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The Culture Litmus Test

By Julie Scullen
 | Jan 11, 2018

ThinkstockPhotos-56381621_x600I’m often asked, “How do I know if my building has a culture of literacy?” and, more importantly, “How do I build one?” 

A lasting culture of literacy isn’t about posters, it isn’t about pictures, graphs, and star charts in hallways. A lasting culture of literacy isn't created with contests and rewards, or when a principal loses a bet and has to sleep on the roof, kiss a pig, or shave a beard. It’s about an enthusiasm and a commitment by all staff—not just the English language arts teachers—to ensure that all students have a book in their hands that they are excited to read. Staff must embrace and value student choice, as well as believe in the power of reading.

The best way to tell if your building has a strong culture of literacy? Talk to the students, and use their answers to guide you. Chemists use a litmus test as an indicator, and we can do the same as educators. My favorite litmus tests to determine a culture of literacy are the following questions:

1. Ask students, “What books are popular right now? What is trending?”

In a building with a strong culture of reading, students’ responses are deep and thoughtful. Their answers aren’t stifled and forced, and students don’t look confused by the question. They don’t glance around for possible answers from which to choose. 

Responses will be similar to what I heard from Aamira, a seventh grader, as I visited her middle school with my litmus test questions in mind. She said,“I feel like in books there is a lot more diversity right now. Our teacher would say we can see more ‘mirror books.’ A lot of the books I’m thinking of have maybe somebody of a different race...a lot more strong characters like that, which can help other readers. I can relate with them.”

Aamira has read enough to know that there is a strong push among authors and publishers to represent students of all kinds, and she’s been taught how to recognize, seek it out, and celebrate it. Her teachers frequently recommend current and trending books to all their students.

2. Ask students, “What are you going to read next?”

Readers learning in a building with a strong culture of literacy have a list of books or genres in mind, based on their own preferences and recommendations from others. They don’t go to the library because they were forced to, or to avoid classwork—they go because they genuinely enjoy the time. They ask to go. 

When choosing a book, voracious readers don’t flip to the last page to see how many pages their commitment to this book would entail. They don’t stand in the book stacks staring at spines. They have a plan, a list of options, and their names are on waiting lists for new and trending titles.

When I ask, “How much do you read?” voracious readers’ eyes don’t glaze over while they automatically and without thinking respond, “20 minutes a night” (the most frequently cited time requirement for independent reading). They don’t mention pages, points, genre studies, or logs. They don’t have to lie.

They say things like this: “I read a lot. I read at every possible moment I can, almost every single day, a book every two days on my normal days, my goal is to read 40 books in three months.” While Sophie, a middle schooler, may not be typical of every student, she certainly isn’t embarrassed by her love of reading.

Jeremiah, another student in her class, describes his favorite books like this: “I like when there’s no hope coming, and the character is at the lowest point they could possibly be, and you feel like there is like NO WAY, and they won’t get back up, and then they DO find a way to do that, so then it kind of uplifts you!” Jeremiah has made connections between books, and he’s read enough to have very specific opinions about plot styles and characters.

Students who read a great deal can state analysis of genres like Madison, who said, “I usually read fantasy books, and inevitably they [the main characters] are boys, and they are really weird and different and want to be normal, or really really ordinary and dull and want to be special, and….then (she says with a laugh) they get magical powers.”

Not one of these students mentioned a required novel or a book project. Their passion for reading didn’t didn’t start there. They all want time to talk to others about what they are reading. When one person talks about their book, another will jump in and say, “Hey! That reminds me of this other book...”

3. Ask teachers, “What was the last book you suggested to a student?”

Teachers should read widely and be able to recommend current books, not just what they read themselves as middle graders. Students are intuitive, and they will know if an adult pitching them a book hasn’t read it themselves or are not likely to read it, and they also know when their teacher is recommending a book that was already on library shelves in 1982. Teachers should be dabbling in all types of books—even graphic novels—and should not belittle or forbid these choices in classrooms. Students should not have to hide their preferences and favorite genres from their teachers.

Teachers should read with the hope of connecting a book to a student. Students need to see all their teachers as readers. Not just the ELA teachers.

So, how do you know if your building has a culture of literacy? My first thought is this: If you have to ask, we have a lot of work to do together. There isn’t a quick, three-step process. A real culture of literacy requires a commitment by a group of passionate people whose reach extends far beyond the library.

Julie ScullenJulie Scullen is a former member of the ILA Board of Directors and also served as president of the Minnesota Reading Association and Minnesota Secondary Reading Interest Council. She taught most of her career in secondary reading intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, disciplinary literacy, critical literacy, and reading assessment and evaluation.

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