How to Implement a Sustainable Comprehensive Literacy Program

 //  Sep 7, 2016

How to Implement a Sustainable Comprehensive Literacy Program

Creating a literacy-rich culture in school begins with the implementation of a strong, sustainable literacy plan. In order to achieve this, literacy leaders must develop a long-term comprehensive literacy strategy that is dynamic, flexible, and responsive to all students’ academic needs—and  which is also steeped in family engagement, learning supports, and ongoing professional learning. 

Literacy instruction “must-haves”

Although balanced literacy instruction will vary from district to district, there are five components that are essential to any program—what I call the reading and writing “must-haves.” They are:

  1. Read and Write Aloud
  2. Shared Reading and Writing
  3. Guided Reading and Writing
  4. Independent Reading and Writing


With these elements in mind, literacy leaders will decide on what comprehensive literacy looks like in their particular school or district. Once a vision is achieved, it is crucial to share the plan not only with the central office and school community—but also with students’ families. We know that students reach their fullest academic potential when they are deeply engaged with literacy both in and out of school—and so ongoing engagement with families is essential. Once the message has been shared, the school or district can begin the work of creating a culture of rich literacy.

Building from strengths

No matter what a district’s literacy goals are, no matter what has been achieved or what challenges lie ahead, an important first step is assessing strengths and building from there. So whether a school or district is just starting, or whether strategies have been in place for several years, a flexible and adaptive plan will use existing strengths as a starting point. Going forward, literacy leaders will gather and analyze current data on student reading levels, and make necessary adjustments. In differentiated classrooms, students learn in small groups that constantly grow and change based on students’ mastery of essential skills. This literacy plan is flexible and dynamic: always responsive to current teacher and student work.

Thinking long term

Many districts want to try to implement a plan in just one year. But a strong comprehensive literacy program doesn’t just support the academic achievement of this year’s students, or next year’s—the best program will be scalable and sustainable in the long-term. I recommend beginning in the lower grades (K-2) with building vocabulary, word study, and doing guided reading. Then ideally, by third grade, readers will have already experienced several years of balanced literacy instruction—they are on their way to self-selecting books and doing independent reading with gained student skills. It sounds like a long process, but the goal is that by middle school, teachers will no longer be teaching reading; kids will have developed solid skills over a 3-5 year period.   

Professional development pulls it all together

What makes all of this come together is incredible professional development. Once the plan is implemented, coaches can stay in the district and work with teachers day-to-day, modeling the techniques that teachers need to master. With a multi-year plan for embedded professional development, teachers build expertise that is sustainable, and stays with the district.