10 Questions Every School and District Leader Should Ask to Unlock the Power of Disciplinary Literacy

Leadership & Organizational Growth
10 Questions Every School and District Leader Should Ask to Unlock the Power of Disciplinary Literacy

What if the key to unlocking student potential was hiding in plain sight within your curriculum? Disciplinary literacy is that key, offering a gateway to deeper engagement and understanding in every classroom. Ready to unlock this potential?

We have helped launch comprehensive district literacy programs in districts of all sizes. In this blog, we summarize some of the most important questions that we have been asked by school leaders and some of the answers that we've come to through our work. These ten pivotal questions can help serve as a roadmap to begin implementing a robust, evidence-based, and sustainable Tier I disciplinary literacy program.

1. Who Are the Key Personnel to Include in a Literacy Leadership Team?

First and foremost, why should you have a Literacy Leadership Team, and who should be on it?

A Literacy Leadership Team Is a group of educators who help give feedback to the leadership about the design and implementation of professional learning in support of rich disciplinary thinking, reading, and writing. The composition of this team must include a range of content area teachers. Literacy is not just the purview of English Language Arts! Reading, writing, and discussion are integral to all subjects, and this team ensures that literacy becomes a school-wide focus. This team is the steering committee that drives literacy efforts by identifying needs, setting goals, reviewing evidence-based strategies, and monitoring implementation and impact.

Having a dedicated Literacy Leadership Team also aligns with research that underscores the importance of collective efficacy in educational settings. According to a study by Goddard et al.  (2000), schools where teachers believe in their collective capability to organize and execute courses of action required to achieve educational goals tend to be more successful. A Literacy Leadership Team cultivates this collective efficacy by pooling expertise, resources, and support, and ensuring teachers can share their feedback and ideas on the initiative with someone they are comfortable with, preferably a teacher in their department. 

This group should include administrators, literacy coaches, subject-specific teachers (not just English teachers), data or assessment coordinators, and importantly —the school librarian. A well-rounded team fosters a multidisciplinary approach that can address literacy comprehensively across all subjects. Ensuring that the team is diverse allows for deeper learning opportunities for teachers. This collaborative approach has been shown to have a ripple effect, enhancing student engagement and literacy growth (Biancarosa et al., 2010).

2. What is the Current State of Tier I Literacy Instruction in My School?

It is only possible to know what additional support a student may need if their day-to-day instruction adequately supports their access to the language and texts in their content area classes. Unfortunately, many content-area teachers have never had the chance to take a reading course or learn about the fundamentals of reading comprehension science. Therefore, before implementing any changes in literacy instruction, it is crucial to have a comprehensive understanding of the current state of Tier 1 literacy in your school or district. 

Encourage your Literacy Leadership Team to be deeply involved in, or even lead, the evaluations of the literacy supports used across classrooms and grade levels. Most of the teams we have supported in this work utilize a combination of formal and informal structures in the needs assessment process. Don’t get carried away; this is not just a homework assignment but a consensus-building exercise. Some of the resources we have utilized include:

  • Formal and informal sharing of district literacy assessments with the team. Use state testing data from the past three years and supplement this with national tests such as the ACT, PSAT, or SAT.
  • A set of classroom observations focusing on specific aspects of classroom practice, such as the use of explicit comprehension strategies, academic language, debate and discussion, and a variety of texts and instructional resources.
  • Informal interviews and check-ins with teachers and department chairs.

These assessments offer a snapshot of the instructional landscape, enabling educators to pinpoint both strengths and weaknesses in the existing literacy programs.

3. Are the Resources and Strategies Currently Being Used in Tier 1 Instruction Based on Evidence?

As educational leaders, we must sift through the myriad of instructional strategies to find those with a seal of research-based approval. The question remains: Are our current literacy resources and strategies truly rooted in evidence? In an educational landscape brimming with innovative ideas and methodologies, it's essential to discern which practices are not only theoretically appealing but also empirically validated.

To navigate this landscape, leaders should turn to established repositories of research such as the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC). Their Practice Guides, such as the WWC Practice Guide for Adolescent Literacy and the WWC Practice Guide for Reading Interventions, distill research into actionable strategies. Moreover, resources like the University of Michigan's School of Education Essential Practices for Disciplinary Literacy Instruction offer specific practices for enhancing literacy within subject areas.

If there is uncertainty about the evidence base of your school's practices, prioritize this investigation in your literacy audit. Such an audit is not an endpoint but a springboard for growth, helping to align your school's literacy framework with proven methods.

