Increasing Early Literacy in Rural Communities

Last Updated: January 28, 2015

This article appeared in the January 2015 Rural Policy Matters.

Editor's note: Links are free and current at time of posting, but may require registration or expire over time.

Twenty-one rural schools across the U.S. are collaborating to implement a multi-layered, rural-specific approach to improving early literacy, especially for at-risk children in high-poverty communities.

The schools are part of LIREC — Literacy Innovation in Rural Education through Collaboration — a new project that was awarded a federal Innovative Approaches to Literacy grant this fall. Lead partners include the Rural Trust, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL). First Book, a non-profit organization that offers deeply discounted, high-quality children’s literature to eligible groups, is another partner.

Doris Terry Williams, Executive Director of the Rural Trust, Co-Directs LIREC, along with Project Director KaiLonnie Dunsmore of NCTE.

"This is an exciting opportunity to demonstrate the power of rural communities and schools working together in support of all children," Williams says. "When communities find ways to talk together and come to new insights about themselves and what they really care about, they can find many opportunities to leverage their own resources and accomplish challenging goals."

Williams notes that the ways this project supports teachers and schools also underscores its commitment to long-term opportunity for children. "We know what it takes for teachers to grow professionally and we know how to support teachers in ways that draw on their strengths and make them excited to continue learning and becoming stronger teachers to each child. We know that making schools environments in which teachers learn from and support each other strengthens teacher engagement and effectiveness. This grant brings together many of those approaches within the varied contexts of rural schools."

Williams re-emphasizes the importance of school and community. "This project joins opportunities for communities with opportunities for teachers and schools and districts," she says. "That is a unique aspect of this grant, one that can showcase how and why collaboration between communities and schools benefits everyone, especially children."

Not only is LIREC unique in its recognition of the role of both schools and communities in promoting strong literacy achievement. It is unique in other ways as well. First, it focuses on challenges and opportunities in rural places. Second, its core approaches are designed to strengthen capacity to support early literacy — in educators, within schools and districts, and in communities. Third, it combines targeted strategies to enhance professional learning and expand literacy resources. Finally, it uses a framework of collaboration as the basic structure for each of its components.

In this issue of RPM we offer an overview of LIREC and its goals. In future installments we will explore specific aspects of the work and feature some of the schools that are doing it.

Rural Specific

LIREC is designed specifically for rural settings, and its participating schools reflect much of the geographic, ethnic, and organizational diversity of rural America. They range from the high desert of Arizona to the islands of Vermont; some schools are very small and community-based, others are large and consolidated and young students have daily bus rides of two hours or longer.

Most of the schools have fewer books and other resources than they need. Professional development opportunities tend to be limited and rarely focus on the particular needs of local students and teachers. As is the case in many rural schools, some teachers are the only practitioner at their grade level; some teach in multi-grade classrooms, and some teachers change grade levels in response to staffing and enrollment needs.

All the participating schools and their communities also face serious economic challenges, including isolation and distance.

LIREC recognizes that rural communities must leverage and build on their own resources in order to create long-term opportunities to improve literacy levels among young children. This reality informs the collaborative structures of the project, its capacity strengthening goals, and its specific strategies for supporting professional educators, community organizations, and local residents and families to work together to make sure all the community’s young children gain the literacy skills they need.

Strengthening Capacity: Professional Educators, Schools, and Districts

LIREC's focus on building local capacity rather than on delivering pre-packaged one-size-fits-all programs is appropriate to the varied conditions of rural schools. It also increases the likelihood that opportunities made possible by the grant can be sustained over time.

LIREC Project Director KaiLonnie Dunsmore speaks to this approach. "Our goal is to build on the assets that are unique to the teachers and organizational conditions in specific school communities. We want to support teachers in being strong instructional leaders by bringing research-based strategies and tools that leverage existing expertise and promote cross-grade and cross-school collaboration."

Dunsmore continues, "Teacher capacity for implementing effective instruction is developed when teachers have time and opportunities not only to learn about the most effective instructional practices but also to take risks and get feedback in a supportive environment, and when they are encouraged to continually ask questions about their practice that leads to futher study and professional growth."

The project also works to sustain these practices.Dunsmore explains that by investing in building leadership teams and by developing organizational conditions that promote cycles of continuous professional learning and inquiry, LIREC builds capcity in local schools to carry the work forward.

"And," Dunsmore adds, "LIREC builds strong regional and national networks for cross-site learning and support."

These efforts support both individual educators and the organizations in which they work. 

