5 Ways Principals Can Lead Literacy

Create a Culture of Literacy.

A culture of literacy is one where the entire school, and even better, the entire district, plays a part. From food service to administration and custodians to classroom teachers, everyone participates in creating an environment where students find joy and celebrate reading, researching, storytelling, and writing. Students view all members of the school community as equal owners of language.1

Within this culture, classrooms have multiple spaces for independent and partner reading and a place for guided reading and instruction. Each student has a bin of books filled with authentic literature at their reading level, and/or they have access to many levels of books throughout the classroom and school. There are word walls, anchor charts, and stations that dot the room for writing, word work, and using technology.2

There is evidence of literacy and learning throughout the school in projects, posters, and “What I’m Reading Now” signs posted outside every door. There’s a constant buzz as students are engaged in research and learning, events and specials, and the three most beautiful words are, “I don’t know,” because they present an opportunity for learning.

Provide Meaningful Professional Learning.

Teaching in a culture of literacy requires a different set of skills, and it is the principal’s responsibility to provide training so teachers can successfully instruct. As a literacy leader, your knowledge of literacy instruction, content standards, and progression of skills across grade levels will enable you to coach and support the development of these skills in your teachers.

When teachers transition from textbooks to authentic texts, the art of teaching changes, too. We move from “one size fits all” teaching to differentiated instruction. We abandon fill-in-the blank worksheets and offer in-depth, higher-order thinking where student collaboration and meaningful opportunities for application abound. We coach, continually assess, offer choice, promote self-regulation, and orchestrate authentic reading, writing, speaking, and listening opportunities.3 This is no small task.

Principals must also provide PLC and/or collaboration time. Teachers should meet frequently in grade-level teams and across disciplines to learn and discuss literacy research and best practices, talk about lessons and get feedback, and share what’s working and what needs to be developed. They can also develop curriculum, assess data, and focus on actionable steps to bring literacy to all students.4 Protect this time for teachers; don’t schedule anything in its place.

Support the Library As the School Hub.

The library should be a warm, welcoming place that serves as the school’s center where students and staff alike hang out, find information, and explore the world. There is joy and a shared value of literacy, and teachers know to send students and bring their classes frequently. Here students learn how to use the library, practice, and find recreational reading materials that fit just right. There are makerspaces and technology that cannot be found anywhere else in the building. Events like the annual Book Fair, author visits, book clubs, and Battle of the Books bring the school and community together. It is a special space to relax and witness literacy at its finest.

Principals can be a role model by publicly celebrating reading, regularly visiting the library, and becoming involved by promoting and participating in events.

Give Students Access to Equitable Resources and Experiences.

To develop literacy, it is imperative that students have access to equitable resources and experiences. Every classroom must provide students the same access to rich print and digital materials.

Support teachers in creating authentic reading and writing experiences.5 Budgets must include funding for classrooms and the library to keep collections current and culturally relevant. Field trips and events must fit into the curriculum and complement literacy initiatives.

Investigate possible misalignment of teacher beliefs, perceptions, and lack of content/standard knowledge. Plan side by side with your teachers to ensure equitable access to literacy instruction, resources, and experiences.6

Encourage Family Involvement.

Make it part of your school culture that families are present and supporting their child’s education. Invite family members to volunteer in the classrooms and library. Offer events, like Books & Breakfast, and invite the entire family to school for a meal while they read together. Have family members share a favorite book with the class. Start a Free Little Library with books for adults and students. Offer parent education classes, a blog, a website, or a school newsletter feature with ideas on how families can support their child and provide literacy opportunities that fit their lives.7 Anything you can do to make literacy part of real life and not just something done in school will accelerate students’ literacy growth.

As principal, you are an important influence in creating literacy reform. You can build the effectiveness of your staff and lead the way by weaving literacy practices and experiences throughout the day and outside the school walls. Bring the district along and you will create the environment for large-scale student success. We at Mackin are here to help and support you. Best to you and your efforts!


1 Gilmore, Barry. “10 Ways to Promote a culture of literacy.” Educational Leadership 74, no. 5 (February 2017): 72–76. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.dakota.lib.mn.us/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=121192894&site=ehost-live.

2 Cooke, Fatima. 2019. “LEADING THE LITERACY CHARGE: Creating and Fulfilling a School’s Literacy Vision.” Literacy Today (2411-7862) 36 (4): 16–17. http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.dakota.lib.mn.us/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=134046971&site=ehost-live.

3 Duke, Nell K., Gina N. Cervetti, and Crystal N. Wise. 2018. “Learning From Exemplary Teachers of Literacy.” Reading Teacher 71 (4): 395–400. doi:10.1002/trtr.1654.

4 Clark, Colleen Patrice. 2018. “LEADERS REACT: Researchers and Leaders Tell Us What Stood out to Them in the ILA 2018 What’s Hot in Literacy Report.” Literacy Today (2411-7862) 36 (1): 10–12.

5 Jacobson, Linda. 2017. “Building a Culture of Literacy: Ideas for Making Literacy the Foundation in Your School. (Cover Story).” Literacy Today (2411-7862) 35 (1): 20–24. 

6 Valerio, Michelle, and Melissa DiDonato. 2019. “PROTECTING ACCESS AND OPPORTUNITY: The Administrator’s Role as a Literacy Leader.” Literacy Today (2411-7862) 36 (6): 10–11.  

7 Cummings, Susan, Tara McLaughlin, and Brian Finch. 2018. “Examining Preadolescent Children’s Engagement in out-of-School Literacy and Exploring Opportunities for Supporting Literacy Development.” Australian Journal of Language & Literacy 41 (2): 103–16.