Whose Knowledge Matters in Literacy Instruction?

Our guest author today is Dr. Courtney Hattan. Dr. Hattan is an Assistant Professor of Elementary Literacy Education in the School of Teaching and Learning at Illinois State University.

Knowledge is inarguably crucial for reading comprehension. What students know, including their academic knowledge and personal experiences, will influence what they understand and remember from texts. Therefore, recent efforts that call for building students’ knowledge base during elementary literacy instruction are important. Attention to knowledge-building enriches the conversation about reading science and helps bridge the research-to-practice gap. However, what’s missing from some of these conversations is a consideration of whose knowledge matters and what perspectives should be centered in the texts that students read.

In 1990, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop stated that students need to read texts that serve as windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors. Windows expose students to new ways of thinking and seeing the world, while the sliding glass doors provide opportunities for students to be immersed in those new worlds and perspectives. Mirrors allow students to see their language practices, histories, and values represented in the characters and experiences that are communicated through texts. Providing students with multiple perspectives allows them to consider various points of view, grapple with potentially conflicting information, and draw conclusions about what they believe to be true.  

I would therefore encourage educators to consider whose knowledge is valued in school settings. Are students only exposed to books that are designed to maintain dominant authorities or power structures? Or are they also exposed to the voices of people who come from historically minoritized communities? These questions are especially important in light of a recent study by Rigell and colleagues, which found that one knowledge-building curriculum centers whiteness in its text selections and instructional supports. Given the value of providing all students with both windows and mirrors, educators would do well to interrogate the texts and curricula they put in front of students. This can help ensure that all students have opportunities to read texts that amplify the experiences, joy, and valued knowledge of people who come from historically minoritized communities. We can shift the canon of texts and ideas that are typically shared with students.

Painting a Portrait of Professional Learning for the Science of Reading

Assumptions about homogeneity are baked into schools and schooling; grade levels are sorted by student age, classrooms by numbers of desks, and sets of standards specifying what to teach and when students will reach proficiency. While most people understand and would agree that students’ needs and rate of learning vary greatly, we seem to forget this when it comes to adult learning. Based upon this, we emphasize not all teachers need the same learning experiences and environments to develop expertise.

Teachers differ in the nature of their personal and professional experiences, in the assets and dispositions they bring to the job, in the role they play in their particular schools, and in their specific goals as educators. Thus, the professional learning opportunities available to them should not be one size fits all. This is easier said than done. Differentiating professional learning in any domain is complex, and reading is no exception. It is easier to book a speaker and order some materials than it is to design opportunities for professional learning that meet each educator where they are. Yet, for Science of Reading (SOR) based reforms to be implemented in ways that make a difference for students, coherent, contextualized, and engaging professional development on the SOR is crucial.  

As a wave of reading reform, legislation related to the SOR represents an attempt to focus instruction on the explicit teaching of foundational skills, based on research that affirms the importance of phonemic awareness and phonics in beginning reading. Many SOR reforms aim to boost the knowledge and skills of individual teachers, with less attention to the ecosystem of schooling where these teachers are embedded, or to how leaders and teachers collaborate to improve instruction. SOR reforms often mandate that districts adopt new curricula and teachers teach with these materials. But implementing SoR reforms is complex, as it simultaneously involves individual learning and organizational change. Therefore, as we have described here, here, and in this podcast, it is crucial to align professional development, curriculum, and leadership – the three pillars of the reading infrastructure. These pillars enable instructional improvement by creating organizational conditions for systemic change. In this post, we concentrate on the professional development pillar.  

Tennessee Trains Thousands of Secondary Teachers in Reading Science

Guest Author Barbara R. Davidson, President of StandardsWork, Inc. and Executive Director of the Knowledge Matters Campaign, looks at how to address and elevate the literacy needs of secondary students.

For all the welcome attention being paid to the Science of Reading, and literacy in general, there has been little focus in public policy on how to address the learning needs of secondary students who, for whatever combination of reasons, have failed to learn to read in elementary school.

Earlier this year, the “What Works Clearinghouse,” an arm of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences (IES), made steps to elevate the narrative about secondary literacy when it issued a practice guide entitled, Providing Reading Interventions for Students in Grades 4-9.

What the Science of Reading Misses

Time just published the latest high profile story on the Science of Reading – adding to the list of major news outlets (The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist) that have covered this topic in the years following Emily Hanford’s seminal reporting.

Many of these stories go like this: U.S. students underperform in reading; a literacy crisis plagues the country. Why? Despite the consensus among experts and researchers, reading continues to be taught in ways that are inconsistent with the science because teachers don’t know (or weren’t taught) this body of knowledge during their training.

This narrative has (understandably) created alarm and put literacy front and center, spurring a public conversation and related wave of legislation to address the state of reading instruction and achievement across the nation. However, this narrative is not one hundred percent accurate; rather, it neglects a few key elements that I worry need to be understood and addressed to achieve and sustain real progress.

It Takes a Community to Raise a Reader

The relationship between family engagement and literacy development is often a one-sided story. Researchers regularly inform us that familial involvement in a child’s reading is vital to emergent literacy. However, we seldom hear about the differences and complexities in resources, time, language, and strategies that influence family engagement. We know that being involved in reading activities at home has a positive impact on reading achievement, language comprehension, expressive language skills, interest in reading, and attitudes towards reading for children throughout their educational careers (Clark, 2007). Yet, many families would benefit from knowing more about how to support their child’s literacy development. Thus, it is important for schools and families to build partnerships that strengthen at-home literacy. To this end, schools must actively reach out to families and equip them with the necessary tools to support their children’s literacy development.

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.