The Case for Literacy Leadership

August 2021

“Schools that develop a framework for shared literacy leadership become collegial communities of instructional practice where learning is the shared responsibility of all members. These are schools where teaching and learning are engaging, motivating, and invigorating. They are the schools that every teacher and student deserves.”  - Charlene Cobb

students changing classes in hallway and stairsToday’s public schools need well-prepared, capable leaders. Today’s schools need strong instructional leaders, specifically, literacy leaders. Literacy leadership takes many forms – perhaps stellar classroom teachers who possess expertise and deep literacy knowledge and who share faculty responsibilities as literacy coaches, or an outstanding principal who leads her faculty with a critical literacy lens, possibly a district-level director whose literacy background and experience provides valuable literacy leadership to many units across a system or network, to top-level educational leaders such as assistant superintendents or superintendents who make informed, knowledgeable systems-wide literacy decisions, and finally, collegiate faculty who prepare, shape, and influence the next generation of teachers and leaders – all examples of literacy leadership. 

Literacy leadership however, does not begin with a role or a title. Literacy leadership is something that manifests within an educator, gradually transpires, and develops over a period of time through the acquisition of content knowledge and pedagogical expertise. Literacy leadership is a fluid construct as growth is involved. Where ever and whenever there is growth, there is also some kind of transition or change. This holds true for all authentic leadership, which is built through acquired experience, knowledge, and understanding. How then, is the paradigm of literacy leadership situated within educational leadership?       

An Historical Brief on Educational Leadership Theory 

The field of educational leadership has generated several prominent and widely accepted theories in the three decades between 1990 and 2020. Traditionally in the United States (US), being an educational leader has included a variety of managerial tasks and leadership skills wherein a leader functioned as more of a monitor and evaluator, yet all effort was directed at supporting student learning (Hallinger & Snidvongs, 2008). While the management of the day-to-day operation of a school is a considerable characteristic of the leadership on a school campus and within a school system, educational leadership skills extend beyond executive management and organizational responsibilities. 

Within the field of educational leadership, researchers have theoretically framed the complexities of effective leadership in detailed and explicit ways. Major theories include instructional leadership and transformational leadership (Berkovich, 2016; Hallinger, 2010; Leithwood, et al., 2004; Marks and Printy, 2003; Printy, Marks, & Bowers, 2009, Robinson, Lloyd & Rowe, 2008). Transformational leadership emphasizes the mission-driven advancement of the organization by building organizational capacity, while instructional leadership primarily centers on the instructional performance of the school (Campbell & Gross, 2008; Dressler, 2001; Marks & Printy, 2003; Robinson, Lloyd & Rowe, 2008). 

Instructional leadership centers on building individual capacity. The instructional leadership afforded to all school stakeholders is fundamental to improving student outcomes (Leithwood, Louis, Anderson, & Wahlstrom, 2004). “Leadership that cultivates teachers’ instructional capacity, as well as develops a culture where teachers feel that they collaboratively have an impact on students, appears to be prominent in improving student outcomes” (Bickmore & Sulentic Dowell, 2014, p. 845).

Additional educational leadership theories include differing concepts and foci. For example, shared leadership (Printy and Marks, 2006) is the leadership practice of managing and supervising a school or a school system by strategically and intentionally expanding the number of individuals involved in critical decision-making related to a school’s organization, operational structure, and management. The theoretical underpinnings of servant leadership (Sendjaya and Sarros, 2002), its origin, development, and application in organizations assume a moral and spiritual dimension which situates this theory as more obligatory moral duty, driven by an individual’s inner convictions (Fry, 2003; Greenleaf, 1977; Hartley, 2007; Hyson, 2013; Sanders, 2007; Sergiovanni, 1992; 1996; 2000; Stanley, 2008).

Finally, the theory of distributive leadership (Spillane, 2009) centers primarily on the leadership community at a school or within a system, not just highlighting one individual such as a principal. Distributive leadership specifically spotlights how leadership practice and responsibility is dispersed among both positional and informal leaders within a school faculty (Spillane, Halverson, & Diamond, 2001). Literacy leadership can be viewed as a subset of instructional leadership and situated within distributive leadership that includes a strategic construct of the content and pedagogical knowledge of literacy that converges with classic leadership skill sets to support student learning and teacher capacity.

clip art image of hand writing with colors coming out of top of pencil

Literacy leadership provides a new paradigm of distributed instructional leadership, especially in PK-through grades 6 when children are still learning about literacy – speaking, listening, reading, and writing – and shifting from learning about and acquiring literacy skill sets to using literacy skills to learn, acquire, and build new knowledge (Hoewing and Sulentic Dowell, 2010).

