California's Reading Dilemma

EdSource Special Report

The youngest readers tackle sounds, words and the science of reading

Above: Teacher Jennifer Dare Sparks conducts a reading lesson in her third/fourh class at Ethel I. Baker Elementary School in Sacramento last June. Photo credit: Randall Benton / EdSource

The 70 schools engaged in new efforts to teach early literacy

Click on each dot for the name of the participating school. The four larger dots will take you to stories from those schools.
Map designed by Yuxuan Xie
Source: Sacramento County Office of Education

In the words of Frederick Douglass, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

In EdSource’s next installment of “California’s Reading Dilemma,” we take you inside the classroom at four high-poverty schools fighting to free their students from illiteracy.  These schools are one year into an ambitious three-year program to overhaul reading instruction for the youngest learners. The project is funded by a $50 million settlement from a lawsuit accusing the state of denying these children their civil right to literacy.

This is the front line of the literacy crisis in a state where less than half of all third graders could read at grade level in 2019, long before the pandemic sent test scores plummeting. The statistics are far direr for children of color, with two-thirds of Black children and 61% of Latino children unable to read at grade level.  At some high-poverty California schools, less than 10% of the children could read at grade level.

Come along for a deep dive into how four of the 70 lowest-performing schools in the state are trying to change their students’ lives.  They are struggling to overhaul reading instruction in the face of poverty, stress and the myriad traumas triggered by the pandemic.

We talked to teachers about the critical role of phonics, the science of reading and what brain research tells us about how children best learn to read. We met students sitting cross-legged on rainbow-hued carpet learning how to sound out words. We saw the excitement in their eyes as the words on the page slowly began to come alive for them.

Despite the challenges ahead, many teachers and children in this project are energized by the progress being made. At Ethel I. Baker Elementary in Sacramento, a fourth grade boy was reading at a kindergarten level.  He was at risk of being held back until the new literacy program helped him move up two levels in one year.

The journey has just begun, but if struggling schools like these can learn to nurture emerging readers amid a pandemic, the science of reading may hold the key, some say, to solving the literacy crisis that has long bedeviled California.

Karen D’Souza

Ethel I. Baker Elementary

Sacramento City Unified

A Sacramento third grade boy was in danger of being held back last school year because he was reading at a kindergarten level when he finished second grade, but a new school literacy program with a heavy concentration on phonics helped him move up two reading levels in one year.

The Ethel I. Baker Elementary student began reading after taking a class with teacher Julie Gordon in the summer. The boy’s reading skills continued to improve through the school year, helping him to move into classes with students with higher skill levels.

Credit: Randall Benton / EdSource

Teacher Patty Papalias conducts a reading lesson in her 3rd/4th class at Ethel I. Baker Elementary School in Sacramento in June 2022.

“He is one of our greatest successes,” said Jennifer Dare Sparks, one of the three teachers who helped the boy to become a reader.

The student is one of the thousands at 70 California schools taking part in a three-year state-funded program to improve their reading and writing skills.

Sacramento City Unified was given $3 million to implement literacy programs at Baker Elementary, A.M. Winn Waldorf-Inspired Elementary, John D. Sloat Elementary and John H. Still schools. Almost 290 district students in transitional kindergarten through third grades will take part in the program, although some schools are expanding the program to more grade levels.

The block grants pay for literacy coaches, teachers’ aides, training for teachers and reading and instructional materials.

The Baker Elementary program, called What I Need, or WIN, has been a great success, said Principal Nathan McGill. Students at Baker Elementary have been moving up through the different levels of WIN classes, with few having to be moved back to lower levels, McGill said.

“Most or all of our students are making progress,” he said. “What is surprising and encouraging is that it’s not just reading that is improving. Our English learner proficiency assessment looks at listening, reading and speaking, and they all have improved. I’m encouraged that it is supporting them in a robust way.”

School districts must provide an annual report to the California Department of Education detailing the achievement of students in the programs. The report for Ethel I. Baker, completed by McGill, says that while the school’s overall test scores in English language arts are still below the state standard, there has been growth.

Results of the 2022 California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, or CAASPP, show that 16% of the school’s students met state standards for English language arts, including 16% of third-graders, according to the report. That’s more than in 2018-19, the last year state data was available, when 12.3% of third-graders met or exceeded state standards in English language arts.

