Preschool students at Land School in Westminster

California is making many investments to support literacy development; however, it is not yet clear how these could add up to a comprehensive literacy approach. Many across the country have pointed to Mississippi as an exemplar of a state that has followed such a plan and has experienced the strongest growth in the country in early reading achievement — the only one to surpass California’s gains in fourth grade reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. When California ranked 48 in fourth grade reading in 2009, Mississippi ranked 46, and it has climbed to the national average within a decade. California’s progress, while steady, has been slower.

To be sure, Mississippi has relatively few English learners (about 15,000 in 2018, or 3% of the total) and has fewer pupils in total than Los Angeles Unified School District. It has also progressed more slowly than California in eighth grade reading and is ranked 43 in the country, while California is now 35. Nonetheless, it is instructive to see how it has approached the challenge of improving early literacy.

Like Massachusetts, our highest-achieving state, Mississippi has used the insights from research to establish the components of a robust, multifaceted literacy block for elementary students in kindergarten and first through fifth grade. These include the elements described in a recent synthesis of evidence from the science of reading, which notes that, in addition to explicit, systematic instruction that supports decoding, students benefit from rich conversations and books read aloud in the classroom and at home, by recruiting parents as partners; frequent reading of connected text that builds on existing knowledge (including the use of culturally relevant texts that increase reading fluency and motivation to read) and that develops background knowledge about the natural and social worlds; in-depth discussions about texts; and explicit teaching of comprehension strategies. Research also demonstrates that teaching students how to write and increasing how much they write improves their word reading, reading fluency and reading comprehension.

In addition to the elements of learning to read described above, research demonstrates that different readers need different things from teachers at different times if they are to make optimal progress in learning to read, so teachers must have the knowledge, skills, assessment tools and instructional resources that allow them to differentiate their practice.

In line with this research, Mississippi’s guidance for literacy teaching includes explicit daily instruction in foundational skills along with daily opportunities for extended writing, and for reading and discussing books while learning vocabulary and practicing comprehension. Far from the rote drill or scripted curriculum featured in caricatures of phonics instruction, Mississippi’s guidance specifies that worksheets should not be used with young children and most of this learning should happen in hands-on learning centers in each classroom that allow for differentiation of tasks depending on what students need.

Additionally, in Mississippi, classroom libraries offer decodable and leveled texts that students can choose according to their reading levels and interests. Teachers spend a small amount of time in whole class instruction and more of their time working with small groups on the skills they need, which is made possible by the fact that kindergarten and first grade classrooms of no more than 24 students are expected to include trained teaching assistants. Students are regularly assessed for progress and specific interventions are put in place for those who need them. The state, which has created a literacy division in its department of education, provides trained literacy coaches to high-need schools to offer job-embedded support to teachers, along with statewide professional development opportunities.

It’s not surprising that these early literacy practices are nearly identical to those found in a recent study of California “positive outlier” districts in which white, Black and Latino students outperform similar California students in English language arts and math on state assessments (Chula Vista, Clovis, Gridley, Hawthorne, Long Beach, San Diego, and Sanger). In addition, the districts studied include specific supports for English learners in a comprehensive approach to developing literacy that includes:

  • Explicit instruction in K-1 on foundational skills for all students and in later grades as needed.
  • Rich literacy environments in K-3 with read-alouds, guided reading, decodable and leveled texts that support cultural connections, and opportunities for writing in every grade.
  • Extensive speaking and listening opportunities for children in pair shares, guided reading discussions and collaborative work.
  • Connections between English language arts and English language development with teachers building on students’ home language and experiences and their cultural funds of knowledge.
  • Conscious integration of literacy work into all subject areas.
  • Ongoing classroom formative assessment to track students’ progress on decoding and comprehension skills, along with analysis of data to guide instruction.
  • Individual and small-group work with aides and reading specialists who are tapped as needed.
  • Extensive professional development, including cycles of inquiry in professional learning communities and teacher collaboration time focused on joint planning and problem-solving;
  • Literacy coaches and reading specialists who facilitate planning and professional development for teachers and administrators; support high-need students; and engage in demonstration lessons and mentoring.

The range of strategies used in these districts, as in Mississippi, makes it clear that there is no single silver bullet that can, by itself, solve the problem of reading failure. The single most important element, though, is teacher expertise. In a report on teacher preparation published by the International Dyslexia Association, reading researchers Susan Brady and Louisa Moats, described the type of training needed:

In addition to the emphasis on decoding the sound structure of words, a good teaching program will encompass comprehension and writing skills. … From the start, children should be “reading for meaning” … and interweaving of activities is inevitable and desirable. For example, the skilled teacher should be able to interpret the spelling errors produced during a writing activity, recognizing what kind of feedback or guidance about phoneme awareness would be instructive. … Providing this kind of insightful, flexible and informed instruction requires that teachers themselves receive systematic training about the conceptual requirements of becoming a reader, about the structure of spoken and written language, and about a variety of activities that would enable and augment the development of literacy. In short, teaching children to read is a task for an expert, and teacher preparation needs to be comprehensive enough to create such experts.

California has been working to improve its preparation programs in a variety of ways, including strengthening its licensing and accreditation standards for both general education and special education teachers; focusing further on standards for teaching reading and literacy development, incorporating training for supporting dyslexic students, and developing teacher performance assessments that have been found to predict teachers’ effectiveness in supporting literacy gains — with plans to upgrade the reading assessment required of all teacher candidates to reflect the actual ability to teach reading to students who may struggle, not just their ability to memorize definitions of reading terms.

