Far too many of our children read below grade-level expectations, but there is a solution. The solution is a deep understanding of both decoding and creating meaning. While decoding is an understanding of the relationship between the smallest unit of writing and the smallest unit of sound, creating meaning is conceptual understanding of the words that one decodes.

 

Many students who appear to have reading issues actually have decoding and/or creating meaning issues. They might be able to decode (pronounce the words they read); however, they may be locked out of the meaning of a significant number of words in a given text, or both.

 

So the question becomes, what is the foundation of reading proficiency? My response to this critical question can help teachers, teacher leaders, school leaders, curriculum writers, and central office personnel produce educational experiences for children that are worthy of consumption.

 

The answer is remarkably simple: Decoding + Creating Meaning = Reading.

Students must have diagnostic and prescriptive (needs-based) learning opportunities across the grades and content areas characterized by opportunities to decode and encode fluently. Decoding is defined as understanding the relationship between the smallest unit of writing and the smallest unit of sound; that is, seeing written words and knowing, with automaticity, how to pronounce those words. Let us go back to decoding. To decode fluently, students must also understand the relationship between and among the: (a) 26 letters of the alphabet, (b) 44 phonemes and the seven categories of phonemes (i.e., the 18 single consonant sounds, the seven double consonant digraphs, the five short vowel sounds, the five long vowel sounds, the two other vowel sounds, the two vowel diphthongs, and the five vowel sounds influenced by the letter “r”), and (c) the 144 different ways to represent the phonemes in writing. Although there is some inconsistency in how phonemes are represented by their correlate graphemes, the knowledge needed to be able to decode at developmental expectations is finite, and therefore decoding can be taught to mastery.

 

When children can put these two together (decoding and creating meaning) on a simultaneous pathway, they are going to not only read at grade level expectations; they will go beyond it.

 

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

 

To learn more about our high-impact resources that provide direct support for these instructional practices, check out the Educational Epiphany K-12 Literacy Kit, an effective tool for improving literacy outcomes that can be easily integrated into your existing program of study.

 

To learn more about Dr. Dickey’s highly acclaimed professional book, The Integrated Approach to Student Achievement– Third Edition, and to learn more about our wide variety of groundbreaking products & services, download a copy of our new eCatalog today.

 

To hear Dr. Dickey and special guests speak about critical topics in literacy, leadership, and school improvement, be sure to subscribe to “The Epiphany Exchange” Podcast here! To connect directly with Dr. Dickey, feel free to call us at 410-258-6443 or email us at educationalepiphany@gmail.com

 

All children deserve access to instruction of the highest quality, taught in an environment fully conducive to the process of teaching and learning. And yet, equitable access to such instruction remains unrealized for millions of pupils nationwide. Likewise, teachers hear a common refrain, “Be sure that your instruction is more rigorous.” But what does that mean? Rigor has yet to be operationally defined for many teachers.

Daily instruction characterized by rote memory was widely accepted 30 years ago as rigorous, but fortunately views of instruction have shifted, and so must our collective approach to teaching and learning. So, how do we ensure that students have unfettered access to ‘rigorous’ instruction?

In order for the quality of instruction in schools and districts to be improved expeditiously, we must change how we think about student learning and the provision of standards-informed instruction. Developmentally appropriate rigor resides in the standards.

Students must be introduced to instruction that is designed to develop their conceptual understanding of academic language so that they can become authentic, active participants in the teaching and learning process by being able to move beyond regurgitation of information to independent ability to: (1) apply the knowledge and skills they have acquired in unique situations, (2) break information into its constituent elements [analyze] for the purpose of study or examination, (3) synthesize what they have gleaned from reading and observation opportunities, (4) generate evaluative statements about original works and the reasoning of others, and most importantly, (5) create new knowledge and new understandings for others to consume, evaluate, synthesize, analyze, and apply their knowledge and skills to. Rigorous instruction is symbiotic by nature.

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

For more of Dr. Dickey’s thoughts on this topic, read The Integrated Approach to Student Achievement– Third Edition. To find out more information about this book, our standards-informed instructional resources, and our wide variety of innovative products & services, check out our new product & services catalog at www.educationalepiphany.com/ecatalog. To hear Dr. Dickey and special guests speak about critical topics in literacy, leadership, and school improvement, be sure to subscribe to The Epiphany Exchange Podcast here! If you would like to connect with Dr. Dickey, feel free to call us at 410-258-6443, or email us at educationalepiphany@gmail.com.

