Better Literacy Will Close the Achievement Gap

The achievement gap is a literacy gap.

As a Teach for America corps member, one is reminded of this reality monthly through professional development presentations and analyses of student data. And as a public school teacher, one faces this reality daily in the classroom and during afterschool tutoring sessions. To say the achievement gap is a literacy gap is to suggest that literacy (reading, writing and oral communication) is the necessary building block for the acquisition of other knowledge, or in a similar vein, the underlying factor behind the gap between those students who perform well and those who fall behind.

If literacy is indeed fundamental, as numerous studies, teachers and educational reformers have found, then our nation is in trouble. In mid-September, the College Board released a report that revealed that our nation’s high school students performed at their lowest level on both the critical reading and writing sections of the SAT this year. While the most precipitous decline in these Critical Reading scores was recorded in the 1970s, we have never recovered from this drop. In a New York Times op-ed on the topic, E.D. Hirsch Jr., a prominent literary critic and educator, outlines the implication of this decline in scores. He states: “the average verbal score of 17-year-olds […] correlates with the ability to learn new things readily, to communicate with others and to hold down a job. It also predicts future income.” In short, literacy matters.

The question, then, is what to do. Policymakers, reformers, teachers, and parents have debated over the issue of literacy for years. Drawing on my experience in Teach for America, I would suggest a few critical improvements; all based on the idea that reading and communication skills center around phonological awareness, fluency, comprehension and vocabulary.

First, students should be grouped according to ability, not age, when teaching each aspect of reading. Some students acquire sounds and the idea that words can be separated into phonemes far more readily than they may, for example, acquire an extensive vocabulary, or vice versa. Students should be assessed and flexibly grouped according to these abilities in a way that takes into account the reality that students can be strong in one area and weaker in another. This grouping could occur within the same classroom. However, this strategy requires a highly-skilled teacher, usually with the assistance of a teaching assistant or volunteer. Another way to group students could be to re-arrange classrooms and level students during different parts of reading instruction.

Second, reading must be integrated across the curriculum. It is not enough to teach reading for two or three hours and then forget about reading strategies as we teach students math, science, and social studies. Reading is integral to these disciplines, and thus, these disciplines must incorporate reading strategies. Social Studies texts should be read not simply for content, but also for fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

Third, we have to talk with our students. My second year of teaching, I began holding conferences with my students. Each week, I would have a conference with at least a third of my students. Most of our time would be spent talking about writing – how we could construct stronger arguments, make our thoughts clearer, and make someone want to read our work. In addition, we would talk about school, life, aspirations and friends. I was amazed at how difficult it was for many of my students to express themselves. Initially, they struggled to tell me about their friends, what they dreamed about becoming when they were older, what exciting activities they wanted to do over the weekend. But, after modeling and setting expectations for oral communication, they soon opened up and were able to better express themselves verbally. This expressiveness translated directly into their written work and strengthened their comprehension of other texts and other people’s ideas.

The above recommendations are just a few strategies I garnered through discussions with my colleagues, observation and personal trial. They are by no means exhaustive; yet, they can be implemented immediately by teachers, parents and policymakers. The achievement gap is a literacy gap, and we better get started closing it.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.