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Where's Leadership in the Teaching of Reading Conversation?

I have a secret to divulge. I went through a school and district leadership program. I have a Master's in Educational Leadership and Administration. Yes, I had to complete many hours of field experience. However, I only had to take ONE course on curriculum. My program is not any different from others. And, while one must generally have a teaching license and master's in a teaching area prior to becoming a school and district leader, we have to acknowledge that there is huge variation in knowledge. I am a trained English teacher. My background knowledge and experiences are steeped in literature and literacy practices. However, some principals are former physical education teachers or have high school experience and are leading elementary schools. Variability in knowledge will yield variable results.

Literacy is not just about reading. It's the foundation for learning and it's in everything we do in schools. We need to recognize that in order for any curriculum to be successful, elementary school leaders should be knowledgeable enough to understand effective practices in literacy. After all, they are the ones who enter classrooms and observe teacher practice to provide feedback. They are also responsible for budget allocation, and perhaps more importantly, for scheduling.

Let me tell you about my own experiences as a district leader and coach in several schools in New York State. Often, little time is devoted to social studies and science. The bare minimum. Some school leaders are instructional leaders. Some are great managers. Some schools have more resources than others. See, there are too many ways in which gaps can start to emerge in a child's instruction.

We also know that often, "what is inspected is what is expected." In other words, Measures of Student Learning may potentially derail curriculum efforts. Darling-Hammond (2017) identifies a range of potential barriers to successful curriculum implementation, including teacher development and alignment with goals. Furthermore, Ball & Forzani (2009) explore the challenges teachers face in translating curriculum into effective instruction, proposing that the teaching profession needs more respect and attention to "detailed professional preparation" (p. 508). Other factors are discussed by Fullan (2015), including resistance to change, in addition to a lack of proper training and structures to support implementation. Now, more than ever, we have an opportunity to shift our practices to obtain better results. With recent NAEP data, scores have declined, and there has been a renewed discussion of the most effective approaches to teaching reading. Reading is absolutely crucial to the future success of individuals, particularly for disadvantaged individuals (Hernandez, 2011), and there is no time to waste.


The controversy about the best method for teaching children to read, known as "The Reading Wars," has persisted for a while in the educational community. Chall wrote about the "Great Debate" in 1967, and revisited it in 1976. The two main points of contention are the phonics technique and the whole language approach. More recently, the debate has continued with the balanced literacy approach. Pearson (2004) does a fantastic job of detailing the demise of the whole language approach, but also how "questionably" it was implemented as well. What will make the Science of Reading approaches different this time around?

The phonics method places a strong emphasis on how crucial it is to teach kids how letters and sounds relate to one another. Decoding abilities are emphasized, where kids learn to sound out words by identifying letter patterns and fusing sounds together. In an effort to close the gap between phonics and whole language, the science of reading argument has gained popularity in recent years. Effective reading instruction is informed by substantial research in cognitive science, linguistics, and educational psychology. This method acknowledges that reading is a complicated ability that requires the integration of several cognitive processes, including phonemic awareness, decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and understanding. New York City is requiring all elementary schools to select from one of three reading programs.

There is, of course, much discussion around teacher training. However, I maintain that school leaders need extensive training as well. Not just on reading curricula, but on literacy in general. Phonics is extraordinarily important. That is not disputed. However, we cannot ignore the importance of building knowledge and vocabulary. Knowledge plays a crucial role in reading comprehension, as it provides a foundation for understanding and interpreting text. When readers have relevant background knowledge on a topic, they are better equipped to make connections, infer meaning, and engage in higher-level thinking processes. Knowledge renders comprehending easier: Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that reading comprehension greatly benefits from prior knowledge.

Perfetti and McCutchen (1989) found that readers who had a more in-depth understanding of a subject were better able to understand and retain content than those who had less expertise. Similar to this, Hirsch et al., (2012) came to the same conclusion after doing a meta-analysis of 35 studies: The reader's relevant understanding of the subject matter being read about is crucial to reading comprehension. Vocabulary knowledge is crucial for reading comprehension. Research has shown that readers with greater background knowledge are more likely to encounter and understand new vocabulary words encountered in texts. Understanding vocabulary is also essential for reading comprehension. According to research, readers are more likely to come across and comprehend new vocabulary words in texts if they have more prior knowledge. Readers are more likely to be able to read and understand the material, according to Anderson and Freebody (1983), when they have enough background knowledge to understand the text's content. Finally, Norris and Phillips (2003) found that students with greater knowledge and expertise in a subject were more skilled in critical reading and thinking.

The Scientific Advisory Committee, Knowledge Matters Campaign has done a fantastic job of highlighting the significance of content knowledge in supporting reading comprehension. The Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) provides an important model of reading as the product of decoding and comprehension. I can read Cyrillic script for example, but that doesn't mean I can comprehend what I am decoding in Russian-- I might barely be able to tell you if Dostoevsky wrote what I was decoding, and that would be based on my background knowledge!

Let's get back to leadership. If we want to really make a difference this time around, we have to do a better job in training future school and district leaders to deeply understand literacy (and numeracy for that matter) practices. We need to make sure all principals and assistant principals have a strong foundational knowledge so that they can understand if the curriculum is being implemented with coherency, provide better coaching, and allocate resources more effectively.

It should be all hands on deck if we really want to see a change.

My Recommendations:

  • Leadership programs should provide more in-depth literacy and numeracy training

  • Principals and assistant principals should also be trained in new curricula.

  • Any feedback provided to teachers should align with the curriculum, and not contradict it

  • Provide teachers with opportunities to learn, engage with one another, and analyze how curriculum implementation is going in Professional Learning Communities

  • Make time for social studies and science in the elementary classroom, and create opportunities for interdisciplinary learning.

References: Anderson, R. C., & Freebody, P. (1983). Reading comprehension and the assessment and

acquisition of word knowledge. In P. D. Pearson, R. Barr, M. L. Kamil, & P. Mosenthal

(Eds.). Ball, D. L., & Forzani, F. M. (2009). The work of teaching and the challenge for teacher

education. Journal of Teacher Education, 60(5), 497-511. Chall, J. (1976). The great debate: Ten years later, with a modest proposal for reading stages. Darling-Hammond, L. (2017). Teacher education around the world: What can we learn from

international practice?. European journal of teacher education, 40(3), 291-309. Fullan, M. (2015). The new meaning of educational change (5th ed.). Routledge. Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial

and special education, 7(1), 6-10. Grissom, J. A., Egalite, A. J., & Lindsay, C. A. (2021). How principals affect students and

schools. Wallace Foundation. Hernandez, D. J. (2011). Double jeopardy: How third-grade reading skills and poverty

influence high school graduation. Annie E. Casey Foundation. Hirsch, E. D., Kamil, M. L., & Nation, P. (2012). What research has to say about reading

instruction (4th ed.). Newark, DE: International Reading Association. Norris, S. P., & Phillips, L. M. (2003). How literacy in its fundamental sense is central to

scientific literacy. Science Education, 87(2), 224-240. Pearson, P. D. (2004). The reading wars. Educational policy, 18(1), 216-252. Perfetti, C. A., & McCutchen, D. (1989). Knowledge integration and the development of

reading ability. Reading Research Quarterly, 24(4), 453-474. About: Dr. Johanna David-Tramantano, founder of Leveraging Literacy LLC, has served as a teacher, literacy coach and school and district administrator. She has over twenty years of experience in the field of education. As a current teacher educator, she is passionate about supporting teachers in the field. Dr. David-Tramantano specializes in disciplinary literacy practices across the content-areas.

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