Ten Top Tips for Leading Literacy
Ambition Institute literacy expert Sarah Bagshaw-McCormick draws together the latest evidence on effective leadership of literacy into ten top tips that you can implement, regardless of your educational context.
To improve literacy, what do leaders need to know? What do leaders need to do? What does the best evidence suggest?
In designing the National Professional Qualification for Leading Literacy (NPQLL), I’ve spent much time considering the answers to these questions. As a result, the NPQLL provides hardworking leaders of literacy in schools and trusts with one place to find the best evidence and best practice to build into their literacy expertise and leadership.
Through the latest evidence about how literacy is developed and taught, and the knowledge of expert literacy leaders from across the sector, we’ve drawn together the formal and informal knowledge needed for effective literacy leadership. The course covers the foundational knowledge needed to lead literacy whatever your educational setting, including spoken language, reading and writing.
In creating the programme, some common threads emerged which are useful principles for leading literacy.
Below, I have pulled together these tops tips that you can implement, regardless of your educational context:
1) Literacy for every subject
For many years the responsibility for literacy has sat with the English department or literacy lead. But, for literacy to be effective it cannot be the remit of English teachers alone. From science to textiles, to physical education and mathematics — all subjects are taught, learned and expressed through literacy (EEF, 2019).
In fact, pupils benefit from literacy instruction that is tailored to each subject and phase. So, all staff have a shared responsibility to teach the literacy demands of their domain.
Domain-specific literacy is known as disciplinary literacy (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2012). Leaders of literacy must consider how they can support all teachers to teach literacy based on shared knowledge of literacy, tailored to the literacy demands of their subject and phase.
2) A culture of literacy
An effective literacy strategy can’t exist in isolation but benefits from being part of a culture of literacy. Leaders of literacy can contribute to a school culture which values and promotes the importance of literacy for learning, life and wellbeing.
Effective schools create a culture that embeds literacy across the whole school. This may include informal and formal opportunities to learn and enjoy literacy. Because developing pupils’ literacy skills and cultivating pupils’ enjoyment go hand in hand (Bergen et al. 2021), one is unlikely to exist without the other.
Effective schools also provide pupils with enriching literacy experiences. They embrace and value the varieties of language that pupils bring with them to school (local dialects, informal dialects or home languages). Literacy instruction is embedded across the curriculum, and all staff model enjoyment, engagement and valuing of spoken language, reading and writing.
"An effective literacy strategy can’t exist in isolation but benefits from being part of a culture of literacy."
3) Co-ordinated approach
Building literacy strategies for schools is a complex endeavor, but literacy leadership can be more effective if leaders take a co-ordinated approach.
A co-ordinated approach to literacy can be achieved by developing a shared knowledge and language of literacy and using this to support pupils to transfer their literacy knowledge across the whole curriculum.
This does not mean that every teacher in every subject or phase should be teaching the same literacy skills the same way. Rather, it means that a literacy leader can cultivate a shared language and knowledge of general literacy. This enables teachers to build on pupils’ prior knowledge to encourage the use of general literacy in ways that are useful in their subjects (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2012).
4) Build literacy knowledge
To effectively lead and teach literacy, you must first have a strong understanding of it. As we’ve discussed above, creating a culture of literacy, a co-ordinated approach and a shared responsibility for literacy teaching underpins effective literacy leadership, and these are built on a foundation of knowledge. This may require taking the time to prioritise and develop the literacy knowledge of your literacy leaders and school staff (EEF, 2019).
But how do you begin to build literacy knowledge and expertise?
To equip staff with literacy knowledge, leaders may want to examine staff knowledge, explore their current context and contribute to whole-staff professional development. Knowledgeable staff can share responsibility to ensure that all pupils are taught the literacy knowledge and skills they need for learning, life and work (EEF, 2019; EEF, 2018b; EEf, 2020; EEF, 2021).
Trust is an important enabling condition for effective professional development (Bryk & Schneider, 2002). This is particularly important in the case of literacy, where gaps in skill can be a sensitive topic and difficult to discuss. Adopting a supportive approach to developing staff literacy without judgment is a good way to enable professional development to be effective.
5) Teach literacy
In the early stages of literacy, when pupils are learning to read and write, this often goes without saying. But beyond key stage 1, explicit teaching of components of literacy can be lower on the list of priorities because pupils are learning through literacy. However, at every age and stage of education, pupils benefit from explicit literacy instruction.
Evidence tells us that most components of literacy benefit from teaching (Breadmore, 2019). This benefits pupils from the early years to sixth form and beyond. This approach to literacy instruction is most beneficial for pupils who have experienced disadvantage, have special educational needs and disabilities or come to the classroom unfamiliar with Standard English (Quigley, 2022; Delpitt, 2006).
Like domain-specific knowledge, literacy instruction is most effective when it takes into consideration how people learn and the most effective teaching pedagogies — in particular, explicit instruction, scaffolding, modelling, practice and feedback. These pedagogies are key to effective literacy instruction (Breadmore, 2019; DfE, 2021).
6) Understand the competencies
Literacy is a complex concept with multiple components that can be cognitively overloading for staff and pupils — so how do we lead it effectively? Each component of literacy can be broken down into key competencies which must be understood and attended to (EEF, 2018;2019;2020;2021).
