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April 9, 2024
ASCD Blog

Why Leaders Must Learn the Science of Reading

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The literacy landscape is evolving. Are leaders keeping up?
LeadershipProfessional LearningCurriculum
Illustration of open book with paper airplanes flying out across a blue background.
Credit: Man As Thep / Shutterstock
Recently, I learned about a music festival coming to my city and was excited about the opportunity for an incredible experience. I saw the initial lineup and I knew one of the headliners—famous since 1975. It was at that moment I realized I was out of touch with current music, even with popular radio on. How could I be so unaware of the latest music trends? 
Like music, trends in education research and practice can be hard to keep up with, especially for already busy educators. But if we aren’t staying current with education research, we might be leaning on outdated information, relying on what worked for us years ago to inform our current practices. This is especially important for literacy research because illiteracy has far-reaching impacts on a student’s life. We must lean on proven research to ensure our students have the best chances of future success.
The foundational skills approach called three-cueing, which uses instructional cues (semantic, syntactic, and grapho-phonic), has been the dominant approach for teaching young readers for the past 20 years. During this time, my own instructional approach included elements of three-cueing, and, as I moved into leadership, I continued to teach others what I knew based on the experience and knowledge I had. Much of the experience and knowledge I had wasn’t serving all children but rather those who grasped literacy skills more easily. I wasn’t knowledgeable enough about serving children with dyslexia or those who required repeated explicit instruction to become proficient readers. Research into the science of reading has tuned me in to why keeping up with current literacy research practices, especially in the science of reading, is so important and has helped me recognize why leaning on past experience isn’t enough.

The Challenge for Leaders

Leaders have an important charge ahead of them—they must grow themselves while also growing others.  Making time to focus on our own professional development can prove difficult, especially when that means growing our content knowledge and growing our leadership knowledge.
According to Zippia, the average age of school principals is 47.  If the average principal today graduated college and began teaching at age 23, they would have started teaching in 2000—at a time when balanced literacy (and three-cueing) was the dominant approach. But this approach doesn’t work for all children. We’ve witnessed its failure in years of stagnant NAEP data: Children we thought were strong readers in early grades struggle in later grades as picture support drops off and text complexity increases. And three-cueing instruction isn’t the only issue. Children require instruction in both decoding and language comprehension skills grounded in knowledge-building to become proficient readers. It is this three-pronged approach to reading instruction that more and more research supports.
Effective educators are often the ones tapped for leadership roles and, as we move into new phases of our career, we lean on our existing experiences to lead others. Even if we continue to grow our content knowledge, we often do so just enough to monitor conversations and instruction at a high level. As leaders, what we were taught and what we used in our classrooms may not be what is now considered an informed approach to teaching reading. This leads me to ask: If we are uninformed, how can we lead? And what if, because of our ignorance, we’re missing key factors that will keep children from learning to read?

Leaders can be change drivers in literacy, but without the updated knowledge needed to be critically informed decision-makers, we will continue to fail students.

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A Tale of Two Leaders

Let’s consider how a lack of knowledge impacts literacy in our buildings using Leader A and Leader B as examples. Leader A has not kept up with new literacy knowledge and leans on their previous classroom experience. Leader B is learning evidence-aligned approaches alongside teachers in the building.

Scenario:

The leaders are informed that they will be tasked with purchasing new literacy materials for their school.  Teachers are in desperate need of curriculum support for core instruction. Both leaders begin sourcing curriculum for review, starting with the same curriculum.
After some review, Leader A adopts a curriculum that touts its revised phonics curriculum. The curriculum includes lessons for phonics skills and small group instruction. The comprehension lessons are aligned to state standards and use grade level texts.
Leader B reviews the same curriculum as Leader A. However, after reading the sample small group lessons, they note many prompts that encourage a three-cueing and a responsive approach to phonics skills, meaning teachers are not provided a scope and sequence of foundational skills. In addition, the comprehension lessons use text excerpts and passages with random topics, rather than text sets that bundle topics together to build knowledge.
Without deep knowledge about evidence-based reading instruction, Leader A adopts what seems to be an appropriate curriculum that includes foundational skills and aligns to grade level standards. However, the lacking content knowledge means teachers won’t have the guidance needed to support evidence-aligned reading instruction. Teachers may have to supplement this new curriculum with other materials when students don’t make the progress they seek. Reading comprehension may suffer as students lack the knowledge to deeply understand what they read.

Leaders, Invest in Your Own PD

Leaders are often the gatekeepers of a school’s success. As Ernesto Ortiz explains, “As building leaders, we are the people who decide where and how to dedicate resources, how money is allocated and spent, and we set the tone for the instructional direction of our buildings.” Leaders can be change drivers in literacy, but without the updated knowledge needed to be critically informed decision-makers, we will continue to fail students. Investing in your own professional development and learning may be the catalyst for change that your system needs. To start, leaders can: 
  1. Deepen literacy content knowledge related to your instructional level.
  2. Connect with other leaders or literacy experts and ask what they are reading. If it’s leadership-focused, invite them to a book study that is content-focused.
  3. Attend professional development alongside teachers (when possible), since sticking with high-level theoretical knowledge may not be enough.
There are many resources available to deepen your knowledge in a growing market of learning about the science of reading. I’ve invested in my professional development by taking training with LETRS and IMSE. My professional library continues to grow, and I listen to podcasts that align with this work. I’ve also found a supportive community in The Reading League, which offers a multitude of resources such as webinars, workshops, and book studies both from their national organization and state chapters. (Disclosure: I am the founding president of The Reading League North Carolina.)  
Literacy is gaining a foothold in the public news, it’s at the forefront of education discussions, and it’s driving legislative change. You can enhance your leadership by strengthening your content knowledge, just like going to a music festival can broaden your music experience. Be the informed gatekeeper you need to best serve your students, rather than staying stuck in a past decade listening to “your” music on a loop.

Linda Rhyne is the owner of Linda Rhyne Consulting and founding president of The Reading League North Carolina. She is an award-winning educator with over 16 years of experience in education, including at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, one of the nation's 20 largest urban school districts located in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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