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February 1, 2020

Leadership for Literacy

Three questions school leaders should ask every day to optimize literacy instruction.
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There is no shortage of articles reiterating the essential, non-negotiable, active ingredients of effective reading and writing instruction. Yet there seem to be few easy answers when it comes to leadership actions that might ensure every child has access to the best literacy instruction.
Every initiative has its challenges and unintended consequences and leaves someone a bit behind. For example, allowing students free, independent reading time gives some students their first opportunity to read a book they enjoy cover-to-cover, but may leave behind other readers who don't have the skills for sustained independence. A focus on foundational skills such as phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency in elementary school seems to improve scores on individual skill areas for some students, but may not positively impact overall measures of reading over time (Institute for Education Sciences, 2008). Tiered intervention systems might identify some students' difficulties earlier, but they may not provide the right support for students with only mild evidence of difficulty (Institute for Education Sciences, 2015). Every shift in instructional policy has the potential to make some students more vulnerable to difficulty.
Nearly two decades after the No Child Left Behind Act created the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) to evaluate the research base for instructional programs, news and social media outlets have taken it on themselves to proclaim what works, what's "in," and what must be rooted out. Although there is a preponderance of evidence for the principles of effective literacy instruction, there is limited existing research evidence in connection with the many commercial programs available. At the same time, there are opportunities for evidence-based pedagogies within nearly any approach, if teachers have the knowledge and freedom to engage them.
WWC has failed to emerge as a key decision-making tool for leaders in selecting programs because few programs have sufficient research evidence for review, and even fewer have demonstrated significant positive effects. While other resources, such as, have attempted to fill this gap by reviewing the alignment of programs to principles of effective instruction (i.e., standards alignment), this is different from research-based evidence. Even so, EdReports suggests that less than half of available ELA materials are currently aligned to standards, and less than 15 percent of the materials teachers report using regularly are fully aligned (EdReports, 2019).
It is futile for school leaders to seek "balance" or "science" in an approach to reading instruction in the current market because both have been commodified as branded symbols of one side of the reading debate or the other. Knowing what works—and being able to accomplish it by coordinating curriculum materials, pedagogies, and policies—are two different things.
Still, there is room and direction for equitable action.

Three Key Questions

Regardless of the currently reigning philosophy, the set of instructional materials offered, or the availability of extra funds for literacy instruction, there are three main research-based and experience-proven questions that every leader can ask each day to ensure their educators have access to the most effective literacy instruction. The answers to these questions require immediate, coordinated action between administrators, teachers, and students, so school leaders cannot ask and act alone.

1. Are students reading, writing, and talking in every period of every day?

Numerous research studies have highlighted the sheer volume of reading, writing, and talking about texts that takes place in exemplary classrooms (Allington & Johnston, 2002; Pressley et al., 2001). This is true across academic content areas. It is just as important to read, write, and talk about formulas, models, and data displays as it is to do these things around novels and primary source documents.
While it is not enough for leaders merely to allocate class time to reading, writing, and discussion (Grossman et al., 2010), it's clear that classrooms where such practices are absent are unlikely to lead to deep learning or high levels of achievement. Even if students may seem to grasp a concept in a lab or during an assignment, without written or oral language attached to this emerging understanding they will not be able to demonstrate their knowledge to anyone who is not present to see them at work. They are also unlikely to retain, extend, or solidify their knowledge independently outside of class. Leaders have a responsibility to advocate for any opportunity students can get to name, label, record, discuss, and generate texts that are authentic to the work and are attached to key concepts.
In classrooms where there is some reading, writing, or discussion present, the sub-questions below can be used to optimize literate practices as opportunities for learning and literacy development:
Why are students reading? Both engagement and comprehension are supported by having a specific purpose for reading (Guthrie, 2004). This is not just because goal-setting can be a motivating practice. It allows students to strategically determine importance and focus their attention on specific words, phrases, and text structures that are related to their goal. Determining importance is the first step of effectively summarizing (and later synthesizing) what is read. Asking the teacher, and even a student, what students are reading in order to do begins a conversation about purpose that could continue towards linking specific skills, habits, and strategies to the purpose so that students can use reading to integrate and extend what they learn.
To whom are students writing? Reading and writing are action-oriented activities. Asking yourself, the teacher, or even a student who they are writing to begins a conversation about audience that either reminds or refines teachers' efforts to ensure students are reading and writing for real reasons.
Are students talking about their reading and writing? Reading and writing are reciprocal, mutually extending processes, but oral language is similarly supportive of literacy development, especially when it is focused on the same topics and ideas students are decoding or encoding in text. Peer-to-peer discussions about texts are associated with higher levels of engagement and achievement (Nystrand, 2006), not only because students who are more engaged or proficient are more likely to discuss what they've read and written, but also because discussion previews the words, structures, ideas, and reasons for reading and writing. Asking yourself, teachers, and students whether they have opportunities to talk about what they have written or read in each lesson begins a conversation about the role of discussion in inspiring and solidifying skill and concept development.

