Reading & Literacy Opinion

Put an End to Two-Tier Early-Literacy Education

By Jerry Zimmerman & Carolyn Brown — December 05, 2001 7 min read
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Early-literacy instruction in our country is rapidly becoming a two-tiered system that threatens to leave at-risk children far behind.

For those of us who care deeply about early literacy, this should be a golden era. With a firm commitment by the Bush administration, backed by what will likely be an unprecedented level of federal funding, American public education would appear to have its best-ever chance of realizing the president’s stated vision, that every child be able to read by grade 3.

As we observe classrooms in cities, towns, and suburbs across the country, however, we have become concerned that not all children are getting a fair opportunity to meet this goal. Yes, there is plenty of money being spent, even in the most disadvantaged schools. And it’s true that many children— particularly those in the more affluent school districts—are getting the excellent instruction that will help them become confident, lifelong readers.

Sadly, though, thousands of our most at-risk children, especially in urban areas, may be settling for something much less. As a result, early- literacy instruction in our country is rapidly becoming a two-tiered system that threatens to leave at-risk children far behind their more privileged suburban neighbors in reading achievement. We believe this is morally wrong and educationally unnecessary.

The National Research Council made the best case for equitable instruction in its landmark 1998 work, “Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children.” As the council pointed out: "[T]here is little evidence that children experiencing difficulties learning to read, even those with identifiable learning disabilities, need radically different sorts of supports than children at low risk, although they may need much more intensive support. Childhood environments that support early literacy development and excellent instruction are important for all children. Excellent instruction is the best intervention for children who demonstrate problems learning to read.” In other words, good instruction is good instruction, regardless of where it is delivered or to whom.

It’s not a question of continuing the “reading wars” or having to choose between phonics or whole language. The reading wars should have ended. Once you get beyond some residual political posturing, there is remarkable consensus about what all children need in order to learn to read and write well.

It’s time to go back to what research has confirmed works best: a comprehensive, research-based curriculum; good classroom teaching; and high- quality instruction that focuses on each individual child.

  • A coherent and balanced curriculum. Twenty years of research has shown us that children at risk for reading problems need a curriculum that is driven by a coherent, conceptual framework, with a systematic approach to learning skills and building language and vocabulary. To be sure, learning skills (such as recognizing letters in the alphabet and being able to sound out words) are important steps. But they are not enough to turn kindergarten and 1st grade students into successful readers.
Children from literacy-poor homes arrive at school with far smaller vocabularies. If they don't make up their language deficits in the classroom, what chance do they have to catch up?

Children from literacy-poor homes arrive at school with far smaller vocabularies to begin with—800 to 1,000 words vs. 6,000 to 10,000 words for children from more affluent homes. If they don’t make up their language deficits in the classroom, what chance do these children have to catch up? Of course, learning to sound out words is important. But by focusing so keenly on mastering the code, the “phonics first and only” approach denies many at-risk children the chance to master language and vocabulary as well—and is actually more likely to widen the gap, especially when it comes to reading comprehension.

  • Well-trained teachers. There is widespread agreement today that quality teaching matters most. However, teachers in schools with high poverty and a high percentage of children at risk for reading failure face the most difficult challenges, particularly in the area of early language and literacy. They need, as would their suburban counterparts placed in similar circumstances, consistent and effective professional development and support to meet challenges for which they were not equipped by their colleges of education.

Administrators, therefore, must provide strong guidance to a staff of often demoralized or inexperienced teachers. But when this administrative guidance translates into tying teachers so closely to scripted lesson plans, teachers virtually are taken out of the classroom. It may seem expedient to do this for the short run, but it’s problematic in the long term.

In fact, at-risk children are the ones who most need the well- trained teachers who can engage them in real reading and writing—and who can instill in them a love and respect for learning. These children need teachers who can simulate environments and systematically provide forms of instruction that we know are predictive of reading achievement. Scripted instruction might allow these children to reach a baseline level of achievement, and, in one sense, any improvement is welcomed. But they will remain far behind those children lucky enough to have teachers who are prepared to help them go further— or those who start school basically ready to read.

With scripted lesson plans, teachers are virtually taken out of the classrooms where their interaction with children is needed most.

The commentator John Merrow says that America seems to have three kinds of schools these days: poor schools, good-enough schools, and excellent schools. By settling for so little in urban classrooms, it’s as if many policymakers and educators have simply given up. They seem to have decided that advancing from “poor” to “good enough” is OK—that better than nothing is good enough. Surely that is not what is meant by the president’s eloquent challenge to “leave no child behind.”

  • Focus on each child individually. High-performing early-literacy classrooms focus on balanced, individualized instruction, tailored to assure that each child reaches the developmental milestones predictive of reading achievement. At different times, each child will need help with different aspects of reading instruction. Thus, teachers will need to focus on phonics for some kids some of the time, but for some other kids none of the time. Unfortunately, the drill-heavy instruction prevailing in too many urban classrooms is focused on raising the level of achievement of the class as a whole, as if the students’ needs were homogeneous.

There’s no question that individualized instruction and assessments are more expensive and require more skill to apply; teachers will need to do more than read from a script. But the alternative is more costly, in human terms and in the high price of remediation and retention. Children at risk for reading problems need more individualized attention and instruction, not less. If we don’t give them even a fair chance, how can we ever expect them to catch up?

Urban administrators can best serve their children by taking a hard look at their own districts. We urge them to ask the hard questions: What can you do to achieve meaningful, positive, and long-lasting results?

Are your early-literacy programs flexible enough to serve the diverse needs of your student populations, or are the children being asked to adapt their needs for the convenience of a one-size-fits-all program?

Are you settling for teacher- proof “solutions” or technology-based programs that turn teachers into bystanders? Or are you investing in the level of sustained professional development needed to transform script-readers and test-givers into systematic and creative instructors? It’s not a matter of turning teachers loose to do their own thing and hope that all children learn. Elementary school teachers need a solid grounding in how children learn to read—and they need to understand how to systematically apply instructional techniques that work. That takes resources and focus.

Providing a high-quality, balanced early-literacy program is not some pie-in-the-sky dream.

Finally, are you holding vendors accountable for results?Insist on a partnership. Instead of asking only, “Does this early-literacy program work?” ask, “How do we work together to create the conditions that enable every child to read at grade level?” Beware the silver-bullet salesmen who promise instantaneous literacy solutions with every new program purchased. As state policymakers ratchet up their demands for high-stakes performance, educators are understandably more susceptible to quick-fix promises like these.

Resist. Trust your common sense. If teaching reading and writing to at-risk kids were so easy, scores would not be so low and the achievement gaps would not remain so wide.

The good news is that providing a high-quality, balanced early- literacy program is not some pie-in-the-sky dream. It’s already happening in districts all over the country—from Norfolk, Va., to New Haven, Conn., and from Fort Worth, Texas, to East Chicago, Ind.

Providing at-risk children with the support they need and deserve is not as simple or dramatic as implementing a quick-fix instructional program. But it’s the one solution that works.

Can anyone honestly say that any child deserves anything less?

And when some of the most impoverished schools in the country are providing this high level of instruction to their students, shouldn’t we insist that all urban schools do the same?

Carolyn Brown is the founder and Jerry Zimmermann is the co-founder and president of Breakthrough to Literacy, a comprehensive, research-based early-literacy program being used in more than 5,000 classrooms in 39 states.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2001 edition of Education Week as Put an End to Two-Tier Early-Literacy Education


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