Leading Literacy for Learning…in the Golden Age of Literacy

Literacy is the “cornerstone” of student success.

I have spent the last twenty years either developing or advocating for literacy at the secondary level. From my perspective as a school leader, the Common Core State Standards represent our greatest opportunity to finally make school wide literacy a permanent part of the culture and fabric of secondary schools.

On one hand, these are the best of times for adolescent literacy. On the other hand, the timing could not be worse.

At a time when expectations for student achievement have been completely reset, finally placing all students on a pathway to college and career readiness, schools across the country are experiencing budget shortfalls and, in many cases, staff cuts. Larger class sizes, retirements of veteran teachers, coupled with an influx of less experienced teachers and new, drops in enrollment in teacher preparation programs, and less experienced school leaders all add up to lower instructional capacity at a time when we desperately need all the experience we can get. Doing more with less is not exactly a recipe for success.

Ninety-nine percent of all students in the nation attend schools in states, who have embraced much more rigorous, college- and career-ready standards. Currently, 45 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards. These states serve over 80% of the nation’s students.

Adoption of more rigorous standards was a critical first step. Now the hard work of implementation begins. In fact, experience has taught me that the work begins in earnest when schools and teachers receive the results of the first summative assessments, which are in progress this Spring.

Standards alone will not improve schools, raise student achievement, nor will they narrow the achievement gap. It will take implementation of the standards with fidelity by schools and teachers to significantly raise student achievement.

It seems that every time expectations for student achievement increase there is a renewed interest in literacy, and the new standards are no exception. This time however, we are going to have to stop admiring the problem and actually implement literacy. Putting aside any doubt about the perceived importance of literacy the word text represents 19% of the total words in the Common Core State standards.

The new standards envision the ‘literate 21st Century student’ who possesses the reading, writing, thinking, listening, and speaking skills necessary for success in post-secondary education and training. Thus, cross-content literacy instruction has moved from an option to a necessity. In addition to English teachers, math, science, social studies, and elective teachers will be expected to integrate literacy throughout their instruction on top of the more rigorous course content. The success of the new standards will depend heavily on the ability of school leaders to implement school wide literacy initiatives in their school.

Cross-content or school wide literacy—purposeful reading, writing, speaking, listening—is perhaps the most significant change faced by secondary schools. Over the last decade, literacy has already proven to be the most difficult of all initiatives to implement at the secondary level.

Simply put, reading and writing instruction has not been a normal part of the culture of most schools. Despite advances in the field of adolescent literacy over the past decade, few secondary schools across the country have successfully implemented or attempted to implement a comprehensive school wide literacy initiative.

From a practical standpoint, secondary schools simply lack the capacity to integrate literacy instruction in the content areas. Even if teachers are receptive to the idea of incorporating literacy into their daily instruction, they lack the training and resources to deliver that instruction.

Money is not the biggest barrier to school wide literacy at the secondary level. Talking from experience, I know that the mindsets of the staff must be addressed or literacy instruction never goes mainstream in the school. School leaders know they will get resistance from their teachers. The problem is they haven’t had enough experience to know what the resistance will look or sound like and they don’t know how to respond when it arises.

The best way to help school leaders is to prepare them to respond to the mindsets of their teachers. Each of the following four concerns and responses has been proven to save years of push-back from staff members and thereby accelerate implementation of school wide literacy initiatives.

  1. “Students “should” already know how to read.”

Response: The fact is that very few secondary students are illiterate. They are functionally literate, but cannot comprehend academic text. Historically, the focus has been on ‘learning to read’ in grades K-3. Our average entering ninth grader read at a fifth grade level, because, while they were taught to read, they were not taught to ‘read to learn.’ All students can learn, but not all students learn at the same rate or in the same way. Many students, particularly under-resourced students, need direct, explicit literacy instruction every year or their skills will not improve. Literacy is not just about our struggling students. Even our best students need to improve their reading and writing skills.

  1. “I don’t have the time.”

Response: The best place to teach literacy skills is in the content areas. Good teaching and good literacy instruction are inseparable. Reading, writing, listening, and discussing course content improves student understanding and promotes higher-level thinking in your content area.

  1. “I’m not a reading teacher.”

Response: We do not expect teachers to be reading teachers. Teachers teach using language. All we ask is that each teacher teach the language of her content area. For example, science teachers need to teach students to read science text, the content and academic vocabulary of science, how write like a scientist, and how to think and talk like a scientist.

  1. “I don’t know how.” (This is the real issue.)

Response: (The Pledge) We are going to ask you to make a pledge to our students that you will not hold them accountable for anything that you don’t teach them. If you expect students to highlight, annotate, and take notes from text, we expect you to teach them. Likewise, we will make a pledge to you. Except for the knowledge of your content are, for which the state has issued you a license or certificate to teach, we will not hold you accountable for anything that we don’t teach you. It is our job to show you how.

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