Creating a Participatory Culture of Reading: April 2020

In the 21st century, reading is no longer an isolated practice but one that happens within a larger community. Students are expected to actively share their knowledge and interact with their peers. Such practices situate reading within the context of a participatory culture in which individuals use what they learn to benefit their community. Viewing reading as part of a participatory culture requires a shift in how we teach reading and how we foster interaction among students around the ideas presented to them through texts. Helping teachers make this shift requires a collaborative model for professional learning.

How to Engage in Participatory Culture

In his book Convergence Culture: Where old and new media collide, Henry Jenkins says that because a participatory culture is one where individuals are “invited to actively participate in the creation and circulation of new content” within a given community, students learn to share knowledge and offer critiques. As part of the process, their contributions are viewed as important and support the overall well-being of the group. Members receive assistance from each other, with the more experienced and knowledgeable members often engaging in informal mentoring practices. As a result, students form a network around creation, sharing, and responses to the collective work of the group.

Reading as a participatory culture uses the text as a starting point to engage and launch the reader into creating or being a part of something new. Interacting with ideas—and building on them through discussion—is central. Students use what they read to create content and inform their responses to the work done by others within their community. Such opportunities can empower students, allowing them to engage with an audience and make valued contributions.

The Benefits of Reading Within a Participatory Culture

1. Connecting to an Audience

This creates an immediate audience for students. At a minimum, their peers and teachers will have access to the work they create. However, their audience can also extend outward. When students read, write, and create something for an audience beyond their teacher, it can provide a sense of purpose, increase their engagement, and improve their reading performance.

2. A Deeper Sense of Responsibility

Students use what they have read to engage with and inform their community, and they know their peers will read, evaluate, and comment on their work. The community understands how each member does/does not contribute and how each contribution shapes their knowledge on a topic. Such expectations foster a deeper sense of responsibility for students when it comes to reading and sharing what they have learned—they must be attentive to the text and consider what is and is not presented, as well as the evidence used to make such claims.

3. Reading Becomes Active

Students are required to be actively involved with texts and ideas. Because students must regularly share their ideas and engage with the work presented by others, they learn how to evaluate the information they both present and are presented with. Students’ interactions with their peers around their work require them to provide feedback that helps creators refine and improve their overall comprehension.

Creating and Sustaining a Participatory Reading Culture

Developing and sustaining a participatory culture requires a collaborative effort over time. In this section, we draw on our experiences between our university and an area high school to illustrate key components for creating and maintaining a participatory reading culture. Jeff Makelky, the principal of Rocky Mountain High School* (RMHS), contacted Leigh Hall and Cynthia Brock seeking support to improve students’ reading comprehension abilities at his school. Next, Hall, Brock, and Makelky—along with the teachers and students at RMHS—began a two-year collaborative process to support teachers in learning and applying instructional practices that were aligned with a participatory culture of reading.

Crafting a Plan

Component #1: Principal leadership and support. Makelky understood that his students were having significant reading comprehension difficulties. He joined with his staff in a distributed leadership fashion to leverage the expertise, capacity, and energy of his entire team. The group constructed a plan of action, gathering the insight and input from Hall and Brock. Over two years, Makelky used empathetic leadership as his staff worked to implement their new pedagogical practices, while ensuring he provided feedback and support to help the teachers.

Component #2: Collaborative knowledge-building. For professional learning to be successful, principals and teachers must work collaboratively as co-partners. This collaboration can be enriched by incorporating outside experts who bring additional knowledge and experiences to the team. In order to design effective professional learning, we first needed to understand and build on the teachers’ existing knowledge and practices around reading instruction and how students engaged with texts and utilized the skills and strategies they had learned. To do this, we collected surveys from all students and teachers—observing classrooms throughout the collaboration, interviewing teachers, and engaging in focus group conversations with students. Once we collected and analyzed data pertaining to how the reading texts were used and how reading was taught at the school, we relied on this information to create professional development plans with the teachers.

Component #3: Cocreating accessible professional development. Our first step was the creation of online microcourses—these were the cornerstone of the school’s professional development for teachers. The courses were designed to be completed in one to three weeks and were aligned to the professional learning needs of teachers. Some of the microcourses included Instagram for Literacy Development: Participatory Culture, Relationships for Literacy Development, and Introduction to Dialogic Teaching.

Teachers had access to 15 courses for the first two years. They selected the courses that best met their learning needs and helped them gain the skills they needed to create a participatory culture of reading. Each course provided them with ways to implement what they learned with their students. Teachers shared their progress within the course and received feedback from university experts, the principal, and each other.

The second step involved the principal setting aside regular time for teachers to discuss their work and learning as it pertained to the microcourses. This allowed teachers to build a shared knowledge base around supporting a participatory culture of reading. After 1 1/2 years, four teachers from different disciplines led a staff meeting demonstrating to the faculty how they used their knowledge from the microcourses to design experiences for students.

Component #4: Principals as instructional leaders in reading. The principal openly acknowledged that he had much to learn about how to foster a participatory culture of reading. Therefore, he took microcourses alongside the teachers. When faculty shared their experiences implementing the instructional practices, he was able to join the conversation in meaningful ways. Additionally, when he did classroom observations, he was able to effectively engage teachers in conversations about their practice based on their shared knowledge.

A Look Inside the Process

Consider this example of how building a participatory reading culture happens.

Teachers sit in the library of a high school participating in a professional development session led by a math teacher, a science teacher, a special education teacher, and an English teacher to learn how to design reading instruction so it supports a participatory culture.

The four teachers spend an average of 12 minutes each sharing how they have experimented with various literacy strategies and tools in their classrooms to foster a participatory culture of reading. The science teacher shares how she has implemented strategies to help her students develop deep knowledge about the academic vocabulary they must know to be successful in her class. Her students are expected to share their word knowledge, assist each other in creating definitions, and use readings to further discuss and deepen their comprehension of word meanings.

The math teacher explains how she is using math notebooks and peer discussions to help her students think through the conceptual underpinnings of mathematical concepts. Students use their notebooks to share both their confusions and their understandings publicly among their peers. Notebooks then become a form of texts that allow students to document their learning, and empower the students to help others expand their knowledge of mathematical concepts.

Afterward, all teachers are invited to share their work through a whole-group discussion. This structure allows teachers to participate in creating a new culture around reading instruction by interacting with and building on experiences with their colleagues and students. This professional development experience also becomes a participatory one that makes visible the practices, successes, and difficulties teachers encountered in their instruction.

Together, university experts and the principal build collective teacher efficacy—or a set of shared beliefs—within the high school to improve student performance in reading. It is through collective teacher efficacy that commitment to a participatory reading culture can be sustained. Additionally, school leaders become empowered and prevent fragmentation among teachers as new initiatives or priorities are adopted. As a result, school leaders empower themselves and teachers to stay focused on their mission so they can realize a shared goal and improve the reading abilities of their students.


Leigh A. Hall, PhD, and Cynthia H. Brock, PhD, are Wyoming Excellence in Higher Education Endowed Chairs in Literacy Education at the University of Wyoming. William Holmes, PhD, is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Wyoming. Jeff Makelky is the principal of Big Piney High School in Big Piney, WY.

*Rocky Mountain High School is a pseudonym to protect the privacy of the school and its students. 


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