Can a Program of Professional Development Raise Reading Achievement?

  • speech-to-print phonics
  • 02 March, 2024

Principal Question:

We are trying to do better in reading achievement – our school is second lowest in our district. I’m convinced structured reading is the way to go and I’m willing to use my budget to pay for our primary teachers to attend the XXXXX professional development program. I’ve heard that having teachers take that training is an effective way to improve reading achievement. However, several of my teachers say they don’t want to go, and I can’t require it. I know they respect your opinion, what do you think of that training?

RELATED: Small Group Phonics in the Classroom – Good Idea or Not?

Shanahan responds:

As you can see, I blanked out the name of the professional development provider. I rarely make comments about specific products including this one.

However, research is somewhat mixed when it comes to PD. That doesn’t mean you can’t raise reading achievement that way. We accomplished it in the Chicago Public Schools under my leadership, but this kind of success is not as straightforward as you might imagine.

It may help to remind folks of my school improvement model.

Shanahan Model of School Improvement

The colorful inner circle includes those actions that usually have the biggest payoffs when it comes to kids’ learning. These are so powerful because they refer to direct changes to aspects of students’ experience. Items in the outer circle matter, too, but only to the extent that they exert an impact on those student-experience variables. As such, outer ring variables tend to have a more conditional and smaller effect than those inner circle variables. PD is in the outer circle.

PD can have a positive impact on children’s learning, but only to the extent that it leads to teacher learning. And, even then, it might not pay off if the teachers don’t implement well what they have learned.

That means there are a lot of “ifs” between the mind of the person/team who created the PD and little Johnny and Janie’s experiences in your second-grade classrooms.

The professional development program must have the right stuff designed into it, communicating practices that really can raise reading achievement. Then, those who deliver the PD must be fully up to speed, sharing what is intended in a powerful way without freelancing. Next, teachers must buy in and really learn what is being delivered and have a desire to implement it. Even then you’re not there yet, because successful implementation may require more than the teachers’ knowledge and commitment – they may need help, opportunities for appropriate feedback, supportive and appropriate curricular materials, and so on.

Of course, the assumption of this kind of training is that if we can just fix one part of the reading curriculum, then everything will be fine. I fell prey to that many times early in my career. I’d provide wonderful professional development focused on how to teach X (Phonics? Vocabulary? Fluency? etc.). I’d convince teachers to include X in their daily instruction, never suspecting that this would end the teaching of Y in those classrooms – Y, which I had naively assumed all children would continue to be taught.

So, indeed, PD can raise children’s reading achievement: if it is the right curriculum, if it is presented properly, if the teachers learn it, if they wish to implement it, if the district provides adequate support for successful implementation, if implementing it doesn’t weaken something else… well, you get the idea. It can work. It also can go wrong in enough ways, that I can’t blithely say, “Send your teachers for PD and your reading achievement will rise.” It just usually doesn’t work that way.

Nevertheless, a meta-analysis of 28 studies conducted between 1975 and 2017 found that “teacher PD has a moderate and significant, positive average effect on reading achievement” (Didion, et al., 2019). The studies varied quite a bit in quality, but at least in some of the more rigorous investigations, PD was an effective tool for raising reading achievement.

This review study didn’t find any mediators or moderators to this effect, though past studies have reported qualitative factors that were correlated with success. Things like making sure that the PD does more than focus on teacher knowledge, putting a strong emphasis on practice. Embedding ongoing PD in the context of the teachers’ work helps too; this can be done through things like collaborative planning opportunities, in-classroom coaching, and the like. Connecting PD to the specific curriculum and materials the teachers will work with is also often reported.

I must admit I have some concerns about the program that you queried me about. It is especially intensive, which is usually a good thing, though in this case I wonder. One analysis of PD efforts that improved learning reported that an average of 49 hours of teacher training was effective – with some programs providing more and some less than that. The program you asked about would be on the upper end of that distribution and it is focused much more narrowly. As much as I believe that we should be supportive of all kinds of learning, I wonder if this would be overkill in many school situations – more attention than would be needed to make teachers successful with the aspects of the reading curriculum you are trying to build up.

Beyond that practical consideration, I also look at the research on it and despite the claims you have heard, the best research has not been especially supportive – it seems to lead to teacher knowledge changes, teacher practice changes (so far, so good), but student reading achievement gains? Not necessarily. In at least one of those successful situations that you related to me, it is important to note that the PD was just one of many elements of school reform adopted simultaneously, making it impossible to attribute success to that program.

I have no doubt that PD programs (including that one) can work. I would be more sanguine about success if you told me you’d reviewed your program and found specific weaknesses in the area to be addressed, that your teachers were eager to take part, that a new instructional program consistent with the training was in the stars, and that you were going for the training too so you could provide the leadership that might be needed to make this successful.

