How to plan for whole-school literacy

HomeSchool resourcesLiteracy (secondary level)How to plan for whole-school literacy

How to plan for whole-school literacy

HomeSchool resourcesLiteracy (secondary level)How to plan for whole-school literacy

Whole-school planning to enhance students’ literacy at both primary and secondary schools can play a role in improving student literacy, and this review shares research-informed insights to guide a practical approach to this planning[1].  

Literacy beyond English

Literacy skills are needed for learning and achievement across all areas of the curriculum, and responsibility for fostering students’ literacy needs to be taken up by teachers across all learning areas. Literacy needs to be situated as a whole-school priority, as literacy skills and knowledge in reading, writing, listening, and speaking are used to both learn and demonstrate learning across subjects[2]. For example, students’ reading comprehension has been found to influence their performance in science[3]. There is also a link between students’ engagement in literacy-supportive practices and achievement in subjects beyond English. For instance, greater reading in childhood is substantially associated with more advanced progress in maths[4]. A strategic whole-school policy or plan to promote literacy should be enacted across the school as improving literacy will result in improved performance across learning areas.

A whole school approach

A whole school literacy policy can be defined as a planning document that comprehensively details how literacy knowledge and skills will be fostered across the school, outlining a common language and strategies for approaching literacy that can be shared by all teachers and relevant support staff. No two policies will be the same as they must reflect the unique needs of each school[5]. Schools need to create practical policies to support a whole-school approach. This means that they should be able to be realistically enacted with available resourcing, use language that is accessible to all policy users, and the changes they seek to introduce should be clearly articulated and measurable[6].

Without these practical considerations, whole-school literacy can remain merely aspirational. Many recently analysed whole school literacy policies paid lip-service to literacy ideals pasted from curriculum materials, without considering what changes needed to be made and how these changes would be achieved and measured.

A broad view of literacy

In addition to meeting students’ needs in traditional literacy areas of reading, writing, listening, and speaking, a whole-school literacy plan should cover important skills within these areas such as handwriting and typing or keyboarding[7]. There are many different kinds of literacies beyond traditional literacy that may also be considered in a whole school policy, and many of these literacies are also closely related to and dependent on the traditional literacies. A key factor of effective literacy instruction in schools is shared literacy goals that extend beyond the individual classroom[8]. These can be instituted through effective planning[9], and the expectation that every teacher needs to be a teacher of literacy[10].

Spotlight on content area literacy and disciplinary literacy

When considering literacy across all subjects, a whole-school literacy policy must include consideration of how to foster students’ content area literacy and disciplinary literacy knowledge and skills.

Content area literacy relates to literacy skills that are used to learn and communicate learning across subject areas[11]. They are not unique to specific learning areas. For example, students use reading comprehension to understand both short stories in English and word problems in maths. The writing skills that are drawn on to compose grammatically correct sentences might be used to write a report about anti-vaping initiatives in health or to write a review in music[12]. Students need to develop their content area literacy skills across the curriculum.

Students also need strong disciplinary literacy skills, which are the literacy skills needed to meet discipline-specific needs[13]. For example, unique formatting, skills, and knowledge are used to communicate ideas in a science report, such as how a hypothesis should be structured, and elements such as diagrams and the bibliography must be presented in ways that are compliant with discipline-specific norms[14] in order to achieve a high score. Students need explicit instruction in disciplinary literacy skills so that they can both learn and communicate their learning in ways that comply with disciplinary expectations.

Literacy learners needing additional support

When planning for a whole school approach to literacy, the most important group of students to consider are the struggling literacy learners[15]. These are the students who trail behind their peers in literacy knowledge and skills[16]. Struggling literacy learners deserve whole school approaches that can support their improvement. A whole school literacy policy can outline an implementation process for shared strategies to both identify and support struggling literacy learners with diverse issues[17]. While struggling literacy learners benefit from early identification, they often fall through the cracks, remaining unidentified until the gap between their performance and that of their peers is already substantial[18]. For example, some students will pass through all years of formal schooling without having their dyslexia diagnosed[19]. A whole-school approach to identification could lead to more timely intervention.

