The Problem With Literacy Programs

| Corrected: February 27, 2019
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A cautionary tale: Not long ago, I was assisting a school district that had adopted a prominently endorsed literacy program. Our work began with a review of the program, which had an unassailable conceptual base. Yet as several of us examined it, we noticed some profound shortcomings: The program abounded in minutiae, low-level worksheets, and excessive skills instruction, leaving little time for reading, discussion, and writing. Moreover, its highly scripted lessons were patently misconceived—the content and assessments were misaligned with the unfocused, haphazardly assembled array of (so-called) “learning objectives.” In other words, the lessons lacked the most obvious elements of good teaching. For all this, the program’s visiting consultants had recently doubled down on their insistence that it had to be followed to the letter.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Our concerns led to conversations with the program’s highest-ranking official and one of its prominent endorsers. Point by point, they conceded that our perceptions were accurate, that the exigencies of program development had led to significant gaps between the program’s initial conception and its actual teaching materials. To their credit, they urged us—contrary to the company’s on-site consultants—to replace large portions of the program with those elements it lacked. On our own, they said, we should include more purposeful reading, high-quality books, discussion, and explicit writing instruction.

"We must reckon with the fact that even popular, highly praised commercial programs often lack a robust evidence base."

This wasn’t my first such experience. Over the years, my colleagues and I have made similarly damning discoveries about other nationally prominent literacy and curricular products. When pressed, many of their creators would admit to the inadequacies. One highly respected expert told me that not one of these literacy programs meets the criteria most essential to English/language arts and literacy curricula (which I describe below).

Given the supreme importance of literacy to academic and life success, what should we learn from this—and what should we do about it?

First, we must reckon with the fact that even popular, highly praised commercial programs often lack a robust evidence base. That’s because they are deficient in precisely those aspects most critical to acquiring the ability to read, write, and speak well. Instead, they abound in busywork—worksheets, group activities, and multiple-choice exercises. Until this changes, we should build our own English/language arts and literacy curricula—or demand that publishers and philanthropy-backed programs meet the following parameters in key areas (most of which apply across the curriculum):

Reading. For beginning readers, we need to start with a solid, intensive phonics regimen. That’s indispensable. At the same time, we need to remember that phonics instruction is not, as Daniel Willingham recently wrote, a “literacy program.” I share his concern that phonics can be overemphasized at the expense of the “lifeblood” of literacy—abundant amounts of reading, speaking, and writing in all disciplines. Even before students fully master phonics-based decoding, they should be reading—and listening to—large amounts of fiction and nonfiction.

As literacy expert Timothy Shanahan points out, nothing consolidates fledgling decoding skills like actual reading and reading along as the teacher reads aloud. For experts like Shanahan and Richard Allington, students should be reading for at least an hour a day, across subject areas. We’re not even close to such a target in most schools. Without this, many students never acquire the knowledge and vocabulary essential to fluency and reading comprehension. Curriculum and program developers should conduct an honest audit of how many quality books and texts students are actually reading each week, in every course. Such audits typically reveal a startling paucity of these texts.

Discussion. Students should frequently engage in whole-class, full-participation discussions, debates, and seminars about what they read, starting in the early grades. They need regular, explicit instruction in how to speak clearly, audibly, and with civility in every subject and grade level. When I do demonstration lessons for teachers, it is often apparent that students aren’t being taught these vital communication skills.

Writing. Students need to be writing about what they read almost daily for mostly higher-order purposes, for example, to analyze or compare literary and historical figures, events, and concepts; to explain, make arguments, and justify interpretations. This daily written work—which need not always be collected or scored—should be the basis for longer, more formal papers. And it’s high time we built specifications for the number and length of major writing assignments into every subject-area curriculum.

Explicit literacy instruction. All students must be taught how to read increasing amounts of grade-level text in each discipline. Teachers should routinely provide scaffolding that includes embedded vocabulary instruction and background knowledge prior to every reading. They should do step-by-step modeling of purposeful, analytic reading (which varies according to purpose and subject). Students should practice analytic reading—by underlining, annotating, or taking notes—followed by “checks for understanding,” as the teacher monitors and adjusts instruction to ensure that students are successfully comprehending and analyzing text. Such efforts raise students’ ability to comprehend challenging text by multiple grade levels. Discussion and writing should be taught just as explicitly and frequently.

In addition, many programs should shed their prejudice against well-structured, whole-class teaching. As recently reported in Education Week, there has been a precipitous rise in small-group instruction. Some amount of this can be useful, but as Shanahan and I have discussed, many small-group lessons could be taught just as effectively to an entire class, with an exponential increase in teacher contact time. The encroachment of small-group instruction has meant that students now spend disconcerting amounts of time at independent learning “centers.” The value of these is greatly inflated: Their prevalence helps account for Michael Ford and Michael Opitz’s finding that students spend record amounts of time on “cut, color, and paste activities.” They estimate that only about one-third of the elementary “literacy block” has any academic value.

As commercial, philanthropic, or district entities gear up to develop or improve literacy and curricular programs, we must demand that they honor the above criteria. Because if they do, make no mistake—swift, significant improvements will ensue in all academic areas.

Vol. 38, Issue 24, Page 18

Published in Print: March 6, 2019, as The Problem With Literacy Programs
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A previous version of this piece misspelled Michael Ford's name.

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