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Literacy as a Social Justice Issue

February 01, 2022 7 min read
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Why We Must Follow the Science of Reading to Give All Students the Skills and Opportunity to Succeed

When we think about issues of social justice, many people think of voting rights, health care, hunger and food insecurity, racial injustice, and sexuality and gender equality. However, there is another social justice issue that deserves equal attention: the ability to read. Each year, over one million fourth-grade students are added to the list of nonreaders in our country.

Not only do poor reading skills impact academic achievement, they are also associated with increased risk for school dropout, attempted suicide, incarceration, anxiety, depression, and low self-concept. Adults who lack basic literacy skills are more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, and incarcerated. This means they are far less likely to be able to provide for their families, support the economy, and pay taxes. They may not use the healthcare system out of fear or use it too much because they are unable to follow written instructions on prescriptions or discharge papers. Thus, making sure all children learn to read is not only an issue of social justice but also of economics.

What Is the Current Status of Reading Proficiency in the US?

As a nation, we know we have gaps when it comes to reading proficiency. We have achievement gaps for all students compared to proficiency standards and even greater gaps for subgroups of students. National performance on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Performance (NAEP) indicates that only 35% of all fourth-grade students performed at or above proficiency levels in reading, indicating that almost two-thirds of students are struggling readers.

When the 2019 NAEP data are disaggregated by race, the results are even more troubling. Only 18% of Black students performed at or above proficiency levels compared to 45% of White students. While there are certainly middle-class White children who have difficulty reading, many suggest that the real fault line for America’s high illiteracy rate occurs at class and race.

We Know How to Teach Children to Read but Are We Doing It?

Unfortunately, along with having large gaps in reading proficiency, we also have large gaps between research and practice. In 2000, the National Reading Panel issued a report summarizing the research and evidence on the best ways to teach children how to read. They found the best approach to teaching reading includes:

  1. Explicit instruction to teach phonemic awareness
  2. Systematic phonics instruction
  3. Methods to improve reading fluency
  4. Teaching vocabulary and comprehension strategies

Researchers are no longer debating the importance of systematic, multi-year phonics and word analysis instruction and a large academic vocabulary. The scientific community has achieved broad consensus on how children learn to read, what causes reading difficulties, the essential components of effective reading instruction, and how to prevent reading difficulties. As a result, not knowing how to effectively teach reading is not the problem. Rather, the real problem is the gap between science and practice. Even though data show the science of reading is effective, this conclusion has not yet been widely adopted in practice in public schools across the nation.

One of the most research-supported models of reading is the Simple View of Reading (Hoover & Gough, 1990; Castles, Rastle, & Nation, 2018). The Simple View of Reading asserts that students need skills in two areas: reading each word in texts accurately and fluently (decoding) and comprehending the meaning of texts being read. While the Simple View of Reading does not specify how word recognition and language comprehension should be taught, it does make clear that the first task of a beginning reader is to learn how to decode words. Children need to be explicitly taught direct sound-spelling relationships following a systematic scope and sequence that allows children to form and read words early on. When children get off to a good start learning how to decode words, they can read the words they know how to say and begin reading widely, learning the meaning of words they have never heard before.

Explicit, Systematic Reading Instruction Is Critical to Keep Students From Struggling

Many children have difficulty learning to decode without explicit and systematic instruction. Oftentimes these students get labeled as struggling readers. When students cannot read very well, they tend to not read much and miss out on opportunities to learn the meaning of new words through reading. In fact, studies have estimated that fifth-grade students who read at the 90th percentile encounter about two million words every year in text read outside of school. Alternatively, a reader at the 10th percentile encounters just 8,000 words. The end result is often described as the “rich get richer and the poor get poorer” phenomenon.

Many children who don’t learn to decode in the early grades can easily grow into adulthood without knowing how to read.

Science of Reading in Action: North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District Achieves Double-Digit Reading Growth

Debating the Science of Reading Keeps Students From Learning to Read

Even though there is broad consensus over the past 20 years on how to best teach reading, a debate rages on. One side argues students should be taught decoding because if students know how the sounds in words are presented by letters, reading comprehension will follow. The other side argues that students should be taught comprehension because if students are focused on the meaning of what they’re reading, they can figure out what the words say. Some prevailing views continue to maintain that if children are read to a lot, reading should come easily for them.

Many of the popular approaches to reading instruction are not aligned with the science of reading because they omit systematic teaching about speech sounds, the spelling system, and how to read words by sounding them out. These programs are weak when it comes to the structure of the English language and strong in literature, illustrations, and cross-disciplinary units. With these programs, the role of the teacher is to create a literacy-rich environment by setting up reading groups, reading with kids, and helping them find books at their reading level. When this doesn’t work, it is assumed that children aren’t read to enough at home or the child has a disability. However, usually, it is neither of those causes. For many children, the reason they can’t read is that they have not been taught to read using the science of reading.

Reading Equity Starts With Teachers Being Taught the Science of Reading

Unfortunately, the most recent report from the National Council on Teacher Quality (2020) found that only about half of the traditional elementary teacher preparation programs across the country are teaching scientifically based reading instruction to future teachers. A 2019 Education Week survey found that more than half of teachers and postsecondary instructors who teach courses on reading said children don’t need a good grasp of phonics (Schwartz, 2019). Most teachers described their approach to teaching reading as “balanced literacy” which typically includes some phonics. However, that instruction is not systematic and explicit.

Good word recognition skills only make up half of the equation. Once students know how to decode, their ability to understand what they read is determined by their language comprehension. Language comprehension involves all the words students know the meaning of and their understanding of how language works. In addition, a child’s ability to comprehend what they read is linked to their prior knowledge. Some researchers have speculated that the association between strong reading comprehension and family income is because larger incomes often mean more opportunities and experiences that build knowledge of the world.

Follow the Science and Close the Reading Equity Gap

In closing, I have long reflected that I reside in a state (Minnesota) that celebrates the fact that we have the highest ACT scores in the country. Yet my state also has the largest achievement gap between black and white students in the country. It is time to embrace a fundamental belief that all children can learn to read despite many obstacles outside of our control. We need to understand that if, as a country, we continue to keep doing what we have been doing, we will keep getting what we have been getting: great variability in outcomes and further disadvantaging the most disadvantaged students.

What we have been getting for the last decade is no change in average reading scores and only a small improvement for students at or above the 90th percentile. The percentage of students at the 10th percentile that score below NAEP basic is increasing at every grade level. These data should create urgency that we can and must do better for large numbers of students. 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 and acknowledge that literacy instruction is a social justice issue. The ability to read must not be treated as a luxury but as a basic and necessary human need that calls for an urgent response in our nation’s classrooms.


[Webinar] Improve Reading Outcomes: Implementing the Science of Reading within an MTSS Framework

[Playbook] Putting the Science of Reading into Practice

[Whitepaper] Moving Beyond the EL Label

[Overview] Effective, Research-Based Reading Assessments


Castles, A., Rastle, K., & Nation, K. (2018). Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition From Novice to Expert. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19(1), 5–51.

Drake, G., & Walsh, K. (2020). 2020 Teacher Prep Review: Program Performance in Early Reading Instruction.

Hanford, E. (2020). What the words say.

Hoover, W. A., & Gough, P. B. (1990). The simple view of reading. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 2(2), 127–160.

National Reading Panel (US), National Institute of Child Health, Human Development (US), National Reading Excellence Initiative, National Institute for Literacy (US), United States. Public Health Service, & United States Department of Health. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction: Reports of the subgroups. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.

Schwartz, S. (2019). The most popular reading programs aren’t backed by science. Education Week.