The Four Cs
of Creating a
Culture
of Literacy
By Raymond J. McNulty
and Dr. Susan Szachowicz
The Four Cs
of Creating a
Culture
of Literacy
of Literacy
By Raymond J. McNulty
and Dr. Susan Szachowicz
Illustration of student reading leaning against stack of books
S

everal months ago, we were about to begin a presentation to hundreds of educators when we received this text from a principal friend:
“Hope you enjoy AZ! I’m actually going there in the beginning of Feb for a stupid conference our ‘shiny new thing’ superintendent wants me to attend along with 3 other admins hosted by some overpriced PD org. It’s all a bunch of hooey and a big waste of district money. L”

While we initially chuckled at the message, we also looked at each other and realized that we did not want to be one of those “shiny new things.” And we had to wonder how many in our audience thought that about our presentation. We needed to ensure that our message about creating and implementing a culture of literacy would not be a one-and-done professional development experience. Literacy is a game changer, and creating a culture of literacy in a school or district provides students with the skills they need to be successful not only in school, but also in their lives beyond school.

Young student working on an iPad
Far too often in education, success for our students is by chance, not by design.
This is especially important as schools struggle with the impact of the coronavirus, particularly the equity issues that have arisen. While teachers and students are adapting to shifts in the delivery of instruction, achievement gaps have likely widened in communities where access to the necessary technology, and even support for online learning, are lacking. Not only is it essential to shift how we are teaching, but it is also crucial to take a hard look at what we are teaching. A focus on literacy that is deep and systemic can help close those achievement gaps. So what is necessary to build that culture of literacy?

Success by Design, Not Success by Chance

Far too often in education, success for our students is by chance, not by design. What do we mean by that? Even in struggling districts or schools, there are outstanding educators who change students’’ lives. These islands of excellence exist in every school. But a student’s success should not be based on the luck of the draw. For example, if a student is lucky enough to be assigned to the teacher who is a skilled writing teacher, the student will learn how to write. What about all the students who are not so lucky? How do we ensure that every student learns to write? If all teachers are skilled in how to teach writing, then all students will learn the writing skills they need. That becomes success by design, not by chance.

Educational reform has often been described as jumping from one new initiative to the next. The pattern goes something like this: An initiative is supported and launched, and things seem to go well at first, but then problems with the initiative appear; there may be discrepancies or resistance from some faculty members concerning the practice. So we move on to another reform initiative. That is when the “shiny new object” syndrome happens. “We’ve tried that already, time to move on to the next new thing …” We must stop jumping from one initiative to the next, and instead focus on creating a culture of literacy deep within our system.

Minimal illustration of student holding book
Clarity ensures that everyone understands the focus on literacy. The role of leadership in providing this clarity is critical.
Creating a Culture of Literacy: The Four C’s

Research is filled with evidence about the power of literacy for student success. The National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of Elementary School Principals have determined that underdeveloped literacy skills are the number one reason students are retained, assigned to special education, given long-term remedial services and why they cannot graduate from high school. So what steps should districts and schools take to build a culture of literacy? Think about the Four C’s as the essential elements: Clarity, Communication, Consistency, and Celebration. These are simple steps, but not easy.

Clarity ensures that everyone understands the focus on literacy. The role of leadership in providing this clarity is critical. It is not sufficient to just make a statement like, “This year we will focus on literacy!” What does that mean to each teacher in the school? Clarity means that there must be very specific goals about which literacy skills will be taught, why this is so important, how these literacy skills will be taught, and how we know they are being taught. Everyone needs to understand the mission and their role.

Leadership is essential, but leadership does not rest with one individual. Success in creating a culture of literacy takes a team. An initial step in providing the clarity needed is to empower a team to help define the literacy goals and develop a course of action. When Brockton High School began its turnaround effort, the first step was to empower a team, the Restructuring Committee, which then defined very clear literacy goals in Reading, Writing, Speaking and Reasoning. It was this empowered group of teachers and administrators who brought great clarity to the mission of literacy. So now the focus on literacy is clear, then what?

Student studying with tablet and textbook
Communication. To build a culture of literacy, communicating to others and facilitating communication among others are both essential. Everyone must understand why this is being done, and how it will be implemented. This is where the leadership team is also critical to success. The importance of teaching literacy skills in every class must become part of the daily dialogue; it becomes the expectation. That is essential, but not enough. To create a strong culture of literacy, teachers must work with each other on how to implement literacy skills. There are many ways to facilitate these professional conversations. Using regular faculty meetings for structured discussions, creating literacy workshops for teachers or using professional learning communities provides educators with the opportunity to share literacy strategies — critical to creating a culture.

Consistency is the essential ingredient for success by design and developing implementation density. If the communication has been successful, then everyone understands the importance of literacy. But to create a culture of literacy and avoid the islands of excellence where some teachers do it, and others do not, the teachers must know how. Success by design is really about the adults. It is not enough to tell teachers to teach writing; teachers must know how to do it. Again, the leadership team is critical in making this happen. Model for all teachers how to teach reading or writing; they should clearly understand the expectations and process.

Brockton turned their regular faculty meetings into Literacy Workshops, so all teachers learned how. Because of Brockton High’s success in improving student achievement and closing the achievement gap after implementing a literacy initiative, Harvard recognized Brockton in a national report stating, “The main lesson was that student achievement rose when leadership teams focused thoughtfully and relentlessly on improving the quality of instruction.” Consistency requires the implementation of effective professional development to promote adult learning, support for those who need more and a commitment to all means all. To create a culture of literacy, no one is exempt.

Laptop open with Achieve3000 Literacy website on screen
If the communication has been successful, then everyone understands the importance of literacy. But to create a culture of literacy and avoid the islands of excellence where some teachers do it and others don’t, the teachers must know how.
Celebration may sound minimal, or even superficial, but it is important in helping build a shared culture. Implementing literacy throughout a school or district often requires teachers to move out of their comfort zone. Some may not have bought into this approach. We all like to feel valued and appreciated. Celebrating the success gives thanks to everyone who worked hard to help their students, and it also shares the success story with the larger community. Success brings more success, and that helps the culture grow.

Simple, Not Easy

Creating a culture of literacy works! Literacy is not a trend; it will not get outdated; it can be replicated; it does not cost a fortune; and it is not just another “shiny new thing.” Literacy is a game changer. Creating a culture of literacy provides our students with the skills they need to be successful not only in school, but also in their lives beyond school. We know what works. Focus on literacy for all, implement and monitor with fidelity, celebrate success and leadership matters. Simple, not easy!

About the Authors

Ray McNulty is the President of the Successful Practices Network and the National Dropout Prevention Center.

Sue Szachowicz is a Senior Fellow with the Successful Practices Network and former Principal of Brockton High School in Brockton, Massachusetts.