Look at the data collected from your Tier 1 needs assessment. Evaluate what you see there against the research-based strategies outlined in these documents: this should help you to identify one or two areas to begin to target. Equipped with these tools and a commitment to evidence-based instruction, you can build a Tier 1 literacy program that stands on the shoulders of researched pedagogy, offering every student a strong literacy foundation that is both resilient and responsive to their educational needs.

4. How Can We Align Our Literacy Strategy with Existing or Strategic Plans?

In our pursuit of educational excellence, it's crucial that we don't operate in silos. This is especially true when introducing a new literacy focus. Imagine rolling out a meticulously planned, evidence-based literacy initiative only to find that it clashes with the district's overall strategic objectives. Confusing, isn't it? That's why aligning any new literacy program with the district's strategic plan or even the broader vision encapsulated in a "Portrait of a Graduate" is not a luxury but a necessity. In fact, according to research by Leithwood, Seashore Louis, Anderson, and Wahlstrom (2010), aligning smaller initiatives with broader organizational plans significantly increases their chances of success and impact. So, when you're jotting down the literacy goals for your middle or high school students, ensure those goals resonate with the broader educational mission you've committed to. This alignment doesn't just make practical sense; it also weaves literacy into the fabric of your educational ethos, making it a shared community goal rather than an isolated academic target.

5. Who will be the Lead Learner for this Literacy Work?

Every successful school initiative we have supported has had two local leaders. 

  1. A school or district administrator who can ensure top-level alignment with district goals, budgets, schedules, evaluations, and personnel changes. 
  2. An instructional leader who can facilitate meetings, coordinate observations, tailor resources, and give differential support. 

We recommend delegating the instructional leadership role in this initiative and strongly communicating to the staff that the district stands behind this instructional leader. Give them the needed time and resources to develop. Coaching and facilitation are essential to successfully implementing whole-school initiatives (Bean & Ippolito, 2016). Effective peer coaching helps to ensure that:

  • Diverse support is provided to teachers by staff members who are not in evaluative roles.
  • A dedicated individual is leading the initiative whose primary focus is on instructional leadership.
  • There is a development pathway within your building for advancing staff, particularly the high achievers.
  • The literacy plan’s objectives are practical and fulfilled within a predetermined time frame.

To be clear, failure to identify and support an instructional leader for this work is one of the biggest points of failure we have seen in this work.  But who should you select as your instructional leader?

Of course, if you have an instructional coach, that may be a great choice as long as they are familiar with the team they are coaching. On the other hand, providing some planning time to a respected teacher to lead this work can also work well if they have support. When selecting a leader for literacy initiatives, it’s less about content expertise and more about the capacity to guide and inspire a team of educators. Look for a teacher with strong facilitation skills, a willingness to learn, and a commitment to collaborative growth. While an English teacher may bring a wealth of literacy knowledge, they may also possess "blind spots" regarding the unique literacy demands of different content areas. Moreover, there’s a risk that non-English faculty might view literacy as exclusive to the English department if the leader hails from this traditional stronghold of literacy.

The key qualities of a literacy leader are the ability to listen attentively, facilitate discussions effectively, and support colleagues across disciplines. This inclusive leadership approach can foster a shared responsibility for literacy. In practice, many successful literacy leaders have come from unexpected quarters, including math departments, proving that when it comes to literacy leadership, the ability to unite and motivate peers transcends subject matter expertise.

6. How Do We Create Psychological Safety in Professional Learning Environments?

Creating a psychologically safe environment is essential for fostering effective teacher learning and the successful implementation of new literacy practices in secondary education. In this context, the lead learner acts as a collaborative partner, ensuring that the work is non-evaluative and squarely focused on improvement (Ippolito et al., 2014). It's crucial for the lead learner to have the structural support to facilitate open dialogue and foster a non-judgmental atmosphere. While administrative backing is vital, it should empower rather than interfere, allowing the lead learner to effectively guide the literacy work.

Organizations like Reading Ways offer frameworks for achieving these goals. Our curated content is designed to align with the objective of enhancing Tier 1 instruction for secondary literacy. Specifically, Reading Ways’ SCALE model is designed to create psychologically safe and effective learning environments. This model underscores the importance of long-term coaching and adaptive learning strategies, tailored to meet the unique needs of each educational setting. By integrating these principles, the lead learner and educators are better positioned to make meaningful, sustainable changes in their literacy instruction practices.

7. Can Any Initiatives Can Be Streamlined or Dropped?

The allure of the "new and shiny" often leads educational leaders and teachers into the quagmire of "initiative fatigue," a phenomenon well-documented in educational research (Reeves, 2015). This overload of initiatives can dilute focus, strain resources, and negatively impact both teacher morale and the quality of instruction. In this complex landscape, the role of the lead learner becomes pivotal. They serve as the linchpin, working to intertwine and streamline various initiatives while keeping the focus sharply on secondary literacy and evidence-based practices. 

