Early Reading Strategy

The Report of the Expert Panel on Early Reading in Ontario, 2003

Supportive Leadership

Leadership is about learning that leads to constructive change. (Lambert, 1998, p. 5)

There can be no more important goal for educators in Ontario elementary schools than to ensure that all children become effective readers who can apply their skills to build new knowledge. To achieve this goal, teachers, principals, central support staff, and superintendents must rededicate their efforts to build strong relationships, and must continually strive to improve their capacity to provide excellent instruction for children. The real measure of success is student achievement in reading: in effective schools and boards, student assessment data are used on an ongoing basis to monitor progress and guide the school in improvement planning.

Teamwork within and among schools is essential. Strong relationships among teachers enhance their opportunities for sharing effective practices and increase their personal and professional competence. Strong relationships, within and among schools, help to ensure that programs support each other and optimize opportunities for increasing literacy.

Supporting Professional Development

All contributors – teachers, teacher librarians, principals, support staff, and superintendents – need to focus on understanding the goals and key strategies for reading instruction so that the school continues to strengthen its capacity to improve. Classroom teachers can strive to increase their skills, but they cannot succeed in isolation. They need the support of other teachers, including the lead literacy teacher, as well as the principal, central support staff, and superintendent. Planned and sustained professional development is the key.

Successful professional development has these characteristics:


  • Everyone who affects student learning, including the principal, is involved and participates as part of the learning team.
  • Each member of the learning team has an individual professional development plan for reading, and engages in ongoing self-evaluation.
  • Experts contribute from both inside and outside the district.
  • Strong instructional leadership is provided by the school's lead teacher and principal, and by board literacy specialists, superintendents, and the director of education.
  • An integral goal is teacher self-efficacy – the firm conviction within teachers that they can make a difference in their students' reading achievement, and that they have the knowledge and skills to do it.


  • The content reflects the best available research and is aligned with The Kindergarten Program and the Ontario language curriculum for Grades 1 to 8.
  • Adequate time is allocated for developing professional expertise during school hours.
  • The commitment is long-term and is supported by adequate funding.
  • Learning is tied to school improvement.
  • Change occurs in definable steps.


  • A variety of professional learning activities are offered at the school, at the system level, and beyond, based on need.
  • Learning is reinforced through a cycle of theory, demonstration, practice, feedback, and coaching.
  • Follow-up is provided after concentrated professional development.
  • Evaluation of the professional development is based ultimately on its impact on teacher effectiveness and student learning.

Role of the Principal

Effective principals are committed curriculum leaders who are dedicated to making literacy a school priority. By sharing or distributing leadership, they build support for the school literacy plan and build the capacity to achieve its goals. They pay special attention to finding and developing in-school leaders, such as the lead literacy teacher, and to consolidating and extending the leadership skills of experienced teachers so that they can support their colleagues. One of the responsibilities of the principal in a French language school is to ensure that teachers are offered appropriate professional development that will allow them to include animation culturelle (cultural development) as a component of their program.

Effective leadership in literacy involves identifying important literacy goals and enabling teachers to achieve those goals through supervision and support. The principal has a direct impact on teaching and learning by:

Sharing Leadership

A whole school approach to literacy, based on a philosophy of distributed leadership, provides classroom and specialist teachers with opportunities to assume leadership roles in curriculum and instruction. This model also gives teachers responsibility for thinking about individual and collective strategies for working more efficiently and effectively with children, with the key goal of improving the reading skills of all children.

The role of the principal in shared leadership is to:

  • foster an atmosphere of trust;
  • coach/mentor teachers so that they develop their leadership skills;
  • provide opportunities for teachers to share knowledge with each other;
  • involve teachers in sharing with each other;
  • form professional learning teams focused on literacy instruction and assessment;
  • engage teachers in school planning at different stages (e.g., collecting data, setting goals, monitoring progress, and providing feedback);
  • accept accountability for student achievement and foster support of the vision and the goals of the school plan;
  • embrace opportunities to learn with teachers about effective practice;
  • act as an instructional leader, providing guidance and leadership;
  • understand that teachers responsible for libraries have a pivotal role in early literacy development.

Promoting Learning Teams

Professional development is most powerful when teachers learn and work together as a team and pursue clearly articulated school-based goals for literacy. Principals should work closely with teachers to develop a plan for ongoing learning, addressing current literacy issues identified by teachers and by research into effective practice.

