“There can be no equity, no social justice, without literacy.” Kareem Weaver

Decades of research have proven that teaching a child to read in the earliest elementary school grades is a crucial indicator of future success in school and life. Failing to do so can have devastating personal and societal consequences. Low literacy rates are linked to higher poverty rates, lower educational attainment, and increased likelihood of incarceration.

The webinar “Equity Through Early Literacy Webinar: The Foundations of Early Reading as a Tool for Equity,” hosted by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, discussed barriers to providing high-quality, evidence-based early literacy foundations and explored solutions to ensure more equitable reading outcomes for all students.

Why early literacy matters

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill examined the relationship between early literacy and a range of later social outcomes. They found direct correlations between a solid literacy foundation by the fourth grade and how those same students navigated life in their late teens and early 20s.

Results of the study showed students with below-average reading ability in grades 3 and 4:

  •         Have 25% less household income in their early to mid-20s.
  •         Are twice as likely not to apply to or attend college.
  •         Are 50% more likely to be unemployed in their early to mid-20s.
  •         Are 25% more likely to report substance abuse in their early to mid-20s.
  •         Are 33% more likely to report feeling depressed in their early to mid 20s.

Panelist Munro Richardson is the executive director of Read Charlotte, the community children’s reading initiative that commissioned the 2022 UNC Chapel Hill study. He feels great urgency in convincing people that improving reading during the first eight years of a child’s life dramatically impacts their later chances in life. “We’re talking about how early literacy can help level the playing field,” he said. “Making the connections to the consequences of not helping these children reach their God-given potential clearly shows that what happens in K-3 classrooms matters a great deal. The future of our communities and our country depends greatly upon the quality of reading instruction that our children receive.”

Statistics additionally show illiteracy and incarceration are connected.

What is equity in literacy?

According to the website of FULCRUM (Full and Complete Reading is a Universal Mandate), 82% of Black, 77% of Hispanic, and 55% of white students do not meet reading standards based on nationwide fourth-grade literacy scores. Literacy expert Kareem Weaver, co-founder and executive director of FULCRUM, states, “Equity says in order to get the greatest number of kids reading possible, we have to do what they need. We don’t wait for kids to fail,” he said. This includes learning and applying the proper teaching methods, instituting and enacting evidence-based policies, and choosing the correct curriculum. The American Federation of Teachers website notes that the elements of an effective reading program include a strong core reading curriculum, with instructional material that is aligned with research, appropriate reading assessments, high-quality professional development, and timely intensive intervention for struggling students. “Timely means we’re not doing the ‘wait-to-fail.’ You have to have those five things and implement them fully,” Weaver stressed. “I speak to districts all around the country and ask, ‘How many of these five do you have in place?’ At most, I hear two. Do the things that we know work for kids. We have to at least try in earnest to do what we know works now.”

Socioeconomic disadvantage is also a driver of literacy inequity. Factors can include parental income and education level, as well as a student’s language exposure and access to resources. Richardson of Read Charlotte stated, ”Equity in the context of our work is getting to the place where race and socioeconomics no longer predict outcomes, whether they be education outcomes or social outcomes.”

What are the barriers?

The “deficit model” of instruction contradicts equitable educational opportunities by assuming that students of color, different abilities, or low socioeconomic status lack the necessary skills to succeed, which can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Jennifer Hogan, K-6 ELA humanities curriculum coordinator of the Pentucket (Massachusetts) Regional School District, describes the deficit model approach as having low expectations about what students can do. “We set the bar for them low so that they can meet it, but if we’re never raising the bar for those students, we’re never giving them the opportunity to show us what they’re able to do,” she said. “If we’re not allowing all students to have access to high-quality grade-level literature and text, how are they ever going to learn how to read and respond and think? If we never give students the chance to get there, then quite frankly they never will.”

She stressed the need to mine valid, reliable literacy assessment data and utilize that research to help close the gaps and prevent the gaps from developing at all, especially for student subgroups historically marginalized or behind. “We have to identify those inequities that we’re seeing, especially for students learning English as another language, students with disabilities. We have to abandon that ‘wait-to-fail’ model that is so pervasive within education and particularly within literacy,” she said. “Students are moving up through the grade levels persistently behind. We have to say this is not acceptable and this matters.”

How to overcome the barriers

Literacy equity leads to greater opportunity for disadvantaged students. For the first time in the history of the U.S., a majority of public school students are children of color—but data shows that a majority of their teachers aren’t. Therefore, ongoing professional development should be prioritized to educate staff and school administrators on overcoming unconscious bias. Additionally, teacher training programs must prepare future teachers for a society that’s becoming more racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse and provide them with the knowledge of how to utilize research-based literacy instruction methods. “We have teachers coming into the profession from teacher prep programs without having learned about evidence-based literacy instruction really at all,” said Hogan. “There’s an expectation that [education majors] are being provided factual information, and the reality is teachers are coming in unprepared to teach reading.”

Weaver concurred that higher education has a role to play. “I think we do ourselves a disservice by just focusing on pre-K through 12. There’s only so much professional development to go around in the K-12 space,” he said. “I have talked with superintendents who state, ‘we don’t mind providing the in-service, we just don’t want to have to keep “unteaching” them things.’ Universities really have to step up and make sure they’re providing the type of experiences and the knowledge base that folks need to get in there and do the job on day one.”

Richardson encourages educators to treat reading as a scientific endeavor, with the understanding that no field of science is static. “A term that’s been really popular the last several years is the science of reading,” he said. “There’s two parts here: the science of learning to read and the science of teaching reading. Just because you understand the science of how a child learns to read that doesn’t necessarily tell you what to do with a specific child in front of you. We can’t just “play” science of reading. We have to really be serious about it because, again, just think about the consequences that we talked about. Our kids are expecting the big people in their lives to get this right.”

This was part one of a three-part “Equity in Early Literacy” webinar series. Watch the others here:
Part 2: Culturally Responsive Practices in Early Literacy

Part 3: Early Literacy Instruction for Multilingual Learners