Race and class impacts instructional decisions

Mertzman, T. (2008). Individualising scaffolding: Teachers’ literacy interruptions of ethnic minority students and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Journal of Research in Reading, 31(2), 183–202. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9817.2007.00356.x


The article, Individualising scaffolding: Teachers’ literacy interruptions of ethnic minority students and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, discussed a group of teachers’ scaffolding techniques of interruptions during literacy instruction. Interruptions from teacher to student are a common practice, especially when getting students to learn how to read, but little research has been done to analyze the types of interruptions teachers implement, to which specific students that teachers are interrupting as well as what effect interruptions have on literacy development. Before the study was conducted, participating teachers were interviewed to determine their beliefs and approaches around literacy instruction. The study showed, however, that teacher beliefs often contradicted or conflicted in some way with actual instructional practice. A key finding is that with ethnic minority students, teacher interruptions were more frequent and were more often related to a phonics or accuracy issue instead of an issue related to reading comprehension.


A particularly helpful heading was “Research on teachers’ literacy interruption” (Mertzman, 2008, p. 187) because it allowed me to quickly go to that section to see what is out there in terms of this topic. There is not a whole lot of research out there, but something the author did write in this section that I was not too surprised about was that students in lower ability reading groups were interrupted more than students in higher ability groups (Mertzman, 2008). This implies, however, that if a student is in a lower-ability group, they will end up reading less on a daily basis than those students who are in a higher ability reading group. This made me quickly see the relevance of this issue to not only instructional scaffolding, which is the breaking down of concepts in order for students to learn, but also to the hot topic of ability tracking. This caused me to ask, if students read less in lower ability classrooms, does this mean that we should discontinue ability tracking? It’s a complex question, but one that I began to think about right away as result of this section.

Another helpful heading was entitled, “Overall patterns of teacher interruptions: more focus on word recognition than on text meaning” (Mertzman, 2008, p. 190). This told me right away that teachers cared more about phonics than comprehension. In other words, in this study, it was found that teachers felt that it was more crucial that kids could read the words accurately than be able to understand what they actually mean. This made me think of a concept that I am learning in my human development class, in that kids at this age are cognitively able to realize that words represent concepts, so it is crucial that we focus on both the pronunciation and meaning when kids come across words.

Contribution to the Field

One major contribution to the field of early childhood literacy and instruction is the identification of the types of interruptions that are implemented in classrooms. This allows early childhood educators to discuss these types of interactions with colleagues in order to be cognizant of them and improve upon them. The types of interruptions that teachers implement are: “student or teacher model, scold, praise, repeat answer, explain the right answer, focus on meaning, focus on word recognition and sounding out Convergent questions” (Mertzman, 2008, p. 191). Knowing what these interruptions look like in practice will allow us to study them more in the future, especially as there are positive interruptions that provoke student academic achievement and those interruptions that hinder it.

Data Collection Methods

This study was conducted through examining four different classrooms within the same school closely. It was made clear to teachers that the point of this study would be to analyze interactions between teachers and students, but interruptions were never mentioned in order to avoid the problem of participants being self-conscious about these types of interactions. Once teachers were selected, each teacher was observed for two entire days of instruction in order to provide context for student behaviors throughout the day. Then, the period of class that was exclusively devoted to literacy instruction was filmed. Immediately following the literacy period, the researcher interviewed both teachers and students that were interrupted. The filmed segments were then played back to the interviewees in order to get a sense of what thoughts and feelings the participant had behind that interruption. Then, transcripts were consulted in order to begin the data analysis process and the identification of types of interruptions occurring.


The key question that the author was trying to answer was whether literacy interruption patterns were different with students from different races/economic classes (Mertzman, 2008). Unfortunately, the findings were that yes, they are. In the interviews conducted before the study, teachers never once mentioned socioeconomic status or race as a means to individualize instruction. However, as ethnic minority students were more likely to be interrupted than their white, higher income peers, it seems that teachers do in fact consider race and class as a factor when making instructional decisions. Additionally, the fact that the interruption types were more likely to be a word recognition/phonics issue does not support a balanced approach to literacy (Mertzman, 2008).

New ideas this study suggests for my area of interest

The author made it clear that interruptions can be a powerful force to effectively scaffold a child’s instruction. As this study identified interruptions that would foster a balanced approach to literacy, I began to think of cues that could be taught to teachers during professional development. I thought how when I go and observe teachers, I can specifically focus on the interruption types, the frequency of them and to whom they are being given in order to come up with appropriate suggestions for instructional improvement. I also thought about how we can connect positive interruptions to the idea of helping students manage their uncertainty within the context of learning how to read.