The role of the principal in promoting learning teams is to:

  • establish a literacy team in the primary division;
  • communicate and collaborate at regularly scheduled times with the primary division and grade teams;
  • collaborate with team members to set the agenda for literacy meetings and discuss topics relevant to best practices in reading instruction;
  • ensure that professional development is relevant by linking it with school literacy priorities and assessment data;
  • ensure that professional development leads to improvements in the classroom by providing monitoring and feedback;
  • provide time for teachers to learn together;
  • provide opportunities for teachers to be trained in coaching and mentoring, as well as opportunities for them to practise these skills.

Optimizing School and Classroom Timetables

Research on effective schools shows that schools and classrooms should be organized around the learning needs of students so that meaningful and sustainable improvements in student achievement can be supported. To help maximize instructional time and engage students in learning, the principal should:

  • schedule large uninterrupted blocks of time for reading and literacy instruction;
  • explore alternative timetables and school organizations that maximize instructional time;
  • reduce or eliminate unnecessary interruptions during instructional time;
  • schedule time for team planning and learning;
  • ensure that children who are at risk of not learning to read have optimal access to interventions at appropriate times during the school day;
  • talk with teachers about monitoring their students' time on task.

Supporting Classroom Instruction

Effective reading instruction involves children in a range of reading contexts that can be adjusted to meet the needs of children at different levels of achievement and with different interests. The role of the principal in effective reading instruction is to:

  • understand the reading process and be able to articulate it to teachers and parents;
  • be knowledgeable about the components of effective reading instruction and the framework necessary for supporting it (see the Framework for Effective Early Reading Instruction on page 12);
  • review individual classroom timetables to ensure that they provide effective literacy blocks;
  • value teaching that builds on the cultural backgrounds and first languages of the children;
  • visit classrooms to observe reading instruction;
  • monitor teachers' reading programs to ensure that the components are effectively implemented and observable in classrooms (e.g., the effective use of levelled texts, guided reading, and word walls);
  • establish budgets that give priority to reading and allow for classroom resources, time for teamwork, professional development, and materials for the classrooms;
  • ensure that reading resources are available and accessible to all.

Setting Targets That Improve Student Achievement

High expectations for student achievement need to be clearly articulated to teachers and parents. The role of the principal is to:

  • collaborate with teachers to establish targets for student achievement in reading based on results from a variety of assessment tools;
  • participate in the board-wide target setting and reporting that is required by the Ministry of Education;
  • establish a vision in the school that reflects an expectation of high achievement for all children;
  • regularly review the school improvement plan and targets for reading achievement with staff and the school council.

Developing the School Literacy Plan

Every school improvement plan should include an EQAO plan and a comprehensive literacy plan. The literacy plan guides instruction for promoting student achievement, improves teachers' skills, and promotes community involvement in early literacy. The role of the principal in this process is to:

  • guide the school improvement planning team in reviewing student performance in literacy;
  • engage teachers in establishing goals and setting priorities based on a variety of assessment data;
  • work with teachers to interpret data on student achievement;
  • use consistent assessment tools from year to year, and within the year at specific points;
  • connect professional development with the goals of the school literacy plan;
  • ensure that teachers use high-quality assessment tools in their day-to-day practice to inform their teaching;
  • regularly review goals and priorities to measure progress and make necessary adjustments for improvement;
  • align school budget priorities with goals in the literacy plan;
  • ensure that literacy remains a priority in the everyday operations of the school;
  • celebrate both incremental and significant achievements in student and staff literacy learning;
  • align plans with the Ontario Ministry of Education's The Kindergarten Program, 1998; The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1-8: Language, 1997; and board policies and directives.

Promoting Home/School/Community Partnerships

Children make significantly greater progress when their parents, caregivers, and the community work together with the school to encourage their reading achievement. The role of the principal is to:

  • work with the school council in fulfilling its mandate to support student achievement;
  • encourage parents and caregivers to support their child's learning in meaningful ways (e.g., through family reading, letter writing, and storytelling);
  • establish processes for communicating the reading expectations to parents;
  • affirm the ongoing development of the children's first language in the home;
  • make links with community agencies that offer literacy services;
  • provide parents and caregivers with access to reading material that their children can use at home;
  • seek meaningful partnerships with high schools, community colleges, and universities.

