Literacy, Leadership and Walkthroughs

I recently attended the Literacy and Leadership Institute in Madison, WI. It was hosted by Regie Routman, creator of the Reading-Writing Connection professional development series (which my building uses). This may have been the best conference I have attended. Everything was connected to best practices. A lot of what the presenters at this conference shared is based on research and publications by Richard Allignton and Peter Johnston.

Summarizing all that I learned into one post would be like trying to stuff an elephant into a foot locker. Instead, I attempted to synthesize my thinking by creating a walkthrough checklist connected to best literacy practices. It is based on an article published by Richard Allington in Phi Delta Kappan in 2002, titled “What I've Learned About Effective Reading Instruction From a Decade of Studying Exemplary Elementary Classroom Teachers” (a straightforward if not catchy title). I condensed his findings about what exemplary teachers do into twelve statements.



  • Students are actually reading and writing around 50% of the time.
  • Students are reading independently, meeting with the teacher for guided reading, and/or reading and writing in the content areas.


  • Students are reading texts that allow for high levels of accuracy, fluency and comprehension.
  • Classroom texts reflect a broad range of interests, diversity and levels.


  • Teacher gives direct, explicit demonstrations of thinking strategies that good readers and writers use when they read and write.
  • Teacher assigns work that is responsive to students' needs and fosters a transition of thinking strategies to independent use.


  • Teacher facilitates lots of purposeful dialogue – both teacher/student and student/student.
  • Classroom talk is more conversational than interrogational.


  • Teacher assigns activities that are substantial, challenging and complex.
  • Students are allowed some choice and autonomy in work to promote ownership and engagement.


  • Teacher evaluates student work based on effort and growth rather than just achievement.
  • Students take responsibility for their scores with the help of clear and visible academic expectations.

Using this checklist as a Google Form on my iPad, I could walk through classrooms and document how often best practices are occurring. Teachers are already used to me being in the classroom to read aloud or just observe. Is this a logical next step? It was suggested that if a checklist is used to document frequency of best practices, it needs to be sandwiched with positive feedback, probably in the form of a written note and verbal praise before leaving the classroom. I will defintiely need to reference Choice Words and Opening Minds by Peter Johnston often as I begin providing feedback. A hybrid of both a checklist and a written narrative may work best for my staff and me.

If I was the teacher, would this checklist along with a short observational narrative have the potential to help me improve my own practices? Would I feel defensive and nervous, or wonder what my principal's motivation is?

As the principal, will this type of walkthrough give me a reliable set of data to help determine where we are growing and where we need to grow? Could I eventually expect the teachers to use this process and observe each other, using a peer coaching format?


I need to sit on this draft of an idea and come back to it later. I would welcome any feedback!

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District ( Matt also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD ( and Lead Literacy (

4 thoughts on “Literacy, Leadership and Walkthroughs”

  1. I think that there would be so much power to see positive change in your building by using this checklist as a starting point to gather data about teaching practices at the school level.

    Previously, I have had the opportunity to work with a team of teachers (representatives were chosen from grade levels across building) that participated in a school-wide walkthrough using a checklist that was similar to what you have drafted. (sometimes with a guiding question in mind, for ex. “what evidence do we see that accountable talk is being used in the classrooms to deepen understandings about content?”). The members of the team observed, recorded notes, & debriefed. Then, the administrator used this data in order to determine an area of focus for school wide PD as well as providing additional coaching to individuals & teams as needed.

    This approach led to some very cohesive professional development being implemented, with the whole staff being invested in the process. I think that helps…then individuals don’t necessarily feel singled out or defensive…rather, we were all in it together to learn, grow, & help improve teaching and learning for our students. This approach promoted an atmosphere of collegiality, for sure. I think any one of the points from
    Your checklist could end up being a school wide focus for as long as a whole school year. I think sometimes teachers can be pulled in too many directions & the PD is less meaningful. My take is that going for depth & breath with a few areas of foci pays off more than attempting to tackle everything at once- not to say that you shouldn’t continue to build the vision of all the points through your actions, decisions, & words.

    I feel so hopeful after reading your post. I really hope more administrators engage in the work you have begun! Thank you & I wish you all the best!


    1. Thanks Christy. I appreciate you sharing the process you have used in your school. I agree that we may need to hone our focus a bit from the initial twelve areas. The tentative plan is to take steps similar to what you describe, allowing the leadership team to select our focus based on data.


  2. Hi,
    This is a great reflective post. It resonates with me so well as this is exactly where my head space is at the moment! I will have to try and get my hands on that article which you have summed up so well into the 6 T’s. I think you are correct in wanting to accompany the observations with feedback. The feedback in my opinion is the crucial element if you want to either reinforce good practice or improve the not so good practice. I am about to begin the classroom observation practice with my teachers following 6 months of professional learning and implementation of Daily 5 Literacy structure ( which I have to say covers those 6 T’s very well). Your idea of a checklist of those key points is terrific and I believe that now that we have been implementing for two terms and been involved in extensive professional learning that about now is the right time. I don’t think it would’ve been wise to do it any earlier as the Professional learning we’ve been engaged in gives me a great buy in and a context for any of those teachers who will be nervous about me coming in and observing, of which I only have a few. I am also considering down the track of involving students in this process. Particularly the older ones and having some kind if checklist for them to complete that goes something along the lines of…..’one thing I loved about the lesson’ and maybe a question along the lines of ‘would’ve been even better if… ‘. I think this would add additional weight to the observation process and to give the students a voice in their understanding and an opportunity to participate in the improvement process. These are all just thoughts mulling around in my head at the moment as well!
    Thanks for this post which really got me thinking about focusing the observation with those points from the Article you mentioned. Im wondering what your follow up will be as a result of the observations. Will it be a conversation with individual teachers or are you looking at a focus for training and development across your school. I’d be really keen to hear what you settle on and how it goes!
    Thanks for the prompting of thought processes!
    PS….do you know if the article you mentioned has been published anywhere that I can get access to?


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