Since your teachers are reacting negatively to the amount of commitment you are asking for, you might want to explore other possibilities. Maybe start with some collaborative learning with the group, getting them involved in reading some of what you have read, evaluating their own practices, and exploring curricular changes that might depend upon successful professional development. Who knows? Perhaps, those efforts will lead them to want to take on the PD you are interested in supporting.


Audisio, A., Taylor-Perryman, R., Tasker, T., & Steinberg, M. P. (2023). Does teacher professional development improve student learning? Evidence from Leading Educators’ Fellowship Model. EdWorkingPaper No. 22-597). Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University:

Didion, L., Toste, J. R., & Filderman, M. (2019). Teacher professional development and student reading achievement: A meta-analytic review of the effects. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness. 10.1080/19345747.2019.1670884

Garet, M. S., Cronen, S., Eaton, M., Kurki, A., Ludwig, M., Jones, W., Uekawa, K., Falk, A., Bloom, H., Doolittle, F., Zhu, P., & Sztejnberg, L. (2008). The impact of two professional development Interventions on early reading instruction and achievement (NCEE 2008-4030). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Gore, J. M., Miller, A., Fray, L., Harris, J., & Prieto, E. (2021). Improving student achievement through professional development: Results from a randomised controlled trial of Quality Teaching Rounds. Teaching and Teacher Education, 101.

Porche, M. V., Pallante, D. H., & Snow, C. E. (2012). Professional development for reading achievement. Elementary School Journal, 112(4), 649–671.

Short, J., & Hirsh, S. (2020). The elements: Transforming teaching through theory curriculum-based professional development. New York: Carnegie Corporation.

Yoon, K. S., Duncan, T., Lee, S. W.-Y., Scarloss, B., & Shapley, K. (2007). Reviewing the evidence on how teacher professional development affects student achievement (Issues & Answers Report, REL 2007–No. 033). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest. Retrieved from


LISTEN TO MORE: Shanahan On Literacy Podcast


See what others have to say about this topic.

Carolee Dean Mar 02, 2024 03:54 PM

The National Board Certification for Teachers might be a model if we could create something like that for a Teacher Dyslexia Certification. Do you think that’s a possibility? The current NBC is voluntary, but teachers seek it out because they receive a pay stipend. Schools are eager for teachers to get a National Board Certification because it improves the school ranking. The logistics would be tricky to create something like that for dyslexia, but maybe something similar is possible. Getting teacher buy-in is crucial.

Timothy Shanahan Mar 02, 2024 05:15 PM


Perhaps, but I would hope that such a plan in developed would be treated as hypothetical until it was proven to make a difference in children's learning. In other words, it would be proposed and then evaluated before being widely touted.


Timothy Shanahan Mar 02, 2024 06:37 PM


Curriculum refers to what we teach kids -- materials and programs are some version of that content and they usually also entail various teaching methods.


Jo Anne Gross Mar 02, 2024 04:10 PM

We do a 2 day teacher training on our program.
It’s having powerful effect on our provincial data .
PD on a step by step evidence based(structured literacy) program will give you better results.
I can guess the PD program you are referring to.5 studies have shown no student improvement.
Why, because knowing the parts of your car’s engine doesn’t help you to build it.

Jane Mar 02, 2024 06:33 PM

I don't know how this is the first time I've seen your Wheels of Reading Improvement. Could you please define and distinguish "curriculum" and "programs and materials"?

Sheila Keller Mar 02, 2024 06:42 PM

Intense Reading PD is immensely popular, and the companies are symbolically stamped as purveyors of "SoR"- a huge amount of power. You share that the training is not sufficient to improve reading outcomes, and I wonder it if is necessary at all. Maybe a brave district somewhere will forgo the big box PD and rather, adopt an evidence-based program and train/support teachers thoroughly in it. I would also suggest we need a huge transformation at the teacher-education level. Teachers need to explore the research based and learn to distinguish between "practices we like and have seen work" versus "practices that are validated by research". There is an extensive blurring of the lines between those 2 in reading PD, and that creates mass confusion.

Dr. Bill Conrad Mar 02, 2024 08:57 PM

Just as there is a science to the teaching of reading, there is also a science to implementation. Years ago, Dean Fixsen from the University of Florida developed a well researched system for the implementation of programs within an educational system.

A well designed system of coaching must be a key element of the implementation process. Also careful monitoring with just in time support and feedback and accountability.

We have to move beyond the raconteur and superficial nature of professional development within educational systems. Educators do not have the option to opt out.

Children and families deserve no less. Educational systems are not set up for the care and feeding of the educatirs. It is set up to provide second to none research-based well implemented educational programs for children.

Additionally, assessment of both adults and children with focused descriptive feedback must be an integral part of the implementation and accountability process.

This is the way real professions operate! No?

Gaynor Mar 02, 2024 10:54 PM

I do believe in excellent teacher PD but as an initiator of home schooling and parental involvement in NZ , I do believe initial reading instruction should involve parents/ extended family wherever possible.