For principals in the French-language system, the responsibility for promoting home and community partnerships has an added dimension. While respecting the cultural diversity of students and the first language of the home, they need to participate in ensuring the continued vitality of Franco-Ontarian culture. This means that they have an obligation to encourage families both to use French in the home as much as possible and to actively seek out French-language experiences for their children. Principals must also plan stimulating cultural activities throughout the school to reach and connect with children of all grades, giving life to the language and enabling children to live as francophones. Modes for cultural enrichment might include school newspapers, radio, sports, arts events, and after-school programs.

Providing Interventions and Supports

Schools that are effective in teaching early literacy recognize the need for short-term, research-based interventions that address the specific needs or gaps of "at-risk" learners. The role of the principal in providing interventions and supports is to:

  • ensure that interventions are based on student needs, aligned with the classroom reading instructional practices, and delivered by a trained literacy expert;
  • monitor the assessment strategies used to determine the students' level of achievement;
  • organize timetables so that remedial help is given at appropriate times and in appropriate settings during the school day;
  • monitor the progress of children in special programs who are at risk of not learning to read;
  • monitor the development and implementation of Individual Education Plans (IEPs) related to reading instruction.

Role of the Lead Literacy Teacher

Every school in Ontario with a primary division should have a lead literacy teacher who has extensive expertise in reading instruction and staff development. The lead literacy teacher's main goal is to improve reading achievement by working collaboratively with teachers to deepen their understanding of the reading process and extend their repertoire of instructional strategies. Lead teachers support principals in ensuring effective reading instruction throughout the school.

To be effective, lead literacy teachers should have a thorough conceptual understanding about the reading and writing process, about how children and adults learn, and about how to create opportunities for them to learn effectively. Lead literacy teachers must have a clear and well-articulated vision of what is possible in student achievement in reading.

If lead teachers are to fulfil their unique and pivotal role, their classroom responsibilities must take into account the time needed within the school day to model lessons and collaborate with and mentor other staff.

Effective lead literacy teachers have the following knowledge and skills:

  • extensive knowledge of effective reading practice
  • the ability to evaluate and interpret current research
  • in-depth knowledge of how children learn to read and write
  • expertise in assessment as it relates to the reading process
  • commitment to student improvement
  • successful experience in primary teaching
  • demonstrated knowledge of the principles of adult learning
  • strong commitment to teamwork
  • strong interpersonal skills

The main responsibilities for lead literacy teachers include:

Observing, Coaching, and Mentoring

Lead teachers help their team members to refine their instructional strategies by observing, coaching, and mentoring them in the classroom. The role of the lead teacher is to:

  • model effective instructional strategies;
  • work with the principal and teachers to schedule the literacy block;
  • help teachers to reflect on their practice;
  • help teachers to establish routines that allow for effective literacy instruction;
  • model how to use professional resources to improve instructional strategies;
  • help teachers to make meaningful connections between reading theory and classroom practice;
  • work with new teachers and their mentors to establish a classroom reading program.

Promoting Learning Teams

The lead literacy teacher supports the primary division learning team in its ongoing development. The role of the lead teacher in professional development is to:

  • consult with teachers on topics for ongoing learning;
  • lead professional training sessions in areas determined by the priorities and goals in the school literacy plan;
  • lead discussions among teachers on current reading practices and current reading research;
  • provide opportunities for teachers to share their own effective practices with each other;
  • work collaboratively with principals and other lead teachers in the board to develop and share effective practices;
  • engage in ongoing professional learning and self-reflection;
  • support the principal in scheduling regular in-school literacy meetings.

Managing Resources

Books, tapes, and other learning materials are essential resources for early reading instruction. Time and attention need to be given to selecting, maintaining, and distributing these resources. The role of the lead teacher is to:

  • share appropriate professional resources with teachers;
  • establish a framework or process for tracking early literacy resources in the school;
  • instruct teachers on how to use levelled materials;
  • work with classroom teachers and the teacher-librarian to establish resource priorities.

