What does it mean to support literacy development?

In October, I was preparing to take the stage to facilitate a keynote speech at the National Scholastic Literacy Summit in National Harbor, Maryland. I addressed hundreds of superintendents, chief academic officers, and other district-level leaders concerned with an issue that plagues public education: illiteracy.

With only an hour to deliver the speech on such an important topic that could subsequently impact millions of children, I thought it would be worthwhile and meaningful  to leave a memorial of the conversation informed by more than 20 years on the ground replicating significant gains in student outcomes.

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 literacy development program of study; 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 a evidence-based conversations 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.

Donyall D. Dickey, Ed.D.

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