Alberta Journal of Educational Research, Vol. 59, No. 4, Winter 2013, 535-552
Exploring the Role of Literacy Coaches: A
Case Study of Three Schools in Ontario
Schulich School of Education, Nipissing University
This paper explores the role of literacy coaches in Ontario schools. This case study uses
qualitative research methods to provide a picture of what literacy coaching looks like in practice
in three schools. The literacy coaches had three main roles: to act as school literacy organizers,
literacy leaders, and to provide support to teachers and principals. Unlike the roles of literacy
coaches presented in the literature, the coaches in this study did not generally participate in
observation and demonstration lessons and spent the majority of their coaching time
performing organizational tasks. This study makes recommendations for future research and
provides suggestions for school boards regarding implementing literacy coaching.
Cet article explore le rôle des formateurs en alphabétisation dans les écoles de l’Ontario. Cette
étude de cas repose sur des méthodes de recherche qualitatives et offre un aperçu pratique de la
formation en alphabétisation dans trois écoles. Les formateurs en alphabétisation jouent trois
rôles principaux : agir comme organisateurs de l’alphabétisation dans l’école, être chefs de file
en alphabétisation et appuyer les enseignants et les directeurs. Contrairement aux formateurs
présentés dans la documentation, ceux dans cette étude n’avaient pas tendance à participer aux
observations et aux leçons pratiques. La plupart de leur temps était passé à accomplir des
tâches organisationnelles. Cette étude offre des recommandations quant aux études à l’avenir et
des suggestions pour les conseils scolaires en matière de la mise en œuvre de la formation en
Within the last decade, a new type of literacy specialist, the literacy coach, has appeared in
schools across Canada. In fact, in the province of Ontario, literacy coaches are now a common
fixture in schools as a model of professional development to improve both teaching and student
learning. Despite its popularity, there is limited research on literacy coaching (Casey, 2006; Dole
& Donaldson, 2006; Rodgers & Rodgers, 2007). Russo (2004) stated, “most immediately, better
school-based coaching research is needed” (p. 24). While research on literacy coaching over the
past few years has increased, there is little research in the Canadian context about the role
literacy coaches play in Canadian schools.
To address this gap in the research, a qualitative study on literacy coaching in Ontario was
designed and conducted. The complete study examined the role of the literacy coach, the
relationships among the players in literacy coaching programs, and the successes and barriers in
implementing coaching programs. The study used observations, interviews, and document and
artifact collection to explore literacy coaching in three schools in one school board in northern
Ontario. In this paper, a portion of the longer research study, the role of the literacy coach, is
reported to shed light on literacy coaching in Ontario. While not a complete representation of all
© 2013 The Governors of the University of Alberta 535
literacy coaching in Ontario, and while limited by the small number of schools and coaches, this
case study helps illuminate literacy coaching in the Canadian context.
Exploring the Role of the Literacy Coach
Defining the Role of Literacy Coaching in Ontario
The literacy coaching position in Ontario evolved from lead literacy teachers, a role outlined in
the document, Early Reading Strategy: The Report of the Expert Panel on Early Reading in
Ontario (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2003). Lead literacy teachers were “to improve reading
achievement by working collaboratively with teachers to deepen their understanding of the
reading process and to extend their repertoire of instructional strategies” (Ontario Ministry of
Education, 2003, p. 58). In 2004, the Ontario Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat was created
within the Ministry of Education to increase student achievement in literacy and mathematics
(Ontario Ministry of Education, n.d.) and has since published a number of documents
supporting literacy coaching in Ontario schools (e.g., Campbell & Fullan, 2006; Numeracy and
Literacy Secretariat, 2006b). In Improving Student Achievement in Literacy and Numeracy:
Job-Embedded Professional Learning, the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat (2006a) defined
A relationship established between two parties to meet a particular learning goal. Coaching involves
two teachers in processes in which they collaborate, refine, reflect, conduct research, expand on ideas,
build skills and knowledge, and problem solve in order to improve student learning and achievement.
Literacy coaches were to work with teachers to improve their teaching practice with the
ultimate goal being to improve student outcomes.
Defining Literacy in Ontario Schools
In, The Ontario Curriculum Grades 1-8 Language, the Ontario Ministry of Education (2008)
Literacy learning is a communal project and the teaching of literacy skills is embedded across the
curriculum; however, it is the language curriculum that is dedicated to the instruction in the areas of
knowledge, skills–listening and speaking, reading, writing, viewing, and visually representing–on
which literacy is based. (p. 4)
While this definition of literacy is broad and encompasses a variety of literacies, at the time
of the study, the Ministry continued to focus on a more narrow definition of literacy based on
literacy as only reading and writing. For example, in explaining the rationale for the Literacy
and Numeracy Secretariat, the Ministry (n.d.) wrote, “the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat
was established in 2004 to help boost student achievement. Highly skilled and experienced
educators (known as student achievement officers) work directly with schools and school boards
to improve our students’ reading, writing, and math skills” (para. 1). The Ministry also continues
to administer the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) tests, which attempt to
evaluate student achievement in reading, writing, and mathematics. In addition, the Literacy
Exploring the Role of Literacy Coaches: A Case Study of Three Schools in Ontario
and Numeracy Secretariat reports, which describe the success of literacy in schools (e.g.,
Campbell & Fullan, 2006), tend to focus on traditional views of literacy, reading, and writing.
