What Literacy Can Do
"In today’s society, the child who doesn’t learn to read does not make it in life. If children don’t learn to read early enough, if they don’t learn to read with comprehension, if they don’t read fluently enough to read broadly and reflectively across all content areas, if they don’t learn to read effortlessly enough to render reading pleasurable, their chances for a fulfilling life—by whatever measure: academic success, financial stability, the ability to find satisfying work, personal autonomy, self-esteem—are practically nil."
This is the first paragraph from a 1998 AFT resolution on beginning reading instruction. It was true then, and it’s true now. The quote above is harsh, but it is backed by a host of research evidence from eminent scholars, including Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (National Research Council), The National Reading Panel (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development), and Reaping the Rewards of Reading for Understanding (National Academy of Education). It could also explain why the teaching of reading has so much passion around it; reading well is just that important.
Literacy literally opens the world to our students. Young children are eager to learn more about the world. They ask constant questions about what they have learned. They develop hypotheses about how the world works. And when they are provided with a stimulating environment, they begin to develop their oral language and literacy skills. But if students continually struggle with the reading process, especially as they age, they may become disaffected and school may become a nightmare for them. So the key to improving overall reading achievement in any school district is to provide effective assistance to the lowest-performing students. The initial step is to establish a system of early screening and diagnosis that can help schools identify struggling students at a much earlier stage than is typical in current practice (American Educator 2004). The next step is to establish a comprehensive intervention system to help such students. So what would an effective reading intervention system look like? Effective teachers of reading have distilled the research to devise the following interventions:
First, systems should be designed to be flexible, and should be able to accommodate the needs of students of varying ages and ability levels, with different areas of weakness.
Second, the backbone of any effective system of reading instruction is a skilled and knowledgeable teaching force. All teachers must have access to the professional development that they need to design and execute a modified instructional plan for any student who has been identified as in danger of reading failure (Moats 2020). According to the research, most reading difficulties in young beginning readers are rooted in inefficient word recognition skills (Torgeson 2004). Thus in the early grades most instructional plans for struggling students should focus on providing more systematic and intensive instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics. In addition, intensive instruction in reading comprehension, vocabulary, reading fluency, writing, language development, listening, and speaking skills should be available to students with reading difficulties.
Research also demonstrates that, for comprehension, relevant knowledge is even more important than general reading ability (Willingham 2006; Nagy and Scott 2000). When high- and low-knowledge groups are divided into good and poor readers, those with little knowledge relevant to the text at hand perform relatively poorly, regardless of how well they read in general. In contrast—and this is important—the performance of the poor readers with higher background knowledge is generally better than that of the good readers with less background knowledge, and nearly as good as the good readers with lots of background knowledge. Prior knowledge about a topic is like “mental velcro” (Adams 2015). The relevant knowledge gives the words of the text places to stick and make sense, thereby supporting comprehension and propelling the reading process forward. In one study, scientists monitored readers’ eye movements while reading about topics that were more versus less familiar to them. Given texts about less familiar topics, people’s reading slowed down and the progress of their eye movements was marked with more pausing and rereading. In other words, not only do readers with less topic-relevant background knowledge gain less from reading about that topic, less-knowledgeable readers must also expend more time and effort to arrive at what limited understanding they do gain (Adams 2015).
Third, steps should be taken to ensure that additional instruction time is provided to any student who needs it. This might be in the form of extra attention from the classroom teacher, an additional instructional period with a reading specialist, a well-trained tutor, or a special education teacher—or access to summer school and before-, after-, or during-school tutoring programs.
Fourth, instructional materials at all grades must address the needs of students who may be falling behind. Reading materials should be designed to reflect the research consensus, and should include technically sound assessment tools to diagnose problems, as well as instructional procedures and age appropriate materials to address areas of difficulty (see, for example, these resources from the Texas Center for Learning Disabilities).
Fifth, in cases where students don’t seem to be catching up—despite focused classroom instruction, extra instructional time, and the use of effective, research-based curriculum materials—students should be provided with additional diagnostic assessments as quickly as possible.
And sixth, as indicated by the diagnostic assessment and/or the professional opinion of a skilled and knowledgeable teacher, struggling students should be given ready access to any special services that they need—i.e., students should be screened by a reading specialist, special education teacher, psychologist, English as a second language (ESL) teacher, speech pathologist, or an eye or hearing specialist, as necessary.
Both the Albert Shanker Institute and the American Federation of Teachers have a multitude of resources to help, going back several decades. For the ASI, we produced Literacy Ladders, a curated collection of articles on reading improvement, Let’s Talk: Oral Language Development, a professional development resource for early education teachers and parents, Let's Talk: Early Literacy Development, an overview of research on the foundations for literacy and how they may be enhanced in early childhood, including applied information to help guide instructional improvement, Preschool Curriculum: What’s In It for Children and Teachers, an accessible research synthesis of how and how much young children learn in the academic domains of oral language, literacy, mathematics, and science, and two videos The Early Language Gap is About More Than Words and Let’s Talk.
The AFT has had several major issues on reading research, beginning in 1995, in its flagship American Educator magazine. The latest issue is from Summer 2020, which includes a review of some articles on reading instruction from previous years, “On the Road to Literacy with American Educator.” At the same time, AFT released a reissued publication, titled Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science, 2020: What Expert Teachers of Reading Should Know and Be Able to Do, which reviews the reading research and describes the knowledge base that is essential for teacher candidates and practicing teachers to master if they are to be successful in teaching all children to read well. The AFT also offers professional development for teachers, AFT Professional Learning Program for Educators, including Beginning Reading Instruction, Reading Comprehension Instruction, Accessible Literacy Framework, and Colorín Colorado Introductory Workshop for ELL Educators. A list for additional literacy resources can be found here, which will be updated periodically.
In conclusion, both an effective reading system and an effective reading intervention system provide us with a lot of hope. Many students learn to read easily in the first few years in school, and will need to turn their focus on building their vocabulary and content knowledge. If students who are struggling to read can be identified early enough, if they are provided with screenings and diagnostic assessments, if they are provided with the proper interventions—including attention to building vocabulary and content knowledge—if they can learn to read with comprehension, if they can learn to read well across all content areas, if they learn to read effortlessly enough to render reading pleasurable, they can achieve success in school and throughout their lives. They can also function as effective citizens, who can read and analyze ballot initiatives, legislation, and review documents presented to them when they serve on juries. As Marilyn Jager Adams said in Literacy Ladders, the very purpose and promise of schooling is to prepare students for responsible adult lives—to be civically minded and informed, to prepare them for further education, and to find gainful work that allows them to grow and contribute to society. We agree.