Conceptual understanding of academic language is arguably the most significant accelerator of student achievement. But why is there such a lack of attention to conceptual understanding of language in classrooms all across the country? Resolving this pervasive issue is a matter of exposing educators to the value of effective strategies for building conceptual understanding, and infusing this essential practice into instructional planning, delivering, and feedback as a default. Oftentimes, we see this important practice as an “add-on” practice, but I earnestly encourage everyone to see it as an “essential” practice.

Let’s take a look at English/Language Arts as an example of the significance of academic language. There is a finite number of tier II universal terms that students will encounter as they read and perform tasks related to grade-level content. These terms are typically the same within grade bands (i.e., prek-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12), shifting somewhat in complexity between grades 2 and 3, between 5 and 6, and between 8 and 9.

Permit me to use grades 3-5 as an example. Essential tier II universal terms include, but are not limited to the following words and phrases:

analyze
author’s purpose
author’s argument
cite
claim
concept
compare
contrast
determine
key detail
format
identify
integrate
inference
main idea
media/medium
phrase
point of view
procedure
reasoning
textual evidence
text feature
text structure
topic
summary

Students should be exposed to a single, operational definition of these universal terms so that they can subsequently and readily transfer their knowledge of the words across content areas and grade bands as they read, think, write, take formative assessments, and sit for annual standardized assessments that will undoubtedly use the aforementioned words.

The approach to teaching these universal terms and their definitions must become “transdisciplinary.” In order to become transdisciplinary, students must be consistently exposed to instruction that ensures the use of operational definitions that transfer across disciplines (content areas) so that students are able to demonstrate that they are “literate” irrespective of discipline. No longer can we use what some folks refer to as “kid-friendly” language as definitions of these key universal terms. “Kid friendly” is often a low expectation code for watered-down and misaligned with the standards. I would argue that it is unfriendly to kids to refrain from exposing them to the academic language of the standards, knowing well that these words will be used to pose the questions that can subsequently lock them out of proficiency and close doors in their face for years to come.

Likewise, educators should ensure that students have deep conceptual understanding of tier III vocabulary/academic language. Tier III academic language includes words that students will encounter while reading content-specific texts in an individual discipline, such as: metamorphosis, mitosis, and meiosis in a science course; or words such as: emancipation, declaration, egalitarian, and monarch in a social studies course; or words such as: gestalt, impressionism, and panoramic in an art history course. Deep conceptual understanding of tier III words is the bridge to content mastery.

To the detriment of student outcomes and in far too many classrooms, instruction on a particular concept begins and ends without students ever being exposed to the words and definitions of the words that comprise the content. How can this be? Without exception, the predecessor of content mastery is deep conceptual understanding of the academic language of the content. And by the way, asking students to copy the content-related vocabulary words from the back of the textbook is passé and does not build students’ deep conceptual understanding of unfamiliar words and phrases. The same is true for asking students to use a vocabulary word in a sentence in order to assess their deep conceptual understanding of a word or phrase. It is also worth adding that vocabulary language development is not about a “word of the day.” These practices seldom result in the language being engrafted into students’ academic lexicon.

Here is the epiphany.

Students do not conceptually understand what they have read in multi-paged texts:

because they did not understand what they read on a particular page,
because they did not understand what they read in a particular paragraph,
because they did not understand what they read in a particular sentence, and
because they did not understand individual words or phrases as they encountered them in a given or self-selected text.

Vocabulary development is about consistently taking advantage of curriculum-driven and in-context reading opportunities to make sense of words, as opposed to treating vocabulary development as an instructional add-on, disconnected from an authentic reading, writing, or thinking opportunity.

Many students who appear to have reading issues, actually have meaning (conceptual understanding) issues. When they are locked out of the meaning of too many words in a given text, comprehension will not take place. In other words, when students do not associate sounds with written letter patterns and create meaning on a parallel pathway as the encounter texts, they are often unable to use the texts they consume to ascend the pyramid of cognitive demand (think critically) – which is one of the main purposes of reading, whether for literary experience or for the purpose of performing a task.

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

For more of Dr. Dickey’s thoughts on this topic, read The Integrated Approach to Student Achievement– Second Edition. To find out more information about this book, our Universal Language of Literacy cards, and other products & services, please visit our website: www.educationalepiphany.com. To hear Dr. Dickey and special guests speak about critical topics in literacy and education, subscribe to The Epiphany Exchange Podcast here! If you would like to connect with Dr. Dickey email us at educationalepiphany@gmail.com

As I prepare each morning to speak with superintendents, chief academic officers, and other district-level leaders through virtual and in-person presentations, there is an imperative that is always in the forefront of my mind. What is that imperative, you might ask? Illiteracy.

