Reading Opens The World

Our guest author today is Evelyn DeJesus, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers and a member of the board of directors of the Albert Shanker Institute.

Today I am going to be talking about a topic that is very close to my heart, reading instruction and literacy—the bedrock, the deepest foundation for what we do as educators. And I’ll also talk a bit about the AFT’s new, multimillion dollar, multi-year literacy campaign, Reading Opens the World

Literacy Instruction and the Science of Reading

Because strong reading and comprehension skills underlie everything else that we do in the classroom, the AFT has been “all in” on literacy for more than two decades. As President Randi Weingarten reminded us in her opening speech at TEACH last summer, “Over 20 years ago, the AFT first identified the need for educators—whatever their subject or level—to know more about research-based literacy.

A Recipe For Successful Literacy Instruction

As a former high school English teacher of nine years, I know how daunting it can be to tackle literacy instruction. You stress over the lack of resources. You crave more professional development. You worry about your assessment choices. You question your administrator’s support. On any given day, you have a stream of worries and concerns running through your mind. While many districts rely solely on the ever-changing state and federal literacy mandates to inform their instruction, there are many adjustments and services districts can provide within their own schools and classrooms to support students and teachers.

The infrastructure of school systems contributes heavily to literacy instruction and achievement (Gabriel & Woulfin, 2022). One effective way to support system-level literacy is through a district literacy plan. These plans serve as a way to bring together various stakeholders to form a committee intent on better supporting students and improving literacy practices. When preparing a district literacy plan, stakeholders must use a combination of ALL the following ingredients to create a recipe for successful literacy instruction that promotes student learning.

Vision Statement: A district literacy plan should open with and be centered around a vision statement for learning. The Glossary of Education Reform defines a vision statement as “a declaration that schools or other educational organizations use to describe their high-level goals for the future and what it hopes students will learn” (The Glossary of Education Reform, 2015). Essentially, a vision statement encompasses a district’s belief system about literacy and serves as a guide for their work.

Early Reading: Teacher Preparation

This is an updated excerpt from a publication I developed in 2000 while working for the AFT Educational Issues Department, “Putting Reading Front and Center: A Resource Guide for Union Advocacy.” By tapping the expertise of teachers of reading among members, local unions can use their collective voice to strengthen reading instruction.

New findings from 50 years of international research in such diverse feels as neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, cognitive science, and education have helped illuminate the process by which children learn to read. This research indicates that, although some children learn to read with relative ease, others will never learn unless they are taught in an organized, systematic way by a knowledgeable teacher using a well-designed instructional approach. And, although a large number of students come to school unprepared to achieve in reading, the reading difficulties of most at risk and struggling students could be prevented or ameliorated by literacy instruction that includes a range of research-based components and practices, unfortunately very few teachers of reading have been taught how to deliver such instruction.

Where We Are

Ask almost any elementary school teacher what he or she knew about the teaching of reading before entering the classroom, and the answer will be: “Not nearly enough.”

The Story On State Literacy Initiatives

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), 21 percent of adults in the United States (about 43 million people) are illiterate or functionally illiterate. Nearly two-thirds of fourth grade students read below grade level, and that percentage persists all the way through high school graduation (Rea, 2021).

While these statistics are alarming, federal and state leaders have been focused on literacy rates for many years. The United States Department of Education (DOE) most recently addressed literacy through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015, which “outlines a direct and sustained approach to improving literacy achievement” (Alliance for Excellence Education, 2017). Specifically, ESSA focuses on two components to support literacy: funding and professional development. For funding, Title II of ESSA includes the “Literacy Education for All, Results for a Nation” (LEARN) Act, which provides competitive grants to states to help local school districts develop comprehensive birth-through-grade-twelve literacy plans.

Additionally, the LEARN Act states that local education agencies must use any grant funds they receive to support high-quality professional development for teachers, teacher leaders, principals, and specialized instructional support personnel. However, ESSA also gives states new flexibility in choosing which indicators they use to measure student performance on state assessments in English Language Arts and Math, as well as how much emphasis to place on each of these measures (The Education Trust, 2017). As a result, literacy policies, laws, and initiatives vary greatly from state to state, given the flexibility permitted by ESSA.

Constructing And Animating The Infrastructure For Reading Instruction

The Albert Shanker Institute is talking with educators and school leaders daily. Our conversations range from attention-grabbing issues of the moment to long-range plans to strengthen and improve teaching and learning. Throughout the pandemic we have featured the voices of practitioners and earlier this fall we also renewed the Albert Shanker Institute’s commitment to strengthening reading instruction and literacy. We recognize our schools are currently being asked to accomplish the enormous task of keeping schools and communities safe and healthy from COVID—including improving air circulation and revamping physical plants without disrupting classroom instruction, fill perennial hard-to-staff positions, provide nutritional and community support to students and families, and address interrupted learning. Everything must be read in consideration of a productive path forward as we work collectively to meet the needs of students. 

Today’s guest blog post from Sarah L. Woulfin (The University of Texas at Austin) and Rachael Gabriel (University of Connecticut) is no different. The deep ideas of structural change (and the infrastructure that must be addressed) offer a path forward that is collaborative, effective and research-based. The authors provide certainty and confidence in a time when we could use both. Rather than bounce from quick, one-time fixes, we need to pause to redesign teaching and learning going forward. Our students deserve our most thoughtful work.