The state Department of Education has delayed the release of test scores for all schools statewide to sometime in October. No date has been given.

McGill is proud that his school was able to improve English language arts test scores during the pandemic when many of the state’s children fell behind academically.

“To actually grow over a time when we saw considerable learning loss is a testament to how hard the students worked and how well our teachers carried out the vision of what we designed,” he said.

The WIN program, which is being offered to students at all grade levels, includes 45-minutes of structured literacy instruction daily using the Systematic Instruction in Phonological Awareness, Phonics and Sight Words, or SIPPS, curriculum, which focuses on phonics with lessons that are largely scripted for teachers.

The school’s program assigns students to classes based on their reading level instead of grade level. Each class has students from two grade levels, all reading at about the same level. Teachers didn’t want to set the classes up strictly by skill level because they thought it would be challenging for older students, who may be new arrivals to the country, to be sent to a class with younger students, McGill said.

Nearly half of the students at Baker Elementary, located in the Lemon Hill neighborhood of Sacramento, are English learners and 100% of the students were eligible for free-and-reduced-priced lunches last school year.

Sparks taught a WIN class of third- and fourth-grade students last school year that started the year reading at a second-grade level, but progressed to reading at a third-grade level by the end of the year. The class is fast-paced, with Sparks sounding out words and portions of words, written on an easel, with the students enthusiastically repeating them.

“Mo-tel,” she said during a class on June 2.

“Motel,” blurted out one child, excitedly getting ahead of his peers.

“Let’s do it together,” Sparks said. “Give everybody time to think. please. I’m really proud of how ambitious you are.”

They also practiced spelling, with Sparks encouraging them to cross out words and to try again if they spelled any incorrectly.

“Remember this is not a test. It’s practice,” she said.

The class ended with Sparks reading “Yara’s Tawari Tree” one line at a time, while the students repeated each line.

“It’s fast. It’s at their level. It’s approachable,” said Sparks of the curriculum. “We are giving them the support they need to learn, so that they are comfortable learning. And this group is like this every day. I’ll be honest, it’s the easiest 45 minutes of my day because it’s so scripted.”

Teaching students working at about the same reading level makes instruction easier for teachers, who don’t have to differentiate instruction for 25 students working at different levels, McGill said.

After about 10 lessons, students are tested to determine how much they have learned and whether they need additional support. School staff also analyze test data at the beginning and middle of the school year to evaluate the effectiveness of the program and their instructional practices, McGill said.

The WIN program began at Baker Elementary in the summer of 2021, but a literacy team made up of teachers and administrators began building the school’s program six months earlier. Literacy experts from the Sacramento County Office of Education and CORE’s Pivotal Learning program, a nonprofit that helps schools design professional development for teachers, have helped schools throughout the state develop and implement their individual programs.

The Baker Elementary team analyzed how reading had been taught at the school and decided that students needed more effective instructional materials and consistent assessments. They agreed that teachers needed more training and grade-level collaboration. The team also found there were gaps in student knowledge because of a lack of access to literature.

Teachers at the school also continue to teach the district’s English language arts curriculum, which includes curriculum from Benchmark and SIPPS, during regular class time. Benchmark, which provides themed units of text and covers different genres of writing, embeds phonics instruction into the curriculum.

Previous reliance on district-provided curriculum and training yielded significantly lesser results than the program funded by the state block grant, said the school report to the state.

The district curriculum is not phonics strong, said Sparks, who has taught it for 15 years. It focuses on phonics in the early grades, but moves away from it by the third grade, when children have been expected to know how to read.

But the curriculum is still being used because it exposes students to more challenging words and offers themes that are followed in other subjects like social studies, McGill said.

The school used some of its grant money to hire a literacy coach and two instructional aides to work with students in K-3. As part of the grant, the nonprofit Core Collaborative provides a trainer who comes out about 15 times a year to observe teachers in the classroom and to provide feedback.

To engage families in the reading effort, the school hosts a Family Literacy Night every trimester to provide parents with materials and resources, and to remind them about the importance of reading to their children.