Though we have limited time in each day, we must all remain focused and diligent on this critically important topic that impacts millions of children.

As much as educators, business leaders, and philanthropic community purport to be advocates of literacy, we have yet as a nation to formalize and finalize two critical instructional leadership acts: (1) operationally define literacy and cement the constituent elements of a true, diagnostic and prescriptive approach to literacy development; and (2) make available to all teachers the tools and training they desperately need to help their students to read consistent with developmental expectations and beyond.

What does it mean to be literate? How is literacy being defined in your district? How do we describe the finish line that we want students to cross? How do we know when students have crossed it? And by the way, literacy attainment cannot be defined by Lexile score or a standardized test score.

Literacy is characterized by a set of behaviors. A successful reader demonstrates three distinct behaviors, with automaticity — without being prompted.

A literate individual can (1) decode or pronounce words fluently and encode or spell fluently; (2) go beyond decoding and encoding and make sense of words conceptually; and (3) consume a variety of informational and literary texts and consequently engage in an evidence-based conversation about texts through speaking and writing.

With literacy and literacy outcomes defined, I have just a few more questions. Has your district identified and provided teachers with the resources and training they need to successful get their students to the literacy finish line? We must. Too much is at stake.

What are these resources?

I strongly believe that teachers must have unfettered access to key “reading to learn” materials necessary to transfer knowledge related to: (1) the relationships between and among the 26 letters, 44 phonemes, 144 graphemes; (2) word families (3) sight words; (4) Latin and Greek word parts; and (5) point of use annotation. It is equally  critical that teachers have access to “reading to learn” resources aligned to grade-level expectations so that students have opportunities to learn the universal concepts of literacy (i.e., citing textual evidence, inferencing, determining main topic, determining main idea, summarizing, identifying text structures, determining author’s purpose, analyzing author’s argument).

What about training? Teaching children to read is as much as science as it is an art. Once teachers understand the science that underpins the process of effective teaching of reading, their unique and artful approaches will emerge and children will not only meet expectations, they will exceed them.

If we want to build teachers’ knowledge and capacity relative to the science and art of teaching children to read, training cannot be episodic. It must be ongoing, personalized, and deliberative. America, let’s align our human and capital resources with our goals and objectives for literacy.

For more of Dr. Dickey’s thoughts on this topic, read The Integrated Approach to Student Achievement– Second Edition. The book is available exclusively on our website: www.educationalepiphany.com. To hear Dr. Dickey and special guests speak about critical topics in literacy and education, subscribe to The Epiphany Exchange Podcast here! If you would like to connect with Dr. Dickey email us at educationalepiphany@gmail.com

School is one of the most influential systems in a child’s ecology and it is that ecology that almost irrevocably shapes a child’s subsequent disposition toward learning and the pursuit of new knowledge.

So imagine this – a child eager to explore, willing to take risks, enthusiastic about engaging his/her peers, and earnestly willing to respond to prompts from teachers. Image this same eager beaver experiences schooling experiences constructed day after day, year after year by adults who have made a series uninformed judgments and decisions about this learner’s intellectual capacity based, even partially, on his/her race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, family structure, or residential zip code.

Not one conscientious educator or policy maker reading this blog post would allow their offspring to be knowingly subjected to adults who would, even in the slightest, underserve their child for any of the aforementioned reasons. Yet every day, in America, children are too often met by adults who harbor low expectations for the same children whom they have taken a pledge to serve to the best of their ability. This assertions is far from true about the vast majority of educators in our nation, but if it is true about one of us, it is true about one too many.

And you know what?

Many of our children can sense the low expectations that adults have of them. They often know and can sometimes articulate how adults with low expectations make them feel, but are we listening? Equally disconcerting is the fact that many of our children do not have a mechanism for processing or confronting the intangible, low expectations to which they are subjected. So as a result, that same eager beaver can –

over time – turn inward, disengage, refused to be available emotionally to receive the education that they deserve and inadvertently their subsequent behavior reinforces the stereotypes projected upon them by the adults who should have known better than to judge children by their covers.

