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By Sharon Faber

As instructional leaders at the middle level, administrators must understand the importance of reading for all students and make it imperative that all teachers view literacy as a critical component of teaching their content. If our students can’t read, they are not going to make it in school. Literacy is not an initiative or just a part of the school improvement or RTI plans! Literacy in the 21st century is a combination of reading, writing, listening, speaking, technology, and numeracy.

Middle schools are the last—and best—chance for many of our students to get the tools they need to be successful before they face a “do or die” situation with credits in high school. It is not too late for us to help our students, and as middle level leaders, we must step up and make our schools turning points in the lives of our struggling students.  

By the time students get to the fourth grade, if they can’t read, write, or do math like other students, they often think that they are dumb. Once kids think they are dumb, the only thing they can do is save face. Often at the middle level, this means they have an attitude. Unfortunately, some educators feel that if students get to middle school and can’t read then it is almost too late to do anything for them. This actually makes sense considering that many of our teachers are content-area trained and they don’t know what to do when they get students in their classes who are struggling readers. They weren’t taught to be reading teachers, so as instructional leaders we are going to have to give content teachers the tools and knowledge they need to help students be successful. Leaders must use data, research, and professional development as ways to help all teachers gain the teaching skills they need to meet the needs of a very diverse group of 21st century students.

Critical Behaviors for a Literacy Leader

To become a literacy leader, there are five key things that we can do:

  1. Maintain a focus on reading and writing. Let everyone know that reading is not a natural ability for many students and that it is every teacher’s responsibility to teach students literacy skills through their content. Work with your teachers to make sure that you align curriculum, instruction, and assessment by regular review and evaluation of progress. Use assessment data to guide instruction and make professional development focus on what teachers can do to help students achieve.
  2. Demonstrate strong personal beliefs about literacy and be willing to express those beliefs. Make it clear to everyone that our job is to take students where they are and move them as far and as quickly as possible. We need to stop the blame game and realize that all students are not going to be readers by the time they get to middle school; therefore, we must decide what we’re going to do differently in order to help them achieve.
  3. Express enthusiasm about the importance of teaching reading skills to all students. When literacy is considered just one more thing we’ve got to do when our plates are already full, then very little is done differently to teach struggling students. As leaders, we must create enthusiasm for our teachers so they will want to tweak what they are currently doing to make it better. Students today are not the students of the past, so we can no longer do what we’ve always done. Educators are going to have to learn to let go of things that aren’t working and replace them with instructional strategies that will work with today’s wide range of student readers.
  4. Know and share the research on literacy and best practice. Great literacy leaders are consciously competent and know why they are emphasizing literacy. Take the time to read the current research on literacy and best practices. Talk to colleagues—elementary, middle level, and high school—and pick their brains about what is happening in their schools. What problems are they seeing that you can proactively prepare for? What successes are they having that you can learn from? What strengths and weaknesses do students from your school exhibit as they enter high school? Become familiar with the current literacy vocabulary and use it with your teachers.
  5. Monitor and assess the current literacy program and its effects on student achievement. Look at what is currently being done to increase reading and writing skills for students in your building. Is it working? If not, what can be done differently so that all teachers gain the skills to work with struggling students? Use the professional learning communities that are in place to decide what can be done better by teacher, grade level, content, and teams. Do we need a schoolwide focus on literacy strategies that work across all content areas? Do we need more consistency in our student expectations? What are we doing that isn’t working and how can we implement things that will work?

Developing a Literacy Plan: Questions for Literacy Leaders to Consider

  • Do we have a literacy plan or do we simply have a literacy initiative?
  • Do we need to form a literacy team?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the strategies we are currently using?
  • How can we ensure everyone has received the professional development needed to implement the literacy plan?
  • How can we keep everyone in the building committed to teaching literacy once they’ve had training?
  • How do we support new teachers?
  • What additional professional development do we need?
  • What barriers will we face when we implement our literacy plan?
  • How can these barriers be overcome?
  • How can the administration and the literacy team be most helpful in implementing and monitoring the plan?
  • What strategies in the current literacy plan are the most effective given time constraints?

It is never easy to be a leader, even during the best of times. We have to make decisions that are not always popular and a decision to focus on literacy may not please everyone. You may hear comments like, “I’m not a reading teacher; I’m a math (science, social studies, physical education, art, etc.) teacher.” Literacy leaders must be strong and ensure that everyone believes that this is not something that one subject area or one grade level does; it is not something we just do for struggling kids; and it will not end after this year. Building ownership in the literacy plan through a collaborative process is key.

When administrators believe that literacy is not simply an initiative but an imperative, they provide appropriate and ongoing professional development that ensures teachers have the skills needed to provide literacy instruction to their students. For learning to occur, teachers must be trained on how to:

  • Create a receptive state for student learning—a risk-free environment where students like the teacher and the content
  • Make their content meaningful to students’ lives—explain why students need to know this information (and it’s not just for a test)!
  • Get and maintain students’ attention—create interest and involvement
  • Help students retain information in long-term memory—brain research
  • Help students transfer learning to new situations—like state tests—best practice research
  • Teach direct, explicit literacy strategies using their content—literacy research.

At the middle level, our students come to us with a wide range of reading abilities and the challenge for our teachers is how to teach the content standards to all students in this very diverse group. To be successful, literacy leaders must ensure:

  • There is an emphasis on increasing student achievement for each student, especially those struggling with literacy skills
  • There is a literacy plan in their buildings—and I’m not talking about a bunch of educational jargon on paper. There must be a plan that does not simply create more work for our teachers, but instead focuses on what we know and can do from the research on literacy and best practices.

We need to help our teachers and clarify what they need to know to help each student. Our job as literacy leaders at the middle level is too important to let even one student slip through the cracks just because they come to us as a struggling reader.

Sharon Faber has been a teacher, assistant principal, principal, English and reading supervisor, director of leadership training, middle school facilitator, and college professor. Today she is a nationally-recognized presenter and consultant and has written extensively in the areas of literacy and leadership at the middle and high school levels. She authored How to Teach Reading When You’re Not a Reading Teacher and several teaching-tips foldouts. She can be contacted at csfaber@bellsouth.net.