Thus, while literacy can be a broad and encompassing term, literacy coaching in Ontario tends
to focus on literacy as predominantly reading and writing.
The Role of the Literacy Coach in the United States
The role of literacy coaches in the United States is described similarly to that of their Canadian
counterparts. Based in the United States, the International Reading Association (IRA) (2006)
stated that the literacy coaching role may include tasks such as, “facilitating the work of ongoing
collaborative teacher groups, centering the collaborative work on shared instructional
challenges, promoting demonstration lessons and cross-classroom observations, and developing
opportunities to inspect students’ performance on tests and in-class assignments so as to inform
instruction” (p. 36). Coaches may also be responsible for organizational tasks, such as
organizing and ordering student resource materials and tracking student data (Burkins, 2007;
Walpole & Blamey, 2008). As in Canada, American literacy coaches work primarily with
teachers rather than with students, encouraging teachers to change teaching practices with the
ultimate goal of increasing student learning and achievement (Dole & Donaldson, 2006;
Rodgers & Rodgers, 2007; Toll, 2005). The job description of a literacy coach is not static, since
coaching changes as teachers’ needs and instruction change (Casey, 2006; Kent, 2005;
Swafford, 1998) and should also be developed locally to suit the specific needs of schools,
students, and teachers (Casey, 2006; Coskie, 2004; Robinson, 2004).
The IRA (2004) stated, “it is the in-class coaching that distinguishes the role of the reading
coach” (p. 3) from other reading specialists. In-class literacy coaching is most often described in
the literature as the demonstration and observation of lessons (e.g., Bean, 2004; Casey, 2006;
Dozier, 2006). For example, Bean (2004) recommended literacy coaches plan demonstration
lessons with the teacher, then the coach and the teacher meet to discuss the lesson. The last step
of the demonstration lesson is for the literacy coach to observe the teacher teach a similar lesson
because observation “helps to ensure that the teacher has actually learned from the
demonstration lesson and can implement a strategy correctly” (Bean, 2004, p. 100). Hasbrouck
and Denton (2007) presented a different model of one-on-one coaching which emphasizes
student achievement instead of changing teaching practices. In this model, the literacy coach
and the teacher work together to create action plans and then the teacher implements the plan
with the coach providing support. After the plan has been implemented, the coach and the
teacher evaluate the plan to see if the goals have been met and to determine the next steps.
The Qualifications of Literacy Coaches
The IRA (2004) has published international recommendations regarding the qualifications of
literacy coaches. They recommended literacy coaches meet five criteria: be excellent classroom
teachers; have an in-depth knowledge of reading, assessment, and instruction; have experience
working with teachers in professional development; possess excellent presentation skills; and
have the experience necessary to model, observe, and coach. However, there are no set
qualifications for Canadian literacy coaches, and generally school boards in Ontario set their
own standard for the hiring of coaches.
There have been many reports and research published in the United States concerning the
qualifications of American literacy coaches. For instance, Bean (2004) and Dole (2004) stated
literacy coaches must generally have solid knowledge of student learning and literacy
instruction. Being able to work with adults (Bean, 2004) and the ability to coach other teachers
are skills that literacy coaches also need to have in order to fulfill the coaching role (Burkins,
2007; Poglinco & Bach, 2004; Rodgers & Rodgers, 2007). Leadership skills are also cited in the
literature as a requirement for literacy coaches (Walpole & McKenna, 2004). A leader is a
person who “invites and inspires others to ‘buy into’ a vision” (Vogt & Shearer, 2003, p. 266). In
the leadership role, a leader “influences the interpretation of internal and external events, the
choice of goals or desired outcomes, organization of work activities, individual motivation and
abilities, power relations, and shared orientations” (Hoy & Miskel, 2001, p. 394). While
principals are the instructional leaders in schools and are in charge of literacy initiatives,
“principals who share the responsibility of leadership are much more successful at creating
positive change for teachers and students” (Booth & Rowsell, 2007, p. 15). Sharing the
leadership role with the literacy coach and giving the literacy coach some power can be an
effective accelerator to creating change in schools (Booth & Rowsell, 2007). However, while
literacy coaches are leaders, they do not have administrative authority over teachers and are still
teachers themselves (Burkins, 2007). In fact, literacy coaches are often said to lead from behind
since they support teachers who then work with students (Vogt & Shearer, 2003).
Because literacy coaching is a new initiative, many within the American research community
are also fearful that unqualified teachers may be hired to fill literacy coaching positions (Fisher,
2007; Frost & Bean, 2006; IRA, 2004; Roller, 2006). The IRA’s survey of literacy coaches found
that literacy coaches are very confident in their abilities to perform their job (Roller, 2006);
however, Roller (2006) stated that this is an area of concern because most literacy coaches are
not reading specialists, and while they may feel confident to coach certain activities, they may
not have the depth of knowledge necessary to be an effective coach.
What Literacy Coaching Looks Like in Practice
While policies outline the roles of a literacy coach, research into what literacy coaches actually
do in their day-to-day jobs as school literacy coaches is limited and most extant research is
about American literacy coaches. For instance, the IRA reported that American literacy coaches
spend the most time, approximately five hours per week, in assessment and instructional
planning activities and two to four hours per week planning and conducting professional
development sessions (Roller, 2006). The IRA (2006) also reported that coaches spend two to
four hours per week “observing, in demonstrating, and in discussion of lessons taught” (p. 2)
and approximately one hour or less on “developing curriculum, facilitating teacher study or
inquiry groups, and conducting professional development for administrators” (p. 2).