My scholarly research and experience as a teacher and school administrator (at the elementary, middle, and high school level) has shown me, without exception, that outside of expert-level knowledge of the content and effective delivery of instruction, the greatest catalysts of improvements in academic outcomes is a student-teacher relationship characterized by care, mutual respect, and high expectations. After all, the unit of change for student achievement and school improvement is not central office; it’s not a new textbook or basal; and it’s not even a new set of statewide curricular standards. The unit of change for student achievement and school improvement is the classroom. It’s where the real magic of school improvement takes transpires.

Wanting to better understand the impact of student-teacher relationships and teacher expectations on student achievement, I extensively interviewed eight African American middle school boys in a high-poverty, urban middle school in the Northeast. Each pupil reported the existence of a strong relationship between respectful interactions, high expectations, and their demonstrated ability to achieve academically. Without reluctance, the boys explicitly stated that it was their teachers who had the greatest effect on their desire and subsequent ability to achieve academically.

Note: [I have used aliases to protect the identity of the students who participated in the research].

Anthony and Andrew were specific about how their teachers motivated them to achieve academically. They described the motivating force as teachers’ concern for them as students. Anthony stated,

“The teachers care about your learning. They want you to get it. I know the teachers and they know me. They make me pay attention. They get on me [when I don’t]. They tell me to stay focused and pay attention.”

Andrew argued vehemently, “They give you a chance to do better…to hand in your work even if you are absent. They care. They make sure that you know what you need to know and need to have in your head. And even if the work is hard, they tell you that you can do it if you try.”

When asked to identify and discuss that which has the greatest influence on his desire to achieve, Earnest said without hesitation, “It’s the teachers. They make you want to learn.” Harold responded similarly, “The teachers make me want to achieve. They care about your attendance.” When asked how the adults in their classrooms regarded them, the boys overwhelmingly described their teachers’ treatment of them with one phrase—“With respect.” The boys also argued that the respect they are shown held them accountable for their behaviors and academic performance and subsequently required them to interact with the teachers in a comparable fashion.

Anthony said, “The teachers treat me with respect. That makes me want to allow them to teach what they have to teach. The respect that they show me requires me to do their work. It makes me want to hear what they have to say and teach. If I ruin the respectful relationship, the teacher will care less.”

On the same accord, Keith said, “The teachers treat me with respect. If I am doing something wrong, they tell me. Then I will straighten up. They take me to the side to correct me. They don’t put me on the spot to embarrass me. That helps me to get back on track and keep on learning. It makes me want to show respect back by learning and not talking or interrupting.”

Charles agreed saying, “The teachers are respectful. They don’t say bad stuff to me. They tell me ‘good job’ when I do well and if I am acting up, they correct me, which makes me want to learn from my mistakes and do well in school.”

Daniel offered this quote to explain how a caring, respectful, teacher with high expectations translates into willingness to learn, “They treat me with respect and fairness… no difference in how boys and girls are treated. Since they don’t take sides, I can learn from them and participate in class.” When describing how his relationships with teachers influence his desire to achieve academically, Harold said, “They are nice and welcoming. They say good morning and good to see you. They even hug you. And because I look up to them, that makes me want to come to school every day and learn more.”

Earnest responded similarly, saying, “They treat me well and it impacts my grades because they treat me so well that it makes me want to achieve.” Lastly, Andrew stated, “The teachers have manners. They don’t do bad things to students. When they [the teachers] treat you well and believe in you, it makes you think that you can do well on a test.”

So here is the educational epiphany.

In short, the middle school boys with whom I spoke, overwhelmingly linked student-teacher relationships and high teacher expectations to their willingness and capacity to achieve academically. They reported that because teachers were caring, respectful and believed in their intellectual capacity to achieve, it became incumbent upon them to: (a) respond in-kind by engaging in instruction authentically; (b) refrain from engaging in disruptive behaviors; and (c) demonstrate the acquisition of new knowledge and skills whether through classwork, homework, or performance on quizzes and tests.

The boys also regarded the constant reminders to focus and remain focused as useful and reflective of their teachers’ concern for their wellbeing. Equally significant is the notion suggested by the boys that their teachers’ high classroom expectations transferred to expectations in non-classroom settings reinforcing the importance of exercising executive functioning to maximize access to instructional time. Lastly, the boys described a link between the quality and rigor of classwork and homework and high teacher expectations. The boys purported that their classwork and homework assignments supported their abilities to perform academically, think critically, and problem solve as opposed to regurgitate information in the same form it was presented by the teacher. They believed that access to this level of instruction was directly connected to their teachers’ belief in their intellectual capacity to do the work, which fueled their engagement and drive to achieve.

