Literacy skills increase access and opportunity for any individual. In America, literate individuals are more likely to acquire and maintain employment. Those people with strong basic literacy and numeracy skills, combined with advanced functional literacy, add valuable human capital to their nations’ economies.

There is a misconception that literacy-skill acquisition should be a main focus at the elementary level only. The time students spend developing more sophisticated literacy skills decreases at the secondary level for several reasons: secondary teacher preparation programs often only require one reading course, middle level and high schools are often separated into content-area courses where the primary goal is to learn the content versus deepening literacy skills, and parental involvement in literacy development dwindles as students get older. Secondary schools must work to strengthen students’ literacy abilities.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 21% of adults in the United States—about 43 million—fall into the illiterate/functionally illiterate category. Nearly two-thirds of fourth graders read below grade level, and the same number graduate from high school still reading below grade level. Failing to improve literacy skills at the secondary level decreases equitable success in understanding and analyzing content across all disciplines, which can have a lifelong negative impact on a student. When school districts commit to a systematic approach to literacy—starting in elementary school and building through high school—students emerge into society as strong readers and writers.

Raising Strong Readers

It is important for school leaders to create a school community that values literacy. This involves providing research and professional development around high-impact literacy practices. One of the most valuable resources for building unity in a school building is through a literacy newsletter. Here, school leaders share literacy strategy that can cross all content areas, as well as the research showcasing the value of teaching students to apply the strategy to the complex texts they encounter in any course. This does not have to be overwhelming or excessive. Consider highlighting one approach for all teachers to focus on in short intervals, which will increase literacy practices throughout the year.

Demonstrate to teachers how to incorporate the highlighted strategy into their specific content area—model the process in a faculty meeting or embed a video within the newsletter. It is important to show the strategy being applied to a variety of content areas. For example, demonstrate the strategy as it applies to a science text, a social studies text, and a math word problem. School leaders should work with the literacy specialist(s) to select research-based strategies.

Delving Into Data

Secondary-level literacy work is most effective when it spans all content areas. This includes the data analysis and follow-up work. School leaders often make the mistake of only including English/language arts teachers and literacy specialists in the topics that center around reading and writing. At Ponaganset High School in North Scituate, RI, we had all teachers look at writing data; they determined that many students struggled to write in an organized fashion. Since writing is an essential form of communication across disciplines, we needed to address this need with the entire faculty. As such, we decided to adopt a schoolwide writing format. The ICE format allows all teachers to be writing teachers:

I—Introduce the topic

C—Cite evidence

E—Explain the evidence

This is a simple approach that can help students construct their writing in an organized fashion. It can serve as a model to follow for a short-constructed response, or it can be utilized as the format for body paragraphs of an essay. Although this may seem formulaic, it is an approach that can serve as a starting point for students, especially those struggling with writing. The message to teachers was always that the goal is to move students to become sophisticated writers who do not simply rely on a format to follow. We hope this approach will help them understand the basic structure of an organized piece as they progress in their writing abilities. Anchor charts (above) were placed in all classrooms.

Vocabulary acquisition is an aspect of literacy development that needs to be enhanced continuously. A student’s word development growth should build throughout all of the schooling years (and beyond). Creating a culture of literacy within a school is the key to immersing students in varied and complex vocabulary.

Focusing on Literacy

Many of the rich literacy practices that are routine in elementary schools are abandoned at the high school level. For instance, word walls are a highly effective visual for exposing students to new terms. Secondary educators can utilize this strategy by making the words applicable to older students. At Ponaganset High School, vocabulary work centered around Tier II words: terms more mature language users incorporate into speaking and writing. These go beyond the common words used daily but are used frequently enough that students should be exposed to this language tier.

We build a strong culture around this practice by centering the word walls around the word of the week. Start the week by announcing the word. Faculty members or students can do this. During the announcement, provide the definition(s) and use the word in a context sentence. From there, we provide each teacher with the word on a strip of paper and ask them to affix it to a “word wall” in their classroom to create a universal focus for vocabulary. Best practice steps then call for students to use the words. Work with teachers on creating writing assignments for their content areas that allow for infusion of the word wall vocabulary. As each teacher commits to incorporating this work into their classrooms, students are introduced to rich words as they move from class to class throughout the day. The repetition and opportunities for students to practice using the words will help ensure that they are proficient with the schoolwide vocabulary. As a culminating activity, it is fun to run Literacy Week across the school and create a contest for students to submit creative writing pieces to incorporate the schoolwide words of the week. Prizes can vary!

Family engagement is another area where school leaders can capitalize on time spent outside of school hours. Parents often do not know how to move from reading a story to their young child to engaging in current events articles and discussions with their teenagers. School leaders can help by creating and sharing resources with the community. One way to do this is through a literacy section of the parent newsletter that goes out to families. Provide parents with links to current events articles along with dinner discussion questions. Encourage families to read an article each week and then discuss the article as a family. Showing students how to transfer their literacy skills to venues outside their classes will help students be productive members of society who can read about an issue and develop an opinion supported by evidence.

The schoolwide focus on literacy at Ponaganset High School has yielded successful results. Over five years, there has been a 71% decrease in the number of students in need of intensive literacy intervention. This has allowed students to access the curriculum more equitably, but most importantly, our students are leaving high school with the literacy skills needed to be contributing members of a global society.

Amanda Grundel, MEd, MS, is the associate principal at Ponaganset High School in North Scituate, RI, and the 2021 Rhode Island Assistant Principal of the Year. She is also an NASSP 2021 Assistant Principal of the Year finalist.

Meet Amanda Grundel

A 2021 NASSP National Assistant Principal of the Year Finalist

Amanda Grundel lives in West Warwick, RI, with her husband, Christian, and 11-year-old son, Alex. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, hiking, and swimming, and her hobbies include drawing and creative writing. Her greatest accomplishment at Ponaganset High School in North Scituate, RI, has been her leadership around literacy instruction at the secondary level. This work has resulted in a 71% decrease in the number of students needing intensive literacy interventions.