California’s system is more decentralized than Mississippi’s, with local control over most education policies, as well as instructional materials and strategies, written into the Education Code (see sections 35160 and 60001). But our English language arts/English language development curriculum framework, which provides guidance to districts, and our guidance to teacher education programs reflect a similar science-grounded conception of literacy instruction, with the addition of evidence-based supports for English learners and biliteracy.

California’s next steps toward a comprehensive approach to literacy development should support stronger implementation of these frameworks for teaching and training by putting in place:

  • Instructional guidance: Develop clear models of practice for schools that illustrate how the elements of scientifically grounded literacy teaching for native English speakers and multilingual learners can be brought together in effective classroom strategies at each grade level.
  • Stronger teacher training: End the teacher shortage by continuing to subsidize high-quality preparation pathways for K-12 teachers, and add specific professional development grounded in the ELA/ELD framework, the new instructional guidance, and the teacher learning standards. Institute training for teaching assistants who can be placed in TK or the early grades.
  • Expert coaching: Strengthen practice in the highest-need schools, where student needs are acute and teachers are often underprepared, by expanding the number of trained literacy coaches and reading specialists.
  • Screening and intervention: Deploy the new University of California San Francisco multilingual screening tool to identify different sources of reading difficulties and provide information to teachers about how to support struggling readers, along with ongoing investments in and training for effective interventions, so that every school has the capacity to offer targeted support to children when and how they need it.

California is now on a path to making strong improvements in literacy for its diverse learners, and we must stay focused and purposeful to reach the destination.

This is the second of two commentaries on literacy in California by Linda Darling-Hammond. Read her first piece here: What it will take to ensure literacy for all California students.

For more coverage on this topic, please see: California’s Reading Dilemma.


Linda Darling-Hammond is president of the California State Board of Education and an adviser to Gov. Gavin Newsom. 

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Mark Rosenbaum and Michael Jacobs 9 months ago9 months ago

    California State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond’s commentary tiptoes over a systemic obstacle to improving literacy education in California’s public schools: local control. Absent stronger direction from Darling-Hammond and her State Board colleagues, California students will continue to fall victim to a literacy crisis that has serious long-term repercussions. Darling-Hammond recognizes that California can do better: • Educators know very well, from solid, reliable research, how to teach children to read—even those … Read More

    California State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond’s commentary tiptoes over a systemic obstacle to improving literacy education in California’s public schools: local control. Absent stronger direction from Darling-Hammond and her State Board colleagues, California students will continue to fall victim to a literacy crisis that has serious long-term repercussions.

    Darling-Hammond recognizes that California can do better:
    • Educators know very well, from solid, reliable research, how to teach children to read—even those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
    • Mississippi—yes, Mississippi—has applied that research, and its elementary school children are improving in reading and writing fluency faster than California’s. In fact, Mississippi’s fourth graders are now reading at the national average, while California’s are still below average.
    • Teaching decoding skills is key to successful reading instruction, along with other evidence-based tools like professional development, literacy coaches, and reading specialists.
    • California’s own “positive outlier” districts, which outperform otherwise similarly situated districts in English language arts, use the same approach to literacy instruction as Mississippi.

    So why haven’t all California districts adopted these winning approaches to literacy instruction? Why can’t we achieve high levels of literacy performance?

    Darling-Hammond offers this excuse: “California’s system is more decentralized than Mississippi’s with local control over most education policies, as well as instructional materials and strategies, written into the Education Code…”

    But what local control actually means is that each school district charts its own path—no matter how large or small, change-oriented or resistant to change, well-resourced or struggling, governed properly or mismanaged. Many districts just reject evidence-based strategies in favor of disproven methodologies.

    We challenged this decentralized, unaccountable approach when we sued California a few years ago over the state’s literacy crisis. We argued that the state has a non-delegable, constitutional duty to ensure that kids learn to read. We showed that even though the state has long known of this crisis, it had done little of substance to resolve it, leading to huge disparities that handicapped poor children of color. Sadly, the state’s response was, “We provide the money; school districts decide how to spend it.” The court rejected the state’s position and agreed with us, holding that “the State is ultimately responsible for public education.”

    In settling this lawsuit, the state adopted an evidence-based program—albeit sharply constrained in scope and resources—to challenge the poorest performing schools to upgrade their literacy education. One such school’s early success—Nystrom Elementary, in Richmond—was featured in EdSource (“Inside one California school’s approach to reading as a ‘civil right,’” October 4, 2021).

    Notwithstanding promising early signs of progress, the state hasn’t expanded this program beyond the initial schools. There are no carrots for districts that might accelerate the pace of change, and no sticks for continuing to fail our children. Accountability for results? Nope. The state favors local control even where it plainly isn’t working.

    Darling-Hammond acknowledges that it isn’t a lack of data or financial resources that is holding the state back. What is holding California back is a refusal by state-level officials to press for reforms and demand accountability.

    Literacy instruction in California isn’t changing fast enough. Our children need to learn to read now, or they will be forever hampered in reaching their full potential. We can’t let that happen.

    Mark Rosenbaum is director of Public Counsel’s Opportunity Under Law project. Michael Jacobs is a partner at Morrison Foerster LLP. They represented the plaintiffs in Ella T. v. State of California.

  2. Renae Skarin 9 months ago9 months ago

    Fantastic article covering all of the essential aspects of literacy development (not just foundational skills), not to mention reflecting the cultural and linguistic diversity of students in California’s classrooms. Thank you.