For more on my research on the link between high expectations and student achievement, read chapter 1 of The Integrated Approach to Student Achievement – Second Edition. It is available exclusively on our website – www.educaitonalepiphany.com.

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

Conceptual understanding of academic language is arguably the most significant accelerator of student achievement. But why is there such a lack of attention to conceptual understanding of language in classrooms across our nation? It’s a matter of exposing educators to the value of and strategies for building conceptual understanding and infusing the essential practice into instructional planning, delivering, and feedback as a default, rather than as an annoying, top-down add-on.

Let’s take a look at English/Language Arts as an example of the significance of academic language. There is a finite number of tier II vocabulary words that students will encounter as they read and perform tasks related to grade-level content. These vocabulary words are typically the same words within grade bands (i.e., prek-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12), shifting somewhat in complexity between grades 2 and 3, between 5 and 6, and between 8 and 9.

Permit me to use grades 3-5 as an example. Essential tier II vocabulary words include, but are not limited to the following words and phrases:

  •     analyze
  •     author’s purpose
  •     author’s argument
  •     cite
  •     claim
  •     concept
  •     compare
  •     contrast
  •     determine
  •     key detail
  •     format
  •     identify
  •     integrate
  •     inference
  •     main idea
  •     media/medium
  •     phrase
  •     point of view
  •     procedure
  •     reasoning
  •     textual evidence
  •     text feature
  •     text structure
  •     topic
  •     summary

Students should be exposed to a single, operational definition of these vocabulary words so that they can subsequently and readily transfer their knowledge of the words across content areas and grade bands as they read, think, write, take formative assessments, and sit for annual standardized assessments that will undoubtedly use the aforementioned words.

The approach to teaching these vocabulary words and their definitions must become “transdisciplinary.” In order to become transdisciplinary, students must be consistently exposed to instruction that ensures the use of operational definitions that transfer across disciplines (content areas) so that students are able to demonstrate that they are “literate” irrespective of discipline. No longer can we use what some folks, with low expectations, refer to as “kid-friendly” language as definitions of these key vocabulary words. “Kid friendly” is often low expectation code for watered-down and misaligned with the standards. I would argue that it is unfriendly to kids to refrain from exposing them to the academic language of the standards, knowing well that these words will be used to pose the questions that can subsequently lock them out of proficiency and close doors in their face for years to come.

Likewise, educators should ensure that students have deep conceptual understanding of tier III vocabulary/academic language. Tier III academic language includes words that students will encounter while reading content-specific texts in an individual discipline, such as: metamorphosis, mitosis, and meiosis in a science course; or words such as: emancipation, declaration, egalitarian, and monarch in a social studies course; or words such as: gestalt, impressionism, and panoramic in an art history course. Deep conceptual understanding of tier III words is the bridge to content mastery.

To the detriment of student outcomes and in far too many classrooms, instruction on a particular concept begins and ends without students ever being exposed to the words and definitions of the words that comprise the content. How can this be? Without exception, the predecessor of content mastery is deep conceptual understanding of the academic language of the content. And by the way, asking students to copy the content-related vocabulary words from the back of the textbook is passé and does not build students’ deep conceptual understanding of unfamiliar words and phrases. The same is true for asking students to use a vocabulary word in a sentence in order to assess their deep conceptual understanding of a word or phrase. It is also worth adding that vocabulary language development is not about a “word of the day.” These practices seldom result in the language being engrafted into students’ academic lexicon.

Here is the epiphany. 

Students do not conceptually understand what they have read in multi-paged texts:

  •     because they did not understand what they read on a particular page(s),
  •     because they did not understand what they read in a particular paragraph(s),
  •     because they did not understand what they read in a particular sentence(s), and
  •     because they did not understand individual words or phrases as they encountered them in a given or self-selected text.

Vocabulary development is about consistently taking advantage of curriculum-driven and in-context reading opportunities to make sense of words, as opposed to treating vocabulary development as an instructional add-on, disconnected from an authentic reading, writing, or thinking opportunity.

Many students who appear to have reading issues, actually have meaning (conceptual understanding) issues. When they are locked out of the meaning of too many words in a given text, comprehension will not take place. In other words, when students do not associate sounds with written letter patterns and create meaning on a parallel pathway as the encounter texts, they are often unable to use the texts they consume to ascend the pyramid of cognitive demand (think critically) – which is one of the main purposes of reading, whether for literary experience or for the purpose of performing a task.

