Instructional Practices

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Schools and Schooling

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Principals as Literacy Leaders

Rita M. Bean, Professor Emerita, University of Pittsburgh, PA
Jacy Ippolito, Professor of Education, Salem State University, MA


  • To describe the importance of principals as literacy leaders who are responsible for distributing leadership and empowering faculty and other stakeholders to actively and collaboratively participate in improving literacy teaching and learning in schools

What Is It?

In schools where distributed leadership is practiced, the principal shares literacy leadership work with many different school-based professionals and community stakeholders (e.g., students, families, community members). School leaders are de facto literacy leaders who are involved in making decisions about the school's literacy curriculum, instruction, and continual improvement. This perspective emphasizes "reciprocal interdependency" (Spillane, 2005, p. 146), that is, principals and informal leaders learn from and are influenced by each other.

Principals also contribute to the effectiveness of specialized literacy professionals (SLPs) in improving literacy instruction by supporting their efforts (e.g., encouraging teachers to work with SLPs, developing schedules that provide time to work with teachers). Working collaboratively with teachers and SLPs, effective principals can create a culture of shared ownership of all literacy teaching and learning work in a school.

Why Is It Effective?

Research evidence points to the importance of principals as key leaders of instructional improvement, second only to classroom teachers in their impact on student learning (National Association of Secondary School Principals & National Association of Elementary School Principals, 2013). Supovitz and colleagues (2010) identified three categories of principal actions that have an influence on student achievement: setting the mission and goals of the school, focusing on instruction, and developing a culture of trust and collaboration. Principals who accomplish these goals, understand how to empower others so that there is a collective, focused, whole-school effort that leads to steady improvement in literacy teaching and learning.

How Do You Do It?

Standards for the Preparation of Literacy Professionals (International Literacy Association, 2018) provides a detailed description of what principals who are literacy leaders know and are able to do. First, they understand the latest research about literacy learning, and share that information with their faculty. These principals also arrange schedules to ensure that teachers meet on a regular basis to "reflect on student progress, examine systemic inequities, and implement and align successful literacy practices across classrooms" (International Literacy Association, 2018, p. 96).

Principals who are literacy leaders understand, value, and respect the cultural and linguistic context of their school community and work with faculty to create an inclusive and affirming school environment in which instruction reflects students' language, culture, and identities. Given their many different responsibilities, effective school principals understand the importance of working collaboratively with specialized literacy professionals as a means of improving literacy teaching and learning (Bean, Dagen, Ippolito, & Kern, 2018). Principals who are literacy leaders develop the capacity of their faculty to work collaboratively to achieve the goals of effective literacy teaching and learning for all.

How Do You Start?

Effective principals do the following:

  • Develop a climate in which the school is viewed as a place of learning for students and the adults who serve them.
  • Develop a climate of collaboration by treating all faculty with respect, valuing their ideas, and empowering them to share their expertise.
  • Establish a school-based literacy leadership team. Such teams have long-term responsibilities including leading efforts to craft schoolwide literacy goals, creating action plans for developing curriculum, selecting materials, or evaluating instructional materials and implementation. The team may also have ongoing responsibilities such as analyzing student data on a regular basis and making recommendations about grouping, instructional goals, and so on.
  • Team members may include SLPs such as reading/literacy specialists and literacy coaches, special educators, psychologists, and teacher leaders. The principal and other school leaders such as assistant principals are important members of the team, participating in discussions and decision making.
  • Effective principals support their teachers and SLPs by providing them with the time and resources to do their work effectively.
  • Discuss and clarify with SLPs their job descriptions, facilitate their ability to fulfill assigned responsibilities, and help teachers understand and appreciate the roles of SLPs.
  • Cultivate a strong working relationship with their SLPs by communicating with them on a regular basis, seeking and sharing key information, so that each is aware of the literacy challenges and successes in the school and how to address them.
  • Maintain a strong focus on instruction by visiting classrooms, encouraging faculty to share ideas and resources about literacy instruction, and providing professional learning experiences, including coaching, to develop teacher expertise.
  • Frame literacy teaching and learning work as one of the most powerful levers to increase access, opportunity, and equity for all students.


Bean, R.M. & Dagen, A.S. (Eds.). (2012). Best practices of literacy leaders: Keys to school improvement. Guilford Press.

Bean, R.M., Dagen, A.S., Ippolito, J., & Kern, D. (2018). Principals' perspectives on the roles of specialized literacy professionals. The Elementary School Journal, 119(2), 327–350.

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

Calkins, L. (with Ehrenworth, M., & Pessah, L.). (2018). Leading well: Building schoolwide excellence in reading and writing. Heinemann.

International Literacy Association. (2018). Literacy coaching for change: Choices matter [Literacy leadership brief].

International Literacy Association. (2018). Standards for the preparation of literacy professionals 2017.

International Literacy Association. (2019). Principals as literacy leaders [Literacy leadership brief].

Ippolito, J. (2009). Principals as partners with literacy coaches: Striking a balance between neglect and interference (ED530261). ERIC.

Ippolito, J., & Bean, R.M. (2018). Unpacking coaching mindsets: Collaboration between principals and coaches. Learning Sciences International.

Matsumura, L.C., Sartoris, M., Bickel, D.D., & Garnier, H.E. (2009). Leadership for literacy coaching: The principal's role in launching a new coaching program. Educational Administration Quarterly, 45(5), 655–693.

National Association of Secondary School Principals & National Association of Elementary School Principals. (2013). Supporting principals in implementing teacher evaluation systems.

Neumerski, C.M. (2013). Rethinking instructional leadership, a review: What do we know about principal, teacher, and coach instructional leadership, and where should we go from here? Educational Administration Quarterly, 49(2), 310–347.

Spillane, J.P. (2005). Distributed leadership. The Educational Forum, 69(2), 143–150.

Supovitz, J., Sirinides, P., & May, H. (2010). How principals and peers influence teaching and learning. Educational Administration Quarterly, 46(1), 31–56.