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Keys to a Culture of Literacy: Equity, Access, Relevance, and Joyful Interaction

By Julie Scullen
 | Sep 12, 2019

Keys_to_culture_680wEducators are often asked, “How do we build a strong culture of literacy?” Within a secondary setting, this question is particularly complicated to answer. Middle and high school students are bombarded daily with a myriad of entertainment options, literally right in the palm of their hand. Literacy leaders and teachers often face disinterested, distracted, and dormant readers.

By the time students get to secondary school, the focus has shifted. Our culture is vastly and necessarily different from that of elementary schools, and we must build a culture of literacy differently—with an eye toward adult literacy demands. We know this: Secondary school administrators rarely spend hours on a roof in the cold waving to gleeful high school students or reluctantly kiss a pig because their middle-level students reach a reading goal.

A lasting culture of literacy isn’t created with contests and rewards and it isn’t measured in test scores. It’s about equity, access, relevance, and joyful interaction. It’s about an enthusiasm and a commitment by all staff—not just the English language arts (ELA) teachers—to ensure that all students have a text in their hands they are excited to read. Staff must embrace and value student choice as well as believe in the power of reading beyond the traditional, one-size-fits-all definition.

A culture of literacy means students see themselves as readers, which means students must do the following:

See themselves in texts

Culturally relevant and inclusive texts are essential—or nothing else matters. Students need to see themselves, and their own culture, reflected in the texts they are assigned across the curriculum. Time and space must be dedicated to students thinking of themselves as readers and writers of social studies, mathematics, science, health, and world languages. Students should have frequent opportunities to experience other perspectives, and they should be encouraged to build bridges between worlds. They should have a say in what has relevance in their classrooms.

See relevance and authenticity

When embracing and celebrating a culture of literacy, students read and write these relevant texts for authentic reasons. Students witness literacy as necessary and valuable in the lives of adults. Staff must embrace and value student choice as well as believe in the transformative power of reading.

In a school with a strong commitment to literacy, teachers rarely spend time telling students the key points in a text through a lecture. Instead, students read the text themselves, perhaps multiple times. Excerpts of crucial passages are analyzed and discussed across every discipline, and teachers use strategies and effective practices appropriate for their content. When a culture of literacy within a school is strong, students’ responses to text are deep and thoughtful. Their answers aren’t forced, and students don’t furtively look around for possible answers from which to choose. Teachers in every classroom ensure students engage meaningfully with text every day.

See joy in literacy

When a school system is committed to literacy, it is clear as early as within the hiring process. Potential staff members are asked, “What are you reading?” and “What would you recommend to our students?” Everyone is a reader. Administrators, custodians, cooks, the school nurse—they are all able to talk about and celebrate something they read lately. Staff members model what active literacy looks like in the adult world, from mundane to practical to joyous escape. Teachers themselves read with the hope of connecting a book to a student. Students need to see all staff members as readers, not just the ELA teachers. A real culture of literacy requires a commitment by a group of passionate people whose reach extends far beyond the library.

How do you know if your building has a culture of literacy? If you have to ask, there’s work to be done—but there’s a plethora of personal and professional resources to help you get there.

Julie Scullen, an ILA member since 1990, is a teaching and learning specialist for secondary reading in Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, disciplinary literacy, critical literacy, and reading assessment and evaluation.

This article originally appeared in the open access July/August issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

Julie Scullen, Cornelius Minor, Donalyn Miller, Carol Jago, Julia Torres, Minjung Pai, and Terry McHugh will lead one of the 10 institute sessions on Institute Day at ILA 2019 on Thursday, Oct. 10: Spark a Culture of Literacy: Build Positive Adolescent Reading Identities Through Relevance, Equity and Access. For more information, visit
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