For more of Dr. Dickey’s thoughts on this topic, read chapter 4 of The Integrated Approach to Student Achievement– Second Edition. The book is available exclusively on our website: www.educationalepiphany.com.

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

Need some inspiration for your day? Check out the conversation with @DonyallD on the #3PsinaPod Podcast. Listen closely as they dive into student achievement, instructional leadership, opportunity gaps, and far more! Listen: bit.ly/3psinapod  #edchat @ScholasticEd #Arizonaed #edpod

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D. is the lead author for Scholastic Literacy and Chief Executive Officer of Educational Epiphany. For more, follow him on Twitter @DonyallD.

During my career as a teacher, principal and district administrator, I have seen firsthand that many secondary students experience difficulty reading. Why is this? In trying to answer this crucial question, I’ve come to propose that secondary literacy development must be at the center of districtwide improvement efforts.

To confirm my hypothesis and help school and district leaders to formulate authentic, pre-K–12 literacy development action plans, I made it an effort to engage with elementary, middle school, and high school children across the country for the purpose of having them read to me while I noted their miscues for strategic analysis. Literacy experts refer to this data collection process and instrumentation methodology as taking a “running record,” which should be utilized every 6 to 8 weeks with children who are striving to read fluently.

One student I met in particular stood out for me and I am forever marked by my interaction with him. He is a high school upperclassman who said a few words to me that I will not easily forget.

He said, “Dr. Dickey, I have never liked to read because I am not good at it, but I will read for you if it will help you to help other kids.” He continued, “I don’t read well because I see the letters on the page, but I don’t know how to say them.”

What was the 15-year-old trying to tell me?

He was simply trying to tell me that he has difficulty decoding. He was trying to tell me that he does not understand the relationship between the smallest unit of writing and the smallest unit of sound. He was trying to tell me that he is unfamiliar with the relationship between the 26 letters in the alphabet, the 44 correlate phonemes (sounds that the 26 letters make), and the 144 graphemes (total number of ways to represent or spell the 44 phonemes).

This 15-year-old was trying to tell me that he never attained phonemic awareness, nor did he master phonics—the ability to correlate sounds with letters or groups of letters in the alphabetic writing system. He was trying to tell me tell me that he doesn’t know what sounds are produced when he sees letters and letter combinations in writing.

Unfortunately, he is not alone. I meet children everyday with this same debilitating and pervasive academic deficit.

My time spent with this student and current empirical research supports the argument that if most of his “during-reading brain power” is focused on decoding, that it will be very unlikely that he will be able to subsequently: (1) recall what he reads, (2) conceptually understand what he reads, and (3) use what he reads to ascend the pyramid of cognitive demand (i.e., think critically, write effectively).

For instance, as he read to me, he paused several times with a look of fear and embarrassment on his face, noting, “I told you that I am a terrible reader Dr. Dickey.” Each time, I allayed his concerns and took note of when he paused to express his feelings about reading. Without exception, each instance was correlated with: (1) his inability to decode, (2) understand what he was reading, and (3) use what he was reading to make sense of what the author of the text was attempting to communicate to him as the reader.  His “during-reading brain power” was in a constant state of imbalance and he knew it, which resulted in never-ending frustration about reading and ultimately impacted his academic confidence.

Imagine this student’s daily experience for 180 days, each year, in school. Imagine having to sit in English, social studies, science, or even a mathematics course each day, week, and month besieged by the paralyzing fear of being called upon to read aloud.

Unfortunately, each day, millions of children are sitting in our secondary classrooms with the same anxieties and incapacitating knowledge gaps. As a result, children who most need access to high-quality instruction are locked out by action and inaction of the very institution that was designed to, with all deliberate speed, give them what they need to thrive.

Permit me to issue a call to public educators who serve in the interest of children and families! Let us separate ourselves from the busy work of school and district leadership; that work will always be par for the course. Let us focus on the cornerstone of student achievement, which is literacy development. Let us, once and for all, refrain from “rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic” in the name of school reform. Instead, let us meet them where they are with what they actually need.

As I have maintained, my volunteer readers’ knowledge and ability gaps are not uncommon. In whichever state I find myself supporting schools and districts, it is widely known that vast numbers of children read multiple grade levels below developmental expectations, with poor and minority children at the bottom of every distribution. How long are we going to sit with this problem? We have to solve it with a finite number of actionable, measurable, and replicable commitments to our children.