I believe for this reason early reading programmes and materials should be as free of technical terms and parent friendly. I know there is a tremendous amount of wonderful new research on the workings of the brain in the SoR which is fascinating but rather complex.

In contrast the practical teaching of initial reading can I believe be achieved by most of the population. This was the attitude in NZ pre 1950 when the parents owned the reading material and it was home based. It was professional tyranny that destroyed this lovely synergy and foolish psychology insisting parents can't be teachers of their own children.

My mother, who was shamefully vilified by the educational establishment, taught privately , all parents who brought their reading failure children to her She had 100 students per week.. She didn't tutor the child but instructed the care giver /parent on how to teach their own child. Now these parents included from semi -literates to Reading Recovery teachers and even a now renowned university professor of literacy.

The parent was also instructed on how to manage bad behaviour in their own child. All this was achieved in a one half hour lesson a week . I see from earlier posts work book have been frowned on , however in this teaching situation they were invaluable.
These workbooks were mostly from the US ,: Ginn 100 ,' Be a Detter Reader' ,'Practice Readers' and Heilman Phonics workbooks.
For the parent, obviously, it was learning the content as well as how to teach as you taught a child. Some parents came up with quite good novel variations.

I have observed in NZ , defiance in academia to consider historical teaching, probably because of the Progressive Education tenet that nothing done traditionally is worth considering. I would definitely recommend reviewing your historical materials that now fit with SoR . Some are on line as archival material.

Caroline Digman Mar 03, 2024 07:21 AM

I teach in the 9th largest district in CA. Screening for reading difficulties including dyslexia starts fall 2025. I've been talking AT my union for months telling them we need a district-wide training on screening. 400 teachers have taken LETRS but it's spotty among 41 schools. Some schools the majority of K-2 EL resource teachers have taken LETRS some schools only 1 or 2 practitioners. They asked me for data on LETRS effectiveness. I said you're not ever gonna see that data bc there's too many variables (see your blog post) The variables in education is so frustrating! sigh. I finally told them look PD is a starting point. They are gonna have to make shifts bc it's theoretically the correct move to make. And be ok with that.

Tamosin Bardsley Mar 03, 2024 01:29 PM

Hi Tim!! Regarding your School Improvement Model, do you have any posts/info on Quality of Instruction? Thanks!

TE Mar 03, 2024 02:22 PM

For the person asking re NBCT, it's important to understand that NBCT requires teachers know (and so in an implicit way endorse) teaching practice that is known to be less effective like project based learning and student led group projects. The framework is very constructivist.

Harriett Janetos Mar 03, 2024 06:30 PM

"So, indeed, PD can raise children’s reading achievement: if it is the right curriculum, if it is presented properly, if the teachers learn it, if they wish to implement it, if the district provides adequate support for successful implementation, if implementing it doesn’t weaken something else… well, you get the idea. It can work. It also can go wrong in enough ways, that I can’t blithely say, “Send your teachers for PD and your reading achievement will rise.” It just usually doesn’t work that way."

Here's how Emina McLean ends her blog, Has the Science of Reading become a rampant thought-terminating cliche?

Those promoting SoR who are removed from the coalface consequences need to know that implementation by and large is not being done well. Those who provide professional learning to educators and schools, or advice to systems, without giving concrete, actionable, impactful whys and hows are complicit in botched research translation.

More helpful frames for lasting change can be, we use the best available evidence (and can tell you what it is) to inform how we:

1. select and sequence elements of our reading curriculum

2. select and utilise assessment tools across the elements of reading

3. allocate time to the various elements of reading

4. teach the various elements of reading

It’s not too late, but we really need to change the way we talk about achieving excellence and equity in reading, and part of that, I suspect, may be by relegating “SoR” to obscurity.

Razib Paul Mar 09, 2024 05:19 AM

"Can a Program of Professional Development Raise Reading Achievement?": An insightful study on the impact of professional development on reading skills. How do you think educators can effectively integrate professional development into their teaching practices to enhance reading achievement among students?

Northeastern Delaware Mar 13, 2024 09:46 PM

The reading specialists in my school are often pulled to substitute. Interventionists don't intervention, students stagnate. Is this localized or is this a national phenomenon? What are some implications for schools or school districts that use their interventionists as the substitute pool? How does this undermine PD delivered by the same overworked staff?

Timothy Shanahan Mar 14, 2024 01:17 AM

Unfortunately, those things do happen a lot these days -- everywhere. When substitutes aren't available and teachers aren't coming to schools -- principals are stuck trying to cover classes and so teachers get pressed into service. I don't like it either but am not sure what can be done to solve the problem.


Mack Gardner-Morse Apr 09, 2024 01:01 AM

The link for the first reference should be: (the "b" in the article reference should be "h").

Timothy Shanahan Apr 09, 2024 03:00 AM

Thanks, Mack.


What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

Can a Program of Professional Development Raise Reading Achievement?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.