In a Florida study, Moxley and Taylor (2004, cited in 2006) reported that literacy coaches
spent the greatest amount of time (29.8%) doing assessment or data management. The literacy
coaches also spent 15.5% of their time doing “other,” 14.6 % of their time attending workshops
or meetings, 13% providing workshops, 7.4% coaching intensive intervention teachers, 6.6%
meeting with administration, 6.5% coaching content teachers, and 6.5% doing in-class modeling
(Moxley & Taylor, 2006, p. 89). Morgan et al. (2003) indicated that in South Carolina, many of
the defined coaching roles are not fulfilled and many coaches act as consultants or simply as
additional teachers, and are assigned a variety of non-academic responsibilities, such as lunch
and bus duty. Deussen, Coskie, Robinson, and Autio (2007), also found that literacy coaching in
Exploring the Role of Literacy Coaches: A Case Study of Three Schools in Ontario
practice looks different than the job description. In a large-scale report for the U.S. Department
of Education, Deussen et al. reported that literacy coaches spend only 28% of their time working
with teachers, despite the fact that Reading First mandated that 60-80% of the literacy coaches’
time be devoted to working with teachers. Finally, Walpole and Blamey (2008) found that
literacy coaches had dual roles, working both as directors and mentors. Literacy coaches were
mentors, working collaboratively with teachers and modeling instruction, and literacy coaches
were also directors performing in leadership roles, such as managing curriculum and resources
and training teachers to promote consistency of curriculum and assessment.
While there are some anecdotal accounts of literacy coaching in Canada (e.g., Snow, 2007)
and reports produced by the Ontario Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat (e.g., Campbell &
Fullan, 2006), there appears to be only one research study published about the literacy coaching
role in Canada. Lynch and Ferguson (2010) interviewed 13 literacy coaches in one urban school
board in Ontario to explore their perspectives on their roles as coaches. In their coaching role,
the Ontario coaches performed a variety of activities including: demonstration, observation, and
debriefing of lessons, presenting workshops to teachers, and examining student assessment
data. Lynch and Ferguson also reported that there was role ambiguity among coaches and that
many coaches felt uncertain about their role; a finding also supported in the research about
American literacy coaches (Blamey, Meyer, & Walpole, 2008/2009; Poglinco et al., 2003).
Coaches in the study also felt that their role was changing and evolving with time.
While Lynch and Ferguson’s (2010) work is the first of its kind to research Canadian literacy
coaches and their role, it is limited in that no observations of literacy coaching in situ were
undertaken. This paper explores the theme of the role of literacy coaches in Ontario that
emerged from Lynch and Ferguson’s earlier work, but is a different study with different research
questions and with participants from a different school board in Ontario. Little is known about
literacy coaching in Canada and what literacy coaches actually do in their day-to-day jobs.
Therefore, the research question attended to in this paper is: what does literacy coaching look
like in practice? This paper explores literacy coaching in practice and presents descriptive data
about what coaches do in their roles.
For Vygotsky (1981), learning is a part of culture, particularly social relationships. Vygotsky
(1981) wrote, “it is through others that we develop ourselves” (p. 161). Vygotsky (1981) asserted
that social relationships are key components of learning: “functions are first formed in the
collective as relations among children and then become mental functions for the individual” (p.
163). Vygotsky’s (1978) zone of proximal development is key to learning. The zone of proximal
development is “the distance between the actual development level as determined by
independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through
problem solving and under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (p. 86).
Again, Vygotsky’s (1978) view that learning is social in nature is evident because interacting with
another person is an important element of the zone of proximal development; without the adult
guidance or the more capable peer, there is not the opportunity for what Vygotsky calls “good
learning” (p. 89), that being learning which will advance development. Wood, Bruner, and
Ross’s (1976) concept of scaffolding is a helpful concept when discussing the zone of proximal
development. According to Wood et al. (1976), scaffolding “enables a child or novice to solve a
problem, carry out a task, or achieve a goal which would be beyond his unassisted efforts” (p.
90). In essence, the more capable peer scaffolds within the learners’ zone of proximal
development in order for the learner to complete the task.
Thus, as a form of professional development and learning, literacy coaching can be seen
through the lens of social constructivism, as exemplified through the writing of Vygotsky (1978,
1981) and Wood et al. (1976). The coach is the more capable peer who helps guide teachers’
learning by scaffolding in teachers’ zones of proximal development. This scaffolding may include
a number of coaching activities, such as observation and demonstration of lessons. Working
with the literacy coach allows teachers to develop new skills that teachers may not be able to
demonstrate on their own but can with the assistance of the literacy coach. During coaching
sessions, a literacy coach may “nudge” (Dozier, 2006, p. 76) a teacher to develop new skills, thus
advancing the teacher’s zone of proximal development. In traditional forms of professional
development, teachers are usually passive listeners, and thus this type of professional
development is often deemed by researchers to be ineffective (e.g., Darling-Hammond &
McLaughlin, 1995; Joyce & Showers, 1982). Literacy coaching, however, is a type of professional
development that is social and collaborative, and teachers are participating in their learning by
co-constructing new knowledge with the literacy coach.
