Powering the Reading Revolution with Student Empowerment
I believe that many educators commit to this work because we want to make sure every child has a fighting chance regardless of their zip code, background, or exposure to rich language in the home environment. At the same time, students deserve to express their authentic selves in educational spaces. They also deserve access to research-backed and evidence-based literacy practices.
Statistics show that students who aren’t reading at grade level by the end of third grade have a higher risk for drug usage, incarceration, unemployment, and poverty. These behaviors correlate with not having access to build confidence in learning. We have the power to change students’ life trajectories, with literacy.
Considering student learning differences, the science of reading and equitable literacy instruction can be the keys to giving everyone a fair chance. Everyone should have access to learn how to read, which is why literacy is one of the revolutions of our time. With the science of reading as the roadmap and structured literacy as the vehicle, educators will have what they need to make that happen.
Here are a few ways that educators are empowering young readers no matter their background.
Honoring the Intersectionality Between Learners
I used to work for a clinic as a learning lab clinician. I worked with students with dyslexia, some of whom were also dual-language students. Some students were undiagnosed, some had a lack of access to functional literacy in their home through intergenerational illiteracy. There’s often an intersectionality that exists within our students: everyone is arriving at the classroom with different backgrounds, different experiences, and a different set of tools.
There’s a lot of talk about how the science of reading can honor students’ home language because we, as educators, need to show students that their home language/dialect isn’t wrong just because it’s different from what they hear in school. When I talk about people who are learning English, I refer to them as “dual-language learners” or “multilingual learners” because I don’t think we should prioritize one language over another; they all serve a purpose. In many spaces, it’s a benefit to be bilingual.
The science of reading, partnered with an awareness of diversity within the English language will help meet learners where they are. There are a variety of dialects within American English. There’s a purpose for home language—it’s to convey meaning and build connections within cultures. For example, African-American English can use a variety of sentence structures and word order to convey meaning. Also, a variation in language can be based on regionality. For example, the use of “pop” versus “soda.” In classroom instruction, the science of reading can show young learners, “When we decode and encode, this is what it looks and sounds like.” Honoring home language allows students to make connections to words they’ve heard in their home environment and tie their background knowledge (schema) to words they learn in the classroom. This will give all students a better chance to become strong readers.
Promoting Commitment over Compliance
I sometimes think about students as children who will eventually become adults. Like us, they want to feel like their choices are being considered. Imagine if, as an adult, you started a new job and your boss said, “Your seat is right here and you’ll stay here—don’t move. You can only eat lunch at this time.” When I was an elementary school teacher, I allowed flexible seating in my classroom. Students had a chance to stand and lean in the back or sit on a bean bag or the floor. I believe those rigid frames don’t really serve students well.
Educators can give their students a voice and a choice in the classroom. For example, instead of having a bulleted list of rules students have no input on, host a collaborative session and make classroom agreements as a group. Students can contribute based on their values, desired experience, and what they think would work for them (within reason).
I value commitment over compliance. Commitment fosters engagement and an eagerness to contribute. On the other hand, compliance—enforcing rigid rules—doesn’t free students’ minds to thrive. Compliance encourages students to do the bare minimum and follow the rules. Commitment allows students to show up as their full selves and live up to their true potential. I see this commitment show up as critical thinking and inquisitiveness.
Inspiring lifelong readers involves incorporating receptive and expressive processes. The receptive processes are listening and reading, and the expressive processes are writing and speaking. How can we expect children to complete a writing task but not give them opportunities to talk the talk? This is why it is important to allow student voice and choice in the classroom environment.
Validating Students through Diverse Representation
The author Rudine Sims Bishop says all books are either mirrors where children can see themselves reflected, windows to offer views of worlds real or imagined, or sliding glass doors children can walk through to become part of the world. As technology advances and is more readily available to students, reading can be used as a tool to build empathy for a society that can easily become desensitized based on current events. By reading materials that represent different groups, students can build their confidence by seeing themselves in main characters. By different groups, that includes a variety of books that depict characters from diverse cultures, races, ability levels, familial structures, religions, and more.
Data from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that 10 percent of children’s picture books depict Latinx students, 9 percent are about Black students, 15 percent are about Asian students, and about 2 percent are about Indigenous students. Educators can build a diverse classroom with different authors and illustrators that mirror the world inside and outside their classroom.
In structured literacy instruction, we use special books with decodable text. Decodable text includes stories with words and sentences that follow a phonetic pattern, partnered with high frequency words that students have been explicitly taught. Decodable stories should depict a variety of students in each story to continue to promote diversity within classroom materials. Students can practice phonics skills, apply knowledge from the direct instruction lesson, and still gain both empathy and reading confidence.
By honoring student backgrounds, promoting opportunities for student commitment, and offering diverse representation in student reading materials, educators can work to build confident, lifelong readers.
About the author
Yvette Manns is a former elementary teacher, instructional coach, children’s book author, and education consultant. She now works as an education specialist at Reading Horizons. She can be reached at email@example.com.