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Best practices for PLCs to improve high school student achievement in English — August 2017


Could you provide information on how to use professional learning communities to support high school student achievement in English?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles on using professional learning communities to support high school student achievement in English. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, and general Internet search engines (for details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo).

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your information. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist.

Research References

Clary, D. M., Styslinger, M. E., & Oglan, V. A. (2012). Literacy learning communities in partnership. School-University Partnerships, 5(1), 28–39. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This article describes how a literacy learning community model was developed between two high school partnership sites and a large southern public university, and how teacher collaboration and shared learning across content areas in the first year impacted teachers’ learning about literacy instruction and their school’s vision for literacy. Specifically, teachers’ learning was analyzed using multiple data: in-depth teacher interviews, surveys and inventories, teachers’ coursework and portfolios, and classroom artifacts. Findings indicate that embedded staff development characterized by collaborative approaches to teachers’ learning located in professional learning communities is effective especially with respect to teaching content area reading; teacher collaboration that honors continuous professional learning, either in a school-university partnership or within a wider group at the school or district level, offers rich possibilities for generating viable literacy learning communities.”

Curwood, J. S. (2013). Applying the design framework to technology professional development. Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, 29(3), 89–96. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Building on contemporary research on teacher professional development, this study examined the practices of a technology-focused learning community at a high school in the United States. Over the course of a school year, classroom teachers and a university-based researcher participated in the learning community to investigate how technology can promote student achievement and engagement within the secondary English curriculum. This analysis used the design framework to identify key practices within the learning community, which included writing a mission statement, innovating with digital tools, engaging in critical discussion, and examining student work. Findings suggest that the design framework can offer a common discourse and visual representation to guide the design, implementation, and evaluation of professional development.”

Oxley, D. (2008). From high school to learning communities: Five domains of best practice. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This report brings together a knowledge base, tools, and resources for implementing and deepening small learning community practice. Its aim is to provide guidance to school staff and stakeholders in the demanding work of transforming 20th-century comprehensive high schools into 21st-century learning organizations. All high school staff members have an interest in improving their practice. They want what is best for their students. They may envision adding small learning communities to their current offerings but not see the need to transform their school. However, the research base and professional consensus on which this publication rests provide encouragement for improvement through transformation. Research points out the failure of efforts to graft small learning communities onto traditional high school structures. In response, many small schools networks, as their names suggest, have sprung up to support school staff members who circumvent existing school structures and develop autonomous small schools. This report is designed to support well-planned, schoolwide reorganization into small learning communities. This guide offers five domains of research-based SLC practice and a cyclical process of improvement as a framework for organizing staff members’ efforts to:

  • Rethink their current practice
  • Develop new structures and routines
  • Sustain long-term efforts to implement fully functioning and effective learning communities.”

Southern Regional Education Board (SREB). (2012). Preparing all teachers to use proven, effective instructional methods across the curriculum: High schools that work. Atlanta, GA: Author. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Research has shown that certain ways of teaching can make a difference in whether students learn standards-based content. Many strategies have proven to be effective in teaching literacy, mathematics, science and social studies. These strategies have facilitated blending academic and career/technical subjects to make learning more meaningful for students who learn best by doing. Instructional techniques generally focus on engaging students in learning by reading and writing in English or language arts courses, strengthening understanding and reasoning skills in math, delving into textbooks and materials, doing lab projects in science, and using literacy and hands-on projects and problems in social studies. Authentic, integrated projects planned by academic and career/technical teachers working together and aligned to college- and career-readiness standards will motivate students to work harder and achieve at a higher level. Many schools are organizing teachers within and across disciplines and grade levels into professional learning communities (PLCs) to provide regularly scheduled opportunities to look at assignments and assessments to determine how to ensure these instructional activities meet standards.”

Vescio, V., Ross, D., & Adams, A. (2008). A review of research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning. Teaching and Teacher Education: An International Journal of Research and Studies, 24(1), 80–91. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “After an overview of the characteristics of professional learning communities (PLCs), this manuscript presents a review of 10 American studies and one English study on the impact of PLCs on teaching practices and student learning. Although, few studies move beyond self-reports of positive impact, a small number of empirical studies explore the impact on teaching practice and student learning. The collective results of these studies suggest that well-developed PLCs have positive impact on both teaching practice and student achievement. Implications of this research and suggestions for next steps in the efforts to document the impact of PLCs on teaching and learning are included.”

