5 Simple Rules to Develop a Literacy-Focused School

Posted on Posted in Leaders

Guest post in our Summer Leadership Series by Mike Acomb.  Mike is the principal at the award-winning Dorothy E. Lewis Elementary School in the Cleveland suburb of Solon, Ohio.  


Transformative leadership in literacy is difficult work. To achieve deep, consistent, and long-lasting implementation, expect to expend a lot of energy and take your time.

5 Rules for Getting Started in Developing a Literacy-Focused School

Rule #1- Relationships first; Results later 

Most people know this, but at the same time, most leaders fail to truly understand what this means. Your reality may be that you are very far from your desired state or goal. Don’t take anything for granted. Take no shortcuts. Steady growth is the objective. You’re going to have to change minds and combat a slew of issues. The literacy leading principal must FIRST figure out where to start. Don’t guess, go to the research, and start by asking yourself how much reading do your students do on a daily basis…I mean actually do? According to Richard Allington, the basis of an effective reading program is that children must consistently read volumes and volumes of varied texts. Get this in place first. Without this culture in every classroom and teacher belief that it can be done, nothing else can stand.  World-class literacy strategies will fail without the culture to support it.

Rule #2 – Achieve Clarity. Be Inclusive

Get clear on (1) what you want to do, (2) why you want to do it, and (3) how to clearly and consistently communicate both. The late, great Rick DuFour taught us about leadership that is simultaneously tight and loose. Be tight on Why and What. Involve teachers in the process and be loose on How. If you already have clarity in your goals, is there a vision or framework for how you’ll systematically build capacity with staff and move forward one step at a time? What do you need to have in place first? What will that lead to? In turn, what will that lead to?

A vision without a plan is just a dream.

You WILL be met with resistance by challengers and you will have to repeatedly explain why, what, how and why again. Close your eyes. Can you can see and hear what your desired classroom culture looks and sounds like? If not, then go find someplace that has it already in place, learn from them, get clear, and then bring it back to your school to begin.

Rule #3 – Invest in your people, not programs

Focus the majority of your efforts on “great first instruction”. Professionalize your classroom teachers by building your community and learning around high-quality, research-based, and differentiated Tier 1 instruction. If your students are struggling to achieve, the root cause is likely at Tier 1, NOT Tier 2 or 3. Expect all to implement the vision in every classroom from the very beginning. Harness the power of collaboration, make it mandatory during the work day, participate, and build community.

Read together, make decisions together, and implement together.

If you can’t design your own professional development, get someone to help you design it. When the time is right, lead your staff in observing each other. Use your classrooms to demonstrate for others by utilizing a highly structured version of peer observation. Deep and consistent implementation will happen; and student achievement will explode. Re-think your teacher mentor programs to include mandatory professional development throughout their first year with a trained teacher leader to learn how to implement your school’s vision.

Rule #4 – Monitor with Feedback

Regularly inspect what you expect. Otherwise, it will cost you credibility and respect. Without good descriptive feedback teachers won’t learn at the rate you want. If you find yourself giving the same feedback to many teachers, email the staff and deliver it to all of them.  At the same time you monitor teachers, teach them how to monitor students. For instance, give your teachers the ability to use accountability to advance the culture of their classrooms. I offer a Kindergarten example.

Set the expectation that each student read 5-6 books in 20 minutes (after all their books are very short!). Give them a box of books matched to their reading level, a spot on the floor, and then circulate the room with your parent volunteers listening, encouraging, and prompting students. Change the books in the box every week. For older students, teach them how to choose appropriately leveled texts for themselves (This should be taught to younger students too!) and use a simple Status of the Class form. Each day, have each student call out the title and page number that they are on and record it.

This daily routine adds simple accountability AND provides data about student stamina, genre selection, and overall on-task behavior. Monitoring is critical to successful implementation. Each part of the plan should be monitored and this lets you monitor teachers while teachers are monitoring students. Figure out how to do this for every component of your literacy program.

Rule #5 – Assign and align your resources

Evaluate how you’re using your money, your people, and their talents. If students are going to read, they need to have books, right? Use grant money or other sources to purchase a variety of titles, levels, and genres for each classroom. Freeze spending in the school library and used that money on classroom libraries. Use the Scholastic Dollars from your Book Fair. Have the librarian fill carts of books with the appropriate levels and wheel them down to classrooms each week. Ask the librarian to fill each student’s book box with books from the library.

What good are all those books on the shelves anyway? Get them into the hands of kids!

What else could your librarian be doing to support literacy? Ours is expected to teach a lesson to each class using read aloud to model comprehension strategies. Use and improve your relationships with families. Low income? No books in the home? Check out 20 from your library and send them home in a bag. Ask for them back in two weeks so you can swap them for a new 20. If your families trust you, you should be able to find a way to trust them. Be creative. If you lose a few books, so what, you’re doing what’s best for kids! If you fail to think differently about your resources, all you will end up with is disappointment.

Leading change in literacy is some of the most difficult work you’ll do. These ideas helped us get started, they can help you too. At the end of the day, remember, slow growth is better than no growth!


Mike Acomb is the principal at the award-winning Dorothy E. Lewis Elementary School in the Cleveland suburb of Solon, OH.  Connect with Mike at mikeacomb@solonboe.org or follow him on Twitter @mikeacomb.