One Simple Equity Question

If you want every student to be literate, lead instruction using a strategy that’s proven by science.

Topics: Equity and Diversity

Do you want EVERY student in your building to learn and know how to read and write? While the answer to that simple question is most certainly a resounding “yes!,” we must admit that not every child is learning or knows how to read, which is the beginning of becoming literate.

Consider the most recent reading outcomes in your building: Did every student pass your state-​
mandated reading assessment at or above proficiency? If not, you need a plan, and that plan should affect how your school teaches reading.

The education field finds itself locked in an age-old discussion about instruction. The so-called “reading wars” and concerns about learning disruptions produced by pandemic-related school closures resurfaced a debate that comes and goes with regularity. And while adults engage in this recurring discussion, children lose out.

According to 2019 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, only 30 percent of the nation’s fourth-graders can be considered proficient. Among them, only about half of white and Asian students meet the standard, and only 1 in 5 Black and Hispanic students can be considered proficient.

The distance between students who test at or above proficiency and those who test at or below proficiency will most likely widen due to COVID-19. According to projections from NWEA, students entered the 2020–2021 school year having retained only an estimated 70 percent of their English and language arts learning from the previous school year.

So even if you answered “yes,” your school might not be moving in that direction.

Reading Is a Complicated Process

Reading is complex. It does not fit neatly within our five primary senses and requires more work from the brain than most people realize. Skilled readers don’t often remember what it was like to learn, while less-skilled readers sometimes work to hide their challenges.

Consider how many times you’ve been out with friends at a restaurant and the bill was passed on to a “math person” to split it or calculate the tip. No one passes the menu to a “reading person” because rarely will people openly admit to not being able to read or read well.

More than 1 in 5 adults (21 percent) in the U.S. are considered functionally illiterate, and yet there are students in schools who languish under the shame of not knowing how to read while adults decide on which side of the reading debate they stand.

Reading is about more than putting letters together. As Mark S. Seidenberg writes in “The Science of Reading and Its Educational Implications,” reading is a systematic process that allows a child to make meaning from a text based on their ability to simultaneously connect letters to sounds in order to “call” words from a page and derive meaning from them.

Reading research has demonstrated that only a small percentage of students are able to use less-structured processes such as the “three cueing” system. This model asks students to look at pictures, get a sense of the meaning around the text, and use their background knowledge to make determinations about unfamiliar words.

Reliance on such a method creates inequitable learning, since students bring varying levels of background knowledge to their schooling. Believing that every student can rely on context and background knowledge to be able to articulate an unfamiliar word makes unfounded assumptions about the uniformity of background knowledge and contextual interpretation. Such uniformity doesn’t exist.

Busting the Myths Surrounding Instruction

Reading is a whole-brain activity. This means that the visual and language centers of the brain become active as students engage. Take, for example, the word “red.” To read this word—that is, to “say it” in one’s head or out loud—means the brain’s visual system activates to recognize each letter separately, make each letter’s sound, and blend the sounds to make the word. Then, as part of the meaning-​making process, the brain engages its language center to determine that this word refers to a color.

Unfortunately, there’s a myth that an emphasis on teaching students the foundational skills of reading robs them of meaning-making ability or limits their ability to become truly literate. What is lost in this myth is the truth that comprehension is a critical part of the foundational skills of reading; therefore, it can’t be isolated from teaching students phonics and phonemic awareness, building their vocabulary, and strengthening their fluency. Such a myth continues the use of instructional practices that serve the few and leave the many behind.

Conversely, a student’s ability to apply foundational skills positions them to make critical connections between the spoken word and the written word. Children tend to comprehend spoken language sooner and with more accuracy than they do written language. Application of these foundational skills helps students unlock the reading code, putting them on the road to becoming skilled, independent readers. And having strong reading skills is linked to students developing strong writing skills, which ensures that they are fully literate.

Writing is the visual representation of spoken language. Therefore, it is incumbent upon teachers to ensure that as students are learning how to read, they also learn how to connect reading to idea development. Teaching writing in isolation should be a thing of the past; taken at its simplest level, children are learning to read while using written text. If you want every child to be literate, have students read widely and deeply to become skilled writers.

Leaders Must Understand Readers

Decisions about reading instruction can’t be separated from a leader’s understanding of what it takes to become a reader. Such beliefs shape the instructional practices teachers are asked to employ. The science of reading is clear, but a few leaders still hold on to programs and processes that are not supported by science or positive outcomes. Therefore, one of the most important steps any building leader should take is to examine their own knowledge about reading.

Do you believe, for example, that students learn reading best through exposure to texts and will pick up reading if read to? If a leader holds that more holistic ideology, the challenge becomes to justify that belief against persistently low reading rates.

While examining your own beliefs as a building leader, you should also examine the beliefs of the teachers in your building. If the science of reading shapes your instructional philosophy but a teacher follows a different path, students will be taught in ways that reflect the teacher’s beliefs. It’s important to understand and iron out any possible ideological differences to ensure alignment and the use of practices that are grounded in science, as well as to support teachers better.

A lot of programs tout the science of reading, but reading isn’t programmatic. Programs can support a systematic approach, but they are not an approach in and of themselves. In her work to support school leaders in determining how to detect programs that say they are scientifically based but are not, Louisa Moats offers the following suggestions:

  • Use valid screening measures to find children who exhibit signs of difficulty cracking the code. Provide them with effective, early instruction in phonology and oral language, word recognition and reading fluency, and comprehension and writing skills.
  • Interweave several components of language (speech sounds, word structure, word meaning, and sentence structure) into the same lessons.
  • Build fluency in reading text and underlying skills using direct methods such as repeated readings of the same text.
  • Incorporate phonemic awareness into all reading instruction, rather than treating it as an isolated element.
  • Go beyond the notion of phonics as the simple relationship between letters and sounds to include lessons on word structure and origins.
  • Build vocabulary from the earliest levels by exposing students to a broad, rich curriculum.
  • Support reading comprehension by focusing on a deep understanding of topic and theme rather than just a set of strategies and gimmicks.

In addition to following these suggestions, school leaders should confirm that teachers understand the science of reading and how to incorporate it into classroom instruction while dispelling the myths and misunderstandings governing their beliefs and instructional practices. An overly simplistic choice between a phonics-only or a whole-language approach demonstrates a misunderstanding of what reading is.

As Moats points out, students must have a foundation in the relationship between letters and sounds, and they must build their vocabularies and understand words, practice fluency, and access opportunities to build knowledge and comprehend texts.

If your answer is yes—you want every child to learn and know how to read and write—you must take a comprehensive approach to reading and writing that’s grounded in science. Neglect the science of reading, and you’ll see the opposite outcomes. Give children the best opportunity to become literate.

Tanji Reed Marshall is director of practice at The Education Trust.