Other Resources

Brettschneider, A. (2009). PLCs meet PCs: Technology-supported literacy coaching within and between disciplines. Urbana, IL: Literacy Coaching Clearinghouse. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This case study documented ways that participants in an urban high school collaborated to develop a Connected Coaching approach to literacy learning in the content areas. Analysis of interviews, observations, and archival documents provided detailed descriptions of ways the literacy coach and teachers worked together to integrate content concepts and literacy strategies. At the high school, the literacy coach served as a catalyst for professional growth. This study examined the progression of collaboration toward instructional improvement across a two-year period. Collaboration with individuals grew to include clusters of colleagues teaching the same subjects, and then to involve grade-level teams. Within these limitations, this study suggests a practical approach for other coaches in similar settings and helps illuminate the dynamics of professional development at the secondary level.”

Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement. (2009). Professional learning communities: Hot topics in adolescent literacy. Austin, TX: Author, SEDL. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Professional learning communities (PLCs) establish a schoolwide culture that develops teacher leadership explicitly focused on building and sustaining school improvement efforts. Generally, PLCs are composed of teachers, although administrators and support staff routinely participate. Through participation in PLCs, teachers enhance their leadership capacity while they work as members of ongoing, high-performing, collaborative teams that focus on improving student learning.”

Dobbs, C. L., Ippolito, J., & Charner-Laird, M. (2016). Creative tension: Turn the challenges of learning together into opportunities. Journal of Staff Development, 37(6), 28–31. Abstract retrieved from

From the abstract: “Effective and authentic communities of practice in schools have the potential to support teachers in improving their instructional practices around perennial challenges, such as improving the literacy skills of all students. But before they can achieve such goals, communities of practice take time to build, effort to sustain, and ongoing support to spread their work. Because a strong community of practice is often situated within a broader department or school context, an ecosystem within an ecosystem, nurturing that community requires a delicate balance of supports and structures if it is going to lead to real instructional change. The authors work in an ongoing disciplinary literacy professional learning initiative has taught them that the formation of communities of practice for teachers relies on finding the right balance of elements that both support such communities and also free teachers to pursue authentic work related to their own classrooms. While this just-right balance is often built through trial and error, and necessarily changes over time, it is an essential element of a productive community of practice. Moreover, they believe that there are several broad tensions that could be instructive to new communities of practice as they design their own professional learning trajectories. These communities of practice were formed as part of the Content-area Reading Initiative at Brookline High School in Brookline, Massachusetts, a large and diverse comprehensive high school. Brookline High School has more than 140 teachers, who serve over 1,700 students representing 76 nations and speaking 57 languages. Roughly a third of students are English language learners, and a growing number of students receive free or reduced lunch or special education services. The Content-area Reading Initiative, designed partly in response to shifting student demographics, is a four-year project using teacher professional learning communities to improve students’ literacy skills in various secondary content areas. The initiative relied on a variety of structural supports and components to form and support departmental and cross-departmental communities of practice focused on literacy teaching and learning. For the teacher teams involved, finding the right balance between complex factors in the broader school and modifying traditional ways of engaging in professional development made all the difference in spurring changes in teacher practice and student learning. Yet arriving at those changes was not easy or straightforward. This article presents some of the key tensions that emerged throughout the project and that members of communities of practice navigated to work and learn together effectively. While the authors caution that not all communities of practice will encounter these same tensions, they believe that considering the various factors that shaped particular communities of practice work within a particular ecosystem can help others consider the tensions that might arise in their context.”

Francois, C. (2013). Reading in the crawl space: A study of an urban school’s literacy-focused community of practice. Teachers College Record, 115(5), 1–35. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The pressure to understand ‘what works’ to advance adolescents’ reading development has increased as the Common Core State Standards’ call for youth to grapple with a range of complex texts. While we have learned more about promising reading programs and interventions for adolescent students in schools, few programs have had a demonstrable impact on middle and high school students’ reading achievement. As a result, categorical reading underperformance among youth persists in schools nationwide (National Center for Education Statistics, 2010), and is worse in urban schools (Neild & Balfanz, 2006). Instead of examining the effects of a reading program in isolation, we may need to turn our attention to understand how those programs are lived and enacted within the contexts of their school cultures. Purpose and Research Questions: This study depicts one urban school’s efforts to support its middle and high school students in reading. Two research questions guided this study: 1. What are the current practices designed to provide a sociocultural context conducive to growth in reading skills at Grant Street Secondary School? 2. How do various organizational members (i.e., students and staff) perceive and experience these practices at Grant Street Secondary School? Though a range of factors influenced students’ reading at the school, this paper provides an in-depth portrayal of another instructional component—independent reading—that emerged in my analysis as vital to the way students and staff oriented themselves around literacy. Research Design: Because the theoretical frame for this study assumes that literacy is social and situated, my research design reflected an effort to describe interactions related to reading, the domains where reading activity circulated, and perceptions of those interactions. As such, I drew upon three sources of qualitative data: interviews from staff and students, ethnographic observational data, and documents. These three sources of qualitative data enabled me to describe the literacy activities at the school and locate them in the larger school organizational and cultural processes. Conclusions and Recommendations: This study suggests that students may benefit from daily, sustained time for independent reading time that is instructional. This study also suggests that coordinated efforts across school staff may ensure youth’s positive interactions with texts. This study also holds implications for school-based research focused on disciplinary literacy. Ultimately, this research reconceptualizes our understanding of effective instructional practices for adolescents, emphasizing a multidimensional approach that highlights the role of reading as a social activity.”