What are those commitments?

  1. Provide teachers and everyone on our students’ instructional bench with ongoing training on delivering and supporting pre-K–12 instruction characterized by attention to phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, fluency, and comprehension strategies
  2. Know and make strategic use of each student’s data and develop an informed plan of action to fill any and all gaps. No child should be permitted to languish in illiteracy; and
  3. Ensure that each member of our students’ ecosystem exercises “instructional due care” by never allowing a single child to be underserved—not even for a moment.

Now, let us collectively produce a schooling experience for our children that is worthy of consumption. After all, underperformance is not about the zip code. Underperformance is about the instruction in the zip code.

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D. is the lead author for Scholastic Literacy and Chief Executive Officer of Educational Epiphany. For more, follow him on Twitter @DonyallD.

Dr. Donyall Dickey, Ed.D. will lead a keynote session at the National Alliance of Black School Educators 47th Annual Conference in Dallas, TX. For more information and to register, visit: https://www.nabse.org/conference-registration.

All children deserve access to instruction of the highest quality, taught in an environment fully conducive to the process of teaching and learning. And yet, equitable access to such instruction remains unrealized for millions of pupils nationwide. Likewise, teachers hear a common refrain, “Be sure that your instruction is more rigorous.” But what does that mean? Rigor has yet to be operationally defined for many teachers.

Daily instruction characterized by rote memory was widely accepted 30 years ago as rigorous, but views of instruction have shifted, and so must our collective approach to teaching and learning. So, how do we ensure that students have unfettered access to ‘rigorous’ instruction?

In short, in order for the quality of instruction in schools and districts to be improved, we must change how we think about student learning and the provision of standards-informed instruction. Developmentally appropriate rigor resides in the standards.

Students must be introduced to instruction that is designed to develop their conceptual understanding of academic language and concepts so that they can independently: (1) apply the knowledge they have acquired, (2) analyze information, (3) synthesize what they have learned, (4) evaluate the content, and most importantly, (5) create new knowledge and new understandings for others to consume.

By changing our expectations for all students, we can remove the biases that create inequities in instruction. The most significant predictor of underperformance is the absence of common instructional language and tools. This absence inhibits the provision and facilitation of rigorous, standards-informed instruction in our classrooms. But, there are tools available to help advance progress.

The core content standards for English language arts, mathematics, social studies, and science are dense in academic language. I believe it is unrealistic to expect the vast majority of our students—let alone students who are striving to read and comprehend at a level consistent with developmental expectations—to demonstrate proficiency without instruction that is  focused on a conceptual understanding of core content standards language.

There is an imperative that students and teachers, as well as those supporting and evaluating teachers, understand the terms that comprise each standard. We have work to do to ensure that students have equitable access to the academic language of the content standards. Why? Because the language of the assessment can be a chief barrier to improvements in student achievement.

For example, in grade 3 students are expected to determine the main idea of a text, recount its key details, and explain how those details support the main idea. But what does that mean to our students? And how do we ensure that every student under our care understands what this actually means?

Rigorous instruction aligned to the aforementioned standard should produce the following results:

  1. Students should be able to determine what the text is mostly about.
  2. Students should be able to distinguish between the main idea and the topic/subject of the text, which is too broad to be the main idea. “Too broad” as a concept must also be taught, and it must be associated with the topic of the text.

Students should be aware that:

  1. The main idea of the text is not always found in the first sentence of a text. In fact, it is seldom found there.
  2. In some cases the main idea is not stated at all.
  3. Key details are too narrow to be the main idea. “Too narrow” as a concept must be taught, and it must be associated with key details in the text.
  4. To support their determination of the main idea, students will need a great deal of practice with distinguishing between ancillary and important words or phrases. This will help them explain how the key details support the development of the main idea.

The language of the content standards is finite, so we can resolve the access gap by ensuring that:

  1. K–12 curricula includes operational definitions of Tier II (general) and Tier III (content-specific) academic language.
  2. Teachers and school leaders refrain from making assumptions about students’ knowledge of academic language. You might be surprised by the number of students who are not conversant in the academic language of the standards.
  3. Teachers refrain from watering down the academic language. Instead we should bring this language to the students. They can handle it.
  4. Teachers reinforce and reassess students’ understanding of the academic language for each day’s posted objective. When we relate information to students on Monday and ask them to recall it on Tuesday, we typically find that they did not retain the information. Reinforcing students’ knowledge of academic language cannot be done by simply using the unfamiliar word in a sentence or copying terms and definitions from a glossary. We need to embed it in our everyday conversations.

