations’ and moves the focus to supporting literacy educators in ‘non-traditional settings’. In this part, the authors describe projects that were framed by a common principle – that quality support for literacy educators with a justice-oriented perspective can occur outside of formal school settings. The third and final part of this book is titled ‘Supporting literacy educators from a distance’. The three chapters in this part consider how literacy education can move into a virtual space and yet maintain a focus on authentic literacy practices.

Taken together, we suggest that all the chapters are connected by the following threads:

1. A sense of inquiry. Each set of authors was driven by or pursued a question or challenge in supporting literacy learners. The chapters focus on what they understood, what they currently understand, and what is left to be explored. The chapters demonstrate that being prepared to teach reading requires much more than being able to teach to a script. Put simply, a script does not prepare teacher candidates for the reality of the classroom. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that to teach literacy in today’s global society, all educators (parents and community organisations included) need to be prepared to ‘pivot’ away from the way things have all been done. Perhaps the pivot begins with a sense of inquiry about what matters or about what the core non-negotiables of authentic literacy practice are. We suggest that building in opportunities to intentionally foster experiences that are as authentic as possible is the best preparation for this. This may be in and out of school settings for pre-service and graduate candidates. These opportunities provide contexts for the candidate to reflect on and question what really matters for this child at this point in time. For teacher educators, this requires, as Albers and Seely Flint suggest in Chapter 6, a sense of vulnerability and an ability to be prepared for the unexpected and may lead them to rethink the ways they have always approached their work. Throughout the chapters, we noted how the authors pushed those they work with to constantly question. These questions revolved around issues of pedagogy, policy, as well as social justice. Criticality allows those who teach literacy to reshape and reframe restrictive policies, as Harmey and Moss argued, while keeping the learner at the centre.
2. A sense of respect for those who provide literacy support and an appreciation for the importance of relationships. Regardless of whether the educators were parents, volunteers, undergraduate students or experienced teachers, the authors celebrate and respect their experiences and contextual knowledge. Throughout the chapters, the importance of establishing trusting relationships between tutor and tutee, between teacher educator and teacher candidate, and within and between families and communities was paramount. The ethos of safety described by Millar and colleagues in Chapter 10 seems to be a fundamental aspect of all the relationships described in this collection. Above all we noted the ethos of collaboration and community within the models proposed. In a sense, this bodes well for the diverse contexts within which literacy educators, be they traditional teachers, parents or volunteer tutors, work. Literacy, we argue, is complex, and to provide the best literacy learning opportunities requires a community effort and a concerted effort to build on and respect community resources.

3. A sense of appreciation for the complexities of context and literacy learning. The projects and studies in these chapters are not presented as ‘off the shelf’ strategies that will work with any learner or in any context. They challenge the ‘one-size-fits-all/what works/ programmatic’ approach to literacy teaching and learning. In all the chapters there is a deep appreciation for how context is complicated and needs to impact the design of the systems that support the literacy educator and learner. Throughout this book literacy is defined as a broad and complex phenomenon.


It is our hope that this book will be a useful resource for preparing literacy educators to teach in today’s classrooms and community settings where policy ebbs and flows in terms of how best to teach reading and writing to diverse student bodies. The book comprises chapters by leading researchers and practitioners in the field to consider how best to support literacy educators in traditional and non-traditional settings with 10 Teaching Literacies in Diverse Contexts diversity in mind. We would like to acknowledge the commitment and passion of the authors in this book to supporting literacy learners and for contributing to this book. This edited collection was written during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we know that, for everyone, life at this time has been messy and complicated. Despite this we were able to bring together a stellar group of people whose commitment to literacy is evident in every chapter of this book.


An excerpt from Teaching Literacies in Diverse Contexts edited by Sinéad Harmey and Bobbie Kabuto.  

Teaching Literacies in Diverse Contexts, edited by Sinéad Harmey and Bobbie Kabuto. The book cover image features a book that lies open and forms  the start of a wooden footbridge that leads into a lush green forest. Cover image: © Vitalii Bashkatov/Shutterstock Cover design: EMC Design Ltd
About the Editors 
Sinéad Harmey is an Associate Professor in Literacy Education at the IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society.

Bobbie Kabuto is Professor at Queens College, City University of New York, and Chairperson of the Department of Elementary and Early Childhood Education.
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