How to Build a Literacy Culture: A Theory of Practice

Today was a snow day for our school, so I had some time to tinker with my session for the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention on February 7.

The topic for this session is on how school leaders of every stripe can build a literacy culture. I took three ideas from a past post I wrote and developed a theory of action that other educators might follow to facilitate schoolwide student improvement in reading, writing, and communicating. See below.

The thing about theories is they are limited, especially when developed by one person. While I do read widely and connect with others, as well as reflect on my experiences here, my perspective is not the only point of view. Other school leaders might have found a different pathway toward success.

So what are your thoughts? I want to put this theory to the test before I present it at the WSRA convention session. That could include offering critique and feedback in the comments, or simply sharing it with a colleague who might have a response. Thank you in advance.

Teaching Literacy During the Holidays

It’s that time of year…the red and green butcher paper rolls are shrinking, the Grinch makes a school visit, and concerts have replaced athletics as the main evening events. The holidays offer opportunities for celebration as well as distractions. Kids get off of their routines or the classroom curriculum is not aligned with the seasonal activities and, as a result, our plans too often take a backseat to festivities or classroom challenges.

I won’t get into the religious aspect of celebrating the holidays, especially in public schools (check out Teaching Tolerance for more information on this topic). Instead, I thought I would share as well as request ideas for integrating promising literacy practices during the holiday season.

  • Service learning projects – This time of year can be stressful for some families living in poverty or just find this time of year hard. Teachers can develop extended lesson plans that involve students writing letters to individuals in assisted living centers and then hand delivering them, or creating original multimedia content to raise money for organizations in need.
  • Learning about our culture – Why do we celebrate some holidays and not others? How does where we live influence what holidays we choose to recognize as a community? These big questions can guide students to research their traditions in order to better understand their past. What they learn can be written as a report and then presented to peers and families using a digital tool of choice.
  • Exploring themes of the holidays – When we study a topic and look at multiple perspectives, trends and themes may present themselves. If holidays as a study are a staple in a school, it might be interesting to facilitate literary analysis and have students explore various texts to understand the larger ideas that are connected to the many known and unknown holidays. The idea of “text” can be expanded by incorporating podcasts, art, and other nonconventional mediums.

I realize this post comes at the tail end of the holiday season. Yet now might be a great time to reflect on our current practices and how they might better incorporate literacy for future instructional planning. How do you authentically integrate reading, writing, language, speaking, and listening with your teaching at this time of year? Please share in the comments.

Reading Spaces by Heather McKay (@HeatherMMcKay)

The other morning my five-year-old opened his eyes and his first words of the day were, “I loved reading books with you and daddy last night mama”. His words filled my parent and teaching heart to the brim. Words fuel me in all forms – long books, short stories, poems that make me gasp or laugh, and blogs that challenge what I thought I knew.  The greatest joy in reading for me is discovering another reader, online or in person, who feels the same way.

When I’m reading I fall into a private space, but when it’s a really good read, I immediately search for a social space where I can talk with someone else about what I’m reading. As a teacher, this lived in my classroom and hallway conversations and now as a literacy specialist, it lives in my work across schools with administrators and teachers. Regie Routman challenges us, “as conscientious educators to instill a love of reading in our students and to do whatever it takes to turn them into readers” (2014, p. 117). For my first post, I wanted to talk about what we do to intentionally create a joyful reading culture.

Through talking about texts that move us, disrupt us, and transform us, we share who we are and lay our reading identities bare. We express our reading identities through what we read, where we read, when we read, and how we talk about reading (Buehl, 2011, p.1). There are friends I can share research articles with, friends who love picture books as much as I do, and friends who mirror back their love of reading with late night texts demanding, “You just HAVE to read this book!”. As I move among schools working with staff in support of literacy, I get the unbelievable opportunity to share and grow reading identities with both students and staff.

I believe administrators and teachers play an important part of a creating a larger reading landscape in students’ lives. In my work developing and supporting our K-12 literacy strategy, I’ve noticed there are some strategic ways administrators and teachers are building a school-wide reading culture. When we intentionally create reading spaces, readers are born and thrive.

The following are three ways to approach building a school-wide culture of reading that caught my attention recently:

Administrators and teachers sharing their own reading lives

It could be a bookshelf that draws your eyes in your Principal’s office, a teacher sharing a professional read or picture book at a staff meeting, or an Assistant Principal popping in for an impromptu read aloud in a classroom. When administrators make time to share their reading joy, others will follow and the joy of reading grows. 

