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Literacy and Equity in Education

by Joan Sedita | 1 | 3 Comments

Having solid reading and writing skills is at the heart of student achievement and therefore must be part of the solution to achieving greater equity in the United States. As Suzanne Carreker points out, “With literacy comes academic success, informed decision-making, improved self-esteem, personal empowerment, greater economic opportunities, and active participation in local and global social communities. Ultimately, it is the gateway to lifelong learning… Without equity in literacy education, achievement gaps will persist and too many students will not reap literacy’s innumerable benefits.”

Unfortunately, too many students do not have access to quality literacy instruction. As the recent publication of the AFT’s American Educator devoted to reading instruction notes, “Today, about 20 percent of elementary students across the country struggle with learning to read, and another 20 percent are not meeting grade-level expectations in reading. But these nationwide averages mask a tragedy: among students growing up in under-resourced communities — mainly African American and Hispanic students and students whose home language is not English — about 60 to 70 percent have weak reading skills.” (p. 3)

Every child has the right to learn to read — we need to ensure that all students learn the reading and writing skills they need to succeed in school. In fact, two recent lawsuits represent efforts to establish a constitutional right to literacy for all students:

  • A Detroit literacy lawsuit was recently settled, but the opinion of the judge that a right to read is implicitly guaranteed by the 14th Amendment will likely be cited in other cases that seek to establish a federal right to read.
  • A group of students and their teachers sued the state of California for doing a poor job of teaching students how to read and won a $53 million dollar settlement so that the state’s lowest-performing schools have the resources to do better.

In recent weeks, I have been deeply moved by the recognition across the country that we need to do more to foster equitable educational opportunities. I am not an expert on equity instruction, but I know a lot about effective reading instruction and I believe it is an essential part of the equity solution. For this blog post, I’ve curated several sources that I hope will place a spotlight on equity in literacy instruction.

First, what does education equity mean? Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students explains in an interview with Collaborative Classroom that people use the term in a variety of ways with subtle but important distinctions. She notes,

“People talk about equity as if it had just one dimension, in an either-or way: it’s this, or it’s that. In reality, equity is a multifaceted and complex issue. I like the National Equity Project’s definition of educational, or instructional, equity: reducing the predictability of who succeeds and who fails, interrupting reproductive practices that negatively impact students, and cultivating the gifts and talents of every student…. Then there’s the ‘equity question’ related to instruction. That’s where conversations about instructional equity and culturally responsive teaching will come in. This facet of equity work requires us to remember that we are trying to improve instruction for diverse students who have historically been marginalized. Here the equity conversation has to re-focus on helping underperforming students of color, immigrant students, and poor students of any color build their skills and become powerful learners.”

Hammond goes on to specifically address literacy:

“Let’s take the case of literacy development. When it comes to literacy, the research has told us how learning to read happens: learning sound/spelling correspondence accurately, then building fluency while simultaneously engaging in word study and comprehension. But across the nation, too many minority children are more than one grade level behind in their reading, and it isn’t due to a lack of student “motivation.” It isn’t solely because there are no books in the home. There is a historical pattern of putting the least prepared teachers with neediest students. That’s an extension of our country’s history of “anti-literacy” laws that penalized those who taught people of color to read. “Separate, but equal” continued this practice de facto. Jonathan Kozol in Savage Inequalities documented the same patterns well into the 1990s. This is a critical element to bring into equity conversations.”

The problem starts in the earliest grades for students assigned to classrooms with teachers who do not meet their needs in terms of learning to read. A study found that 23 percent of below-basic 3rd grade readers dropped out or failed to finish high school on time, compared to 9 percent of basic-level readers and 4 percent of proficient readers. Students who lived or had lived in poverty were more likely to have lower reading text scores and were less likely to graduate from high school. (Hernandez, 2011, as cited in Carreker)

Lack of Teacher Knowledge About the Science of Reading

Research has demonstrated that student gains in literacy are the result of an interaction between teacher knowledge about literacy and teacher skill with instructional practices (Piasta et al, as cited in Carreker). There is broad consensus among literacy educators who follow well-established research findings about effective literacy instruction that students benefit from explicit instruction in the major components of reading that include: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, oral language and text structure. The problem is that too many teachers are teaching reading in ways that are counter to these findings, and this has huge implications for achieving literacy equity. One of the main reasons is that they do not receive sufficient training during their college nor once they begin teaching.

Many teachers are aware of this disconnect. Teacher Preparation and Equity topped the list of the International Literacy Association’s 2020 “What’s Hot in Literacy Survey”. Teacher preparation programs are not adequately preparing teachers to provide “effective reading instruction” according to 60% of the literacy educators, researchers and experts responding to the survey. And the 1,443 respondents — more than half of which are teachers — said the greatest challenge facing literacy is “addressing disconnects between the school curriculum and students’ actual needs in terms of literacy support and instruction.” Respondents also said addressing inequity in education and instruction is the area where they need the most support, and almost three-fourths said variability in teachers’ knowledge is the greatest barrier to achieving that goal. A spokesperson for the ILA notes, “The majority of teachers shoulder the responsibility for equity in education but more than half lack the support they need.”