Further study

It is important to note, as disturbing as the results of this study are, that this was a very small-scale study. Only four teachers were studied and the school was in a rural area of the Southeastern United States. Therefore, to get a better sense as to whether race and socioeconomic status impacts teachers’ literacy scaffolding, larger studies in more diverse settings should be executed.

Quest for Effective Professional Development

Ingvarson, L., Meiers, M., & Beavis, A. (2005). Factors affecting the impact of professional development programs on teachers’ knowledge, practice, student outcomes & efficacy. Education Policy Analysis Archives. Retrieved May 28, 2014 from http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/115

Knight, J., & Learning Forward (2011). Unmistakable impact: A partnership approach for dramatically improving instruction. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Corwin Press.

The journal article, Factors Affecting the Impact of Professional Development Programs on Teachers’ Knowledge, Practice, Student Outcomes & Efficacy by Ingvarson, L., Meiers, M. & Beavis, A (2005) explores the influence of structural and process features of professional development on teachers’ knowledge, practice, and efficacy. The process structures that are explored in this article include content focus, active learning, examination of student work, feedback and follow-up. The data that was collected during this study was from 3,250 teachers in over eighty professional development programs through the use of a self-reporting survey. There was a wide variety of professional development programs that were analyzed. The professional development programs included job-embedded professional development through action research, coaching and mentoring, institutional learning to facilitate understanding of research findings and best practice, online learning, participation of formal award programs and conferences and seminars. (Ingvarson, L., Meiers, M. & Beavis, 2005 p.3) The length of the professional development programs in the study varied from single session workshops to professional development that extended over multiple sessions.

Some of the major findings in this article were “The relationship between content focus and impact on knowledge is strong. The relationship between follow-up and reported impact on knowledge is also significant.” (Ingvarson, L., Meiers, M. & Beavis, 2005 p.14) The authors also suggest that the level of school support has indirect effects on the extent to which program outcomes are achieved. I agree that follow-up has a significant impact on the effectiveness of the new learning that is applied in classrooms after a professional development. I have the opportunity to work with many schools where follow-up is an integral component of their professional development. The schools that see effective transfer of new learning into classrooms consistently relate it back to the frequency and quality of the follow-up to the new learning. The schools that struggle with transfer of new learning from professional development settings have not found a consistent and intentional way to follow-up with all teachers to ensure the new learning is transferred into classrooms.   One of the most significant findings from this article related to follow-up and feedback was “how rarely professional development program designers built in opportunities for feedback and coaching in the workplace despite the research on their centrality to learning new and complex skills.” (Ingvarson, L., Meiers, M. & Beavis, 2005, p.14) This quote inspired me to look back at Jim Knight’s work Unmistakable Impact on coaching and follow-up support where he reminds us “Without coaches to provide precise instructions, to model in the classroom, to provide positive and motivating honest feedback, few new practices get implemented and those that get implemented are usually implemented poorly. (Cornett & Knight, 2009, p. 12)


The organization of the article was clear and in an easy to read format. The authors included helpful headings and subheadings that directed the readers’ attention to the important elements throughout the reading. The article was logically sequenced and segmented. The authors defined the process structures of content focus, active learning, examination of student work, feedback and follow-up. This supported the reader in having a common vocabulary for the processes they were referring to throughout the text.

Another strength is the contribution this study made to the field of professional development. I believe this is an important area of inquiry because teachers invest a lot of time in professional development. School districts invest financial and human resources and the question is does professional development make a positive impact on teacher effectiveness and student learning? This study highlights the processes that need to be in place for an effective professional development and what influence those processes have on teachers’ knowledge, practice and efficacy.


One way to improve this study is through data collection. This study used only one data collection method and that was a self-reporting survey by teachers collected at least three months after the professional development program. I believe they could have increased the consistency of their findings by using multiple methods to collect their data. In the article they discuss the importance of follow-up and student work to professional development. Another source of data could have been following teachers after the professional development and scripting the new learning to have observational data on the impact of the professional development on teacher instruction and student achievement. An additional source of data would be to collect and analyze the student work from the new learning to determine the impact of the professional development provided. In my opinion, the self-reporting survey completed by the teachers regarding the impact of the professional development may be bias. In addition, the survey responses by the teachers are dependent on how reflective the teacher is on how the professional development processes impacted their teaching and the student learning. I feel the data they chose to collect in this study impacted the quality of the findings.


I have the opportunity to provide professional development to schools on a regular basis. I have seen the effective transfer of new learning when I provide intentional follow-up and feedback to teachers. This article affirms my area of inquiry to further explore how intentional differentiated follow-up impacts the transfer of new learning. I also learned through this article that I want to make sure I have multiple methods to collect data so I have both quantitative and qualitative data to support my work.