4 fundamental practices for cultivating professional literacy

Dennis Sparks

Generous amounts of close purposeful reading, rereading, writing, and talking, as underemphasized as they are in K-12 education, are the essence of authentic literacy. These are simple activities are the foundation for a trained, powerful mind. . . .” —Mike Schmoker

Many years ago in an interview for a NSDC (now Learning Forward) publication Phil Schlechty told me, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to lead.”

For my own purposes I amended his adage to read, “If you don’t make time to read, write, speak, and listen in ways that promote professional learning, you don’t have time to lead.” 

Just as we desire to cultivate literacy among K-12 students, it is essential that education leaders take the time—even just a few minutes a day—to cultivate their own  professional literacy and that of others for the benefit of all their students.

Professional literacy means the development of intellectual depth and fluency regarding values, beliefs, ideas, and practices that guide day-to-day decision making. Its acquisition requires cognitively-demanding processes, in contrast to the minimal engagement of the “sit and get” sessions that continue to dominate too large a share of “professional development.”

While professional literacy can be acquired through various means, my experience has taught me that four particularly powerful learning processes—speaking and listening with the intention to learn, reading, and writing—are the fundamental practices for cultivating leaders’ professional literacy.

Speaking isn’t often thought of as a source of learning for the speaker. But leaders can learn from their own speaking when they pay close attention to both their own words—a kind of metacognition in which the speaker monitors his or her own thinking for unexamined assumptions, logical inconsistencies, and so on—and the effects of those words on others.

Committed, attentive listening by leaders deepens their understanding of the subject at hand and the  perspectives of others. It is also an essential first step in influencing the views of others, an orientation that Stephen Covey described as “seek first to understand.”

Careful reading promotes leaders’ learning when they not only take in information but respond actively to it by making comparisons with what they already understand and believe and by raising new questions for exploration. Such reading enables leaders to be engaged with the minds of individuals who they may never meet.

Because writing is thought made visible, it promotes learning by enabling leaders to refine their ideas, examine their logical consistency, and determine the most concise and precise means for their expression. Journal writing and blogging are two common and especially powerful means for such reflection. And blogging also enables leaders to actively engage with the perspectives of readers who offer their comments.

Taken together, these four learning processes are fundamental, interconnected means for cultivating’ professional literacy.

What would you add to this list?

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5 Responses to “4 fundamental practices for cultivating professional literacy”


  1. 1 Jamie February 19, 2014 at 6:13 am

    Great post, Dennis! I love Phil’s quote and your additions. What I would add is time for reflection to synthesize reading, clarify speakingand hone their message so it is succinct and memorable. This mostly happens for me when I’m hiking in the woods or taking a walk on the beach. That’s when I have my “aha” moments!

  2. 3 Jeanne Spiller February 19, 2014 at 8:12 am

    Thank you for another thoughtful, concise piece! I look forward to getting each new post as they are always thought-provoking and relevant.

    This post brings up so many important aspects of being an effective leader, but they are often what gets put on the back burner because of the many demands on the shoulders of school leaders. Because of this, we take the time in our administrative leadership meetings to read and reflect together as often as possible.

    I love the part on monitoring your own thinking for unexamined assumptions, logical inconsistencies, and so on—and the effects of those words on others. We do a lot of speaking on a daily basis as leaders and do not often realize the effects our words have on others. I will be paying close attention to this one!

    An addition to the list for me would be committing to action. While this might not always be appropriate or possible, commit to action when you can and it makes sense to do so. My commitment to action is to monitor what I say over the next couple of days to ensure that I mean what I say and I say what I mean.

  3. 5 Mac April 10, 2014 at 10:22 pm

    Reblogged this on The Staff Meeting and commented:
    Came across this interesting peice on cultivating professional literacy.


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