Schools were selected for the study using reputational sampling, which uses “the
recommendation of knowledgeable experts for the best samples” (McMillian & Schumacher,
2001, p. 402). The district literacy coaches in one northern Ontario school board were asked to
nominate three schools with exemplary literacy coaching programs, not with the aim to evaluate
their programs, but rather to select literacy coaching programs that were well-developed and
that might provide rich data. All three schools that were nominated agreed to participate and the
schools knew that they were nominated for having exemplary coaching programs. In each
school, the literacy coach, principal, and primary teachers (kindergarten to grade 3)
participated. Because literacy coaching was new for junior/intermediate teachers (grades 4-8),
the school board asked that the research focus on literacy coaching in the primary grades, who
had been participating in literacy coaching for three years. One of the three schools was also a
dual-track school, meaning it had both English and French Immersion programs.
One literacy coach in the study worked halftime as a district literacy coach at the board office
and halftime as a literacy coach in one school. The other two literacy coaches were embedded
literacy coaches, meaning that they were classroom teachers and were also literacy coaches in
their respective schools. These two embedded coaches taught in the classroom for
approximately two thirds of the school day and coached for one third of the day, and still taught
literacy to their own classes. All three literacy coaches were female and experienced classroom
teachers and two of them possessed additional qualifications in reading; a reading specialist
qualification from the Ontario College of Teachers. The two embedded coaches were approached
by their principals to take on the literacy coaching role. Principals explained that they selected
the coaches based on their exemplary teaching practices and expertise in literacy. The fulltime
Exploring the Role of Literacy Coaches: A Case Study of Three Schools in Ontario
literacy coach had asked the school board for leadership opportunities in literacy. The board
then had the fulltime coach attend the training on the Early Reading Strategy (Ontario
Ministry of Education, 2003) with the expectation that she would provide professional
development for other teachers in the board upon her return. She did so and the board then
asked her to apply for the position of district literacy coach. Training for the literacy coaches
consisted of the coaches attending Ministry of Education workshops on literacy as well as board-
wide literacy coaching meetings held throughout the school year.
In order to answer the research question and gain a holistic picture of literacy coaching in
practice, qualitative research methods were appropriate. These included observations,
interviews, and the collection of artifacts and documents as described by Merriam (1988). The
researcher shadowed the three literacy coaches, observing them during their regular literacy
coaching time block and other times when they were working in a coaching capacity, such as at
meetings and family literacy night. In order to ensure a variety of situations in each school, the
days of the week for observations were rotated in each school. Detailed field notes and
observer’s comments were taken during the observation period and over the eight-week period
of the study and over 110 literacy coaching hours were observed. By the end of the study, the
observations had reached saturation (Flick, 2006).
In order to gain further insight regarding the role of the literacy coach, literacy coaches,
principals, and primary teachers were interviewed using a structured opened-ended format once
during the observation period. To make the participants as comfortable as possible, they were
given a copy of the interview questions prior to the scheduled interview. A total of 27 interviews
were conducted. These were taped and later transcribed, or written notes were taken, depending
on the participants’ preferences. Informal unstructured interviews also occurred throughout the
study and were spontaneous informal conversations to clarify or provide insights into
observations. Artifacts and documents were also collected and the researcher was given copies
of all meeting agendas, handouts, and minutes. In addition, all three schools provided copies of
their literacy evidence binders, which contained documents such as meeting agendas and
minutes, photos, literacy school improvement plans, and special literacy events.
The researcher created a case record for each school that contained interview transcripts,
documents and artifacts collected, and transcribed observations. These case records provided an
organization system to locate data quickly and efficiently during the data analysis. Following the
steps outlined by Bodgan and Bilken (1998), the researcher read through all interviews,
observations, and artifacts, making comments and notes in the margin. All data were read
through again, and the researcher made further comments in the margin and made a list of
preliminary categories, which were based on themes and key words that emerged from the data
itself. Next, the preliminary categories were examined, and the researcher collapsed categories
that were similar, made new categories, and also made sub categories. Coloured highlighters
were used to sort data on the hard copies and Microsoft Word to cut and paste raw data into a
new document sorted by category. During this extensive coding process, a constant comparative
method was used. This allowed the researcher to continually compare data and their
characteristics so that the data could be placed into appropriate categories (Gay & Airasian,
2000). After having a final set of data that were coded and sorted into categories, the researcher
hypothesized and speculated about the meaning of the data in order to explain the findings
(Bogdan & Biklen, 1998; Merriam, 1988; Patton, 1990).
As previously stated, this paper is based on a larger study and only the findings about the role of
the literacy coaches are presented. While literacy coaches took on a number of roles in their
schools, all three literacy coaches worked extensively as school literacy program organizers,
school leaders, and providing support to their schools. In this section, these three major roles of
the literacy coaches are presented.
Literacy Coaches as School Literacy Program Organizers
Organizational tasks proved to be a large part of the literacy coaching role, consuming at least
half of the coaching time. Participants felt that if the literacy coach did not perform these
organizational tasks that the literacy programs would become unraveled because no one else had
the time or was willing to perform these tasks. These tasks included following up with Ministry
personnel by e-mail and corresponding with school board administrators. Literacy coaches also
spent time organizing and updating the school evidence binders, a collection of documents
pertaining to the literacy program in each school. In two of the schools, the literacy coach was
the primary organizer for a family literacy night. At one school, students and their parents
rotated through different activity stations related to a different literacy genre. The teachers and
principals valued the completion of these tasks. As one teacher stated, “even if it’s just sheer
organization and keeping us organized, the literacy coach is extremely valuable.”