Strategies to support struggling literacy learners must be implemented across the school. This can help to achieve consistency in approaches to intervention, student feedback, and assessment[20], such as through use of common feedback annotations across learning areas for literacy assessment[21]. Nor should supporting struggling literacy learners only be concerned with literacy skill and knowledge development. Attention needs to be given to building confidence and motivation[22], and adequate time and resourcing to providing whole school support must be factored into planning[23]. Furthermore, given that teachers also indicate difficulty meeting the diverse needs of struggling literacy learners, whole school professional development in this area may be needed in some cases so that teachers can address the often complex barriers students may experience[24].

Using a whole school literacy policy to build a literacy-supportive culture

As part of their efforts to boost student motivation, schools may wish to use their whole school literacy policy to introduce or reinforce a literacy supportive culture that fosters positive attitudes toward literacy activities. This is important as policies typically focus strongly on knowledge and skills without considering how to foster positive attitudes toward literacy learning[25], a shortcoming given that motivation is very important for student learning[26]. For example, research found that few whole school literacy policies promote reading engagement strategies as a whole school priority[27], and failed to consider supportive reading engagement environments such as school libraries[28]. There are many whole school practical strategies that can be detailed in implementation planning to foster a literacy supportive culture and enhance the social positioning of literacy activities such as reading for pleasure[29].

Key features of policy and planning

Here are 15 of the key features found in some whole school literacy policies that you may wish to use in your whole school literacy policy[30].

  1. Information about the school

As whole school literacy policies need to be responsive to their contexts, they should include information about the school, including incorporation of local linguistic and cultural resources as well as avenues for community involvement[31].

  1. Definition of literacy

Rather than just pasting in a one-size-fits-all definition of literacy from the curriculum, whole school literacy policies should include a working definition of literacy that is reflective of the school’s needs and values, fostering school-wide shared understandings about literacy[32].

  1. Rationale and goals

Whole school literacy policies should include overarching shared goals, such as maintaining high expectations for student’s individual improvement[33].

  1. Explicit literacy targets

Beyond aspirations, whole school literacy policies need to articulate explicit literacy targets that align with the aforementioned goals[34].

  1. Implementation planning

Whole school literacy policies should feature implementation plans that detail when and how strategies and activities linked to the achievement of explicit literacy targets are enacted, and how success will be measured[35].

  1. Roles and responsibilities

All stakeholders within and beyond the school need to know what their roles and responsibilities are in relation to the whole school literacy policy[36].

  1. Assessment of progress

A whole school literacy policy needs to include details about how student progress in literacy will be assessed across the school, and not just in English, in order to track progress towards meeting policy targets, and for determining gaps that need to be addressed in future revisions of the policy to enhance students’ literacy learning[37].

  1. Interventions, enrichment, and accommodations for students with specific needs

Strategies for identification and intervention of struggling literacy learners need to be situated as a whole school responsibility at both primary and secondary levels[38].

  1. Ongoing professional development for educators

Whole school literacy policies should include expectation for and planning related to ongoing professional development of staff in current and emerging literacy-related areas[39].

  1. Resources and the library

Key literacy resources such as the school library and its staff need to be detailed in the whole school literacy policy to ensure that the budget supporting key literacy promoting resources is maintained, and that these resources are recognised, valued, and optimally used within the school[40].

  1. Links with other policies

Links to other relevant policies can also be included in a whole school literacy policy in order to place this policy within a broader context, and to demonstrate alignment of the policy with other key internal and external policies[41].

  1. Defined roles for parents and external partners

Defined roles for parents and external partners, and plans to strengthen relationships with these stakeholders, should feature in your whole school literacy policy, given that the relationship between parental support for their child’s literacy is linked to that child’s literacy outcomes[42].