Professional Educators. LIREC defines professional educators broadly to include classroom teachers, paraprofessionals, community-based pre-school providers, administrators, and school district support personnel. It provides these educators with a variety of opportunities to expand their understanding and effective use of research-based strategies that support literacy achievement. It also supports educators to collaborate effectively with each other.

Learning Organizations. Individual learning opportunities — for teachers and students — are greatly improved when educators work in organizations whose members learn together and are committed to growing the collective knowledge of the organization. To this end LIREC works with schools and districts to develop and maintain the practices and structures that characterize such “learning organizations.”

Targeted Strategies

LIREC's overall goal to strengthen capacity to support early literacy is achieved with a variety of interlocking strategies related to professional learning and to increasing children’s access to books and effective literacy instruction.

Professional Learning. Educators will have access to a combination of professional learning opportunities related to research-based literacy instruction for preschool to elementary children. These opportunities will be geared to their particular schools and to their personal interests and needs. They will include embedded coaching, inquiry-based learning within communities of practice, face-to-face workshops, web-based workshops, online learning modules, virtual practice exchanges among schools, and an opportunity to participate in a summer learning lab.

Summer Learning Labs. Each district will host summer learning labs lasting 15 to 16 days. Children will participate half of each day and receive intensive literacy support and instruction. Educators will work with children and each other to implement professional learning. During the remaining half-day teachers will work intensively with each other and with literacy coaches to reflect on practice, analyze student work, engage in peer coaching and collaborative lesson planning, and study new and better ways to support student learning.

National Innovation Network. The project offers an online network to address unique dimensions of rural teaching and learning, including those related to distance and isolation. The network will facilitate professional exchanges among schools, opportunities to take up shared inquiries and studies, targeted support and coaching from literacy consultants, and customized resources to support face-to-face work in communities of practice.

Increasing Access to Plentiful High-Quality Early Reading Materials. LIREC works to increase the supply of books available so all children have improved access to the kinds of reading materials that promote literacy and motivation to read. The project also works with local libraries to engage parents and with community-based preschool teachers and programs to increase children’s access to reading materials. In some districts, especially those where children have very long bus rides, school buses will have books and e-readers on board for children to use.

Building Community, Individual, and Organizational Capacity.
Building Community, Individual, and Organizational Capacity.

Communities: Core contexts, necessary partners

LIREC recognizes the powerful influence that communities have on their children. Its community component works hand-in-hand with school-based efforts to build expectations and opportunities for all children to succeed. It does so by supporting communities to identify and leverage their own resources.

Jereann King Johnson who works with the Rural Trust explains. "Barriers to our children's literacy development are not just school and classroom based. When the entire community, and not just teachers and parents, is viewed as a critical asset for addressing early literacy development, the opportunities for literacy teaching and learning are greatly increased."

Johnson emphasizes the importance of broad engagement. "In this project, we are intentional about engaging a wide representation of community members, including artists, rural fire departments, activists, childcare workers, doctors, city workers, all kinds of people in discussions about early literacy development. The overall goal is for community members to create a vision of what community would look like if all children were prepared for literacy success. They they plan and implement specific actions to ensure that vision moves to reality."

Community Dialogue Circles. In this structured process, local residents meet in small groups over several consecutive sessions to share experiences, examine local data, and identify resources and ideas for supporting early literacy. Participants in the circles come together in a community-wide action forum to develop a community literacy action plan.

Community Literacy Action Plan. The action plan is specific to place and grows out of the dialogue process. It identifies specific steps the community will take to support early literacy for all children in culturally appropriate and locally achievable ways. The plan also addresses the distribution of books and early reading materials and collaborations among schools, families, libraries, and other community-based programs.

Community Literacy Action Team. A community-wide literacy action team made up of families and representatives of diverse local organizations and schools will work together to sponsor the dialogue circles and implement the literacy plan.

Communities will also have opportunities to collaborate with and learn from each other across the LIREC project through a community literacy exchange.

Community Dialogue and Visioning Process.
Community Dialogue and Visioning Process.


As LIREC’s title (Literacy Innovation in Rural Education through Collaboration) makes clear, collaboration is the framework of the project. Teachers collaborate with each other. Districts and regional education agencies support the structures of effective collaboration within schools. Educators in rural schools across the country collaborate with each other to investigate common questions and learn together. Community groups collaborate to maximize their efforts and resources. Communities and schools collaborate with each other as genuine partners to support strong literacy achievement for all children.

The Rural Trust is excited about this important work. Look for more news in future editions of RPM.

Read More:


Read more from the January 2015 Rural Policy Matters.