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.

All You Need Is Love (In The Time Of COVID-19)

This post is part of our series entitled Teaching and Learning During a Pandemic, in which we invite guest authors to reflect on the challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic for teaching and learning. Our guest today is Susan B. Neuman, Professor of Early Childhood & Literacy Education, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, & Human Development at New York University. Other posts in the series are compiled here.

I know this is a strange title at a time of crisis. But as the Beatles would say, “There’s nothing you can do that can't be done,” and with that spirit in mind, sometimes a crisis, or in this case, crises can give us a fresh perspective, a new way of thinking about an old topic.

The topic I refer to is reading, which is the subject of an excellent series of articles in the American Educator, the AFT’s magazine. In this series there are articles about the importance of educator knowledge, choosing the right texts for children to read, building background knowledge, bilingualism, and the research base of reading. All important topics. And all related to what is now described as the “science of reading.” The notion is that if we teach the right skills, at the right time, and give children the right books in the right language, then children will read and achieve, right?

I wish it were so. But after years of pendulum-shifting this way and that way, from skills-based, whole language, scientifically-based, balanced, and now the science of reading, we have made strikingly little progress in closing the reading gap, particularly for those come from economically distressed communities. Today, our children are in more danger of learning loss than ever before, and with the understanding that “nothing you can make that can’t be made,” it’s time to consider a fresh perspective about reading.

Students As Agents Of Lasting Change: The Citizen Power Project

The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically…Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” – Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Purpose of Education”, 1947

Today is Martin Luther King Day and even now, all across the country, educators and students strive to meet the goal that Dr. King set for education.

The Citizen Power Project -- presented by First Book, the American Federation of Teachers, the Albert Shanker Institute, and the Aspen Institute’s Pluribus Project – seeks to identify the intersection between critical thinking and character in order to uplift it.

In November, educators planned and then proposed civic engagement projects for their students and communities. Of the hundreds that were sent in, 15 were funded as part of the challenge. Students used resources made available on the First Book Marketplace to think intensively and conduct research about an issue in their community or in the world. The next step would be using what they’d learned to take action and help right wrongs, uplift others, and make their world a better place.

Changing Communities With Books: The Citizen Power Project

In November, First Book and its partners the American Federation of Teachers and the Albert Shanker Institute presented the Citizen Power Project; a challenge to educators nationwide to identify, plan, and implement a civic engagement project important to their students, school or community.

Fifteen of those projects received grants to help turn their big plans into big impact.

Since then the fifteen projects have gotten underway and the results have been phenomenal. With a wide range of projects each in different phases, we thought we would check in with educators to hear about what their project has done so far and where it is going.

In Framingham, Massachusetts, middle school English teacher Lori DiGisi knows her students don’t always feel empowered. “They feel like the adults rule everything and that they don’t really have choices,” she explains. “The issue I’m trying to solve is for a diverse group of students to see that they can make a difference in their community.”

How Books Inspire Action: The Citizen Power Project

Our guest author today is Marissa Wasseluk, Digital Communication Manager for non-profit FirstBook.

All too often, young people feel they don’t have the power to fix problems in their communities How can books inspire students to take action and become engaged citizens?

Earlier this year, First Book, along with our partners the American Federation of Teachers and the Albert Shanker Institute, presented educators nationwide with a challenge: identify an issue and a civic engagement project important to their students, school or community. We then asked for proposals on how, with the support of books and resources from First Book, their students could take action to address that issue and show their students that they have a voice and the ability to make positive changes happen.

We called this challenge The Citizen Power Activation Project. Funded by the Aspen Institute’s Pluribus Project, 15 proposals  - five each from elementary, middle and high schools - would be chosen to receive a collection of special resources to help them implement their projects and a $500 grant for use on the First Book Marketplace.

More than 920 proposals were received.