The lead picture on the front page of this Sunday’s New York Times is a group of kindergartners sitting on the floor of their classroom holding up tiny dry-erase boards with words on them. Underneath is the headline “Taking a Fresh Look at the ABCs of Reading: A revolt over how children are taught to read is sweeping classrooms, school boards, and statehouses around the country.”
I turn to page eighteen as directed. Here’s what I see:
The New York Times article highlights a debate regarding the science of reading that started gaining mainstream traction with the American Public Media podcast “Sold a Story” researched and told with great historical context by Emily Hanford. The podcast, and this article, focus on the rise of Balanced Literacy.
The concept, which focuses heavily on cueing strategies, was popularized about two decades ago by Lucy Calkins, the founding director of Columbia’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. In short, the program de-emphasized decoding and phonics for context clues using pictures and asking “what feels right” in this space, among other techniques.
This pedagogy has come under great scrutiny after being found to be ineffective by multiple studies and potentially contributing to the decline of literacy rates nationwide. Some have called the issue of declining literacy rates a civil rights, even a constitutional rights, issue, notably the N.A.A.C.P.
A 2016 civil rights case filed by six students at Detroit Public Schools alleges that myriad issues “deprived them of their right to access literacy.” The case was seen as a bellwether to potentially making literacy a constitutional right under the Fourteenth Amendment.
In May 2020 the case was settled with a multimillion-dollar payout to the plaintiffs, with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the ability to read and write is “essential” for a citizen to participate in American democracy. This case was never front-page news in The New York Times in the years between when it was filed in 2016 and settled in 2020, given that a federal court had essentially stated that students have a constitutional right to adequate education – it should have been.
“Adequate” education starts with being able to read. And no one technique is a slam dunk.
WITS agrees that literacy is a basic human right and must be equally and equitably accessible and funded for every person in our country. In Chicago, we are championing this cause as the largest provider of literacy enrichment programming in Chicago elementary schools.
I often talk about how we, you, literate readers, reading this blog right now, read without even thinking. It is as natural as breathing to us. The reality is, that is not the case for most six- and seven-year-olds in this country that are at the cusp of making the transition from learning to read to reading to learn.
As WITS returned to in-person programming this past fall our students had lost substantial ground against previous gains. According to Advance Illinois’ report “The State We’re In 2022,” only twenty-eight percent of CPS fourth graders are proficient in reading.
That is down from forty percent in 2019. Forty percent in our book is still unacceptable, as we believe that reading is the foundation on which all other learning develops. It is also unlikely that most students will “catch up” without a multitude of layered interventions and enrichment opportunities.
WITS programming is unique and impactful in how it is grounded in exposing youth to high-interest texts that reflect their experiences and the consistent practice that it takes to read. Each week mentors from Chicago corporations and surrounding communities sit with students and help them develop foundational literacy skills in a safe and welcoming environment.
This matters. Reading Matters.
Chicago Public Schools new Skyline curriculum is one example of reading science pedagogy, that uses multiple proven literacy techniques including a strong phonics and decoding foundation. In fact, anyone can download and review lesson plans. WITSKindergarten, Mid-Day Mentoring, and Workplace Mentoring are important partners to strong daily literacy instruction provided by CPS educators. It requires all of us to ensure that our students in the fourth largest school district in the country receive an excellent, not just adequate, education. Consistent supportive adult relationships are a key component of that. We know that sixty-three percent of students affected by WITS programming outperform the national average in yearly reading level growth. This year we will be embarking on our first independent external evaluation to identify what aspects of our programming are most influential in building foundational literacy skills and develop internal evaluation tools to consistently improve our program model.
By supporting our programming, you ensure that we can continue this critical work. I hope that in twenty years, nearly fifty years after our founding, WITS is no longer needed because our community has led the way in activating what it means to make sound and supportive literacy education a reality for all students.
I hope that you will become part of this moment and email me, directly, to learn how you can be part of the holistic solution to rebuilding literacy education as we partner with and support our CPS students and educators.