The literacy coaches were observed spending at least a portion of their daily coaching time
organizing the book room. As one literacy coach explained, “I organize the book room
continually.” The book room is a literacy coach’s office, a place for teachers to meet, the resource
room where literacy materials are kept, and the place where student assessment data is
displayed on the walls. Coaches were observed cataloguing new books, sorting books to ensure
resources were in the correct place, reorganizing resources and furniture, consulting with
teachers about ordering new resources, and completing purchase orders for new resources. The
participants viewed an organized and up-to-date book room as a necessity in facilitating
teachers’ implementation of board and Ministry of Education initiatives.
Literacy Coaches as School Leaders
Literacy coaches were observed in leadership roles, and during interviews, teachers, principals,
and literacy coaches referred to the importance of this role. One principal said, the literacy coach
“is the literacy expert and the leader of this group.” One teacher explained that literacy coaches
were leaders, “keeping everyone on the same page.” This leadership role was important to the
success of the adoption of the new initiatives; as one teacher stated, “I honestly think we think
we need someone to lead the way. Otherwise people go off in different directions.” The key
leadership roles of the literacy coaches included conducting professional development sessions
for teachers and leading professional learning communities (PLCs).
Exploring the Role of Literacy Coaches: A Case Study of Three Schools in Ontario
Conducting professional development for teachers. Literacy coaches were often the
first teachers in the schools to receive new information and training from the Ministry of
Education and the school board. They were the first teachers in the schools to implement these
initiatives and share their experiences with their peers. This was especially true with the two
embedded literacy coaches who were still classroom teachers and taught the literacy to their
own classes. This was important to the coaches, as an embedded literacy coach explained, “I
need to do it first, implement it, and then talk. Not just preach something because I’ve read it.”
All three literacy coaches in the study were also observed giving workshops to teachers. For
example, the coaches attended a reading conference in Toronto and then shared the conference
information at a board professional development day. In another instance, two of the literacy
coaches went to a Ministry training session, and then in the following weeks, trained teachers on
the new Ministry initiatives at PLCs.
Leading professional learning communities. The number of PLCs per month at each
school varied significantly: one school had eight per month, another had six, and the third
school had two. PLCs were time consuming to plan, conduct, and follow-up on, and coaches
were observed creating handouts, preparing agendas, and creating presentations. During the
PLCs, the literacy coaches led the groups through the items on the agenda, introduced new
topics and initiatives, and gave presentations on the new initiatives. The PLCs were dialogue
driven and during this dialogue, the literacy coaches facilitated and guided conversations,
prompted further discussion, and provided literacy expertise when necessary.
Literacy Coaches as Support
The three literacy coaches in the study stated that they felt that providing support was a key
component of their role. Literacy coaches provided support in two key facets: supporting schools
with content knowledge and resources, and providing affective support.
Supporting with content knowledge and resources. To support teachers, the literacy
coaches in all three schools acted as a content knowledge resource person. Teachers often
consulted informally with the coaches in the hallways or in the bookroom, asking clarification
questions, inquiring about assessments, and seeking advice about lessons and students.
Teachers explained that it was valuable to have someone to “bounce ideas off of” or to consult
with, and they valued the literacy coach’s expertise. Teachers stated: “you could ask her any
literacy question; she’d know,” “when she talks, I listen,” and “she’s the literacy guru.” The new
teachers particularly valued this support. As one new teacher with two years of teaching
experience explained, “It’s incredibly helpful especially for a newer teacher…Especially if you’re
a new teacher coming in out of teacher’s college and you don’t have that much background.”
Support to teachers also included providing teachers with practical resources, such as books,
resources that could be photocopied, and professional reading materials.
When the two embedded coaches met one-on-one with teachers it was usually for
organizational purposes, such as ordering books and resources. The fulltime coach, however,
met with teachers individually to provide instructional support, which usually focused on
creating goals and strategies for students or planning lessons or units. For example, in a one-on-
one session observed, the fulltime literacy coach sat side-by-side with a teacher, examining the
running records of three students. They discussed the running record and the coach suggested
some practical strategies for the teacher to try. At the end of the session, the teacher told the
coach, “Thank you, I like getting these strategies. It’s like, ahhh [sigh of relief].” The fulltime
literacy coach also had one-on-one sessions with teachers to co-plan lessons and units. Even a
very experienced teacher with 34 years of experience met to co-plan a literacy unit with the
The literacy coaches also supported principals by providing content knowledge because the
principals generally did not consider themselves literacy experts. One principal stated, “I’m not
the expert. She’s the expert.” Principals felt that the coaches were experts based on their training
by the Ministry and the board, their additional qualifications, and their classroom experience.
The principals valued the content support given to them from the literacy coach; one principal
stated, “We need that support piece too.” Principals consulted with the coaches about aspects of
literacy and sought their professional opinions about various literacy related-topics.
One form of support that was not observed, but cited in the literature as a key component of
the literacy coaching role, is demonstration and observation of lessons (Bean, 2004; IRA, 2006).
When asked about demonstrations and observations, the participants generally felt that this
type of support was only needed when initiatives were new. One teacher explained, “When we
were first starting, I had the shared reading lesson modeled …that was three years ago. It was
when all the stuff was new.” Another teacher repeated this sentiment by saying, “You know it’s
now far beyond the demonstration mode,” indicating that modeling and observation were not a
form of support the teachers generally needed anymore because after three years of
implementing the initiative, they could perform those tasks independently.
