Do You See Me? Applying an Equity Lens to Literacy Instruction
Classrooms across the United States are changing rapidly. Today more than ever, teachers are likely to encounter students whose native language, race, or socioeconomic status differs from their own. Indeed, according to a 2017 Atlanta Journal-Constitution piece by education policy writer Maureen Downey that touched on the changing demographics in America’s classrooms, “public schools are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse.” After pointing to the rise in students who need English language support as a key growth area, Downey went on to cite some troubling findings from a recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics. Specifically, the study found that although more students than ever are graduating from high school, racially and economically marginalized students often trail their whiter, wealthier peers in terms of a whole host of measuring sticks, including reading proficiency.
The most recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress appear to echo Downey’s concerns, as scores from a random sampling of the nation’s fourth- and eighth-graders showed little movement between 2015 and 2017. What’s more, gaps between white and black students, white and Hispanic students, and students who lived in poverty and those who didn’t all remained noteworthy in 2017—a continuation of a persistent trend that has dogged the NAEP for years. While many have argued that the United States is in the midst of an overall literacy crisis (often citing the statistic that a reported 30 million adults are struggling to get by with basic literacy and math skills), researchers have zeroed in on an even deeper crisis among young people of color. According to sources such as the education department at Portland, Oregon-based Concordia University, lower literacy rates for minorities impact everything from healthcare access and job opportunities to crime and incarceration rates.
This situation undoubtedly presents a challenge for teachers. Although boosting the literacy rates of all students is considered key to academic success, it is not an easy task, nor one that should fall on teachers’ shoulders alone. After all, many factors—including historic exclusion from formal education, immigration status, and a stubborn national child poverty rate—can also impact a child’s literacy skills. That said, teachers have a unique opportunity to work directly with students in the classroom, as pointed out in the oft-repeated line that teachers are the most important in-school factor in student success. Fortunately, there is a growing effort to help teachers apply an equity lens to literacy instruction, and ultimately reach more students in the process.
Equity vs. equality
First, a quick definition of equity from Dr. Suzanne Carreker, a lead researcher at Lexia Learning: Equity, as noted by Dr. Carreker in a recent report, “does not mean equality.” Compared to equality, which seeks to carve out a level playing field where everyone theoretically has the same opportunities, equity requires a more personalized approach. In other words, rather than insisting that everyone start in the same place, an equity framework asks what barriers exist for individual students and then focuses on identifying and developing unique solutions.
To put it another way, the inclusion-focused Society for Diversity explained on its website that “Equality is about treating everyone the same whether or not it will help them succeed. Equity, on the other hand, is giving people the things they need to do well.” Because literacy is what Dr. Carreker has termed a “gateway to lifelong learning,” it is important for educators to use “explicit, evidence-based practices”—including those rooted in equity—to help as many students as possible become confident readers, writers, and critical thinkers.
Let’s take a look at how this might play out in the classroom.
Know your students. In a post on the resource-heavy We Are Teachers website that offers “20 Ways to Bring More Equity to Your Literacy Instruction,” the very first idea involves putting students in the driver’s seat. To provide more “equitable literacy instruction,” the post advises, consider tapping into the #iwishmyteacherknew movement that encourages kids to tell their teachers about themselves, thereby building teacher-student relationships and paving the way for personalized learning.
Embrace best practices in literacy instruction and assessment. While Dr. Carreker's research paper delves into this topic, it is by no means the only source to position embracing best practices as a primary way to build teacher confidence and create more equitable outcomes. Of particular note, the International Literacy Association provides a helpful list of online resources, termed a “pathway to equity.”
Consider culturally relevant teaching. In the Portland, Oregon, public school district's detailed look at how to bring equity into literacy instruction, culturally relevant teaching emerged an anchor. According to the district's website, “Students who have been historically underserved in school often come from cultures and backgrounds that are different from the mainstream norms of school. For this reason, it is imperative that teachers engage an asset mindset, pedagogy, and set of beliefs about students whose backgrounds vary from their own.” The site also offered a “4 R’s” guide (relationships, relevance, realness and rigor) that gives a nod to the importance of inclusion. After all, knowing students for who they are—not just what they can and cannot yet do—is a cornerstone of bringing equity into literacy instruction.
From the starting point of an equity mindset, teachers can work alongside students using best practices in literacy instruction (including an emphasis on explicit lessons in areas such as decoding) to help engage and inform. The end result may just be a long-hoped-for uptick in literacy rates for all.
English Learners are one of the fastest-growing sub-groups among the school-aged population. Read the white paper by Lexia's Chief Learning Officer, Dr. Liz Brooke, CCC-SLP, to learn about the unique needs of ELs as well as 6 evidence-based instructional strategies that help boost academic achievement for this growing population.