School officials also are spending $150,000 of the grant money to replace the 30- to 45-year-old texts in the library with up-to-date books that are more culturally relevant to the school’s students, including texts in both Spanish and English. Each teacher also has a new classroom library.

McGill expects the literacy program at Baker Elementary will continue beyond the three-year grant because school staff can train new teachers after the funding goes away.

“If a kid can’t read, he or she may be frustrated for the entire day,” McGill said. “So, it’s 45 minutes of not a frustrating time, a very safe time and on their level.”

— Diana Lambert

Nystrom Elementary

West Contra Costa Unified

In a typical reading lesson at Richmond’s Nystrom Elementary School, a group of third graders huddled around teacher Dylan Fairweather and sounded out the words she pointed to like “next, n-ext” and “choice, ch-oice.” Fairweather threw in some curveballs, pointing to the c and the i in “pencil” and asking the students what sound it made before reading the word.

The exercise reflects the new methods of teaching students how to read adopted by Nystrom last year. The school overhauled its literacy instruction approach to heavily focus on phonics.

Testing known as DIBELS, which measures early literacy skills at the beginning and end of the 2021-22 school year, show that Nystrom’s approach has paid off: At the start of the year, 60% of Nystrom’s students grades K-6 needed “intensive support” in order to read at grade level, and by the end of the year that number had dropped to 48%.

Nystrom also saw a 15 percentage point increase in the number of K-3 students reading at or above grade level throughout the year and a 17 percentage point decrease in the number of K-3 students who needed “intensive support” in order to keep up with their peers.

Prinicpal Jamie Allardice pointed to the flashcard exercise as an example of the science of reading approach in action, since it teaches students the “rules” of reading. Fairweather asked students how many consonants were between the vowels in the word, and what sound particular letters made together. There were also no pictures on the flashcard or in the texts students were reading independently, preventing students from guessing words based on pictures.

“You’re learning the rules and how to decode, essentially learning the code that is the language,” Allardice said.

Eight-year-old Cashmere Barber said the flashcard exercise was one of the things that helped her the most last year. She said she didn’t know how to read at the beginning of the year, and ended the year having a favorite book: “My teacher is a Monster (No I’m not).”

Cindy Sorto, 10, said she struggled with reading until she got the hang of sounding out words that she didn’t know thanks to a lot of practice at Nystrom.

Sorto, Barber and other students were reading short stories together while the other half of Fairweather’s class did the flashcard exercise. When they came to a word they didn’t recognize, they sounded it out together. Sorto helped another student read the word “twins” by breaking it up to tw-in-s.

Allardice said the student data collected from assessments throughout the last year has been “powerful” for teachers to see, inspiring them to continue refining their teaching practices for the current school year.

“It’s motivating to see kids doing what they haven’t done in years past,” Allardice said. “We have a first grade teacher who says that all the time, that she’s never seen this from other kids, and she’s been here five years or so.”

While the first year of Nystrom’s new reading program was focused on building students’ basic reading skills, like recognizing the sounds that letters make and being able to string those letters together to sound out words, Allardice said this year’s focus will be on getting students to apply those skills outside of the daily one-hour block of reading instruction.

To accomplish that, Allardice said Nystrom staff will continue to “bulk up on independent practice,” referring to students reading on their own or in small groups. While Fairweather was doing the flashcard exercise with a group of students, others were doing “independent practice” by reading short stories from their textbooks and helping each other sound out words they didn’t know.

“It’s different to read with the teacher on the rug looking at a word list than a larger story,” Allardice said, adding that the real work this school year “is getting students to apply their skills outside of this one-hour block of time, so when they’re reading a book and writing and get to ‘how do I spell that word’ they can use the same process to figure it out.”

Nystrom is one of seven schools in the West Contra Costa Unified school district to receive Early Literacy Support Block Grant funding through the state-funded program. The school is being awarded around $188,000 a year for a total of $563,000 between 2020 and 2023. Like most Early Literacy Support Block Grant schools, Nystrom used that money for monthly teacher training, a literacy coach and supplemental curricula.

“We wouldn’t see the growth we’re seeing without the resources, without the grant, without the focus on literacy instruction and our teachers’ willingness to do the work,” Allardice said.

