School principals have a leadership role in influencing educators in their respective schools. They also have influence over the district leadership if they can successfully implement new ideas that raise student achievement.
Sometimes they act as the enforcers of new ideas that have been already decided upon at the district level. But given that they know their schools best, the successful implementation of such ideas completely depends on their knowledge, expertise and experience.
Improving foundational reading skills requires the collaborative effort of many. Sprig has written about these players in previous blogs. See for example, the primary teacher, the literacy specialist and the literacy coach. This article deals with the all important role of the school principal.
When enough principals adopt a validated, peer-reviewed approach to literacy, they can also influence the superintendents in their districts to try out evidence-based methods, which have been proven to reduce risk of reading failure.
What Should Principals Know About Foundational Reading Skills?
How many foundational reading skills are there? The traditional answer is five. Phonics, phonological awareness, vocabulary, reading fluency and reading comprehension. But more recent research includes word study along with phonics. Then, there is other research that includes print concepts as one of the main pillars of early reading.
While there are varying degrees of overlap between some of these concepts, it helps to isolate them from one another, and focus on an ideal number of evidence-based foundational reading skills. The Sprig Reading framework for example, has eight such pillars, which includes the 5 main Science of Reading(SoR)-based components, but also concepts of print through shared reading and dolch superpower sight words.
It’s better to look at all studies from multiple sources and cover every listed foundational reading skill.
There are 10 states in the US that either mandate teachers to use SoR instruction, or require districts to provide SoR-based curriculum or professional development. In addition, there are 12 other states that require teachers to take a SoR-based reading instruction exam, or require teacher prep programs to teach the SoR.
It’s not a case of SoR vs Balanced Literacy. It’s a matter of being more comprehensive versus less comprehensive. Focusing on the visual process of reading, and the practice of reading, are contained within the SoR.
Popular phonics instruction in Balanced Literacy, such as focusing on the visual appearance of sight words, is already a component of a SoR-based framework. But in addition, SoR heavily focuses on the decoding aspect of reading by looking at letter-sound relationships.
It’s not a case of abandoning one and choosing another. It’s about including everything with a focus on the 5 core foundational skills.
Literacy Training for Principals
Researchers have studied the balance between managerial and content area knowledge of principals. It’s seen that when school principals develop literacy content knowledge, the students’ literacy scores increase because of more effective literacy instruction.
Given how important the principal’s role is in a school system, there is a case to be made for principal involvement in literacy training. In a review of 100 hundred principal preparation programs, only seven referenced the term “literacy” in one of their course titles or descriptions. Out of these seven, only three specifically focused on literacy as a content topic.
It’s safe to say that principals should be included in any literacy-related professional development.
Characteristics of Effective Principals
There is research to show that principals’ contribution accounts for a quarter of a school’s impact on student achievement. It’s amazing to think of the difference an involved principal has on reading success. Such findings are corroborated by studies which say that an above-average principal can raise student achievement by as much as 20 percentage points.
Such a large swing in student achievement could mean the difference between someone reading below, or higher than, grade level.
There have been countless studies on effective principals which highlight the following behaviours for optimum student success:
Work directly with teachers to strengthen their teaching practice.
Implement high-quality instructional approaches.
Offer meaningful professional development opportunities.
Analyze student data with the aim of improving instruction.
Set a culture of collaboration and high expectations.
Each of these 5 traits can be applied in an early literacy context to focus on the foundational reading skills.
The Effect of Principals on Those Who Need Most Help
Foundational reading skills are important for all students, but especially for those who may require extra support.
In a synthesis of existing studies by the Wallace Foundation, which is a nonprofit organization that seeks to foster improvements in learning for disadvantaged children, it was discovered that effective principals lead to equitable school and student outcomes via their positive leadership behaviours.
These primary behaviours include instructionally focused interactions with teachers, building a productive school climate, facilitating professional learning communities and engaging in strategic personnel and resource management processes.
Principals make a big difference in schools with a high number of at-risk students. They build a sense of community by jointly developing a shared meaning of the school’s vision, mission and goals. They actively participate by discussing with teachers about instructional issues, observing instruction in the classroom, and examining student data alongside teachers.
How Much Involvement Is Ideal?
In a research paper titled The Impact of Instructional Leadership on Student Reading Success, the issue of the level of principal literacy involvement was explored in the literature review section.
Too much literacy content knowledge negatively affects the formative walkthrough, which is an intentional learning process where the principal assumes the student’s position as a learner in order to foster collaborative conversations.
Less than sufficient literacy content knowledge is not good for obvious reasons, as the principal does not know how to advise teachers who are struggling to meet the instructional needs of students.
Thus, the principals should have enough knowledge of literacy by which they are able to articulate solutions and means of improvement to teachers and staff.
An Active Principal with Adequate Literacy Knowledge = Foundational Reading Success
Given the leadership position that is held by principals, they have a tremendous responsibility in transforming the vision for literacy success into a reality for schools.
By following research-based instructional leadership behaviours as stated in this article, they are able to ensure that all students learn the foundational reading skills.
Sprig Learning is developing Sprig Reading, which can be used by principals and teachers alike, to complete ongoing assessments that track and monitor student achievement, and intervene as necessary according to need for more practice or instruction.
Every student can be helped in their journey to reading mastery. For more insights into building an ideal literacy team, please get in touch with us. With the right tools, principals can build a role-model early literacy instructional system for an entire school district.