Literacy leadership signals authentic literacy knowledge and dispositions of school system leaders at all levels who are in the pivotal role of providing literacy leadership, from literacy coaches to assistant principals and principals, to curriculum supervisors and directors, to all levels of superintendents, as well as teacher educators and educational leaders in higher education. Literacy leaders also understand the need to acquire soft skills associated with communication about literacy (Bates and Morgan, 2018). Any educator and educational leader who typically assumes responsibility for crucial literacy decisions for their school campuses, districts, and systems must also understand the politics of literacy leadership including the politically-motivated creation of the National Reading Panel (2000), and the commercial factors behind significant US policy such as high stakes testing (Garan, 2001; Kerkham and Comber, 2015). Authentic literacy leaders understand the fallacies of the National Reading Panel, its selected methods, and the narrow view of literacy which ignored the significance of oral language development and the importance of writing as companion literacies to reading and reading sub skills. Genuine literacy leaders are savvy and resist the commodification of literacy such as professional development from commercial interests like conglomerate textbook companies and their well-versed trainers whose solutions to supporting a district-wide literacy initiative is to promote and provide professional development based on their products (Jackson Perkins, 2018).   

Toward a Definition of Literacy Leadership

Literacy matters and the role literacy plays is an integral part of school culture and school system culture. Literacy leadership – leading teachers and other educators in regard to literacy efforts that result in increased student outcomes – involves pedagogical skill sets and content knowledge, combined with the ability to deliver that knowledge and skill, as well as the relational skills required to support teachers. Literacy leadership also includes the ability to enact a literacy mission and vision that guides teachers, staff, students, and families connected to a campus or school system. 

Literacy leadership also includes the ability to enact a literacy mission and vision that guides teachers, staff, students, and families connected to a campus or school system. 

For instance, it’s important for elementary principals to know the research basis for the Reading Recovery© program (Clay, 1987), while secondary principals should understand the stages of the writing process (Murray, 1982, 2001) and reading and writing workshop formats (Adams, 2014; Graves, 1995; 2004). As well, efficacious school-based and district leaders must understand the diagnostic accuracy and the psychology-based theory behind common assessments such as the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy (DIBELS) (Good, Guba, and Kaminski, 2002) and the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) (Pianta, La Paro, & Hamre, 2008) used so extensively in early childhood. Layered on top of this requisite knowledge is how a literacy leader mediates the issues of competing instructional models such as whole language (Ryan and Goodman, 2016) balanced literacy (Burns, 2006) or a skill-based approaches such as the reconstituted science of reading (Cervetti, Pearson, Palincsar, Afflerbach, Kendeou, Biancarosa, Higgs, Fitzgerald & Berman, 2020), and how to finesse supervising the delivery of district-mandated or state-mandated curriculum (Booth & Rowsell, 2007). Literacy content knowledge, then, also equates to literacy leaders who know and understand both seminal and current literacy research and are discerning (Gabriel, 2021). 

Literacy matters and the role literacy plays is an integral part of school culture and school system culture.

A framework for literacy leadership was developed in which included several  strands –content knowledge, knowledge of pedagogical practices, support structures, environment and management, and the importance of crafting a literacy mission and vision (Sulentic Dowell, Bickmore, Hoewing, 2012). Table 1 highlights these five crucial aspects of literacy leadership. 

Content knowledge

Oral language development
Print awareness
Linguistic knowledge
Phonemic awareness
Narrative & Expository text features
Function of language
Socio-cultural aspects of language

Pedagogical knowledge across age ranges

Instruction based on assessment
Daily reading and writing practice
Age & developmentally appropriate materials
Reading aloud
Reading & writing co-development
Flexible grouping practices
Reading & writing processes

Support Structures

Access to print and literature
Provisioning for literacy instruction
Organizing classrooms (schedules, blocks, etc.)

Environment and Management

Assessing literacy
Flexible skill grouping 
Teacher-student interactions
Teaching at instructional levels
Mix of whole class and small group teaching

Literacy Mission & Vision; monitoring, evaluation

Establishing relationships
Supporting teachers & coaches
Evaluating teachers & coaches
Professional development
Classroom environment

Table 1 Framework for literacy leadership (Sulentic Dowell, Bickmore & Hoewing, 2012)

Literacy leaders appreciate that teaching stems from relationships that are cultivated with students, the ability to know students, assess their strengths and weaknesses, and plan accordingly, implementing both content and pedagogical skill. Relation skill is also extended to educators, families, and communities.

male school teacher chatting with female student in hallwayDistrict Literacy Leadership (Dill) Special Interest Group

Literacy leadership has also been operationalized. In collaboration with other literacy leaders, three School of Education literacy faculty, Margaret-Mary Sulentic Dowell, PhD, Kim Skinner, PhD, and Estanislado Barrera, III, PhD, founded the District Level Literacy Leadership (DiLL) Special Interest Group (SIG) of the International Literacy Association (ILA), a long-standing professional literacy organization, whose focus is creating a space for principals, coaches, curriculum directors, superintendents and others engaged in critical leadership roles to engage in dialogue, ideation, and solutions specific to literacy. In 2013, the aforementioned School of Education charter members along with others interested in district literacy leadership convened for the first time in San Antonio, hosting an hour-long informational meeting. Subsequently, the DiLL SIG presented at ILA in New Orleans in 2014, in St. Louis in 2015, in Boston in 2016, and in Austin in 2018.

