My Burgeoning Understanding of the Meanings of Literacy

I did not really begin to appreciate literacy as a fundamental human right until I started working in schools. My first professional career was as a school psychologist, and in this role, I had many opportunities to observe children who had developed extraordinarily high levels of literacy, and also many children who had not. As part of my job, I worked with teams to find out which students who were struggling had learning disabilities in literacy areas, such as reading, listening comprehension, oral expression, and written expression. I became perplexed when I realized that a rather large number of students who were having trouble developing literacy skills did not necessarily have learning disabilities. So I delved into research on literacy and discovered that what I observed was common in many schools across the nation.

As I continued to research literacy, I found many sources of information that included recommendations for how to teach literacy but comparably fewer sources that featured credible research on the effectiveness of recommended methods. It seemed like almost everyone had an opinion about the best ways to teach literacy, but there was not a lot of research to back up these opinions. Part of the problem was that there were far too many approaches to teaching literacy for people to research. After all, teachers make hundreds of instructional decisions per day, and not all of these decisions can be supported by expensive studies that may take years to conduct. But an additional and bewildering problem was that some sources of information continued to include teaching recommendations that high quality research studies had determined were not effective. Keep in mind that these experiences occurred before the preoccupation with accountability that now exists in U.S. schools, so the positive or negative effects of instruction were not as closely monitored.

One principal I met told me that she believed that many ineffective practices were connected to the “love curriculum.” When I asked her what she meant, she told me that some educators simply cling to teaching what they love, regardless of the effects on students. I also began to wonder if at least part of the problem was that teachers were not made aware of quality research findings that could better inform their practices. Many teachers could point to a citation in a written document as proof that a practice was research-based, but when I began to track down citation sources, I would often find links to new sources and citations that never led to credible research backing the original claim. I realized how confusing and frustrating the research landscape must be for teachers seeking information. If it was taking me hours to track down and evaluate research evidence for a claim made in a teacher publication, I could not imagine what it would be like for teachers to try to access this information, all while managing a full time teaching job.

As I continued my search for answers for why so many students were struggling with literacy, I came across a rather dense article by Vellutino et al. (1996) that strongly influenced my perspective on literacy development, and ultimately influenced my choice of career. Since I do not have enough space or most readers’ attention to describe the study in full detail, I will just describe the part of the study that shifted my worldview. The researchers evaluated a large group of kindergarten students across multiple schools to gauge the students’ reading levels and cognitive skills (e.g., memory and language processing). Then, in first grade, half of the children with the lowest reading levels received 30-minute sessions of high quality tutoring, while the other half received the usual interventions and supports provided by their schools. What the researchers found was that after only one semester of tutoring, 67% of the low readers raised their reading scores to be average or above average. The reason why this study’s findings were a game changer for me was that a commonly held belief was that children who were having difficulty learning how to read must have something wrong with them, and that it is part of a school psychologist’s job to figure out what was wrong with the child. What Vellutino and colleagues discovered was that the majority of first grade students who struggled with reading could learn to read quite well, but the trick was focusing on the kind of instruction children needed rather than focusing on what was wrong with children.

As a school psychologist, my practice began to shift from seeking explanations of literacy problems based on fixed factors within the child, to seeking solutions within the instructional environment. I narrowed my literature searches to prevention and intervention studies, and I began to attend numerous professional development sessions on these topics. As my expertise grew, there also grew a demand for me to share what I was learning with teachers, school psychologists, and administrators in surrounding schools. Each year, I was asked to provide more staff development at local area schools, and I began to realize that what I really wanted to do was teach others about literacy. Since the study by Vellutino et al., a broad array of informative studies have been published with credible research findings to inform literacy teaching practices.

As a result of this chain of events, I ended my 12-year career as a school psychologist and went back to school to obtain a Ph.D. in Reading Education at Syracuse University. I decided that I not only wanted to share existing research on literacy, but I also wanted to learn how to conduct research myself. It was at this point that I began to conceptualize literacy in the same way that UNESCO discussed it—as a “fundamental human right . . . foundation[al] for lifelong learning” (para. 1). I began to feel a social obligation to work toward helping students achieve high levels of literacy. It is this journey that has led me to co-author and edit this textbook for you, since what you do will have a major influence on what your students know and can do, not only in your classroom, but for the rest of their lives. This textbook will not only provide you with access to research information but will also instruct you on how to evaluate research claims and how to locate trustworthy information about literacy practices. I want you to join me in helping students achieve high levels of literacy. Reading and discussing information within the chapters of this textbook are important steps in our work together.

In addition to the influence of Vellutino et al. (1996) on my thinking, I have had numerous other epiphanies that have shaped my future teaching, writing, and research. One notable moment occurred while I was conducting a research project with a diverse group of students, in which about a quarter of them spoke a language other than English at home and where there were six different races/ethnicities represented among them. On a day that I was observing at a school, a reading teacher was testing a little boy who was African American and had a medical condition that required numerous visits to the school nurse. Based on the reading teacher’s assessment, it became apparent that the child was experiencing considerable difficulties developing his skills in reading and writing. My moment of insight occurred as I walked with the little boy to the nurse, alongside the reading teacher. I suddenly recognized how every dimension of this child contributed to his literacy development. These dimensions included his family, his race and culture, his gender, his feelings, his peers, his teachers, his physical needs, and so many other identities and experiences that resulted in this little boy needing to leave his classroom to go check his insulin level because he had not gotten enough to eat at breakfast.

Other moments of insight arrived to me at similarly unexpected times. I can recall working with a high school student who was probably one of the most intellectually gifted people I had ever met. He was an avid reader who understood the world in such unique and sophisticated ways, given the relatively short time he had existed in it. When I observed him in his classes, he readily shared his knowledge and insights in class discussions; however, he simply would not engage in academic writing. Although his verbal reasoning was so strong that it was nearly unmeasurable using conventional tests, his writing looked like it came from a first or second grader. His handwriting was messy, his spelling was jumbled, and his ideas were disorderly. The student had been diagnosed with recurrent brain tumors. Each surgery claimed a little more of his ability to express his ideas is writing, but the surgeries did not appear to negatively impact his spoken language. I observed his use of literacy skills in science, math, history, and the arts, and I also observed how difficult it was for teachers to understand and accommodate the extremes in his literacy capabilities. For students at all grade levels, I began to see how unique the learning of literacy was, along with how much teachers needed to know and be able to do to teach literacy to diverse groups of learners.