Each component of literacy requires leaders and teachers to focus their attention on specific knowledge and skills. Leading literacy might mean zooming in on one of these areas at a time.
The competencies of reading, writing and spoken language are an important starting point for leading and teaching literacy. Effective spoken language requires pupils to have knowledge of various areas, including vocabulary, grammar and meaning. Reading relies on pupils being able to decode and comprehend texts and pupils will become effective writers when they develop transcriptional and compositional writing skills.
It is essential that literacy leaders have a good working knowledge of evidence that can help them to understand what is most likely to work (EEF, 2019b). This allows them to support teachers to understand and teach these competencies in every phase and subject.
7) Develop fluency
When literacy instruction and practice is limited to the early years and key stage 1, it is often pupils’ fluency that suffers because many components of literacy need to be taught and practised to fluency (Breadmore, 2019). This is true of word reading and writing transcription in particular (Ofsted, 2022).
When pupils are given the time and opportunity to develop fluency, they can use their knowledge and skills unconsciously. This frees up cognitive space for reading comprehension, writing composition and engagement with content knowledge (EEF, 2018).
To put it simply, if a pupil is not a fluent reader, this can become a barrier to learning and academic success.
A lack of fluency is not just a problem for primary colleagues to address. Many pupils in secondary settings, sixth forms and further education struggle to manage the cognitive load of learning because they never achieved fluency in reading or writing (Breadmore, 2019).
8) Assess effectively
Teaching literacy alone is not enough. Effective literacy leadership and teaching benefits from being paired with effective assessment to identify pupils’ knowledge and skills, their barriers to literacy learning and next steps.
Formal and summative assessment of classes and cohorts can be used to proactively assess pupils (Rickets and Murphy, 2019). This helps leaders to identify pupils who may have barriers to literacy. Leaders must carefully select reliable assessment(s) based on the strengths and limitations of the literacy assessments that can be used at scale. Results from such assessments are better used as a starting point than as a single source of information about pupils’ literacy development (Rickets and Murphy, 2019).
These year group or whole-school assessments needs to be followed up with data gathering that reveals more about pupils’ individual needs. This allows teaching and interventions to be implemented to support pupils appropriately and is likely to be more effective in meeting pupils’ needs than a blanket approach to intervention.
Formative assessment of literacy must also take place in all classrooms. This can take the form of planned or impromptu opportunities to assess pupils’ performance as a proxy for their knowledge and understanding. This allows teachers to uncover and be responsive to pupils’ literacy learning needs. The ability to formatively assess for literacy learning and barriers requires teachers to have a strong foundation of literacy knowledge.
9) Know your context
Leaders of literacy need to have extensive knowledge of their own educational context so that their approach to leading literacy is tailored to the location, community, staff and pupils they are working with.
Knowing the local community is essential for leaders to understand the culture and the varieties of language that are important to pupils and their identity. It is essential to provide literacy development that is respectful and inclusive of local dialects, varieties of language and cultures (Delpit, 2006).
Leaders of literacy also need to know their staff, including where teachers have expertise or need support developing expertise. Knowing staff means you can implement training and support more effectively. Ideally, support is non-judgemental and assumes that all staff are doing their best. This will enable leaders to implement the professional development that empowers staff to be effective teachers of literacy in their subject or phase.
Most importantly leaders of literacy need to know their pupils. It is important teachers know pupils individually to understand their needs, barriers and strengths. It is important that leaders also understand cohorts, such as classes or year groups. They might need to know trends in literacy skills and knowledge that are strong or need support in particular cohorts.
Knowledge of your context will enable you to make the best decisions about what aspects of literacy to prioritise. It will inform the curriculum, interventions and support that are put in place in your school.
Knowing the local community is essential for leaders to understand the culture and the varieties of language that are important to pupils and their identity.
10) Embed Diversity
Language and identity are undeniably linked. As a result, leaders of literacy must be aware of diversity. A diversity of resources, texts and varieties of language are essential to shaping effective literacy instruction and empowering pupils to own varieties of language for themselves.
Literacy leaders can achieve this in several ways. They might consider representation, narratives and broadening of pupils’ experiences and perspectives (Kara, 2021).
Firstly, diversification of stimuli and texts must be considered. Literacy leaders and teachers can consider whether all their pupils are represented in the texts that are included in the curriculum.
Representation alone is not enough. Leaders of literacy need to consider what stories and narratives are attached to social groups or individuals represented in resources. It is essential that the pupils we teach are not presented with a ‘single story’ that perpetuates stereotypes attached to social groups.
Leaders of literacy may consider how the texts pupils engage with broaden pupils’ experiences beyond their own community and challenge stereotypes so that pupils are prepared to embrace and engage with the diverse world they live in.
There are a variety of ways that literacy leaders might add to the valuing and foregrounding of diversity through language and literacy. Of course, literacy leaders cannot be responsible for diversifying pupils’ experience of literacy alone. But developing their own expertise and embedding diversity in the literacy experiences of pupils is a good place to start.
Find out more about the National Professional Qualification in Leading Literacy here.
This blog is part of our Expert Edit: Leading and Teaching Literacy, a free downloadable resource featuring research extracts and reflective questions.Download now