Affective support. Literacy coaches were in-school cheerleaders for teachers by providing
them with affective support. All three literacy coaches were observed encouraging teachers,
praising teachers, and thanking them for their time and efforts. The coaches’ thought very highly
of the teachers in their schools and the work the teachers were doing. One coach explained
during an interview, “If you [the teachers] could see how great you are through my eyes, you
would be fine.” Teachers also valued the support and positive feedback from the literacy
coaches. As one teacher said, “It’s nice to have a coach come in and say, wow, you’re really doing
[well], oh way to go! …So it’s affirmation that way.”
Overall, the roles of the literacy coaches in this study were similar to those described in the
existing literature regarding both American and Canadian coaches. For instance, they organized
resources (Burkins, 2007), met with teachers informally and formally to support their teaching
(Poglinco et al., 2003; Toll, 2005), were a resource for classroom teachers (Mraz, Algozzine, &
Watson, 2008), conducted professional development sessions for teachers and facilitated
meetings (IRA, 2006; Casey, 2006), acted as community literacy liaisons (Mraz et al., 2008),
and encouraged teachers by providing affective support (Vogt & Shearer, 2003). They
performed both the roles of mentor and director, as coaches worked collaboratively and
collegially with teachers but also provided literacy leadership within the school (Walpole &
Blamey, 2008). The coaches and the principals shared the leadership role since the principals
did not feel that they were experts on literacy (Booth & Rowsell, 2007). The three literacy
coaches also performed all of the roles as described by the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat
The literacy coaches were also generally knowledgeable in literacy and able to provide
suggestions and strategies to their peers and principals. This expertise is documented in the
literature (Dole, 2004; Toll, 2005) as a requirement for the literacy coaching role. All coaches
Exploring the Role of Literacy Coaches: A Case Study of Three Schools in Ontario
were experienced classroom teachers, and two of them possessed additional qualifications in
reading and literacy. Despite the fact that the other did not have any additional qualifications in
literacy, she did have the respect of her peers and principal due to her practical experience and
exemplary teaching. The IRA (2004) has outlined recommended qualifications for literacy
coaches in the United States; however, there exists no such document in Ontario, and the
Ontario College of Teachers and the school board do not offer or require specific courses to
become a literacy coach.
In their role as coaches, the literacy coaches in this study supported the Vygotskian principle
that teachers learn through collaborative social relationships (Vygotsky, 1981). This socially co-
constructed learning took place through a number of coaching activities, such as at PLCs, during
informal conversation with the teachers, and one-on-one sessions with teachers. Literacy
coaches supported teachers as they learned within their zones of proximal development
(Vygotsky, 1978). Scaffolding most often occurred during group sessions, particularly in PLCs,
as coaches presented new initiatives, helped teachers plan, reflected with teachers on student
learning, and facilitated discussions. This study also corroborated the work of Rodgers and
Rodgers (2007), who reported, the goal of literacy coaching is “to support the way teachers teach
so that a teacher is able to work with increasing flexibility and independence from the coach’s
help” (p. 18). However, the initiatives implemented by the schools, literacy coaches, and
teachers were initiatives that were top down, meaning these initiatives were being driven from
the Ministry rather than from schools themselves. While the teachers and the literacy coaches
co-constructed new knowledge, this knowledge was not generally used to create new initiatives
or projects; rather, they relied on the Ministry and the school board for directives and feedback.
The role of the literacy coaches, however, did significantly differ from most definitions as
described in the literature in one specific facet: demonstration lessons and observations of
teaching (Bean, 2004; IRA, 2006; Lynch & Ferguson, 2010). No in-class demonstrations or
observations of teaching were observed over the eight-week period of the study. In the literature,
it is generally stated that the role of literacy coach should change and evolve in order to meet the
needs of the teachers (Casey, 2006; Kent, 2005; Swafford, 1998). This change may be expected
since as Toll (2005) states, “literacy coaches are in the change business” (p. 14). Despite the fact
that literacy coaches act as change agents, there are no longitudinal studies that document this
evolution of the literacy coaching role, nor are there any models of coaching that take the
changing role of coach into account. It was not the purpose of this study to document the
implementation of literacy coaching within the schools over the three years. However, the role of
the coach had reportedly changed over time, resulting in no demonstrations and observations. It
is important to consider why this occurred, particularly when comparing the role of the coaches
in this study to the role of the Ontario coaches as presented by Lynch and Ferguson (2010).
