Lost in the Reading Wars? Consider Becoming a Literacy Advocate

Lost in the Reading Wars? Consider Becoming a Literacy Advocate

In her radio documentary for American Public Media, reporter Emily Hanford made an ominous declaration: “Elementary schools across the country are teaching children to be poor readers—and educators may not even know it.”

This striking statement undergirded a two-part examination of reading instruction (or the lack thereof) in America’s public schools that kicked off with “Hard Words,” which was released in 2018 with the explosive tagline, “Why aren’t kids being taught to read?”

Both reports strike at the heart of one of many parents’ worst fears; namely, that their children are not being well served in school. After all, learning to read is considered a fundamental aspect of elementary school, and generations of trusting parents have sent off their little ones to become capable, confident readers.

Yet Hanford’s reporting decisively poked holes in these hopes, challenging teachers and parents alike to think more critically about why many students are not moving through school with the literacy skills they need.

A troubling stalemate 

In “Hard Words,” Hanford unflinchingly described the troubling stalemate that exists among teachers, parents, and administrators in districts across the United States with regard to reading instruction and skill acquisition. According to Hanford:

Research shows that children who don't learn to read by the end of third grade are likely to remain poor readers for the rest of their lives, and they're likely to fall behind in other academic areas, too. People who struggle with reading are more likely to drop out of high school, to end up in the criminal justice system, and to live in poverty. But as a nation, we've come to accept a high percentage of kids not reading well.

Throughout “Hard Words,” Hanford assailed the country's current approach to reading instruction. After calling out what she characterized as a widespread yet erroneous assumption that “learning to read is a natural process, much like learning to talk,” she concluded that it's no wonder nationally normed test results typically show less than half of all fourth-graders are proficient readers. In the second episode of the series, aptly titled “At a Loss for Words,” Hanford hammered home her point by noting that a “disproven theory about how reading works is still driving the way many children are taught to read,” then went on to explain the “three cues” theory in detail.

So, if the current approach is indeed broken, how can it be fixed? According to Hanford, the solution lies in reading instruction that is evidence-based and rooted in explicit lessons built around phonics. And although the way school districts approach reading won't transform overnight, reporters like Hanford may spur more parents to become “literacy advocates.” 

What is a literacy advocate?

The National Center on Improving Literacy, which coined the term, defines a literacy advocate as a person who “supports or speaks out for someone else’s educational needs or rights in reading, writing, and language.” Literacy advocates tend to be family members or guardians because these individuals are often most aware of a student’s potential, challenges, and progress toward acquiring fundamental skills. In other words, they are best suited to ensure a student’s needs are being met. 

Although the framework of literacy advocacy positions family members as a child’s best line of defense, it also emphasizes the importance of families and school staff working together. As the NCIL phrased it, adults at home and at school “view [a] child through different lenses, yet both viewpoints are equally important.”

Needless to say, communication is an essential component of supporting the student in as holistic a manner as possible. In practice, this means parents and other invested adults should document a student's struggles with literacy and share their observations with school staff sooner rather than later. With this in mind, Sarah Sayko, lead author of the NCIL's report on becoming a literacy advocate, advised parents to brush up on instructional best practices.

Gathering knowledge and answering questions

Beyond listening to Hanford’s investigative reports, parents and guardians may wish to conduct independent research on evidence-based reading instruction and the importance of student screening and assessment. Armed with this knowledge, they may feel better informed before they approach teachers and administrators with questions, including the following recommended by Sayko:

  • How are children with reading difficulties identified?

  • What evidence-based literacy instruction and interventions are used?

  • What information does the school collect on my child’s literacy progress?

  • How is the information used to make decisions about my child’s literacy needs?

Parents are also advised to keep track of questions, concerns, and resources using a notebook or other form of record keeping. Given the hectic pace of the school year for families and teachers alike, this can be a good way to track both the child’s progress and the school’s efforts.

It is clear from Hanford’s American Public Media reports as well as numerous other sources that parents shouldn't necessarily assume their children are learning to read—and read well—at school. Known as reading wars, politically fueled battles over how and when to help students learn to read and write may have put a damper on reading proficiency rates in the United States, but parents equipped with knowledge, questions, and a willingness to advocate for their students could make all the difference.

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