Leading Literacy… And Perennial Problems

This short series is targeted at literacy leaders – either Literacy Coordinators, Reading Leads, or Curriculum Deputies etc. – with a key role in leading literacy to ensure that pupils access the curriculum and succeed in meeting the academic demands of school. 

The old African proverb goes that it takes a village to raise a child. When it comes to the challenging task of developing skilled academic readers and writers, it also takes the proverbial village. 

Literacy leaders take on various guises in these vital collective efforts of the ‘village’, from ‘literacy coordinators’, to ‘reading leads’, curriculum deputies, Trust leaders, and more. They are expected to understand a wealth of issues, engage their colleagues, implement change, and evaluate impact. Often, it is a task that is Sisyphean in scale

Despite the shared understanding of the importance of literacy, these role face perennial problems and near-insurmountable challenges.

Five common barriers for literacy leaders 

Too much to know and do in too little time. It is the omnipresent issue for school leaders – a lack of time to implement the careful, sustained change that is necessary for improved practice in the classroom. The research evidence that attends literacy can too often seem so vast as to appear unmanageable.

Too little focus. So, what is the literacy priority of the school: what about improving reading? Writing? Spelling? Grammar? Academic talk? Vocabulary? The list goes on and each problem and solution interact with one another. The well-meaning guidance to do ‘make fewer but more strategic choices’ is harder than it sounds when it comes to leading literacy.

Too little status. It is a common occurrence for literacy roles to be perceived as junior leadership opportunities. This notion is flawed as too little status can mean that school leaders lack the levers to enact change, they can lack the budget, and ultimately the authority necessary for the role. Teachers follow people, not policies, so the literacy lead needs meaningful authority and trust.

Too disconnected from other priorities and practices. Busy teachers are assailed by priorities. When it comes down to it, understandably, classroom management and curriculum ‘coverage’ can supersede complex and nuanced changes to how you teach academic writing or how to develop pupils who are struggling with spelling. 

Too much reliance on a policy. You can enshrine a catalogue of purposeful approaches in a well organised literacy policy document, but then…well, school happens! Busy teachers can struggle to follow policies (or even read them!). For instance, what is a science teacher to make of supporting writing if they are relatively untrained? How confident is a year 5 teacher following the usual spelling policy when a dyslexic pupil is exhibiting complex individual needs? 

So, what is the solution for beleaguered literacy leads? Well, there is no magic wand here. This is difficult work, in compromised conditions, requiring ample effort and probably some luck too. 

Ultimately though, it is a task worth taking on. There is no school improvement priority that can out-do that of helping a child to learn to read and write, and to go on to read and write to learn. It may take the whole village, and brilliant literacy leads, but it is vital work worth doing.

Coming up…

This short series offers literacy leads of all stripes and stages to explore some useful ideas and strategies. Here are the proposed topics for upcoming blogs in the series:

3 thoughts on “Leading Literacy… And Perennial Problems”

  1. Rachel George

    Thank you for sharing this timely and insightful knowledge. I’m currently English Lead at my school but I will be taking on whole school Literacy Lead from September. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

  2. Thank you for this. It sums up the challenges I am facing to the letter! Looking forward to reading your series.

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