During the last twelve years I have spent six years as a rural principal and superintendent, and six years working for a not for profit or my own organization serving rural schools across the country. One of the biggest challenges for creating the high performing rural school is our own mindsets as school leaders. Our school and district always had some of the highest achievement and student growth data in the state, because we believed we could. Our school was nationally recognized despite being one of the lowest funded schools I the state and high levels of poverty. We never wanted our schools to be a place where we prepared our students for jobs. We focused on College ready and careers. We felt a career would require lifelong learning and reading skills equivalent of a student going to college. Plus, a career was a sure way to live a life of purpose and impact beyond a life of poverty. This was our belief and we aligned our behaviors and practices to ensure we delivered on our ambitious goals. (Alignment of Behaviors and Practices with Believes and Values in Pursuit of Ambitious Goals is School culture). We also never settled for proficiency. Proficiency is NOT college and career ready and we wanted ALL of our students to be reading at the advance or accelerated level. Yes, this can be done in rural schools as well as suburban and urban schools. (In 3 years, we moved our 3rd grade reading proficiency scores from 60% to 98%)

For years policy makers, funding agencies, education agencies, teachers and school leaders have been in search of how to accelerate literacy and reading for our children.  Primary and elementary school age children must get off to a good start in reading. However, it is a serious mistake to assume that a good start is sufficient for producing confident and skilled readers. Middle level students need high quality literacy instruction, frameworks and support to be prepared for twenty-first century higher education and employment opportunities (Marchand-Martella, Martella, Modderman, Petersen, and Pan; 2013). A good start is critical, but not sufficient. There should be a grades k-8 focus on literacy that is still supported in the high school. 

Therefore, school districts focusing on a culture of literacy should (Dunsmore & Nelson; 2018):

  1. Create shared agreement building wide about what good literacy instruction looks like 
    A shared agreement requires that all middle school teachers understand reading/learning processes, the complexity and diverse needs of young adolescents, and know how to help students develop both the competence and desire to read increasingly complex materials across the curriculum. Reading strategies and skills are central to the success of the integrated, multidisciplinary middle school curriculum and every teacher must possess the knowledge and skills to integrate reading instruction across the curriculum.
  2. Provide reading instruction that is individually appropriate.
    Children arrive at school with a wide range of individual, cultural, ethnic, and linguistic differences that have a significant impact on their reading performance. Providing instruction that is appropriate for each student, therefore, requires well-prepared classroom teachers who integrate individualized reading instruction within their content area. This also requires reading specialists who can help their colleagues acquire skills and techniques for delivering developmentally appropriate reading instruction in their content areas. Reading specialists are also necessary for providing intervention programs for struggling readers, as well as coaching support for teachers.
  3. Use formative instructional practices and assessments
    Formative instructional practices must show learners their strengths as well as their needs. The practices, data, and feedback should help guide their teachers in designing instruction that will best help them grow in reading proficiency. Large-scale assessment programs that focus on comparisons of student groups across districts, states and provinces, and nations are not sufficient. Adequate assessment measures must be supported by strong informal reading assessments that take place in classrooms and involve both teachers and students in the process. These plans must be used to shape and reshape instruction so that it meets the needs of all students. It is not formative unless the teacher or student changes their practice after receiving feedback. 
  4. Support the creation of a culture of literacy that creates highly motivated and engaged learning 
    Former NCTE president and leading literacy expert Kathy Short describes that a literacy culture must include a coherent framework that include a focus on 1) learning reading, 2) learning about reading, and 3) learning through reading. In addition, no literacy framework is complete without strategies to increase 4) family engagement. Three school-wide conditions that can also add to a culture of literacy that has a positive impact on students’ attitudes are (1) making reading a priority, (2) modeling and support from adults in the school, and (3) the creation of motivating learning environments (Daniels and Steres, 2011).

Defining a Culture of Literacy

Middle level educators know that motivation and engagement are clear leading indicators for subsequent gains in student achievement. Developing and maintaining a culture of student ownership and high-quality literacy practices is paramount to creating such a culture. A deeper analysis of Kathy Short’s work will bring more clarity to this culture. 

In learning reading students develop confidence, skills, stamina and a love for reading by choosing their own books, participating in book fairs, and buddy reading. Teachers strategically provide regularly scheduled time and a variety of resources for independent reading time, and “read alouds” to create a passion and love for reading.  

In learning about reading, students develop the literacy skills to read across genres, read beyond difficult words, make predictions and know when to re-read difficult passages. Teachers facilitate this learning by focusing on students’ needs and personalizing reading instruction and strategies. Students develop skills through guided reading, feedback, powerful and purposeful mini lessons, and conferencing with the teacher.

During learning through reading, the student uses his or her reading skills as a tool for literacy discussions, to explore all the world has to offer in print and on the web, and mastering content in a variety of disciplines. The teacher, still the facilitator, uses strategies to engage and empower reading in the classroom.

While family social-economic status has some influence on student reading skills, it cannot be an excuse for not having a literacy culture in a school. Every thriving literacy culture must provide opportunities for family engagement, parent education and shared learning between children and families. Strategies include family reading nights, incorporating opportunities to showcase and model reading at family events, sending books home with kids and a summer reading program. 

In closing, rural school across the United States should not lose sight that literacy is and always be a key skill and a pathway out of poverty. Developing a love, passion and skills and reading takes a focused and aligned approach and should not be left up to each individual teacher. 


Daniels, E., & Steres, M. (2011). Examining the effects of a school-wide reading culture on the engagement of middle school students. Research in Middle Level Education Online, 35(2), 1-13.

Dunsmore, K. and Nelson, C. (2018).  A Leaders Guide to Building Instructional Capacity.  [white paper]. Retrieved July 05, 2018 from NORC at the University of Chicago.  

Marchand-Martella, N. E., Martella, R. C., Modderman, S. L., Petersen, H. M., & Pan, S. (2013). Key areas of effective adolescent literacy programs. Education and Treatment of Children, 36(1), 161–184.