Notes from the field: Creating a culture of literacy

Below is an article that I wrote for The California Reader (Vol. 52, No. 2, Winter 2019), a publication of the California Reading Association.


Broncos Read…How to Create a Culture of Literacy

     A few years ago, after being inspired by the work of Donalyn Miller and Steven Layne (at the 2014 CRA Conference in Sacramento), a group of us at Barrett Ranch Elementary School decided to change the reading culture of our school. While our kids were doing well learning the fundamentals of reading (which says a lot about our academic programs because 50% of our students are English Learners and 70% are socioeconomically disadvantaged), we also noticed that progress in reading was stagnant. Kids just weren’t very enthusiastic about reading.

     Many of our students never had a chance to see reading as anything else other than a subject in school that was practiced in between the pages of the district adopted textbook. For those who struggled, reading was even worse. These students were caught up in intervention programs that epitomize the idea of “drill and kill”. While learning the foundational skills of reading is essential and important, it doesn’t inspire students to pick up books and develop lifelong reading habits. We realized that if our reading program stopped at the foundational skills and academic standards, we were only doing half of our job. There was something missing.

    So, we did what most educators do- we formed a committee. A small group of teachers and I formed the Spark the Fire Committee (a nod to Steven Layne’s 2008 book Igniting a Passion for Reading) whose sole purpose was to come up with ways to get kids and adults excited about books. Reading books. Sharing books. Talking about books. We called our effort the “Broncos Read…” campaign and it has been going strong ever since.

     Last summer, a group of us were in Austin, Texas, at the International Literacy Association national conference to receive the 2018 Exemplary Reading Program Award for our school.  This was affirmation that we are on the right track but it is also a reminder that the work we do to engage students in literacy is always ahead of us. Here are a few things we’ve learned on the way in our journey.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Peter Drucker once said this while researching organizational management in the business world. What he meant was that you can have a thousand new strategies to improve a business but if you don’t have a culture that allows those strategies to thrive in your organization, the strategies are worthless. It’s the same for schools. A culture of literacy prioritizes the work of engaging students and staff in books and stories. If lifelong reading is valued, then it’s always an agenda item for leadership team and staff meetings. Money is allocated for classroom and school libraries, books are shared and talked about school-wide, independent reading time is reserved for both home and school. With a strong reading culture, things like Donalyn Miller’s 40 Book Challenge or Todd Nesloney’s Book Prom become integral to the school and leave no question that literacy is a priority.

Don’t forget the adults. You can’t create passionate readers if you don’t have teachers who are passionate about reading themselves. That’s why we put so much time and effort into providing professional development for teachers and staff. We allocate funds for our teachers to attend reading conferences (CRA, Scholastic Reading Summits, etc). We collaborate with local reading councils (for us, the Placer Area Reading Council has been an invaluable partner) to bring in literacy experts to work with staff. We also create our own professional development through yearly book studies and, new this year, we are creating a professional development library for all staff. It’s critical to engage teachers and staff so that they can sustain the energy and passion required in this work.

Follow the research. Our work should be rooted in the research. Go back to the research on the importance of independent reading (Krashen, 2011; Miller & Moss, 2013), student choice (Allington & Gabriel, 2012), access to books (Neuman & Celano, 2012), and volume of reading (Allington, 2012; Cunningham & Stanovich, 2003; Guthrie, 2004; Hiebert & Reutzel, 2010; Swan et al., 2010). Read about best practices on reading and writing instruction. Pick up The Book Whisperer (Miller, 2009) or From Striving to Thriving: How to Grow Confident, Capable Readers (Harvey & Ward, 2017). This is just a start. The volume of research is robust and it will help provide a framework (as well as support) for the activities you plan for your school. For example, we cited research regarding the summer slide and the importance of reading during summer to encourage families to read over vacation (Allington & McGill-Franzen, 2013; Cooper et al., 2000). We planned reading activities, opened up our library, and let kids check out library books over the summer and they logged over 150,000 minutes of reading in the Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge!

Be creative and have fun. While teaching reading and learning the fundamentals can be challenging work, students and teachers need to be reminded that reading can be fun and transformative. This means that staff should be creative and innovative. Don’t be so quick to say no to an idea. When teacher Kendra Barrett came up with an idea that we should convert a common pod room into a magical reading lounge, we did it. A couple years later, with the generous help of local businesses and our PTA, we have 8 whimsical reading lounges housing thousands of books for students to read for pleasure.

     We started this reading journey five years ago and, in some ways, we are just beginning. We realize that the work that we do isn’t a short term fix. We won’t expect that after having a Book Prom, all of our students will score proficient or advanced on the state assessments. We see the quest of developing the lifelong love of reading in children similar to farming. You sow the seeds, you create the conditions for growth, and you tend to the crops. There are no shortcuts here. The good news is that this work is fun, it’s innovative, and it can be invigorating to our personal and professional journey.

     So where do YOU start? There’s no magic in this. You just start. All you need is a little passion and desire to ignite a fire for reading. The desire to empower others through literacy, to build a culture in which reading is celebrated and valued.


Allington, R. (2012). What really matters for struggling readers: Designing research-based programs. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Allington, R., & Gabriel, R. (2012, March). Every child, every day. Educational Leadership, 69 (6), 10-15.

Allington, R., & McGill-Franzen, A. (2013). Summer reading: Closing the rich/poor reading achievement gap. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Cooper, H., Charlton, K., Valentine, J.C., & Muhlenbruck, L. (2000). Making the most of summer school: A meta-analytic and narrative review. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 65(1), 1-118.

Cunningham, A., & Stanovich, K. (1998). What reading does for the mind. American Educator, 22 (1-2), 8-15.

Guthrie, J. (2004). Teaching for literacy engagement. Journal of literacy research, 36 (1), 1-28.

Harvey, S., & Ward, A. (2017). From striving to thriving: How to grow confident, capable readers. New York, New York: Scholastic.

Hiebert, F., & Reutzel, R. (2010). Revisiting silent reading: New directions for teachers. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Krashen, S. (2011). Free voluntary reading. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

Layne, S. (2008). Igniting the passion for reading. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers.

Miller, D. (2009). The book whisperer: Awakening the inner reader in every child. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Miller, D., & Moss, B. (2013). No more independent reading without support. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Neuman, S., & Celano, D. (2012). Worlds apart: One city, two libraries and ten years of watching inequality grow. American Educator, 36 (3), 13-23.

Swan, E., Coddington, C., & Guthrie, J. (2010). Engaged silent reading: Revisiting silent reading. In E. Hiebert & R. Reutzel (Eds.), Revisiting silent reading: New directions for teachers and researchers. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.


Don Vu is the principal of Barrett Ranch Elementary School in the Dry Creek Joint Elementary School District in Northern California. His school is the recipient of the 2018 Exemplary Reading Program Award from the International Literacy Association and the 2017 Celebrate Literacy Award from the California Reading Association and the Placer Area Reading Council.

Don has been an educator for about 24 years. He’s a member of the Scholastic Book Fairs Principals Advisory Board. You can find out more about Don and his school at Follow him on Twitter: @drdonvu

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