From Why Johnny Can’t Read, to the Reading Wars and Reading First, to the Science of Reading, multiple constituents—from policymakers and journalists to district leaders and parents—have spelled out problems in teachers’ reading instruction and students’ reading achievement. Concerns about reading instruction, with attempts to convert schools towards evidence-based practice, are not new. Proponents of the “Science of Reading” (SOR) now concentrate on the necessity of teachers covering particular strands of reading instruction and using particular instructional methods (e.g., phonics, explicit instruction, and systematic teaching of foundational skills) (Barnes, 2016; Brady, 2011; Hanford, 2018). They apply assumptions that specific content is not being taught in preferred ways because of deficits in teacher knowledge or the absence of appropriate instructional materials (Korbey, 2020; Lyon & Chhabra, 2004). Therefore, much of the SOR discourse hones in on individuals over systems and structures.

Early Reading: Screening, Diagnosis, And Prevention

This is an updated excerpt from a publication I developed in 2000 while working for the AFT Educational Issues Department, “Putting Reading Front and Center: A Resource Guide for Union Advocacy.” By tapping the expertise of teachers of reading among members, local unions can use their collective voice to strengthen reading instruction.

The best form of reading remediation is to prevent children from falling behind in the first place. To many educators, this statement seems so obvious that its an education truism. Yet its one thing to agree on a basic truth and quite another to figure out how to implement it as part of a comprehensive school improvement effort.

The importance of assessing early reading skills

The first essential step in building an effective support system for struggling readers is to identify difficulties quickly, before an achievement gap can develop. The second is to implement effective prevention and early intervention strategies—i.e., stepping in while students are so young that reading failure never occurs, or early enough that it is relatively easy for students to catch up. For reading, its particularly important that this support begin at the earliest possible grade level.

What Teachers Say About Literacy

There is no denying the impact that literacy has on everyday life. Literacy skills allow us to seek out information, explore subjects in-depth, and gain a deeper understanding of the world around us (The University of Kansas, 2021). Given the importance of literacy, a teacher’s role not only plays a fundamental part in a child's education but also their well-being. To understand what drives a teacher’s pedagogical approaches, two recent surveys from EdWeek and The International Literacy Association (ILA) have attempted to capture how teacher practices, experiences, and knowledge shape their literacy instruction.

In fall of 2019, the EdWeek Research Center set out to gain a clearer sense of teacher practices and knowledge by sending out two surveys about topics related to early literacy instruction. The first survey was completed by 674 K-2 and elementary special education teachers who self-reported having taught children how to read. The second survey was completed by 533 higher education instructors from four-year colleges or universities who indicated they had taught early literacy instruction to teachers or prospective teachers. Both surveys included questions about approaches to teaching early literacy instruction.

The ILA survey, developed by a 17-member focus group of literacy experts, was completed by 1,443 teachers, higher education professionals, literacy consultants, and school administrators from 65 countries and territories. In winter of 2020, based on the survey results, the ILA released the What’s Hot in Literacy Report looking at the experiences of reading instructors and identifying critical topics to advancing literacy.

The Science of Reading Reporting: What’s in It for Parents of Young Children?

The past two or three years have witnessed extensive media coverage of the research on reading (see here, here, here and here for a few examples). This work has informed the public and sounded an alarm on the disconnect between what experts know about reading and the extent to which this knowledge informs instruction across America’s classrooms. Reactions to this in-depth reporting have been positive for the most part, but some critical voices have noted it has helped to reignite the so-called “reading wars” and contributed to a narrow view of the scientific research on reading (see here and here). Specifically, some of these critics have taken issue with what they view as a hyper focus on one of the two main aspects of reading, decoding or word recognition, at the expense of the second, language comprehension, which is just as crucial to becoming a skilled reader (see here). In addition, almost completely absent from the conversation has been any discussion of the system and organizational/school conditions that shape reading instruction and reform (see here). 

In this post I discuss my own perception of this journalism, what I find remarkable about it, but also what I wish had been more central to it and why. To be clear, I am not an expert on reading, but I am an education researcher (and a parent of a preschooler) who has spent some time reading and reflecting on this topic. Importantly, I am steeped in a context where literacy is central: the Shanker Institute and the American Federation of Teachers have, for over two decades, been translating the science of reading (SoR) for educators (see herehere, herehere, and here) in a consistent, comprehensive, and balanced way. What I have learned from my colleagues over the years has deeply influenced how I’ve contextualized and made sense of the latest SoR reporting.

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.

Renewing Our Commitment To Reading

“Follow the science” is a familiar refrain. The earliest science-backed advice at the beginning of the pandemic was “wash your hands.” As emerging science pointed to the efficacy of mask-wearing, and now vaccines, “follow the science” has become ubiquitous with every new way to protect ourselves. It is also common in discussions about learning to read. More and more states are discerning what that means for their students, their teachers, and reading programs in general.

For over 20 years, the Albert Shanker Institute, alongside of the American Federation of Teachers, has been following the science with the goal of bridging research and practice. Our work on reading instruction has been guided by evidence collected in the National Research Council’s Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, including reading program priorities of explicit, systematic phonemic awareness and phonics instruction, fluency, vocabulary development, content knowledge, and reading comprehension instruction. We have produced several publications curating this evidence, such as Literacy Ladders, Let’s Talk: Oral Language Development, Let's Talk: Early Literacy Development, Preschool Curriculum: What’s In It for Children and Teachers, and videos such as The Early Language Gap is About More Than Words and Let’s Talk to stimulate public discussion about these issues.

ASI is renewing our commitment to students, families, educators, schools, and allies in strengthening reading instruction.