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Setting up the pillars for a whole-school literacy program

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

Before starting a literacy program, there are six pillars which secondary schools need to have in place.

In secondary schools, we have to be realistic about what will create sustainable, lasting impact for your students. You're probably champing at the bit, wanting to get started on literacy NOW. But before we can even start, we need to get some important foundations or pillars need to be in place.

As promised, this is not just a thought bubble from me - it's based on research (see the references below).

Pillar 1: Sense of shared responsibility

Most subject teachers are aware that literacy is important in every subject and that each teacher is responsible for literacy. It's easy to say but harder to do. For literacy to be effective across the curriculum, every teacher in every faculty needs to think that literacy is my job too.

Literacy is my job too.

Getting every teacher of every subject on board with this idea might require a lot of discussion and time. It's worth doing, so that everyone feels reading and writing in subject areas is part of the literacy of that subject, and that it's an important priority for them.

Pillar 2: School culture of professional growth

Literacy flourishes in schools where there is a school culture of collaboration and professional growth for teachers. If staff meetings are only about rules, regulations and EpiPens, and if faculty meetings are only about administration, then the school is probably not ready for whole-school literacy.

Instead, time needs to be carved out for professional development of teachers, where colleagues can learn, try new things in the classroom, evaluate and then reflect on learnings to improve.

We learn, we try, we evaluate, we reflect, we improve.

Pillar 3: Committed leadership

When whole school literacy succeeds, there's usually a committed leadership team involving the principal, deputies and leaders of learning in faculties. It can't be one lone voice standing up for literacy when there are a million other louder voices.

Leaders need to show their commitment to literacy by their words and their actions. They have to walk the talk, that is, show it by doing it in the classroom and committing time, energy and money to the cause.

Literacy leaders walk the talk

Heads of faculty are so important for literacy in secondary schools. Their leadership skills need to be cultivated through learning opportunities too - they are linchpins of literacy leadership.

Pillar 4: Literacy as a 3-5 year priority

There is no such thing as a 'quick fix' with literacy.

I wish I could wave a wand and make literacy better in each secondary school with one magical blog post. But I can't.

I know what does work to improve literacy, and it takes serious work and a long time.

Whole school literacy takes 3-5 years to see results in terms of student improvement in standardised testing (which is how it's mostly measured). That's huge.

Literacy as one of 2-3 main priorities.

And literacy can't be one of millions of other priorities. You can't do literacy and technology and gifted and talented and inquiry based learning and renovate the staffroom, all at the same time. I'd like to say that literacy has to be the only priority, but that's my personal version of fantasy land. Literacy should be one of 2-3 main priorities for at least 3 years, or it's not worth doing at all.

Pillar 4: An active literacy committee

A literacy committee is essential for success in whole school literacy. They need to be across faculties, with regular meetings and a common purpose. And importantly, they should opt in to be in the committee.

Volunteers not recruits.

One school I worked with asked every teacher to be on one committee or other within the school. Some, reluctantly, chose literacy because they didn't want to do the others. That's not a volunteer. It's a recruit.

A strong literacy committee is a vital pillar for effective whole-school literacy and it needs to be comprised of people who are prepared to champion literacy in the school and to walk the talk.

Pillar 6: Familiarity with the data

A whole school literacy program will use data to show if there is any change or growth in literacy achievement. As a result, it is critical that teachers understand the literacy data before any changes are made.

Literacy data can be overwhelming. The most important data will:

  • identify students and cohorts of students who need extra support with literacy

  • show whether students are growing in their learning

  • help teachers evaluate their teaching for efficacy.

Each teacher in the school needs to be aware of key data and metrics that you already have for literacy. Less is more - the most important data is better than being drowned in data. The literacy committee should be the ones to help share important facts and monitor growth of students.

What's next?

  • Schedule this post as reading for the next executive meeting

  • Evaluate your school on progress with the 6 pillars

  • Build leadership discussion about literacy wherever you have influence.

References for this blog

Fullan, M. & Hargreaves, M. (Eds.) (2013). Teacher Development and Educational Change. Routledge.

Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H., & Fung, I. (2007). Teacher professional development. Best Evidence Synthesis iteration (BES). Wellington New Zealand: Ministry of Education.

Whitehead, D. (2010). The year after: sustaining the effects of literacy professional development in New Zealand secondary schools, Language and Education, 24:2, 133-149.

To reference this post, please cite:

Weekes, T. (2021, August 22). Setting up the pillars for a whole school literacy program [Blog post]. Retrieved from


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