Leading Literacy Learning: Sharing Leadership at its Best

Tony Townsend,  Professor of Educational Leadership, Griffith Institute for Educational Research, Brisbane Australia, writes about an Australian initiative that supports school leaders in playing a key role in improving children’s reading literacy.

Meet Dr. Townsend

We all know that learning to read well is the key to the development of many other skills later on, but how many know that the role that school leaders take in this enterprise can have a massive impact on moving young people from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”?

All of the improvement literature suggests that when it comes to factors involved in improving student learning in schools, what the teacher does in the classroom and the influence of the home environment have the greatest effect sizes of all. A much lesser emphasis is placed on the impact that school leaders can have on achievement. In fact, it has been documented that the direct effects that school leaders have on student achievement is limited to somewhere between 5 and 15%. So, whenever a focus is put on improving student learning in a specific curriculum area, most of the emphasis is placed on changing what teachers do in classrooms by improving teaching practices, assessment practices, improving student-teacher relationships, and so on.

However, the indirect impact that principals, and other school leaders, can have on student learning in these curriculum areas is an important, although an often-neglected factor. School leaders are a key to many things, to school culture, to where resources are directed, to communicating and involving the community outside the school, and to monitoring teaching practices. So, when we see that the two main factors in improving student learning and the classroom and the home, the principal is the major link between the two.

The Australian government recognised the importance of this link when it decided to fund a pilot study called Principals as Literacy Leaders (PALL) in 2009. The research had suggested that, although overall Australia had performed quite well on international comparative studies such as PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS, there was quite a gap between those doing well and those doing not so well, sometimes up to three or four years in the same classroom. Through its “Closing the Gap” initiative, the government funded 43 different projects designed to improve the performance of students in literacy and numeracy. Forty-two of those projects were aimed at classrooms and teachers specifically and only one, PALL, looked at the broader canvas of the school and its community.

The PALL program is a two-year development program for school leaders designed to provide principals (in particular) and also other literacy leaders in the school with knowledge and skill development related to taking a leading role in improving children’s reading ability. It argues that the responsibility for leading learning must be taken by the principal and can’t be passed off to someone else. What school leaders do is critical to improving reading learning for students and the school principal is the key leader of the initiative. The purpose of the first year of the program is to develop an intervention plan that considers a particular aspect of reading improvement for a particular group or groups of students (for instance, improving oral language for junior school students). The intervention plan will then be implemented in the subsequent year. The program has five modules, two in term one (on two consecutive days) and one in each of the other three school terms. After each of the module sessions school leaders are expected to take what was learned back to their school, work with staff and the school community and then bring what they have learned from this process back to the following module.

Module 1 focuses on what constitutes effective leadership in a world where change is a constant and introduces participants to what is called the Leadership for Learning Blueprint. Module 2 recognises the argument that school leaders must have content knowledge about the discipline they are leading and outlines evidence-based research about the effective teaching and learning of reading and they are introduced to the BIG 6 of reading; early oral language experiences, phonological awareness, letter-sound knowledge, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. Module 3 examines the different forms of data necessary for leaders to understand the factors in schools which are influential in supporting literacy learning and exposes principals to data analysis and use in establishing priorities for reading interventions with their teachers, which is then picked up in Module 4 which examines the actions school leaders need to take to plan and implement effective literacy interventions, particularly those in reading. Module 5 then prepares school leaders to examine changes in literacy teaching and learning and to develop their capability to lead the evaluation of literacy interventions in their schools.

Modules 1 and 2 are conducted on two consecutive days in term 1, and Modules 3-5 are conducted in terms 2, 3 and 4. In between each of the modules, a series of tasks is undertaken back at the school, based on what was learned in each of the modules and leading towards a fully developed intervention plan to be implemented in the subsequent year.

Since 2010 more than 2000 school leaders from across Australia have participated in the Principals as Literacy Leaders (PALL) program and there have now been seven research studies related to the implementation of the PALL program to identify its efficacy and to look at its effect on leader and teacher behaviours as they relate to the teaching of reading. Four of these studies were quantitative in nature, one from the original pilot project, others from cohorts supported by the South Australian and Tasmanian Departments of Education and a fourth that focused particularly on leadership of reading within Indigenous communities. Three other studies were qualitative and collected data, initially in 2014 through case study research of five Tasmanian and four Victorian schools where the leader had completed PALL in the previous year, together with a subsequent study in 2016 of five Victorian schools, three of which had previously been involved in the earlier case studies. The results of the first six of these studies were compiled into the Springer published book Leadership and Literacy: Principals, Partnerships and Pathways to Improvement (Dempster, et al., 2017). Some key outcomes from PALL have been:

  • The PALL project has assisted school leaders by developing and honing their skills to more effectively support and guide teachers in regard to orchestrating curriculum development and monitoring learning and teaching practice.
  • The BIG 6 is seen, by both school leaders and teachers, as being a powerful organizing framework for teaching and learning in reading.
  • The overall organization of reading activity, including data analysis, changed teaching practices, focused curriculum and assessment activity, higher levels of engagement and students being more articulate in talking about how they learn, is starting to pay off. Schools are now able to document improvements in children’s achievement in both school-based and standardised assessments.
  • Similar to previous research, parent and community support was the area in which principals reported they most struggled.

PALL continues to support school leaders to improve reading in their schools. In 2018, nearly 300 participants, in 3 cohorts from Tasmania and 2 cohorts from South Australia, will complete the PALL program. Since principals and other school leaders are the key to connections between what happens in classrooms and families all around the world, a program like PALL is worth considering in countries where trying to improve literacy skills is a priority. The program is inexpensive to run and focuses on the context of each school by supporting schools to use their data, their resources and the power of shared leadership as a strategy for improving the life opportunities for their students.

More information on the PALL program can be obtained from Tony at t.townsend@griffith.edu.au


Dempster, N., Townsend, T., Johnson, G., Bayetto, A., Lovett, S. & Stevens, E. (2017) Leadership and Literacy: Principals, Partnerships and Pathways to Improvement. Springer, Cham, Switzerland, 209pp.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.