We asked Nicole Williams, a leader, facilitator, and coach, to share a bit about the science of reading as an equity issue. Like many of us, Nicole has been on a journey through misinformation and stagnant practice towards the evidence-based best practices in literacy instruction that can make a difference in children’s lives. We’re excited to include her thoughts here:
The so-called “reading wars” have been actively raging since at least 1986. By far, the most considerable casualties in this war of academia have been black and brown children, particularly those living in economically-marginalized communities, who have experienced years of ineffective reading instruction leading to limited economic and societal life outcomes.
The educational shrapnel left in these communities includes large cohorts of students graduating from high school functionally illiterate. And many others enter college and career with literacy skills hovering at the 8th-grade level, unable to engage effectively with the academic demands before them. These students, underskilled and undereducated, so often leave college having secured large debt but without a degree or remain in lower-wage jobs, impacting their ability to build wealth for themselves and their future families.
Instructional decisions made by elementary-level educators have an impact on students’ lives that resonate intergenerationally. As former Director-General of UNESCO, Kōichirō Matsuura, once stated, “Literacy is inseparable from opportunity, and opportunity is inseparable from freedom.”
When I started my school leadership journey, I operated from a core belief: My work as a leader was to develop classroom teachers’ capacity to design and deliver lessons that empowered students through mastery of literacy and numeracy to experience authentic liberation. I believed that through their education, students would gain access to the social and economic opportunities promised to them as a part of American lore: that they, through their hard work, could enjoy the rights and benefits as citizens in the land of opportunity.
The teachers held up their end of the bargain. They engaged in countless professional development sessions to internalize their guided reading curriculum lessons and implemented the curriculum with fidelity. They pushed each other as colleagues and team members to analyze and evolve their practices.
The students held up their end of the bargain as well. They exercised “grit” by leaning into instruction activities, read books on their “just right” reading levels, and developed the self-confidence needed to use failure as feedback to help them improve as academics and scholars. Everyone leaned in, and we still had marginal results. I needed to know why.
Most of my professional training around leading reading instruction was either isolated literacy strategy instruction or implementing balanced reading curricula. I assumed that these resources and strategies were adequately researched, vetted, and analyzed for use for the population of students that I served. This was years before I ever heard of the “reading wars” or learned about the limitations of balanced literacy, and more specifically, guided reading, as a primary approach for literacy instruction.
I did know that my students needed to engage in instructional learning activities that developed their capacity as proficient readers and writers. I knew they needed to develop the critical thinking skills necessary to question and critique the world around them. I did not know about the lack of concrete evidence or body of research to support leveled readers as an effective tool for boosting reading comprehension. It was a terrible moment when I realized that this self-proclaimed instructional freedom fighter was upholding a poorly-researched, ineffective instructional practice that further marginalized students already fighting unfairly-stacked odds.
I continued researching the science of reading and uncovered the lack of research behind many additional instructional practices once foundational in my instructional leadership toolbox. As I sought to discover why our students were not growing, despite their increased effort and their teachers’ effort, I realized that what I knew about reading instruction was insufficient and inaccurate. It was a terrible and challenging realization. I turned to literacy experts and began reading the scientific white papers around reading instruction, standards instruction, and equity. This self-guided study reiterated a point made by Dr. Jeff Howard, president of the Efficacy Institute: “There is nothing wrong with these kids.” Our lack of understanding about reading instruction research leads to the implementation of instructional practices that are at best misaligned and inappropriate, and at worst, oppressive. This has led to the overidentification of children of color for special education services, contributed to functional illiteracy, and fostered negative self-esteem in children despite their increased efforts.
I walked away with clarity. The students I served needed specific critical experiences: systematic reading instruction in phonological awareness and phonics and the opportunity to build strong background knowledge through vocabulary instruction and reading rich fiction and nonfiction texts. Providing these experiences to students would empower them to construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct knowledge. Systematic reading instruction put them on a path to be empowered to engage in college-level reading materials, advocate for themselves and their community, and disrupt inequitable practices as they encountered them well into their adulthood.
Since my time as a school administrator, I have continued to design adult learning experiences around effective instruction for students of color and students living in historically-marginalized communities. I have changed the way I engaged with instructional partners. I have intentional conversations around reading instruction and its educational equity role for K-12 students with teacher preparation program providers to support the providers’ understanding of their roles as agents of change in classrooms around the country through the way they prepare new teachers. When working with system leaders, I discuss the impact of budgeting decisions, curriculum purchasing decisions, and how coaching and professional activities around reading instruction and equity impact the economic and societal outcomes in their students’ communities. We anchor our conversations in current research-based, scientifically-supported best practices, and we center students and their families as the impetus for decision-making.
The U.S. has not yet fully lived up to the ideals inherent in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence or those interwoven throughout the Constitution. Still, we are moving closer to actualizing those promises. As we fight to make this country authentically just, we must recognize that schools are a linchpin for that political and civic process. Our actions and the decisions we make in the classroom matter every single day.
Our work as instructional leaders is to nurture a culture of learning and reflection that aligns with students’ ultimate ability to experience authentic liberation as defined by equal rights and full societal and economic opportunities. The skill of reading, which functions to support the development of critical consciousness, serves a much more significant role in the development and maintenance of a “more perfect union.” It is the vehicle for change. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire states that “liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world to transform it.” Educators genuinely committed to the cause of authentic liberation for their students must understand their daily roles in that work. Each day they must assess “how” reading is taught and “why” mastery of those reading skills move the arc of authentic equity to bend towards justice, liberation, and freedom.