  1. Building capacity for parent-supported learning

Whole school literacy policies can also actively plan to educate and support parents from diverse backgrounds to support child literacy within the home in areas such as maintaining reading engagement[43].

  1. Transition support

Whole school literacy policies should include strategies to support students as they move through large (such as primary to secondary) and smaller (like year to year) transitions[44] within their schooling lives, including diagnostic opportunities to identify students who are falling behind their peers.

  1. Policy evaluation and review planning

Every whole school literacy policy needs to include details of how and when it will be evaluated[45].

What else is needed?

An analysis of whole school literacy policies found many gaps and issues in these documents, and these could be addressed in future policy writing and revisions. These included but were not limited to:

  • paying attention to developing writing modalities (handwriting and typing)
  • creating literacy targets beyond what is measured in high stakes testing
  • planning for implementation of uniform whole school feedback mechanisms
  • enhancing the research base for literacy-supportive activities and strategies featured in policies[46].

While this review provides a starting point for creating or revising a whole school literacy policy, considerable attention will need to be given to the process to ensure that the resultant policy meets the unique needs of the school. It needs to be fit for purpose and actionable, not merely aspirational. There may be resistance in some contexts where teachers may be sceptical about the implementation of yet another policy, so it is important that a whole school literacy policy be introduced with consideration of alignment to best practice in change management[47]. Furthermore, research that explores whole school literacy policies and their enaction in the context of New Zealand is needed to support schools in this country to design and implement whole school literacy policies that hold contextual and cultural relevance.  


[1] Merga, M.K. (in press). Creating an Australian school literacy policy. Hawker Brownlow Education

[2] Merga, in press.

[3] Neri, N.C., Guill, K., & Retelsdorf, J. (2021). Language in science performance: do good readers perform better? European Journal of Psychology of Education, 36(1), 45-61.

[4] Sullivan, A., & Brown, M. (2015). Reading for pleasure and progress in vocabulary and mathematics. British Educational Research Journal, 41(6), 971-991.

[5] Merga, in press.

[6] Merga, in press.

[7] Merga, in press.

[8] Lewis, M., & Wray, D. (2001). Implementing effective literacy initiatives in the secondary school. Educational Studies, 27(1), 45-54.

[9] Merga, in press.

[10] Draper, R. J. (2002). Every teacher a literacy teacher? An analysis of the literacy-related messages in secondary methods textbooks. Journal of Literacy Research, 34(3), 357-384.

[11] Faggella-Luby, M. N., Graner, P. S., Deshler, D. D., & Drew, S. V. (2012). Building a house on sand: Why disciplinary literacy is not sufficient to replace general strategies for adolescent learners who struggle. Topics in Language Disorders, 32(1), 69-84.

[12] Weekes, P. (2014). From dot points to disciplinarity: The theory and practice of disciplinary literacies in secondary schooling. [Doctoral dissertation, University of New England]. Research UNE.

[13] International Literacy Association (2017). Content area and disciplinary literacy strategies and frameworks.

[14] Hannant, K., & Jetnikoff, A. (2017). What do students need to know about writing for

science in the middle years? Literacy Learning: The Middle Years, 25(1), 53-65.

[15] The term ‘struggling’ is used purposefully, as ‘struggle’ is not a bad word, and the language we use to discuss the challenges faced by these students needs to be strong enough to protect them from losing visibility as a funding and planning priority [Lupo, S. M., Strong, J. Z., & Conradi Smith, K. (2019). Struggle is not a bad word: Misconceptions and recommendations about readers struggling with difficult texts. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 62(5), 551–560;

Merga, M.K. (2022). School Libraries Supporting Literacy and Wellbeing. Facet].

[16] Merga, M. K. (2020). “Fallen through the cracks”: Teachers’ perceptions of barriers faced by struggling literacy learners in secondary school. English in Education, 54(4), 371-395.

[17] Merga, 2020.

[18] Sanfilippo, J., Ness, M., Petscher, Y., Rappaport, L., Zuckerman, B., & Gaab, N. (2020).

