We have all been reading the news about disappointing literacy rates in California, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic and online learning. Last month, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond announced a plan to improve literacy rates aimed at having all third graders in the state at reading level by 2026.
While this issue has made the news, it isn’t new. In fact, low literacy rates have been persistent and prevalent for decades, especially for students from low-income communities and students of color. Policymakers often exclusively focus on reading when addressing literacy gaps. However, research shows that writing skills help students become better readers and ultimately understand all subjects better.
On a national policy level, the critical importance of writing was underscored with the adoption of Common Core standards in 2010, which emphasize how writing must be taught and addressed across every subject area. Despite the focus on writing in the state standards, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2011 found that nationwide, only 27% of high school seniors and 10% of Black and Hispanic students are proficient in writing. In 2016, a national survey found that half of teachers felt that they did not have sufficient professional development to successfully implement the current writing standards. We know a focus on effective writing instruction is essential to any effort to improve literacy rates.
Whereas reading is knowledge, writing is agency, power and influence.
Writing not only helps students master new material, but it also serves as a tool for self-expression, reflection and community building. Writing can create new worlds and bring imagination to life. In a society that has historically devalued the voices of young people of color, writing empowers them to tell their own stories, succeed in school and career, engage in our national dialogue and become leaders in a global information economy. Writing skills are essential to building a just, equitable and democratic society where every voice matters.
In our research report, The Truth About Writing in America, we interviewed 19 experts in literacy education, including leading researchers, educators and writers, on the current state of writing education — its benefits as well as challenges. While the field has moved forward in some ways, many of the challenges remain. And while the data is daunting, we know that our students are capable of achieving so much more with the right support.
Let’s bring writing instruction front and center. From our conversations with the expert panel, we put forward four recommendations that policymakers and practitioners can follow to strengthen writing education:
- Redefine the classroom: Encourage and support students to continue writing anywhere, anytime, and on anything, and with any platform.
- Reunite reading and writing: Make the relationship between reading and writing explicit through discussion, examples and publishing student work. And start early.
- Identify teachers as writers: Establish communities of practice for teachers to learn, share and grow as writers.
- Level the playing field. Invest in responsive writing programming that meets the needs of students from low-income communities, students of color and English Learners.
As Hattie Bellino, a former 826 Valencia student, says, “My voice is important because my perspective and experiences have the power to shift my reality and my community’s reality towards equity.”
It is time to improve literacy WRITE NOW.
Bita Nazarian and Jaime Balboa are the executive directors of 826 Valencia and 826LA, nonprofit organizations dedicated to supporting under-resourced students ages 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills and to helping teachers inspire their students to write. Laura Brief is the CEO of 826 National.
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