The purpose of the DiLL SIG is to provide a forum and opportunities for individuals to explore the skills sets and knowledge both school level and district level administrators such as, principals, assistant principals, curriculum directors, directors, and all levels of superintendents, should possess in order to make informed and ethical literacy decisions.

The DiLL SIG has three primary objectives:  

  1. develop an understanding of the skill sets needed for principals and district-level leaders to assume the mantle of literacy leader,
  2. increase awareness of principals’ and district leaders’ requisite knowledge of literacy content knowledge, knowledge of literacy recommended practice, and supervision skills, and
  3. improve knowledge of the crucial role and impact of literacy leadership.

Eight years later, the SIG is still providing a space for educational leaders to understand the complexities of literacy leadership. Literacy leadership is a dimension of leadership that an educational leader considers each day as s/he confronts what each day brings, looking at immediate goals and concerns and planning for the long-term, continually reflecting, re-evaluating, and re-establishing priorities. As literacy research increases, so then, does the knowledge base needed for literacy leadership whether it be content about literacy, recommended literacy practices, or how teachers, principals, and schools promote and maintain literacy practices that result in increased student achievement. Ellen Daugherty, Literacy Coach at the University Laboratory School is DiLL SIG secretary and maintains DiLL SIG membership information.

Literacy leadership is a dimension of leadership that an educational leader considers each day as s/he confronts what each day brings, looking at immediate goals and concerns and planning for the long-term, continually reflecting, re-evaluating, and re-establishing priorities. 

Literacy leadership is not a just a title or a position; literacy leadership is both action and leading by example. Literacy leaders are knowledgeable and many take risks on behalf of their students, teachers, families, and community. The increasing politicization of literacy and commodification challenges literacy leaders, Sulentic Dowell has co-authored two books that highlight literacy leadership, Expanding Elementary Teacher Education Teacher Education through Service-learning: A Handbook on Extending Literacy Field Experiences for 21st Century Teacher Preparation (2016) and The Literacy Leadership Guide for Elementary Principals: Reclaiming Teacher Autonomy and Joy (2019). Sulentic Dowell is currently working with Claudette Jackson Perkins, PhD, a literacy leader in East Baton Rouge Parish Schools, on a third bokk which will focus on literacy leadership in the area of writing. In addition, Sulentic Dowell teaches a course every two years, typically coinciding with election cycles. The course, EDCI 7107 Special Topics: The Politics of Literacy Instruction which will be cross referenced with ELRC 7407 Politics, Policy, & Administration in Education, will be offered Thursday evenings in Fall, 2022. The following list of resources can serve to inform readers regarding some of the challenges of literacy leadership a well as the politics and policies that impact literacy leadership. Many of the selections below are personal accounts of literacy leadership in the face of politicization of education. As author Brene Brown notes, “Maybe stories are just data with a soul.” (Brown, The Power of Vulnerability speech).

Literacy leadership is not a just a title or a position; literacy leadership is both action and leading by example.

Resources + Works Cited

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Written by: Margaret-Mary Sulentic Dowell, PhD

Dr. Margaret-Mary Sulentic Dowell is Professor of Literacy, Leadership and Urban Education, School of Education, College of Human Sciences and Education, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. Sulentic Dowell is also Director of the LSU Writing Project. Her research agenda includes three strands focused on literacy in urban settings, specifically the complexities of literacy leadership, providing access to literature, writing, and the arts, and service-learning as a pathway to preparing pre-service teachers to teach literacy authentically in urban environs. Sulentic Dowell is a career educator, spending the majority of her 20 year public school teaching experience in Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, and most recently, serving public education as Assistant Superintendent of 64 elementary campuses in the East Baton Rouge Parish School System in Louisiana. Sulentic Dowell has been nationally and regionally recognized for her scholarship and teaching, most recently being honored by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities as the Light Up for Literacy awardee in 2019. She has also been awarded the Outstanding Faculty Contributions to Service-Learning in Higher Education from the Gulf South Summit (2014); she received the LSU Outstanding Faculty Service Learning Award (2013), she was named LSU Flagship Faculty (2012), and was recipient of the (LSU) College of Education’s Distinguished Faculty Teaching Award (2012). In addition, she was named recipient of The Kenneth S. Goodman “In Defense of Good Teaching Award” in 2007. The University of Southern Mississippi named her an Academic Service-Learning Faculty Fellow (2001), and she was finalist for the International Reading Association’s Outstanding Dissertation of the Year (2000).