2. How are students engaging with "text" in each lesson?

The idea that there is a text in every lesson sometimes surprises some teachers of subject areas not directly associated with literacy or language arts. Therefore, we need to expand the definition of text to include any representation of knowledge, whether printed, visual, kinesthetic, or otherwise. This allows leaders to enter into pedagogical discussions with teachers across all content areas. More important, it allows students more opportunities to engage with texts of various modalities, and this can support the understandings, habits, and strategies they use when examining traditional academic texts.
For example, learning to "read the text" of a conductor's beat pattern in band or chorus is a way to more fully participate as a musician in an ensemble, but it is also an opportunity to consider multiple sources of information at one time (what you see, hear, feel, remember, and envision), and to notice small variations within a predictable pattern that are meaningful. Likewise, learning to read the text of an account ledger is a way to manipulate and interpret visual displays of data, use simple computation to estimate complex concepts like interest and value, and connect what you know about larger accounting concepts to specific applied examples. Learning to read the text of other players on a field is a way to practice understanding the relationship between various roles, predicting and making inferences about action, and being strategic about your own actions and reactions.
The texts of each discipline are the maps of the work of that discipline, and they should be used to represent the knowledge and ideas that are generated, shared, and critiqued within that community. This is what makes texts so central to learning across disciplines. Asking about the text of a lesson requires teachers and students to consider how they are grappling with the content rather than passively receiving or ignoring it. For example, if students are copying notes from a slide about a historical event, they are receiving information about it passively. However, if they also discuss the event using the relevant terminology, and read or create an image, data display, symbol, or set of texts related to that event, they are actively processing (learning) the language, images, constructs, and ideas associated with the topic.
Engaging with representations of ideas by creating, interpreting, and critiquing them means doing the work of a disciplinary or interdisciplinary community. Similarly, a student who listens passively to a lecture on a composer will not be as fully engaged in learning as one who reads, listens, plays, and critiques elements of that composer's work. This means engaging with texts that are authentic to the disciplinary communities that students are studying, instead of—or in addition to—texts created for school, like textbooks, workbooks, worksheets, and class notes.
Not every text that students encounter during the day needs to relate back to the kinds of reading and writing they do on standardized tests or in English class. Students who are not immediately interested in or engaged with literary texts might find that their background knowledge and interests uniquely prepare them for text tasks in other classes. Either way, when leaders ask how students are engaging with text in any given lesson, there are two important outcomes. First, the question creates an invitation for teachers to immediately discuss content-specific pedagogies even if the leader asking does not hold the depth of knowledge or confidence to ask content-specific questions. Second, it focuses conversations with teachers on participation as a pathway to comprehension. When the text is considered the representation of knowledge in any area, the very definition of effective instruction requires students to engage with such representations as creators, users, and evaluators.

3. What is the plan for adult learning?

Ongoing debates about literacy mean that educators need opportunities to learn about a range of approaches and pedagogies to effectively respond to student needs, shifting policies, and varied resources. Whatever required courses teachers may have taken in their pre-service training are not now and never will be enough for them to optimize literacy learning for every student, every day.
Since literacy is likely not the only priority in a school system, leaders may need to align the focus of related academic initiatives to provide rationale and direction for continuous efforts to improve literacy instruction. Use student writing as data in grade-level, department, or other team meetings. Focus other instructional initiatives on the use of texts in varied contexts. Begin faculty meetings by asking teachers to engage with the texts used in other departments so that they can learn first-hand what kinds of transitions students make when the bell rings, and reflect back some of the features and strategies that might be unconscious or taken-for-granted among those who read such texts frequently.
Finally, make the use of text an object of inquiry across the school by embedding these same questions into all professional learning activities: What are your teachers reading, writing, and talking about? What can the workshops, trainings, and courses teachers attend add to their understandings of how to select, support, and use more texts more powerfully? What can students be learning about reading, writing, and language when engaging in instruction aimed at other school priorities?
Leaders do not need to have all the answers about literacy instruction across grades and content areas if they have the right questions.

What Happens When We Ask?

I recently asked leaders from 16 schools to commit, over a period of two months, to asking one of these questions in their post-observation debrief conversations with teachers and to record their impressions of what changed. Some reported feeling more comfortable than they previously had in beginning conversations about instruction with teachers whose subject areas were less familiar to them. Others reported that the questions conveyed curiosity and interest in teaching rather than judgement or evaluation, which put teachers at ease. All noted that these questions generated more and better conversation in their post-observation debrief sessions than ever before.
Starting conversations about the reading, writing, and discussions that support student learning across grades and content areas doesn't require a reading specialist's degree or expertise in every content area. It requires a commitment to ask and wonder about how literacy is being used for learning throughout the day. This commitment prioritizes literate practices across content areas and allows leaders to optimize a large and diverse range of opportunities to develop literacy in every period of every day.

Allington, R., & Johnston, P. (2002). Reading to learn: Lessons from exemplary fourth grade classrooms. New York: Guilford Press.

EdReports. (2019). Wonders: McGraw-Hill Education. ELA K–2 summary of alignment & usability. Retrieved from

Grossman, P., Loeb, S., Cohen, J., Hammerness, K., Wyckoff, J., Boyd, D., Lankford, H. (2010). Measure for measure: The relationship between measures of instructional practice in middle school English language arts and teachers' value-added scores. Washington, D.C.: Calder, The Urban Institute.

Guthrie, J. (2004). Teaching for literacy engagement. Journal of Literacy Research, 36(1)1–30.

Institute for Education Sciences. (2008). Reading first impact study final report. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

Institute for Education Sciences. (2015). Evaluation of response to intervention practices for elementary school reading. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

Nystrand, M. (2006). Research on the role of classroom discourse as it affects reading comprehension. Research in the Teaching of English, 40(4) 392–412.

Pressley, M., Wharton-McDonald, R., Allington, R., Collins Block, C., Morrow, L., Tracey, D., et al. (2001). A study of effective first-grade literacy instruction. Scientific Studies of Reading, 5(1), 35–58.

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