We need to provide educators and students across grade levels with tools that have common, agreed upon language built into them.

Supporting educators and staff with curricular materials that define important academic language in a single, streamlined way will result in students having much needed access to consistent definitions of these terms, without the conflation that is currently pervasive in daily instruction and assessment opportunities.

There is no substitute for coherent instructional materials aligned to the true and nuanced expectations of the standards. There is no shortcut to proficiency in English, mathematics, science, and social studies. There is but one pathway. Access.

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D. is the lead author for Scholastic Literacy and Chief Executive Officer of Educational Epiphany. For more, follow him on Twitter @DonyallD.

Because reading ability by the end of grade 3 has been empirically linked to important adult outcomes, literacy development is a national imperative and must be treated as such.

So the question becomes, what is the foundation of reading proficiency? My response to this critical question can help teachers, teacher leaders, school leaders, curriculum writers, and central office personnel produce educational experiences for children that are worthy of consumption.

The answer is remarkably simple: Decoding + Creating Meaning = Reading.

Students must have diagnostic and prescriptive (needs-based) learning opportunities across the grades and content areas characterized by opportunities to fluently decode and encode. Decoding is defined as understanding the relationship between the smallest unit of writing and the smallest unit of sound; that is, seeing written words and knowing, with automaticity, how to pronounce those words.

Encoding on the other hand, is the inverse. Encoding is defined as understanding the relationship between the smallest unit of sound and the smallest unit of writing. Having the ability to encode means hearing spoken words and, with automaticity, representing that in writing with appropriate letter combinations.

Let’s go back to decoding. To decode fluently, students must also understand the relationship between and among the: (a) 26 letters of the alphabet; (b) 44 phonemes and the seven categories of phonemes (i.e., the 18 single consonant sounds, the seven double consonant digraphs, the five short vowel sounds, the five long vowel sounds, the two other vowel sounds, the two vowel diphthongs, and the five vowel sounds influenced by the letter “r”); and (c) the 144 different ways to represent the phonemes in writing. Although there is some inconsistency in how phonemes are represented by their correlate graphemes, the knowledge needed to be able to decode at developmental expectations is finite and therefore decoding can be taught to mastery.

So how does creating meaning, defined as associating word parts with micro-units of meaning, influence the ability to read fluently?

The ability to read is contingent upon the ability to decode and create meaning on a simultaneous, parallel pathway. Students do not always create meaning with the same level of intensity and accuracy with which they decode, and vice versa. Many students who may appear to be illiterate, aren’t actually illiterate. They may be able to successfully decode (pronounce the words they encounter in text) but have difficulty conceptually understanding the words that they decode.

Reading is not just decoding. Reading is decoding and creating meaning at the same time with similar degrees of accuracy.

Ninety-seven percent of the words that students encounter when they read, irrespective of grade and content area, originate from 30 prefixes, 30 root words, and 30 suffixes. If given access to curriculum-driven opportunities to develop a calibrated understanding of these 90 commonly occurring word parts, students will become better able to create meaning as they read; that is, they will be able to move beyond saying the words on the page to actually understanding the words on the page. As a result, they will be able to read on grade level and beyond.

For example, when properly decoding the word “transportation,” a student pronounces each syllable of the word and blends the syllables into a fluently spoken word when they see it in writing (i.e., trans, por, ta, tion). Creating meaning is completely different pursuit, one that involves a reader’s ability to understand, with automaticity, the meaning of the prefix, root word, and suffix that comprise the word “transportation” (i.e., trans-, port-, -ation). Successful readers decode (pronounce) and create meaning (understand micro-meanings or parts of words) at the same time and rate.

So what is the instructional imperative? What is the leadership imperative? If students must: (a) understand the relationship between the smallest unit of writing and sound and (b) conceptually understand the micro-meanings or word parts to read at developmentally appropriate levels, then we as educators must strengthen the knowledge and capacity of our students’ instructional ecosystem to produce a “learning to read” teaching and learning experience worthy of consumption.

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D. is the lead author for Scholastic Literacy and Chief Executive Officer of Educational Epiphany. For more, follow him on Twitter @DonyallD.