Literacy Gap Alert: How to Help Students of Color Reach Their Full Potential
A 2018 post on Room 241—a website associated with the education department at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon—took on a hot topic: the literacy crisis in the United States. According to the Room 241 blog, this is not a new phenomenon, yet its “impacts upon our kids, our economy, and our society are far-reaching and expanding.” For evidence, the blog offered some sobering statistics, including this example from the National Bureau of Economic Research: “Children whose parents have low literacy levels have a 72 percent chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves.” What’s more, these children often struggle to remain on track and stay successful in school.
And the stakes are high, with researchers from the National Dropout Prevention Center noting, “Many at-risk students read below grade level, which contributes to their lack of academic achievement. Low literacy levels show a strong correlation with poverty, crime, and unemployment.” Of further importance is this fact: In the United States, students of color face an even higher risk of reaching adulthood with poor or inadequate literacy skills. The writers behind the Room 241 blog pointed out that this is no accident—the precedent set during slavery, for example, made it illegal for enslaved people to learn how to read and write in many states. This, coupled with ongoing issues of poverty and access to education, has created a situation where “minorities are still oppressed by lower literacy levels,” according to Room 241.
This isn’t just an issue for African-American students whose ancestors may have experienced slavery. In a 2018 opinion piece for The Hill, early literacy advocate Norma Nelson asserted that “whole generations of children in our country” are not being allowed to reach their “full potential” because they are neither white nor wealthy. Indeed, Nelson described reading scores for low-income children of color as “catastrophically low,” according to results from recent national assessments. For Nelson, who runs a program out of Texas called Readers 2 Leaders, the answer is to invest more fully in literacy instruction for children while they are young. “Early literacy,” she wrote, is not just “‘nice to have,’ it is vital”—and allowing students to pass through school without strong literacy skills will set them up for potentially unhealthy outcomes such as limited access to work and further education.
Nelson also made a point to talk about the broader societal issues that impact access to literacy instruction for low-income students of color, such as lingering problems with inadequate education funding and segregated schools. While these systemic inequities are too broad for any one teacher to single-handedly correct, there are many classroom-based strategies that teachers can implement when trying to help their marginalized students attain higher levels of literacy. Here are some suggestions:
Learn to identify equity traps
Holly King, early learning director for the organization Advanc-Ed, took on the topic of responding to marginalized students in a 2017 post on the group’s website. In seeking to explain how perceptions about marginalized students can impact these individuals' education, King cited the work of New Zealand researchers Katherine McKenzie and James Scheurich, who identified “equity traps, or ways of thinking that prevent high expectations for students of color” (for instance, educators having a “deficit view” that zeroes in on behavior issues or assumes that marginalized students of color lack motivation).
Further, King noted that McKenzie and Scheurich advocate for the importance of seeing these students through a new lens—one that assumes such learners come to the classroom with potential sources of strength. These could include strong family bonds as well as other forms of “social capital” that could be tapped into to better support the students.
Use culturally responsive teaching methods
In a post on the education resource site Edutopia, literacy researcher Nell Duke advised teachers to only implement tried and tested literacy strategies. More specifically, Duke encouraged teachers to think carefully about how they are leveraging class time and assess whether they are using it as wisely as possible. To that end, she offered what she termed “three research-supported practices that are especially worthy of class time” and can be utilized in any literacy classroom, such as teaching students how to break down words, learn to recognize patterns, and become self-motivated readers.
Culturally responsive teaching practices take things a step further. This approach, as outlined through resources such as the Kentucky Department of Education, centers on the importance of “improving instruction in response to the needs of all learners”—mainly by affirming the various experiences and cultural practices students bring to school. This can be accomplished by working to establish positive, mutually respectful relationships with students and by making sure to organize lessons around content that is relevant to their lives.
Researchers from Brown University have also provided instructional strategies along these lines, such as ways to improve literacy rates for marginalized students who are not native English speakers. One piece of advice: Have teachers preview reading assignments to anticipate gaps in their students’ linguistic or cultural knowledge of the material. These strategies are echoed by Jennifer Gonzalez, editor in chief of the Cult of Pedagogy website. In a 2017 post, Gonzalez first identified the problems that can occur when teachers and students come from different backgrounds or speak different native languages, then offered a number of ways for teachers to support students of color, including “really [getting] to know [their] students” and helping learners love and value themselves. This creates a foundation of trust and respect that can be further enhanced by stocking classroom or school libraries with “positive, diverse” books and by exposing students to mentors and teachers who look like them.
According to Gonzalez, another important way to help students of color overcome the literacy gaps that have the potential to narrow their life paths is to resist the “existing narrative.” Rather than spreading the idea that students of color are lacking in complexity, she urged teachers to dig in, celebrate these individuals' lives, and insist that they have the capacity to become fully literate members of society—just like any other students.
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