In Lynch and Ferguson’s (2010) study, where literacy coaching was in its first year,
observation and demonstration were common practice. But in the present study, literacy
coaching was in its third year, and following the gradual release of responsibility model, literacy
coaches no longer needed to scaffold (Wood et al., 1976) in-class instruction using
demonstration and observation as they had in the past. With the exception of novice teachers,
the practical how-to of the new initiatives were no longer in the teachers’ zones of proximal
development (Vygotsky, 1978). Most teachers said that they were now comfortable teaching
literacy and could implement the new initiatives without the support of the literacy coach. This
change of role does, however, support the work of Lynch and Ferguson (2010) who found that
the coaching role in Ontario was evolving and changing with time. Thus, phasing out of
demonstrations and observations is perhaps a natural and even ideal occurrence for successful
literacy coaching programs, as it may indicate that teachers have internalized the new teaching
practices. Literacy coaches used an overarching gradual release of responsibility model of
literacy coaching which took place over a number of years. Teachers now felt confident and
comfortable with the shift in teaching practices; as one teacher told me, this year, “It’s like a
Another possible explanation for the change in the coaching role is that literacy coaching in
the board has been influenced by the Ministry of Education, whose initiatives at the time of the
study aligned more with Hasbrouck and Denton’s (2007) model of student-focused coaching,
instead of the demonstration, observation, and feedback model. During the study, the Ministry
was emphasizing student outcomes and increasing student achievement. This appears to be a
shift from the years following the publication of Early Reading Strategy (Ontario Ministry of
Education, 2003), when changing teaching practices was a focus area for the Ministry. While the
school board did not give directives to schools or coaches about the coaching role, it was
understood that implementing Ministry initiatives was a priority. For example, the Ministry
endorsed PLCs, which were a focus of literacy coaching and followed Hasbrouck and Denton’s
(2007) model of student-focused coaching. At assessment PLCs, the literacy coach and teachers
would look at student work and set goals for particular students. They would decide on a
strategy as a plan of action for a specific student and then, at the next PLC, see if that student’s
goals had been met. The literacy coach facilitated the discussions, provided the teachers with
further resources and content knowledge, and organized and tracked the data.
There are also other possible explanations for the declined use of demonstrations and
observations. For instance, the embedded coaching model may hinder in-class collaboration
because literacy coaches were busy during the literacy block teaching literacy to their own
classes and, therefore, it was more difficult to collaborate with their colleagues. French
Immersion teachers also stated that they would have liked more demonstration lessons but this
was problematic because the literacy coach was not fluent in French.
Finally, a narrow definition of literacy may have contributed to phasing out of
demonstration and observation of lessons. The role of the literacy coach in Ontario appears to be
centered on improving the traditionally viewed skills of literacy, that being reading and writing.
Literacy coaching in all three schools worked towards helping teachers improve their strategies
and knowledge in reading and writing, rather than expanding their definition of literacy to
include other dimensions of being literate. Many teachers, principals, and literacy coaches felt
that they had moved “beyond the demonstration mode.” Once teachers felt they mastered the
reading and writing teaching strategies mandated by the school board and Ministry, teachers
believed that they no longer needed the high levels of support of demonstration and observation
from the literacy coach. Coaching in terms of demonstrations and observation appeared to have
an end goal of mastering particular strategies from the Ministry of Education within traditional
views of literacy. If the definition of literacy is broadened, coaches could continue to introduce
new initiatives based on multi-dimensional views of literacy, such as critical literacy, digital
literacy, and multi-modal literacy.
In the literature, there is some concern that there may be role ambiguity for literacy coaches
(Blamey et al., 2008/2009; Lynch & Ferguson, 2010; Poglinco et al., 2003). However, the
literacy coaches in this study felt they had a clear role and were also never at a loss for things to
do during their coaching time and they always had more to do than time allowed. While the
coaches’ literacy initiatives were mandated to them from the board and Ministry, in terms of
Exploring the Role of Literacy Coaches: A Case Study of Three Schools in Ontario
how they perform in their day-to-day role as coaches, the role of the literacy coaches were locally
determined (Coskie, 2004; Lynch & Alsop, 2007; Robinson, 2004). It is significant to note that
the roles of the coaches in all three schools were similar and this is possibly because all literacy
coaches were under pressure from the board and the Ministry to be implementing the same
initiatives. In addition, the three coaches knew each other and were often in communication
with one another. At literacy coaching meetings and professional development sessions, coaches
discussed and shared what they did in their day-to-day professional roles as coaches.
All three literacy coaches spent approximately half of their coaching time or more organizing
literacy in their schools, mostly preparing for and following up on PLCs, and maintaining the
book room; this supported previous research that found that coaches spend more time on
organizational and managerial tasks than working with teachers (Deussen et al., 2007; Moxley &
Taylor, 2006). The issue of devoting so much time to organization is like a double-edged sword.
Someone must organize the meetings and perform mundane tasks for the literacy program to
run smoothly, but the literacy coaches’ time could be spent in a more productive way, such as
working one-on-one with teachers. However, the literacy coaching time during the day was
limited and participants felt the need for someone to “take charge.” Teachers said that they were
too busy and if they had to do it on top of teaching their regular classrooms, they would “find
excuses not to” and principals also felt overwhelmed with other tasks and felt that literacy was
not their area of expertise. The fulltime coach, however, did engage in more one-on-one work
with teachers than the two embedded coaches, likely because she had more time to coach and
also had more flexibility to meet with teachers at their convenience. If the embedded coaches
had more time and flexibility to coach, they may have likely participated in coaching activities
that focused more on directly supporting teachers. One of the embedded coaches explained that
she could not perform other coaching activities because organizational tasks often needed to be
completed immediately and took up most of her coaching time, bumping other items off of her
daily “to-do” list.
Limitations of the Study
While this study presents new information about the literacy coaching role in practice,
generalizing of the findings should be done with caution. The scope of the study was small and
using the case study design, literacy coaching was examined in three schools in only one school
board, and it is possible that conducting research in a different school board would produce
different results. Also, the three schools in the study were selected through nomination, likely
impacting the results. Administrators approached all of the coaches to take on the coaching role
and all of the coaches were female, with only two of them having additional qualifications in
literacy. Literacy coaches who were not nominated as being a part of an exemplary program or
who have different characteristics and training may perform differently in their roles. The
notion of comparing the coaches in the study may also be challenging since coaching may be
tailored to meet the needs of individual schools. The participants may also have been subject to
a social desirability bias (Fraenkel & Wallen, 2003), and an observer effect (Bogdan & Biklen,
1998). To reduce these effects, the researcher ensured confidentiality and created rapport with
the participants so they felt comfortable being a part of the study.