Analyzing and Interpreting Student Achievement Data

The ability to assess literacy is the foundation for systematically improving student achievement in reading. To help their teams develop this ability, lead teachers:

  • model how to use assessment tools effectively;
  • support teachers in assessing student reading achievement at specific points during the school year;
  • model how to use student achievement data to plan for instruction;
  • work with the principal to analyse student achievement data;
  • work with the principal to interpret aggregate data from classroom assessments in reading for Kindergarten to Grade 3;
  • participate in developing and revising the school literacy plan as part of school improvement planning.

Role of the Superintendent

Leadership is the guidance and direction of instructional improvement´┐Ż. Distributed leadership does not mean that no one is responsible for overall performance of the organization. It means, rather, that the job of administrative leaders is primarily about enhancing the skills and knowledge of people in the organization, creating a common culture of expectations around the use of those skills and knowledge, holding the various pieces of the organization together in a productive relationship with each other, and holding individuals accountable for their contributions to the collective results. (Elmore 2000, pp. 13, 15)

Success in reading must be a concrete goal, which results in tangible actions by teachers, principals, and superintendents. Effective superintendents assume responsibility for increasing student achievement in reading in their district and sustain this improvement by promoting shared or distributed leadership for literacy.

The superintendent has a dual responsibility: to supervise the development and implementation of the district improvement plan and to ensure that principals have developed and implemented the literacy component of the school improvement plan.

Effective leadership by superintendents in the area of literacy addresses the following areas:

Creating Vision and Focus

A key role of the superintendent is to actively articulate a vision of high achievement in reading to the board, principals, teachers, and parents. This vision establishes a clear purpose as well as the standard for achievement. A shared sense of purpose leads to shared action. The role of the superintendent as visionary is to:

  • facilitate a system-wide commitment to early literacy;
  • establish policies that support effective literacy instruction;
  • help principals to recognize and articulate what their schools must accomplish in the area of reading instruction and student achievement;
  • create a climate of accountability for improvement in reading results;
  • build strong professional development networks at the board level;
  • establish a focus on reading at the local level;
  • ensure that reading initiatives are aligned at the provincial, board, school, and classroom levels;
  • manage the implementation of new initiatives so that schools maintain a focus on early reading;
  • engage the expertise and leadership of central support staff.

Building Leadership

For innovation to succeed, an organization must strengthen its leadership capacity. Effective superintendents do this primarily by creating professional learning teams of principals, focusing on reading instruction and literacy leadership. The role of the superintendent in building leadership capacity is to:

  • provide central support staff that can help schools build their literacy teams;
  • advise principals about board and ministry policies and documents related to reading;
  • support principals, teachers, and central support staff in implementing new reading strategies;
  • facilitate a shared culture for learning in communities of schools;
  • ensure that literacy is a primary consideration in staffing decisions and give schools the opportunity to hire leaders in reading or literacy;
  • build groups of teachers at a system level who have acquired strong instructional knowledge in reading, as well as skills in coaching or mentoring;
  • assess the instructional leadership capacity of principals;
  • include a reading component in every meeting of principals, to enhance their understanding of effective classroom practices;
  • form professional learning teams focused on leadership for literacy;
  • mentor new principals in the development of a school literacy plan;
  • provide principals with research that helps them to carry out their work more effectively;
  • encourage and facilitate professional development in key areas (e.g., reading instruction, leadership for literacy, team building);
  • recognize and celebrate both small and large changes in student achievement in literacy within schools.

Setting Targets That Improve Student Achievement

Superintendents can help to establish clear and measurable goals for achievement, can use these goals and assessment tools to monitor progress, and can help principals to take appropriate action. The role of the superintendent in this is to:

  • systematically monitor progress in reading at each school by examining school-based assessments, system-wide assessments, and external assessments (such as the province-wide EQAO results);
  • consult with principals to set reasonable targets for reading levels;
  • share current assessment tools that are being used in reading;
  • review school plans in literacy with each principal or team of principals;
  • create opportunities for principals to problem-solve issues affecting student achievement in their schools;
  • provide leadership in using data for continuous school improvement and monitor the effects of school improvement planning.

Managing Resources

Effective resource allocation reflects a decision-making process based on student needs and thoughtfully articulated action plans. The role of the superintendent is to:

  • supervise the acquisition and development of resources to support student achievement in reading;
  • provide appropriate support for schools with unique needs;
  • allocate financial resources according to priorities that have been identified at the board level;
  • allocate funds to support success in school-based projects;
  • monitor the use of funds allocated to school-based projects.