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Developing the Literacy Leader



Approximately ten years ago, I was so excited to get my first principal’s job. I became a middle school principal after spending a decade as an assistant principal in a high school. Previously I was a health and physical education teacher with very little training and background in teaching literacy. The middle school where I became principal was staffed by some of the most dedicated teachers with whom I have ever been affiliated; however, student growth and achievement was just average. Since I had little background in literacy, one of the first things I did was partner with a third party to provide intense coaching and capacity building in the area of literacy for my staff and me. Capacity refers to the ability or power to do, experience, or understand something. That year, we created a culture of literacy that soon was producing some of the best reading and achievement data in the state.

Several years later, I became superintendent of an underperforming rural school district. I immediately partnered with that third party again and provided intense coaching and capacity building for all our teachers in literacy. But this time, I considered myself a literacy leader as I spent the last 4 years learning as much I could about literacy. That year we focused on 1) Understanding quality literacy frameworks and instruction, 2) Coaching and supporting literacy instruction and assessment for teachers and literacy coaches, 3) Leveraging time, talent and resources, and 4) engaging our families and community to establish a thriving literacy culture. Within a short period of time, the district received some of the highest growth data in the state in literacy and was recognized with an “Excellent with Distinction” rating, the highest rating given by the state department of education.

The purpose for sharing my experience as a principal and superintendent is to relate that regardless how little a literacy background you or your school leader has, you and other school leaders can be developed into a “Literacy Leader.” One of the first strategies you will learn as a literacy leader is how to implement with fidelity a coherent literacy framework that focuses on

  1. learning reading,

  2. learning about reading and

  3. learning through reading.

This framework with the approach shared earlier will transform your school into a high performing school with a thriving literacy culture, while building your capacity of a literacy leader.

The Case for Literacy

Reading is the most important skill that students must master. Mastering reading beyond each state’s low proficiency standards may be the only direct pathway for many of our children living in poverty, to advance to a life of success, fulfillment and prosperity. Failing to master reading in the early grades can have dire and irreversible consequences. According to a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (2014), 80 percent of children in low-income families are below proficiency in reading. Students who do not read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers (Hernandez, 2012), which can have long-term consequences in terms of career prospects, earning potential, and overall quality of life. However, there is also evidence to suggest that becoming a good reader by the age of nine, will have long lasting effects, even through high school. In other words, we must do as much as we can to ensure all our nation’s children are strong readers in elementary school, for our children’s lives and our society depend on it.

The Approach

As mentioned earlier, the approach to creating a thriving culture of literacy and ensuring that all students can read depends on the school leader’s focus that 1) staff understands quality literacy frameworks and instruction, 2) that coaching and support for literacy instruction and assessment is job-embedded and provided for all for teachers and staff, 3) that the school leverages its focus and time, and aligns its talent and resources, and 4) the staff engages families and community. No easy task, and yes, teaching reading is rocket science. Our biggest obstacle is ourselves as we continue to be distracted by new programs, curriculums, technologies and promises of short cuts along the way.

Leveraging Time, Talent and Resources

To create a culture of literacy, leaders need to start with the organization. During my time working for a not-for-profit organization in education, I had the opportunity to study and research high performing schools across the country. One of the most common characteristics of all these schools was their ability to move from a mindset of focusing on teaching to focusing on student learning. The conversation transitioned from “what’s best for kids” to “what’s best for student learning.” In addition to this focus on student learning, school leaders narrowed their focus to a few specific goals, in which literacy was a common theme. Our failure to create cultures of literacy in our schools is not because we do not know how to. As Mike Schmoker shared in his book FOCUS, our failure is because we lack the “will and persistence” to implement what we already know (Odden, 2009) and that we get so caught up in innovation that we forget it is “simplicity and diligence” applied with “fierce devotion” that are key to creating such a school (Collins, 2001). One story that comes to mind is an interview with an assistant superintendent in one of the highest performing and wealthiest schools in the country on why they did not have any smart boards in their district. Her response? Their leadership did not think that technology was sexy, they thought learning the science of good teaching and assessing was sexy.

Research shows that in schools where the principal is perceived as the learning leader, students learn more. There is no better way of creating that perception than aligning behaviors and actions with the message of being a learning leader. Learning leaders focused on literacy create school schedules that have more time for teaching reading, usually reading blocks of 90 minutes or more. These schools also have built in time for “no new instruction,” intervention, or reteaching while providing time for enrichment in the day too. For students to develop confidence in their reading, there needs to be extended time to build stamina and opportunities to discuss their books with peers in the classroom.

There is a myth that American schools will be able to hire and fire themselves to excellence. Fullan and Heargraves’ research reinforces that social capital (teamwork and collaboration) not only trumps human capital (individual teacher skill) but may be the pathway for developing and improving human capital. School leaders focusing on literacy ensure that teachers deprivatize their practices and collaborate building lessons, reviewing student work and sharing best practices.

There is also a belief that only wealthy suburban schools can have strong cultures of literacy. However, there are examples of poor schools, both rural and urban, that are allocating resources to build classroom sets of libraries so students can have books of interests as well as appropriate levels for reading for fun and for teaching. Student choice is paramount in developing a culture of readers, especially in areas of poverty where choosing what to read, may be the only choices students have in their lives.

Understanding Quality Literacy Frameworks

True coherence only happens in a literacy culture when teachers understand the why, how and what to teaching reading. A coherent literacy framework must include a focus on 1) learning reading, 2) learning about reading, and 3) learning through reading. In addition, no literacy framework is complete without strategies to increase 4) family engagement.

In learning reading students develop confidence, skills, stamina and a love for reading by choosing their own books, participating in book fairs, and buddy reading. Teachers strategically provide regularly scheduled time and a variety of resources for independent reading time, and “read alouds” to create a passion and love for reading.  

In learning about reading, students develop the literacy skills to read across genres, read beyond difficult words, make predictions and know when to re-read difficult passages. Teachers facilitate this learning by focusing on students’ needs and personalizing reading instruction and strategies. Students develop skills through guided reading, feedback, powerful and purposeful mini lessons, and conferencing with the teacher.

During learning through reading, the student uses his or her reading skills as a tool for literacy discussions, to explore all the world has to offer in print and on the web, and mastering content in a variety of disciplines. The teacher, still the facilitator, uses strategies to engage and empower reading in the classroom.

While family social-economic status has an influence on student reading skills, it cannot be an excuse for not having a literacy culture in a school. Every thriving literacy culture must provide opportunities for family engagement, parent education and shared learning between children and families. Strategies include family reading nights, incorporating opportunities to showcase and model reading at family events, sending books home with kids and a summer reading program.  

Coaching and Support

As shared earlier in the leveraging time, talent and resources section, ongoing job embedded professional learning must be provided for all for teachers and staff. I once heard the story of a school leader concerned about providing a vast amount of professional learning for his staff and the fear that a teacher may leave and take a job elsewhere. A seasoned and wise school leader responded, what if you spend no professional learning time for your teachers and they all stay? In every school, nearly 80 percent of the district budget is spent on salary and wages, Therefore, your number one resource is your staff. This means your number one investment should be in developing the skills of your staff. There is no surer way of improving the skills of a staff than by ensuring teachers are collaborating, learning from one another and continually providing focused and purposeful professional learning opportunities.

Leanne Siegenthaler