Directions for Future Research
Continued research on literacy coaching in Canadian contexts would certainly add to the
relatively scant literature on coaching and deepen our understanding of literacy coaching in
practice. Research in other provinces is needed in order to present the larger picture of literacy
coaching in Canadian schools. More longitudinal studies would also shed new light on how
coaching unfolds and how the role changes as schools and teachers change practice. More
research into how coaches can broaden their definitions of literacy and use the co-constructed
knowledge created with teachers to create locally developed initiatives would provide guidance
for literacy coaches about how their role could change and evolve over time. In addition, large-
scale studies that focus on student achievement are needed; at the time of the publication of this
paper, there was no Canadian study which directly linked literacy coaching to improved student
achievement. Finally, research is needed to study whether literacy coaching should be a
permanent initiative. It is also unclear if school board and Ministry of Education budgets can
sustain the position of literacy coaches for the long term.
Implications for Practice
As previously stated, generalizing the results of this case study to all literacy coaching programs
should be done with caution. However, there are implications for practice based on the findings
of this study that may be suggestive for those implementing literacy coaching programs. First, it
is suggested that school boards consider how to organize the coaching time. The embedded
coaching model was problematic, as teachers were not supported during the literacy block
because coaches were busy teaching and overwhelmed from having to perform both the
coaching role and the role of a classroom teacher. A coaching model that has coaches working
full-time in the coaching capacity without the added responsibility of a classroom might be
preferred. It is also suggested that the more time that can be allotted to literacy coaching the
better. The literacy coach in this study who coached halftime was able to provide more support
to teachers and participate in more coaching activities than the other two coaches who only had
one-third of the day to coach.
Based on this study, it is also important that literacy coaches and principals have the ability
to develop both the roles of the coaches and literacy initiatives at the school level in order to
meet the needs of their schools. This would include an evolving vision of the roles and
responsibilities of the literacy coaches as needs change over time, and developing their own
literacy initiatives using the co-constructed knowledge of teachers and literacy coaches. This
would make literacy coaching have a more context-specific and grassroots focus, rather than a
top-down approach. Literacy coaches need to be given some power to make the changes they
feel appropriate for their school contexts and not rely solely on, or feel bound by, the Ministry
and the school board for the newest initiatives. While teachers, literacy coaches, and principals
did not see the need for continuing demonstration and observation lessons, there are other
dimensions of literacy aside from reading and writing that could be implemented as new change
initiatives. Other forms of literacy, such as digital literacies, might be new to teachers and they
would likely benefit from demonstration and observation lessons in these areas. As the
definition of literacy continues to evolve, the initiatives the coaches implement also need to
change. Coaching should continually move forward, rather than coaching toward one particular
Although the coaches in the study were viewed as literacy experts, literacy coaches need
professional development that goes beyond training on specific literacy initiatives. Faculties of
Exploring the Role of Literacy Coaches: A Case Study of Three Schools in Ontario
education are one possible outlet for professional development in literacy coaching, and there is
the potential of creating partnerships between literacy coaches and universities to support
coaches and their work, such as creating additional qualification courses certified by the Ontario
College of Teachers in the specific area of literacy coaching, since there is currently no such
formal qualification. Literacy coaches could also be encouraged to take courses at the graduate
level to further literacy knowledge of literacy research and expand their definitions of literacy.
This research study presents significant findings about literacy coaching in Canada not yet
presented in the literature. Literacy coaches in this case study provided support and were
leaders, but were mostly organizational coaches and employed a student-focused coaching
model instead of a coaching model based on demonstration lessons, observation, and feedback
of teacher lessons. The role of the literacy coaches has also changed and evolved over time,
supporting previous research on Ontario’s coaches (Lynch & Ferguson, 2010). Based on the
findings of this study, the role of the literacy coach in these three schools has evolved to be
defined as a literacy program organizer, a literacy leader, and a literacy support person.
All participants in the study believed that literacy coaching had been a positive experience,
but it was not known whether or not the school board would be continuing literacy coaching the
following year. This often became a topic of conversation during interviews as the participants
were concerned about the future of school literacy programs without the coaches, stating many
of the new initiatives “would go by the wayside,” and that “the momentum would be lost.” Some
teachers felt that literacy coaching could be “cut back” for the primary grades and instead could
focus more on the junior and intermediate grades, which were still in the process of adopting
new teaching practices. However, no one was eager to take on the additional workload of the
coaches and losing the literacy coach position was seen as a detriment. For now, literacy coaches
remain a fixture in Ontario schools and the literacy coaching model is proving itself to have the
potential to impact teaching practices and student learning, and is worthy of continued support
from principals, school boards, and the Ministry of Education. As one teacher said, “I definitely
do feel a change …without a literacy coach would I have the same confidence?” No, was her
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Kristen Ferguson is an Assistant Professor of Language Arts and Literacy with the Schulich School of
Education at Nipissing University. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Kristen
Ferguson, Schulich School of Education, Nipissing University, North Bay, Ontario, P1B 8L7. E-mail: