In this month’s Learning Series, we’ll be sharing information on early literacy development and how families can help build these critical foundational skills. It’s a timely subject! The ongoing debate regarding how children acquire literacy skills seems to have reached a new plateau, prompted in part by last fall’s NAEP scores showing declines in reading achievement for students in most of the country.
The widely used Balanced Literacy approach and accompanying Units of Study curriculum developed by Columbia professor Lucy Calkins has been highlighted as a possible culprit. While Units of Study is celebrated by teachers for its ease of use in the classroom and focus on instilling a love of reading, it has received sharp criticism for not emphasizing foundational literacy skills. Other critics argue that the Balanced Literacy approach, which gives teachers and students more freedom to choose their own reading materials, is less equitable. Affluent students entering school with more content knowledge use this knowledge to understand complex texts more readily than disadvantaged students. In response, state and local education systems have begun to shift focus toward developing skills, like phonemic awareness, while building students’ content knowledge. It’s a mammoth effort (to say the least) that requires fundamental changes in teacher preparation, curriculum, and teacher coaching and support.
When I look at the literacy debate I wonder, “What does it mean for parents?”
The debate means that parents will need help grappling with conflicting information. For example, during the rise of the Balanced Literacy approach parents also began to hear that it is more important for students to read what they like than asking them to read more challenging material and risk turning them off to learning. Parents are still guided to use tools like the “five finger rule” when picking books for their children, even when such tools directly contradict new learning standards that require students to interpret complex texts. As a result, schools, community partners, out-of-school service providers, and learning apps may all be sending mixed messages about how parents can and should support their child’s reading.
Organizations in Oakland, CA are tackling this issue head-on by strengthening the critical relationships between families, community groups, and schools. The Oakland Literacy Coalition (OLC), comprised of 20 community partners (including Family Engagement Lab), offers regular workshops, data sharing, and training on best practices in literacy to its membership. The advocates of Oakland REACH, in partnership with the NAACP, are mobilizing thousands of parents and successfully driving instructional changes in Oakland Unified School District through the Literacy for All initiative.
Schools making the shift to emphasizing foundational literacy skills and content knowledge should also consider how families and community partners are supporting efforts to help more children learn to read, and soon, read to learn. While planning these shifts, take a moment to evaluate whether your partners are supporting (or contradicting) your new approach. If you find there are no strategies in place to inform families as you implement a new curriculum, then consider adopting tools like FASTalk to share tips and learning activities aligned to your curriculum.
I’m curious to hear from you. How are you approaching literacy instruction? How are you partnering with families and community organizations to help more kids read? Join the conversation on Twitter at @FamilyELab or Facebook at @ilovefastalk.