Ippolito, J., Dobbs, C. L., & Charner-Laird, M. (2014). Bridge builders: Teacher leaders forge connections and bring coherence to literacy initiative. Journal of Staff Development, 35 (3), 22–24. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This article describes an initiative designed to improve the content-area literacy skills of all students at a Massachusetts high school and to demonstrate the important role teacher leaders play in bridging the various elements of school improvement efforts. Meeting students’ language and literacy needs within content-area classrooms is becoming ever more challenging, thus, in 2012, the school called on university-based consultants to help teachers and leaders focus on disciplinary literacy instruction, exploring discipline-specific ways of reading, writing, and communicating. A multiyear professional learning initiative began that included four essential components: (1) Content-area teachers would apply to participate in discipline-based professional learning communities; (2) Faculty-elected teacher leaders would convene the professional learning communities and work collaboratively with each other; (3) A site-based project leader would be designated; and (4) University-level instructional coaches would act as outside consultants. Teacher leaders were essential to the project’s early success because they served as bridges between various personnel and components in the project. Project evaluation work is underway to assess teacher and student learning for the first year, and qualitative data (interviews, focus groups, surveys, and student work) demonstrate that the work of teacher leaders is paying off. Students across departments are using similar interactive reading guides to scaffold close reading. By connecting the work of outside coaches to the effective professional learning community structures they built, teacher leaders have forged new connections within and across groups and are pivotal in making instructional experimentation not only possible, but also productive.”

Jetton, T. L., Cancienne, M. B., & Greever, B. (2008). The evolving roles of faculty learning communities: A university/high school literacy partnership. Theory Into Practice, 47(4), 327–335. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This article is a descriptive account of a professional learning community established among university professors, university teacher candidates, a school district instructional supervisor, the high school principal, a high school literacy coordinator, and teachers of a Mid-Atlantic high school in the United States. This learning community created a literacy vision for the high school and restructured the school and the curriculum to reflect these literacy goals. The university instructors and their students became an integral part of the learning community with the high school personnel through their university coursework, practica, and student teaching experiences. Through their literacy vision, this learning community transformed and enhanced the literacy experiences of adolescents within this high school campus.”

Orechovsky, P. (2010). Sharing the literacy load. Principal Leadership, 11(3), 25–28. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The literacy team at Brentwood (NY) High School, a large urban high school, focused its efforts on building content-area teachers’ literacy instruction skills. The team is made up of teachers from the various content areas, including physical education and art, as well as supportive administrators. The team developed a pacing guide, a monthly newsletter, and two days of professional development training to support literacy instruction across content areas. As a result of their efforts, the school has met AYP goals and become a school in good standing.”

Additional Organizations to Consult –

From the website: “Over the last few years, hundreds of school districts have introduced new programs designed to help struggling adolescent readers. Numerous professional associations and other national organizations have moved adolescent literacy to the top of the school reform agenda. Many of the nation’s top education researchers have launched new studies into topics such as how best to teach reading in the academic content areas, how best to teach writing at the high-school level, and how best to support the literacy development of adolescent English language learners.’s mission is to distill this literacy research and share best-practice information to as many people as possible through the power and reach of the Internet. is a national multimedia project offering information and resources to the parents and educators of struggling adolescent readers and writers. is an educational initiative of WETA, the flagship public television and radio station in the nation’s capital, and is funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York and by the Ann B. and Thomas L. Friedman Family Foundation.”

All Things PLCs

From the website: “This site is a collaborative, objective resource for educators and administrators who are committed to enhancing student achievement. We invite you to share your knowledge, ask questions, and get expert insight into the issues educators face each day.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

(“Professional learning communities” OR “communities of practice”) AND (“high school”) AND (“literacy” OR “English”)

Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and PsychInfo.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published for the last 15 years, from 2002 to present, were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, JSTOR database, PsychInfo, PsychArticle, and Google Scholar.
  • Methodology: Following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types – randomized controlled trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, etc., generally in this order; (b) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected, etc.), study duration, etc.; and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, etc.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-00014524, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.