Students inviting others into their reading lives

It might be a single bookshelf that students adopt for a week in the learning commons or digital book talks accessed through hallway QR codes. When students have the space to talk about their personal reading, they joyfully embrace it. Offering students dedicated ways to share the texts they enjoy builds their autonomy and engagement and acknowledges the social nature of literacy itself.

Administrators, teachers, and students talking together about books

My husband’s school hosts an annual ‘Battle of the Books’ where teams of readers choose a collection to read and battle over. Many teachers in our board used the hype of March Madness to bring a themed ‘Battle of the Books’ to their classrooms. Literacy experiences such as these bring adults and children together into a shared reading space. Apprenticing students into how we read and how we talk about books provides the gradual release and feelings of joy required to become lifelong readers.

We must intentionally design spaces for students to come to know themselves and others as readers and participate in a joyful literacy community. It is not enough to teach students to read, we must open the door to all of the joys and opportunities of citizenship that reading acts as the gateway for.

What would you add? How do you build a reading culture in your life, your classroom, or in and between schools? Let’s share ideas as fellow readers and build spaces for readers to find their books, their community, and themselves.


Buehl, D. (2011). Developing Readers in the Academic Disciplines. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Routman, R. (2014). Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough strategies for schoolwide literacy success. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

This is the first of hopefully many posts from another contributor to this collaborative blog. If you have a passion for literacy and leadership and would like to share your thinking within our space and with our audience, click here for information. 

Best Read Aloud You’ve Never Heard Of: The Whispering Cloth by Pegi Shea

My school’s population is approximately 8% Hmong American. When I select books to read aloud in classrooms, I am intentional in choosing literature that accurately reflects my school’s diversity. If I only shared stories that primarily featured one race or culture, I would not be giving my minority students quality opportunities to put themselves within the context or characters of the book. Also, students from a different culture can add unique perspectives to these types of stories that would otherwise be undiscovered. It allows them to be the experts in the classroom.

One of my favorite books about the Hmong culture and their history is The Whispering Cloth by Pegi Shea. Here is how I have shared this story with 3rd graders in the past.

Before Reading Aloud

I begin by sharing the backdrop for this story. One of the first pages has a small map of Southeast Asia. I explain that America went to war with Northern Vietnam, fighting alongside the Southern Vietnamese. I do my best to explain the concept of “communism” when I answer the inevitable question, “Why were they fighting each other?” I finish the one minute history lesson by concluding that American troops eventually pulled out of Vietnam, leaving the Southern Vietnamese at the mercy of their enemies to the north. This led to many being forced from their homes to find another place to live, namely America. When I consider whether this may be a little over their heads, I go back to a quote by Regie Routman: “I have never been in a classroom where the expectations were too high.”

During the Read Aloud

This historical fiction everybody book is about a girl and her grandmother in the 1970s, both refugees living in a camp. To pass the time and to make money in order to purchase plane tickets to America, they make story cloths called pa’ndau. This is their culture’s way of sharing their history.

As I read, the story switches from the present day to the past, when the main character dreams about the death of her parents. At this point, the illustrations switch from watercolors to stitching, just like the pa’ndau. I ask the class, “What do you notice on this page?” If the students don’t initially see it, I rephrase with, “What is different about this page when compared to the previous pages? Why do you think the author make this change?” 3rd graders’ typical responses are a) the setting is now in the past and b) the main character is starting to think about her own story cloth.

After Reading Aloud

If there are Hmong students in the classroom, I try to solicit some responses from them. They usually have at least a little knowledge about what a pa’ndau is. They may even share their experiences observing a story cloth being made. At this time, I point out that we has a story cloth in our school.

I encourage the students to take a few moments at a later time to “read” it and see if they can understand this family’s journey from Southeast Asia to America. To extend the story, I could take this photo and post it on the SmartBoard. We could zoom in on different aspects of the pa’ndau and jot some ideas down about what we think is trying to be conveyed. From there we could do a shared writing activity that tells this story in words based on our observations. If you are trying to address the Common Core, using primary resources like this is a great way to go.

Related recommended read aloud: Dia’s Story Cloth by Dia Cha