Education Opinion

Why Educators Need to Make Literacy Accessible, Individualized, and Inclusive

By Starr Sackstein — February 26, 2019 4 min read
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Guest post by Jennifer Abramson

Literacy may be the ultimate gatekeeper for students, and all too often, it is an issue that is directly impacted by equity and access.

Although schools fully realize the magnitude of reading failure, which impacts two-thirds of our nation’s secondary students, far too many are not receiving the literacy training they need to become proficient readers.

Importantly, the need for reading recovery should not be regarded as a life sentence that determines future educational and career pathways.

Educators ought to focus on accessing tools and strategies to help struggling readers make more than a year’s progress in a year’s time so they are able to catch up to grade level; succeed in common, real-world situations such as driver’s tests and job applications; and make intentional choices about college and career. At the same time, educators ought to fully acknowledge and make room for the social-emotional components of literacy, which may determine whether students become confident and capable lifelong readers.

Reading Recovery in a Growing District

I have spent the last 25 years working in the Leander Independent School District in Texas during which time we have experienced explosive growth—we have expanded from five elementary schools to 27 while adding eight middle schools and five more high schools. As a result, Leander ISD has become one of the fastest-growing districts in the state of Texas.

Unfortunately, as the student population grew, so did the number of students in need of reading-recovery work. My colleagues and I noticed that some students decoded well but did not understand what they read, while others were able to decode well and even had strong automaticity, but very little comprehension. Learning to decode at the word level, read fluently, and tackle texts of increasing complexity are essential stages of growth for readers, and our teachers need to be able to accurately diagnose and support readers through each of these stages in a consistent, equitable, and ongoing fashion.

Diagnostic and Fluency Tools

The state-issued STAAR program and the Reading Inventory provide us with a broad-based overview of literacy levels, but to acquire more than a snapshot of reading ability, we felt it necessary to take a more in-depth approach. In the spring of 2013, we adopted Access Code, a blended-learning program developed by Foundations in Learning, which includes the iASK screener and diagnostic.

This program empowered us to gather more precise information on students’ specific strengths and weaknesses and implement instruction tailored to their individual needs. Using the Lexile system, a semantic and syntactic measurement that matches students to books they can read independently, students had typically gained 100 Lexile points over the period of a school year. By contrast, students who were using Access Code were able to increase their Lexile scores by 400 points, or four times the yearly anticipated average.

By combining these balanced literacy tools with small-group instruction, individual guided reading, and vocabulary acquisition, we began experiencing exceptional gains in reading recovery and overall literacy. At present, Leander ISD has issued over 500 Access Code licenses across the district for use by a broad range of students in an effort to ensure there are no barriers to access for those who need targeted assistance and instruction.

Equity and Empathy

While addressing reading-recovery fundamentals is vital, teaching readers the interpretive and social-emotional aspects of reading is also critically important. Many thought leaders and educators are beginning to highlight the importance of social-emotional learning inside the literacy space. Kylene Beers and Bob Probst, in particular, have outlined the equity and empathy aspects of reading in their co-authored book, Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters.

We have strived to implement some of their key ideas at Leander ISD including the notion that students need to become responsible, responsive, and compassionate readers; responsible in that they are able to accurately interpret text and think about what it means for others and society at large, responsive in that they ought to fully engage with and react to what they are reading, and compassionate in that they ought to learn to appreciate a variety of perspectives and develop empathy through reading.

To support these goals, our Curriculum and Instruction Team provides on-campus professional learning via classroom modeling, planning, and co-teaching to ensure implementation of both the foundational and social-emotional components of reading acquisition. In addition, our Secondary Literacy Academy and Workshop Support Group hold monthly professional learning sessions to grow our collective knowledge and develop an even deeper understanding of our literacy objectives.

A Moral Imperative

Providing equity when it comes to literacy instruction has become a moral imperative as well as a civil rights issue. At Leander ISD, we are focused on delivering appropriate reading instruction that is accessible, individualized, and inclusive. There are groups of marginalized students who have never seen characters in literature that resemble themselves.

Teachers need to recognize this dynamic and challenge themselves to balance curricular offerings to include texts that will resonate with different readers. Moreover, by erasing our preconceived notions of struggling readers and their future pathways, we can concentrate on addressing their foundational literacy needs and help them grow into flexible, empathetic thinkers and readers with the skills and confidence to open up any number of doors.

Jennifer Abramson is the secondary English/language arts coordinator for Leander ISD in Leander, Texas. Jenn spent 10 years reading and writing alongside her favorite people—8th graders! She continues to grow her own craft as a teacher-consultant with the Heart of Texas Writing Project. Connect with her on Twitter @jennabramson.

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