Nystrom has aligned to a “science of reading” approach to reading instruction, which is based on research into how students learn to read and heavily emphasizes phonics – the ability to decode words by correlating sounds with letters or groups of letters. The Sacramento County Office of Education, which was picked to lead the Early Literacy Support Block Grant, introduced schools to the science of reading approach, but not all have embraced it as much as Nystrom has.

As a district, West Contra Costa Unified adheres to a balanced literacy approach to reading instruction, which prioritizes phonics instruction but limits the amount of time spent on it in order to allow students to explore literature and grow their interest in reading. Supporters of both approaches often butt heads over which is more effective; the conflict has been dubbed “the reading wars.”

Nystrom is the only West Contra Costa Unified school to explicitly diverge from the district’s balanced literacy approach and adhere to a “science of reading” approach to literacy instruction.

In 2019, the district adopted the balanced literacy curriculum Teachers College Reading, Writing and Phonics Units of Study as its core curriculum for elementary English language arts.

The curriculum has met intense criticism from educators and literacy experts that the program mainly benefits children who arrive at school already reading or primed to read. Though the program’s creator, Lucy Calkins, has pushed back against much of the criticism, she revised the curriculum this year to include daily phonics lessons for grades K-2.

Instead of Units of Study, Nystrom uses EL Education as its core curriculum and SIPPS to teach foundational skills. Both curricula follow the science of reading approach.

The other six Early Literacy Support Block Grant schools at West Contra Costa Unified use a patchwork of different curricula such as EL Education, SIPPS and Open Court Reading to provide more targeted instruction on phonics or other reading skills than what’s included in Units of Study.

In addition to supplementing their curriculum, the West Contra Costa Unified schools also used the state literacy funds to hire literacy coaches, aides and assistants as well as for teacher training on literacy instruction practices.

Allardice said what’s made the biggest impact on Nystrom students — more so than the curriculum — is teachers all coming together with enthusiasm for a shared approach. Nystrom’s teachers were more than willing to attend training sessions early last year, and seeing results motivated them to continually refine their teaching practices.

“I believe, and we believe as a staff, that what’s going to shift the outcome for kids is the adults coming together, aligning around a goal or an approach, looking at data and refining our practice,” Nystrom said. “It’s not a curriculum, it’s not a program. There’s no silver bullet in education.”

— Ali Tadayon

Joshua Elementary


First graders gathered “crisscross applesauce”-style on the rainbow-colored carpet in Candida Elias’ Joshua Elementary classroom. The room’s wood-colored tables and blue and orange chairs stood tall around them. It was time for Heggerty, their phonics-based lesson, meant to teach the students sound and rhyme through daily repetition.

“Gymnasium,” Elias called out to the class, making a sweeping motion with her hand to indicate the full word.

“Gym-, na-, si-, um,” echoed her students, moving their hands in a chopping motion to indicate the syllables as they broke the word down.

For 12 minutes, students followed Elias’ directions, segmenting words, identifying rhymes and substituting sounds with her in unison as they used their hands to “chop” up words, fist pump word endings and give a thumbs up or down in response to rhyming questions.

Across the elementary school, kindergarten through third grade classes focused on word recognition last school year as part of Joshua Elementary’s three-year program focusing on phonics to improve literacy.

With the help of the extra state funding, the elementary school has been able to adopt new curriculum and implement more professional development for teachers as it aims to guide more of its students to hit the literacy benchmark. During the program’s first year, the number of students not at grade level dropped from 65% to 15%.

“When you meet students’ academic needs, you don’t see students in an office,” Principal Lorraine Zapata said, reflecting on the year’s improvements. “You see students who are engaged in the work, you see students who love going into the classroom.”

In-class assessments known as i-Ready show students improved significantly in phonological awareness by the end of the school year, alongside growth in high-frequency words. Zapata and school literacy coach Jenny Johnson attribute that to the school’s conscious decision to transition to a science of reading approach, meant to teach students to read under the understanding that it is not a skill acquired naturally. It’s helped to build the skills from the ground up, she said.

“The science says you can learn language — your brain is built to do that — but it’s not built to read,” Johnson said. “It’s not built to take this random symbol that you people call a ‘B,’ and you call a ‘b-‘ sound, and know that that’s supposed to do something.”

