Rebuilding a Culture of Literacy in Schools

Blog Post
April 10, 2013

One of my lasting memories from teaching is the moment I walked into my first classroom. Hidden amidst the desks and chairs, I pulled out a brown paper grocery bag with maybe two dozen fifth-grade level novels.


In a school without a library, teaching 30 students that were primarily English Language Learners – many of whom were reading below grade level – I discovered that brown paper bag of books was to be my foundation for building a classroom culture of literacy learning.


Last week at a briefing by the National Center for Literacy Education (NCLE) on Capitol Hill, I had the opportunity to hear an amazing panel of teachers, administrators and policy-makers advocating for a new approach to literacy instruction in schools. It was heartening to hear their passion and commitment to literacy as the center of all learning.


The briefing included the release of "Remodeling Literacy Learning: Making Room for What Works," an NCLE report that supports this commitment, assesses where we are at as a nation in terms of literacy instruction in schools, and examines what structural support educators currently have for building a culture of literacy learning.


The report findings and policy recommendations are critical for building an education workforce that understands literacy as a requisite skill for all content area learning, as well as a skill that all disciplines must support. Further, it underscores the need for schools to restructure educator time to support collaboration systemically, allowing teachers to work together to rebuild a culture of literacy learning in schools. During the briefing, panelists emphasized:

  • Educators need to explicitly be shown how to teach literacy in the content areas
  • Connection between educators needs to be more meaningful
  • Schools need to intentionally schedule educator time with built-in blocks for collaboration

Professional development, collaboration and structural supports are critical ingredients in remodeling literacy learning, but a solid foundation must be put in place as well. I was surprised that the report did not include mention of the materials teachers need to support literacy learning within and across the content areas.


A critical component to “Remodeling Literacy Learning” must also include rebuilding the foundation of literacy: access to high quality fiction and non-fiction texts. In classrooms throughout the country, many educators do not have the materials needed to effectively support literacy instruction.


How do you build a school culture built upon literacy without an abundance of content-rich texts?


Starting with that brown paper bag of books, I did what many teachers are implicitly required to do: I asked friends and family for donations, lived at weekend garage-sales in the suburbs, investigated teacher resources such as Donors Choose, and mapped out the locations of second-hand stores. Over two years I built up a substantial classroom library, but my ability to purposefully select a wide variety of materials was limited.


Intentionally selecting and providing materials for classrooms of all grade levels that support literacy instruction across disciplines – as well as providing and structuring professional development and collaborative time for educators – is necessary to rebuild a culture of literacy in schools.