For decades, educators and parents have been fighting illiteracy. Research indicates that 95% of children can learn how to read with evidence-based instruction. However, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 35% of fourth graders and 32% of eighth graders in the US read proficiently. Reading proficiency is even lower for specific demographic groups. Often referred to as an achievement gap, in reality, it’s more of an opportunity gap.
The gap is apparent when comparing scores between Black and White fourth and eighth graders. On US national tests last year, NAEP reported that only 18% of Black fourth graders scored proficient or above in reading, whereas 45% of White fourth graders scored proficient or above. In the same report, only 15% of Black eighth graders were proficient readers compared to 42% of White eighth graders.
Robert Pondiscio, senior visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, has stated that any discussion about educational equity that is not focused on literacy is unserious. “Wide and persistent gaps between White and Black students, stretching back decades, make it abundantly clear—or ought to—that state education officials have no more urgent business to attend to than ensuring every child can read in every school under their control or influence,” he said.
Dr. Miguel A. Cardona, US secretary of education, highlighted this problem last year when he acknowledged that students of color and those from low-income backgrounds historically had less access to educational opportunities, including talented educators, rigorous coursework, school counselors, and other supports required for student success. “It is our moment to finally make education the great equalizer, the force that can help every student thrive, no matter their background, zip code, circumstance, or language they speak at home.”
Along with racial and social justice, literacy is a fundamental human right, just like any other liberty we enjoy. It is time to declare that literacy is a civil right in our country and globally. Reading is the gateway to learning and lifelong success.
How to Address the Opportunity Gap
In the US, there are three approaches to addressing the gap between the numbers of students reading proficiently.
We need to reframe the conversation from “achievement gap” to “opportunity gap.” The proficiency chasm has not developed because of a difference in learning ability between the various demographic or economic groups. Instead, it reflects the lack of opportunities some students have been given to help them to succeed. Instead of focusing on the misconception of what these students lack, the correct response would be to focus on the opportunities that we can provide them moving forward, like access to high-quality curriculum and highly trained teachers.
Every student has a right to a properly trained teacher using what’s known as evidence-based teaching methods to teach reading. According to Dr. John Hattie, a noted professor of education from New Zealand, teachers have the greatest impact on student achievement. Hattie advocates for what’s known as structured literacy and the science of reading–based curriculum to close the opportunity gap. Using the types of evidence-based teaching pedagogy built on decades of research is an effective way to provide educational equity during the critical K–3 learning window. Since only half of the colleges and universities in the US instruct teachers in these evidence-based methods, a nationwide focus on preparing teachers to teach reading is a vital first step in closing the gap.
To close the opportunity gap, students also require equal access to high-quality literacy instruction and programs. If local, state, federal, and country Ministry of Education officials were to collaborate with their respective school leaders to support and purchase high-quality programs, we would see the reading scores rise and the gap close sooner. As we know, here in the US, as a result of the pandemic, the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds are still available to districts to purchase proven science of reading literacy programs. This means literacy programs that contain systematic and explicit instruction in specific areas including phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.
To address educational equity and the opportunity gap, it is critical to zero in on the fundamental skill of reading. Fortunately, the pandemic relief funds can be invested in literacy programs based in the science of reading—the gold standard of how to teach reading.
That means that regardless of the zip codes where students live, they can have access to rigorous instruction that will open up economic and social opportunities that will in turn impact generational wealth and other benefits.
Literacy has no geographic boundaries and is at the core of sustainable solutions to the world’s greatest problems. Literacy builds the foundation for freedom from poverty, freedom from disease, and freedom from oppression.
By investing in literacy and education, schools, districts, and governments around the world can meet their fundamental obligations by giving all people the opportunity to improve their lives, their health, their communities, and their nations.
In my role, I am committed to working to ensure that every child has access to the tools to successfully navigate through this increasingly complex and competitive world.
Academic success leads to informed decision-making, active civic participation, improved self-confidence, and a path to economic prosperity.
Literacy truly is a civil right and can and should be for all.
Liz Brooke, PhD, CCC-SLP, is the chief learning officer at Lexia Learning (www.lexialearning.com). She will be a keynote speaker at the World Literacy Summit (www.worldliteracysummit.org). The summit will run from April 2–4, 2023, at Oxford University, UK. Registrations are now open. The conference is being organized by the World Literacy Foundation, a peak global literacy charitable body.
The World Literacy Summit Program is built around three days of interactive discussions; presentations from academia on the latest research and development on literacy training and trends; and participation from government, nonprofit literacy associations and private industries, and individuals throughout the globe that have provided a pathway to helping world literacy. Take advantage of the early-bird registration, which ends Feb. 15, 2023.