Jasmin Lane’s 2019 blog post for Project Forever Free puts it this way:

“…less than 40% of elementary education programs nationwide have adopted the teaching of all five components of reading in their methods courses, and as a result, millions of children are still being taught to read with a flawed theory of reading. Schools have been allowed to fail our children without consequence, and more money for schools won’t solve the literacy crisis when the fundamental issue is that we aren’t being prepared to do our jobs. We must raise our bar. We can no longer be complacent and accept mediocrity as evidence of change. We must be the ones to demand evidence in our classrooms. So, while the traditional model of social justice educator has become a rallying cry of “Black Lives Matter” with a performative poster in a classroom, I take a different lens. I am a social justice educator with roots in the history of my grandparents, in the history of my community who has been failed by shoddy science in the name of a “progressive” education. Yes, Black lives matter. But in the context of schools, as educators, as people who claim that their life’s work is for Black, brown, and disenfranchised children, we can not fully proclaim that Black Lives Matter until Black literacy does.”

Phonics Instruction: For beginning instruction in the primary grades, a big part of the problem is that teachers are not using approaches to teaching foundational reading skills that are based on research. Emily Hanford in her 2018 report At a Loss for Words for American Public Media highlighted this problem in detail. She explains that the prevailing approach to teaching reading in America uses a “three cueing” system based on a disproven theory rather than a science-of-reading approach that includes explicit instruction and phonemic awareness and phonics. Hanford explains it this way:

“For decades, reading instruction in American schools has been rooted in a flawed theory about how reading works, a theory that was debunked decades ago by cognitive scientists, yet remains deeply embedded in teaching practices and curriculum materials. As a result, the strategies that struggling readers use to get by — memorizing words, using context to guess words, skipping words they don’t know — are the strategies that many beginning readers are taught in school. This makes it harder for many kids to learn how to read, and children who don’t get off to a good start in reading find it difficult to ever master the process. When kids struggle to learn how to read, it can lead to a downward spiral in which behavior, vocabulary, knowledge and other cognitive skills are eventually affected by slow reading development. A disproportionate number of poor readers become high school dropouts and end up in the criminal justice system. The fact that a disproven theory about how reading works is still driving the way many children are taught to read is part of the problem. School districts spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on curriculum materials that include this theory. Teachers are taught the theory in their teacher preparation programs and on the job. As long as this disproven theory remains part of American education, many kids will likely struggle to learn how to read.”

Vocabulary and Comprehension Instruction: In his recent article Limiting Children to Books They Can Already Read, Tim Shanahan points out the disservice that many teachers give students when they use the popular but ineffective approach to teaching reading around using leveled books. With this approach to teaching reading, students only have the opportunity to access books they can already read with accuracy and comprehension. Shanahan notes that research reveals that limiting students to texts they can already read “reduces their opportunity to learn by limiting their exposure to sophisticated vocabulary, rich content, and complex language (p.16).” He adds,

“That approach can have some unfortunate implications for students who are minorities and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds. What if, instead of segregating them into what some students call the ‘stupid books,’ we placed them in books with demanding vocabulary and taught dictionary skills, use of context and morphology? What if we taught them when it was essential to figure out an unknown word meaning and when they might be able to soldier on successfully without doing that? … If we are serious about raising reading achievement, we must think hard about whether it makes sense to continue teaching students to read books they can already understand so well…. This is not just an avenue to higher achievement, it is also an issue of equity.” (p. 17)

For students with dyslexia, the lack of teacher knowledge becomes more paramount. Because of the neurological basis for this reading disability, students must be taught by teachers who are well-trained in explicit reading instruction, particularly in the components of phonemic awareness, phonics and fluency. In his article Black Boys with Dyslexia Need Love and Learning, Not Shame and Prison the actor and dyslexia advocate Ameer Baraka writes writes about how his life might have been different if he had had a teacher who recognized his dyslexia and taught him how to read. Baraka notes:

“I was a teen who became part of the streets-to-prison pipeline…. Teachers knew I struggled with reading and spelling, and yet they were completely oblivious to the idea I might have a problem like dyslexia. They seemed to think I was a class clown. I was never pulled aside and asked any questions about why I wasn’t reading… I think a great, exceptional teacher can really understand which kids are hiding, which kids are ashamed. They can spot them and address them in a way that is pleasant.”

In Closing

Achievement in school is an important gateway to achievement and success in life. I believe that learning to read and write is the cornerstone of all school learning and the key to that achievement. I have devoted my 45 years of literacy professional work to helping students, especially those who struggle with reading and writing. Through my work with Keys to Literacy, this means making sure that teachers have a solid foundation in evidence-based instructional practices. I realize now more than ever that this mission is critical because literacy must be part of the equity solution.

I’ll end with a link to a recent blog post in Edutopia by Hedreich Nichols titled “A guide to equity and antiracism for educators.” It is not focused on literacy, but it does include a large number of links to resources about creating an equitable classroom, improving cultural competence, and suggested social media sites.


A special thanks to Colleen Yasenchock for sharing several of the resources I used in this post.

Joan Sedita

Joan Sedita is the founder of Keys to Literacy and author of the Keys to Literacy professional development programs. She is an experienced educator, nationally recognized speaker and teacher trainer. She has worked for over 35 years in the literacy education field and has presented to thousands of teachers and related professionals at schools, colleges, clinics, and professional conferences.

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  1. Kathleen Prager

    Excellent. I have always maintained and promoted the belief that providing proper reading instruction is unequivocally, a social justice issue.

  2. Lisa Berken

    This is powerful. Thank you for this post.

  3. Lori Centerbar

    Thank you, Joan! As an experienced ELA teacher, I have been struggling of late with the “progressive” notion that teaching literacy and grammar by raising the bar for our marginalized students is somehow oppressive and doesn’t value their diverse backgrounds. I expect great things from all of my students by holding them accountable to high standards and supporting them to reach those standards. There is nothing oppressive about that! Many thanks for a powerful perspective that that is exactly what I should be doing!



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