The Instructional Leader's Guide to Jumpstarting ELA Instruction
When we develop principals as strong instructional leaders, we can change student learning trajectories. Research shows that an equity-minded school leader accounts for about 25 percent of a school’s impact on student achievement—not an insubstantial number!
In light of last fall’s release of the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, it’s more important than ever for school leaders to adopt an instructional leadership mindset. With you at the helm—focused first and foremost on supporting the development of teaching and learning, and removing barriers to student success—our students will bounce back stronger than ever when it comes to ELA and math achievement.
With you at the helm—focused first and foremost on supporting the development of teaching and learning, and removing barriers to student success—our students will bounce back stronger than ever when it comes to ELA and math achievement.
As we mentioned in our Activate & Accelerate Math Toolkit, we’ve identified three of the most immediate—and effective—ways that school leaders (and the instructional leadership teams you build) can create instructional coherence, build a school culture rooted in learning, and improve student achievement. Here’s how:
1. Build the capacity of teachers to deliver high-quality instruction,
2. Increase the complexity of the content being taught to students, and
3. Shift student engagement from passive to active learning.
In the second part of our series (if you missed our focus on math, take a look here), we’ll examine these three actions through the lens of ELA and literacy instruction.
Build teacher capacity
Teachers learn best by doing—both through individual action as well as with their peers and others with relevant knowledge. Consider the incredible amount of teacher capacity that’s built when teachers are able to routinely collaborate with one another, gaining insights to improve their own teaching practices while also ensuring what they’re teaching has a throughline across the grade levels of their fellow teachers. Even better? When teacher collaboration is paired with external partners and organizations who can guide them toward culturally relevant literature and tasks.
As teachers are reenergized by their own learning, they’ll also pass that energy onto their students. Here are a few ways principals can play a part in deepening teacher knowledge and professional learning:
- Help to curate culturally relevant literature. As you and your teachers are considering the types of literature that need to be taught in your classrooms, think through the selection carefully, ensuring that what students are reading represents their cultural and lived experiences while also aligning with standards-based learning needs.
- Examine text complexity. It’s critical that teachers identify what makes texts challenging and then teach high-impact comprehension strategies, so as texts increase in complexity, students can continue to apply the same strategies to what they’re reading and learning.
- Engage in collaborative planning. Set teachers up for success by giving them the gift of time with one another, whether it’s to analyze data, plan curriculum, or simply swap ideas. For example, teachers might use collaborative planning time to have a “text talk”—where they read and discuss the text they’re teaching to students with one another so they can deepen their own understanding and facilitate a more productive discussion with their students.
- Ensure students can “make meaning.” Focusing on individual standards can make ELA and literacy instruction into a series of unrelated exercises with seemingly disconnected strategies. Instead, focus your ELA instruction efforts on “making meaning” around a common theme or topic, so students can rigorously explore ideas from multiple perspectives (via other texts, images, and people) and their own personal experiences to develop and defend their own points of view.
- Help students develop mental models. Consider what happens when students are first learning to read. Not only do they have to decode the words on a page, but they also need to learn the meaning behind the words and the sentences a string of particular words creates. Teachers and leaders alike need to be familiar with the best practices that help develop these mental models, including complexity, high-impact comprehension strategies, student discourse, critical thinking, and interpretation.
- Emphasize equity and efficacy. All students are able to grow as readers and writers, and it’s our job as school leaders and teachers to make sure we develop instruction that is equitable and accessible for all students. For example, this high school administrator works hard with her students on embracing their identities in her ELA classroom, knowing that when students are in tune with who they are, they are more able to evaluate the role of language and literacy in their education.
Increase content complexity
School leaders can also play a significant role in making sure teachers and students have access to a curriculum that reflects high-level standards. It’s this kind of effective content that will be critical as students continue to build knowledge and vocabulary throughout their school careers.
However, what’s considered to be “effective”—and therefore complex—content? Here’s our list of “must-haves”:
- Provides access to rich nonfiction. Nonfiction helps students develop critical thinking skills, acquire vocabulary, and build content knowledge. And, in later grades, it can help to deepen the understanding of their environment and society. It’s critical that principals ensure a substantial variety of nonfiction and informational texts are accessible.
- Equitable and culturally relevant. Not only is it important for students to be exposed on a daily basis to grade-level texts and tasks, but the content they read and write also needs to connect to their daily lives. For example, this former high school teacher invited her ELA students to read the same text and share something that stood out to them. The variety of responses emphasized that all students approach literature through their own identities and experiences—and that everyone’s perspective is valuable.
- Provides regular practice with complex texts. To be college- and career-ready, it’s important for students to be exposed to increasingly complex texts across grade levels—and engage with academic language and related vocabulary.
Shift from passive to active student learning
Approaching curriculum and instruction from a student-centered approach means students are involved in the planning, implementation, and assessment of their learning. Imagine the difference in your school when your teachers shift their classroom leadership style from directive to consultative. When that happens, student ownership changes—they’re more in the driver’s seat of their learning and engagement skyrockets.
This active learning can come to life in ELA and literacy instruction through activities like peer teaching, where students teach their peers about a particular subject, or reciprocal questioning, where students take on the role of the teacher and come up with their own discussion questions about a specific text. Here are a few additional ways school leaders can help teachers jumpstart student engagement through active learning:
- Create rigor and accountability. Productive struggle—where students develop their perseverance and flexible thinking skills—is something that’s essential for students to be proficient readers. As they go through the grade levels, that productive struggle is a key part of their independence as text becomes increasingly more complex.
- Help students explore textual evidence. Students need to be able to write and speak to sources and evidence to demonstrate and support their understanding. We want to teach students to make logical conclusions in their lives, and be able to search for facts and data to validate their thoughts. This text-based approach advances student voice and conversation in the classroom.
- Employ high-impact comprehension strategies. Comprehension strategies are critical for young readers to understand the structure of complex texts, unpack the language, make meaning, and expand their content knowledge. This might look like asking a student to summarize something they’ve read, or teaching students to activate their background knowledge to further understand what they’re reading.
- Ensure voice, choice, and influence: The best (and most engaging!) ELA and literacy instruction gives students a choice in the topics they study, how they demonstrate knowledge, and makes sure their voices are heard in classroom discussions.
Keep track of your instructional successes
Similar to what we shared about math, it’s important that as a school leader, you continue to make time for those actions that advance your instructional leadership. Visiting classrooms, providing feedback, and establishing a visible presence in teacher meetings are just a few of the ways you can commit to consistent practice.
As you continue to build upon your instructional knowledge, don’t forget to keep track of your successes—the increase in meaningful content, the use of more effective instructional practices, and proof of active student engagement.
As you continue to build upon your instructional knowledge, don’t forget to keep track of your successes—the increase in meaningful content, the use of more effective instructional practices, and proof of active student engagement and learning. We created our ELA Toolkit in a way that allows you to record your evidence of instructional coherence and celebrate your wins. Be sure to check it out.