The lead learner's role is to sift through the myriad of initiatives and identify those that align closely with the overarching goal of improving secondary literacy. By doing so, they help to optimize both human and financial resources, ensuring that efforts are not spread too thinly across multiple, less impactful projects. The key is to focus on quality over quantity, grounding all initiatives in strong, evidence-based research. This approach not only alleviates the burden of initiative overload but also enhances the likelihood of achieving meaningful, sustainable impact in literacy outcomes. It's not about doing more, but about doing fewer things exceptionally well, with secondary literacy as the guiding star.

8. How Do We Secure Comprehensive Buy-In for a School-Wide Literacy Initiative that Recognizes Literacy as an Integral Skill Set, Including Thinking, Speaking, and Discipline-Specific Practices?

Securing teacher buy-in, especially at the middle and high school levels, is crucial for the success of any literacy initiative. It's essential to dispel the myth that literacy is solely the domain of English or Language Arts teachers. Literacy is a multifaceted skill set that includes not just reading and writing, but also thinking, speaking, and discipline-specific practices like writing like a scientist or thinking like a historian (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008). This comprehensive approach to literacy makes it a school-wide initiative, requiring administrative support to keep it at the forefront of educational efforts. From referencing disciplinary literacy in regular communications with staff to protecting the time reserved for this learning, administrative backing is essential for making positive, long-term changes. By broadening the definition of literacy and emphasizing its role in every subject, we can secure greater buy-in from middle and high school teachers, ensuring that literacy remains a focal point in educational efforts.

9. How Do We Monitor and Evaluate Our Literacy Efforts?

Many traditional models of professional development provide district leaders with limited visibility into teacher learning and implementation. Effective professional learning must build knowledge, provide actionable classroom recommendations, and collect evidence and feedback. Programs that have digital components should be generating stream data from teachers’ online engagement with school leaders. Feedback loops should also include data from observations and regular check-ins with teachers about the coursework and PD format and structure. At the same time, classroom observations and walk-throughs can be aligned with the goals that are being supported by the professional development. Data from across a range of sources can provide timely evidence of the effectiveness—or lack thereof—of your literacy plan. These observations can be coupled with student work samples and feedback to provide a fuller picture. Through this multifaceted approach, monitoring becomes less of a compliance task and more of an opportunity for meaningful dialogue and change.

10. How Do We Ensure Sustained Professional Growth for Our Teachers?

We all know that real professional growth results in changes of practice, and it requires more than attending a single seminar. Real applied learning is iterative and long-term. But how can this journey be effectively mapped out in your literacy plan? First, sustained growth implies ongoing training that allows teachers to delve deeper into literacy methods and practices. Professional growth also flourishes with the support of the school community. As a leader, your job is to build the structures for collaborative learning and then delegate and support the instructional leadership role. Teacher interactions with colleagues contribute to a culture of continual learning and refinement, a key to elevating the quality of literacy instruction and support at the secondary level.

Conclusion and Call to Action

Navigating the complexities of a disciplinary literacy initiative is certainly not easy, but it's essential for providing a strong Tier I instructional foundation. Reading Ways' SCALE model is specially designed to guide leaders in traversing these complexities. The online platform provides a safe space for teachers to learn, guided by a local lead learner and supported by a Reading Ways consultant, equipping them with the latest research and evidence-based strategies. The Reading Ways Coaching Dashboard adds a layer of accountability without compromising the psychological safety of educators.

Don't let the intricacies discourage you, we have a set of playbooks and tools to guide you in this work.  Take the next step and reach out to Reading Ways today for a discovery call. We look forward to learning with you!


Bean, R. M., & Ippolito, J. (2016). Cultivating coaching mindsets: An action guide for literacy leaders. Learning Sciences International.

Biancarosa, G., Bryk, A. S., & Dexter, E. R. (2010). Assessing the value-added effects of literacy collaborative professional development on student learning. The Elementary School Journal, 111(1), 7–34.

Goddard, R. D., Hoy, W. K., & Hoy, A. W. (2000). Collective teacher efficacy: Its meaning, measure, and impact on student achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 37(2), 479.

Ippolito, J., Charner-Laird, M., & Dobbs, C. (2014). Bridge builders: Teacher leaders forge connections and bring coherence to literacy initiative. Journal of Staff Development.

Leithwood, K., Louis, K. S., Wahlstrom, K., Anderson, S., Mascall, B., & Gordon, M. (2010). How successful leadership influences student learning: The second installment of a longer story. In Second International Handbook of Educational Change (pp. 611–629). Springer Netherlands. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-90-481-2660-6_35

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content-area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 40–59.

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