Creating a culture of literacy in the school isn’t just about raising reading scores. Instead, when a community comes together to celebrate reading, learning, and discovering, the benefits are far reaching. Imagine walking into a school and seeing books displayed in classrooms, offices, and the library. “What We’re Reading” signs adorn classroom doors, lunchroom pay stations, custodial carts, office desks, all to visually show the community that reading is part of life. Students are actively sharing what they are reading with each other during lunch, in the hallways, and at practice.
When our literacy leadership team embarked on a journey to create a culture of literacy at our high school, we had many adults in the building initially say they don’t really read. When pressed, we learned that they just needed “reading” redefined. Soon the signs were filled with varieties of texts–audiobooks, DIY manuals, football playbooks, news articles–all to accompany the traditional books and novels staff were reading. This shift in definition led to the adults seeing themselves as readers and learners (again or in some cases for the first time) and soon students saw this too. Teens in our community were then sharing the video game stories they were reading while playing, the descriptions of new snowboard tricks they planned to try, and the subtitles many turn on while watching Netflix–now able to see where they are reading even if it isn’t YET books. Bridging all literacies creates community.
To build an inclusive culture of literacy, each school community would be wise to consider:
Establishing a Literacy Leadership Team
Creating a culture of literacy needs intentional leaders who take on a responsibility to ensure its creation and implementation. Ideally, a district would invest in the time and professional development of a district-wide leadership team to set the tone, direction, and goals for the entire community. Additionally, each building needs their own literacy leadership team with members representing all stakeholders. Often schools already have a leadership team who provides direction to the culture and structure. The literacy leadership team doesn’t have to be a new team, but it does need protected time and attention placed on the goal of building and maintaining a culture of literacy. Ideally, literacy leadership teams:
- meet regularly.
- include representation from administration, grade level teams, content areas, and specialists.
- invite students to attend periodically.
- focus on student learning and engagement.
- practice collective efficacy.
- bring in outside consultation (on occasion) to provide perspective and promote growth.
- know literacy instruction, content standards, and progression of skills across grade levels.
- coach and support the development of these literacy skills in teachers.
Making the Library the Heart of Each Building
School libraries play an important role in student achievement and should be considered the heart of any literacy initiative. We know that schools with strong library programs produce students with better standardized test scores in reading, stronger information literacy skills, and higher graduation rates. School libraries create a space where students can read, explore information, and learn to work with each other.
A strong collection of titles is one of the first components in helping to achieve greater literacy amongst the student population. For many students, the school library may be one of the only places available to them to access books for both pleasure reading and research. Therefore, it is important that:
- collections stay up to date with new books and items of interest. Most standards state a goal of at least 10-20 books per student.
- average copyright date for the collection is no more than 10 years old.
- collections are broad enough to fulfill curriculum needs for all grade levels as well as offering plenty of choice for pleasure reading and reading practice.
Ensuring Students Have Access to Books–Print and Digital
Giving your students access to more choice and purposefully including titles that appeal directly to them has a positive impact. Studies have shown that children more frequently interact with books, spend additional time reading, and even have a more positive attitude toward reading if they are surrounded by books—in the classroom, in their school library, and at home. Providing students with a diverse collection that contains multiple narratives and different perspectives allows them to gain knowledge they might never learn otherwise and to see themselves in their books. Creating a community of readers and maintaining wide access to books will help set students up for future success. Make sure:
- each ELA classroom has a library with 7-10 books per student.
- units for core subjects have resource libraries with books at multiple reading levels and provide for a wide range of perspectives and deeper learning.
- K-8 schools have leveled literacy libraries to support small group literacy instruction.
- students have access to a platform that houses digital content (databases, eBooks, audiobooks, etc.) in one easy to access place. I am, of course, biased to MackinVIA because it was created by teachers for teachers.
Using Hands-On Learning to Engage Readers
Not every student would say they enjoy reading. However, every student has interests, and we can use those interests as a starting point for practicing literacy skills. As Jacie Maslyk, author of the book Remaking Literacy: Innovative Instructional Strategies for Maker Learning, writes, “we can create pathways that include students who don’t love reading in literacy learning in different and inviting ways.” That pathway can begin with student creation through hands-on experience. When students authentically discover connections between literacy and the real world, they begin seeing more possibilities of transforming the world around them. We can engage readers by:
- exploring Novel Engineering and having students prototype solutions for character problems presented in the books they are reading.
- asking students to build stories using maker tools.
- employing green screens, stop motion, and other audio-visual tools to create book trailers.
using Makey Makey with littles to practice sight words with Sight Word Stomp.
The ideas are endless and the benefits for all types of readers, especially those who don’t necessarily see themselves are readers, are infinite.
Collaborating with the Community
Make it part of your school culture that families and caregivers are present and supporting their child’s literacy growth. Your literacy leadership team, including the building leaders, play a critical role in creating literacy reform. You can build the effectiveness of your staff and lead the way by weaving literacy practices and experiences throughout the day and outside the school walls. Anything you can do to make literacy part of real life and not just something done in school will accelerate students’ literacy growth. Try:
- inviting family members to volunteer in the classrooms and library.
- offering events, like Books & Breakfast, and inviting the community to school for a meal while they read together.
- having caregivers share a favorite book with the class.
- starting a Free Little Library with books for adults and students.
- offering parent education classes, a blog, a website, or a school newsletter feature with ideas on how families can support their child and provide literacy opportunities that fit their lives.
Providing Coaching and Practical Professional Learning
When we are creating this culture of literacy, we want teachers to authentically braid effective literacy practices into their lesson planning, assessments, and interactions with students. This requires coaching and professional learning that is applicable and embedded into what teachers and professional learning communities are already doing. The literacy leadership team can take on an important role in leading and supporting professional learning. Effective literacy professional learning:
- takes place within learning teams and is authentic to what teachers are working on.
- is directed by sound literacy pedagogy.
- involves action research.
- is informed by student work.
- is coached by peers.
- is directed by learner leaders (principals and literacy leadership team members who engage in the work).
In my work with districts who are committed to creating a culture of literacy, we start with the adults. It won’t take long for students to follow and lead each other in discovering the joy of reading.
Special thanks to the contributions of and collaboration with several Mackin team members for the writing of this blog post.