How to Build a Culture of Literacy in Schools 

By Ruth Schoenbach and Cynthia Greenleaf

Helping students learn to read and comprehend complex texts, think critically about what they read, and synthesize information from multiple sources is one of the most crucial things schools do. How do we support students to achieve that level of literacy and finish high school ready for work or college and careers?

From years of doing literacy research and practice, we have learned that it takes ongoing professional learning for teachers to:

  • help students become more willing to take academic risks and become more resilient learners;
  • build high-level comprehension strategies and model disciplinary-specific literacy skills;
  • engage students in building knowledge by making connections to background knowledge they already have, and
  • provide ample guided, collaborative, and individual practice within the subject area curriculum.

But we’ve also learned that the focus cannot be on teachers and students alone. School and district leaders, teacher leaders, parents, education advocates, and community leaders—groups that are part of the Learning First Alliance—have key roles to play.

To change a culture and sustain coherence in a school, district, or college requires active leadership and advocacy to see that teachers have significant support, including:

  • new structures, such as dedicated literacy teams and communities of practice;
  • dedicated time—and more of itto engage in high-quality professional learning, professional collaboration, and problem solving with colleagues; and,
  • political cover on the part of site and district administrators to protect teams and their time from challenges that may arise in the community or at higher levels in the system.

Parents, advocates, and community leaders also can help create buy in by understanding and encouraging more time spent on reading and deeper student engagement in literacy routines. Their support is invaluable as school boards or district managers are evaluating programs and budgets.

For researching our new book, Leading for Literacy: A Reading Apprenticeship Approachwe examined how hundreds of schools, districts, and colleges have been able to change their learning environments by cultivating a literacy-centered culture. We also recently held a webinar to discuss this topic further.

The research builds up from the Reading Apprenticeship framework we developed almost 25 years ago. This approach taps into teachers’ existing knowledge and expertise and provides structured opportunities for them to explore their own reading and comprehension processes as they, themselves, struggle with challenging texts. Reading Apprenticeship broadens teachers’ mindsets about what students are capable of doing, and provides the foundation for apprenticing students to reading, writing, thinking, and speaking in the different disciplines.

In Reading Apprenticeship classrooms, schools, and districts, such as the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Schools in North Carolina, the norm is for teacher and students to work together to identify comprehension problems, draw on critical dispositions known to support learning (like curiosity, courage, stamina, and persistence), and use an array of evidence-based instructional approaches and discourse routines to collaboratively make sense of complex texts in all disciplines. Outside the classroom, teachers work together to share strategies, problem-solve, and continuously improve their skills. These focused efforts build a vibrant culture of literacy that Charlotte-Mecklenberg officials, as one example, believe has raised test scores.

Leading for Literacy presents portraits, case studies, research findings, and key insights from scores of practitioners, and details how to get started, build momentum, assess progress, generate partnerships, and sustain networks across schools, districts, college campuses, and regions.

We are living in a time when critical thinking and reading is more important than ever. The educators who recognize that and work to cultivate the kind of rigor, depth, and student engagement the Leading for Literacy approach represents, need your strong support.

Ruth Schoenbach and Cynthia Greenleaf are co-directors of the WestEd Strategic Literacy Initiative, and, with Lynn Murphy, co-authors of Leading for Literacy: A Reading Apprenticeship Approach (Wiley/Jossey-Bass, December 2016).


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Teacher reading to preschool class