Reintroducing dyslexia: early identification and implications for paediatric practice.

Pediatrics, 146(1), e20193046.

[19] Merga, in press.

[20] Long, L., MacBlain, S., & MacBlain, M. (2007). Supporting students with dyslexia at the secondary level: An emotional model of literacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 51(2), 124-134.

[21] Merga, in press.

[22] Burden, R., & Burdett, J. (2005). Factors associated with successful learning in pupils with dyslexia: A motivational analysis. British Journal of Special Education, 32(2), 100- 104.

[23] Merga, M.K., Mat Roni, S. and Malpique, A. (2021). Do secondary English teachers have adequate time and resourcing to meet the needs of struggling literacy learners? English in Education, 55(4), 351-367.

[24] Merga, M.K., Mat Roni, S & Mason, S. (2020). Teachers’ perceptions of their preparedness for supporting struggling literacy learners in secondary English classrooms. English in Education, 54(3), 265-284.

[25] Merga, M., & Gardiner, V. (2018). The role of whole-school literacy policies supporting reading engagement in Australian schools. English in Australia, 53(3), 37-50.

[26] Wigfield, A. (1997). Reading motivation: A domain-specific approach to motivation. Educational psychologist, 32(2), 59-68.

[27] Merga, M., & Gardiner, V. (2018). The role of whole-school literacy policies supporting reading engagement in Australian schools. English in Australia, 53(3), 37-50.

[28] Merga, M. K. (2022). The role of the library within school-level literacy policies and plans in Australia and the United Kingdom. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 54(3), 469-481.

[29] Merga, M. K. (2018). Reading engagement for tweens and teens: What would make them read more? ABC-CLIO.

[30] My upcoming book provides practical examples of what may be included in a whole school literacy policy, with implications derived from analysis of whole school literacy policies from Australia and the UK as part of a comprehensive research programme.

[31] Luke, A. (2003). Making literacy policy and practice with a difference. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 26(3), 58-82.

[32] Wigfield, A. (1997). Reading motivation: A domain-specific approach to motivation. Educational psychologist, 32(2), 59-68.

[33] Hill, P. W., & Crevola, C. A. (1999). Key Features of a whole‐school, design approach to

literacy teaching in schools. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 4(3), 5-11.

[34] Hill & Crevola, 1999.

[35] Merga, in press.

[36] Merga, in press.

[37] Hill & Crevola, 1999.

[38] Merga, in press.

[39] Merga, in press.

[40] Merga, 2022.

[41] Merga, in press.

[42] Hutton, J. S., Horowitz-Kraus, T., Mendelsohn, A. L., DeWitt, T., Holland, S. K., & C-MIND Authorship Consortium. (2015). Home reading environment and brain activation in

preschool children listening to stories. Pediatrics, 136(3), 466–478.

[43] Merga, M. K. (2014). Exploring the role of parents in supporting recreational book reading beyond primary school. English in Education, 48(2), 149-163.

[44] Garoni, S., Edwards-Groves, C., & Davidson, C. (2021). The ‘doubleness’ of transition:

Investigating classroom talk practices in literacy lessons at the end of primary school and the beginning of secondary school. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 44(2), 62-75.

[45] Merga, in press.

[46] Merga, in press.

[47] Merga, in press.

By Dr Margaret Merga


Margaret Merga

Dr Margaret Merga (Twitter: @MKMerga) has written more than a hundred peer-reviewed and research-informed publications, including five non-fiction books on literacy, libraries, research methods and research communications. Her 2018 book Reading Engagement for Tweens and Teens has been influential in supporting teachers, parents, and school library professionals to maintain young people’s reading engagement beyond the early years, and her 2022 book School Libraries Supporting Literacy and Wellbeing highlights her research on the relationship between libraries, reading, and wellbeing. As of 2022, Margaret is an honorary adjunct at the University of Newcastle, and she runs Merga Consulting, working with schools, professional associations, and government departments on a range of literacy and research projects. 

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