Building a Community of Readers

As defined in the dictionary, a community is as “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.” Obviously, communities can be new and old, focused on a certain topic—science, arts, sports, religion—or simply be in the geographical area. But if we think of combining all of those “communities” and add a new dimension— literacy—what could happen ?

We know that for the past several years, literacy rates have largely been stagnant. The reason for this can’t be a singular answer, but instead a myriad of suggested reasons. But one also could say that as people come together as a community, with a common goal there is power in numbers.

The same principal can and should apply when building a community of readers. While educators are increasingly asked to do more with less, their sphere of influence is singular. But when fostering strong readers to increase literacy rates is defined as a community goal where school districts partner with their families, community organizations, libraries, local businesses, government, hospitals, and nonprofits with one common goal, we have power in numbers and the sphere of influence has grown exponentially.

We know that parental involvement has a powerful impact on a child’s success in education; however, parents are just one piece of the larger community. When a school builds community partnerships with the common goal of creating literacy-rich environments for children, it provides students with year-round support and opportunity to read within and beyond their classrooms, making reading a routine activity in familiar community and home environments.

A community reading model provides kids, no matter their financial situation, access to the books they want and need. This model provides much-needed support to the families involved. Sound like something your community may be interested in investing in? Here are the five steps that will help you begin the journey of build a community of readers.

1) Invest in a personalized digital library.

Providing students access to books at their own reading level and the opportunity to choose the books they want to read is directly tied to engagement. The more students read, the better readers they become. Research conducted by the University of Nevada in Reno shows that having a 500-book library in the home has as great an effect on the level of education a child will attain as having parents with a university-level education. In districts with limited budget or bandwidth, offering access to digital libraries on smartphones and tablets that students can read at school or at home is a cost-efficient way to provide the literary foundation that all students need to achieve and maintain grade-level proficiency. 

2) Establish a school or district literacy leadership team.

This group should include:

  •     -a strong, supportive superintendent;
  •     -a curriculum director to help drive strategy and implementation;
  •     -a dedicated innovation team who want to make it happen. Principals often know best who these people are: tech team members, media specialists, or others; and
  •     -a leader of the PTA/PTO organization (if applicable).

Establishing the roles and responsibilities of these individuals early on will not only build a strong base on which the model can be launched, but will also help to inspire more people and organizations to join the effort.

3) Forge partnerships with local leaders and community organizations.

Given a community vision and the opportunity to participate, businesses, medical professionals, community organizations, non-profits, and local politicians will likely jump at the chance to impact local students’ futures. Typically, people from the community and organizations want to help schools create opportunities for students but simply do not know how to get involved. Invite all community members to a seat at the table, provided that they agree to the shared goal.

Begin by approaching organizations that already have a mission to support youngsters like Rotary clubs, Y’s, the United Way, county/municipal library systems, Boys’ & Girls’ Clubs, and housing boards. Partner contributions may include financial support, volunteer hours, in-kind contributions of equipment or space, outreach activities, and fund-raising. Ongoing communication with these partners will continue to strengthen the relationships and foster growth in the students, families, and the overall community effort alike.

4) Launch strategically.

Not every community kick-off initiative is going to be the same. Mission CISD Reads launched with the collaboration of three communities, school boards, business leaders and government officials to create a literacy initiative not only for students but for the entire community. The goal was to reduce the current 50% illiteracy rate in the community. Establishing an active presence within all organizations of the community will give your reading initiative notability, credibility, and continuity. Once the public is aware of the initiative, it becomes easier to engage them in contributing to your literacy-rich environment.

5) Make it fun!

The community reading program in Hillsborough County, Florida, is the first and largest in the U.S. It runs year-round and annually reinvents itself to keep students, families, and community partners engaged and excited. Their annual summer reading campaign adopts a new theme each year, complete with challenges for kids to achieve their personal best and celebrations that attract students, families, and community partners. They continue to expand the breadth of the program by adding professional sports teams (the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tampa Bay Rays, Tampa Bay Rowdies), local celebrities (the Mayor of Tampa Bay, Titus O’Neal from WWF), The Tampa Bay Children’s Museum, and more organizations that have seen the program expand to provide more opportunities for all students in Hillsborough County Public Schools.

In Hillsborough County, Mission, Texas, and other districts and cities around the country, the concept of “building a community of readers” is growing. All members of the community recognize that power and strength is in numbers. Literacy for all benefits the entire community, so it only makes sense for the whole community to be invested in the program.

Todd Brekhus

Todd Brekhus is president of myON and a former teacher, department chair, and technology director. Follow him on Twitter: @ToddBrekhus.