That’s where the stronger focus on phonics comes in, she said. Students are learning to sound out words from scratch as a foundation for further learning vocabulary and comprehension.

Each day, just as Elias did with her first grade class, K-3 teachers lead students in a 10- to 14-minute Heggerty lesson focused on teaching students how to decode words and how changing letters can impact sound and meaning. Students who struggle with the day’s lesson are then taken aside later for small groups to provide extra support in grasping the concepts.

The Heggerty lessons are complemented with content from the Wonders ELA curriculum, used broadly by the district and previously by Joshua Elementary, to build language awareness through stories and help develop comprehension skills. The school plans to later move forward with the SIPPS program, which is more closely tied to phonics instruction and aligns more directly with its goals.

Last year’s changed and more coordinated approach to literacy has led students like then third grader Christian Magdalena to see a difference in their learning. He said being a better reader has helped him in math when tackling word problems too.

“Before Heggerty, I would get confused on what to do, but after Heggerty I know what to do now,” he said, taking a break from his playground activities to demonstrate how to break down words.

It was a sentiment at play by a kindergartner across the schoolyard, too, who playfully sounded out the word “donut” off of the shirt of a staff member she eagerly greeted at the entrance to the kindergarten play area.

At Joshua Elementary, Latino and Black students make up most of the student body and reflect a rate higher than that of the city of Lancaster. Nearly 95% of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Although the Heggerty curriculum is new to Joshua Elementary, Johnson, the literacy coach, had actually used the program unofficially for six years while teaching first grade. It was recommended to her by her mother, a now-retired elementary school teacher.

“Once we could see the shift in my students, we then pushed it out to our K-2 teachers, and it was beautiful,” Johnson said. “So we already knew when we were choosing what curriculum, it had to be Heggerty.”

In addition to the change in curriculum, what’s paid off largely as a result of the grant funding is the training for teachers, first grade teacher Amber Thornton said. It’s helped teachers strategize and better tailor their lessons.

“It’s more structured for us; we were guided,” she said. “It’s providing us teachers with more clarity, in order for us to be more clear in our instruction for our students. And so we’re able to relay our standards; we’re able to relay our learning intentions, our success criteria, and our students are able to actually provide and give it back to us as well.”

Each week, while students head to the playground for P.E., teachers meet by grade level with Johnson and the school’s instructional coach to evaluate progress, identify patterns of struggle and plan lessons for the following week. They also meet as a full team once a week to collaborate across grades on advice and feedback.

It’s something that’s helped resource specialist Melissa Marino as well. The consistency makes it easier to support the students she works with, who span school and grade levels. And the curriculum has greatly benefited students she works with who have memory and attention deficits, she said, because of the tactile and kinesthetic movements built into it.

“I truly believe that the more senses we bring into a lesson, the more likely they are to recall it and be able to apply it and generalize it later,” she said. “There’s hand movements that go with it, lots of blending rhythm with literacy map, to just create a better ability to remember and recall it later.”

According to Zapata, it’s been a huge help to faculty who have been happy to receive the extra support. The school has hired many newly minted teachers in response to the school’s high turnover rate.

During the current school year, Joshua Elementary has a new goal: language comprehension. The addition of its second new curriculum, SIPPS, will complement its phonics instruction from Heggerty. The first half of the year will focus on phonics and the second half on engaging and understanding text through discussion and open conversation.

“When the ELSB grant came out, it gave us the opportunity to look at our data, create action steps, really look at it and keep asking the why,” Zapata said.  “I think that process that the ELSB Grant took us through is the reason that we were able to target what we targeted.”

“It wasn’t someone else’s plan coming into our school; it was our plan,” she added.

— Kate Sequeira

La Salle Avenue Elementary

Los Angeles

Murals line the walls of La Salle Elementary in South Los Angeles: portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack and Michelle Obama; a stairwell with a young Black child holding a book of self-knowledge; a wall of social justice avengers hovering above the earth.

Credit: Kate Sequeira / EdSource

Students listen to a final presentation during the last week of school.

At La Salle Elementary, that representation seeps through the literacy curriculum, which its staff proudly calls interdisciplinary and customized for its students. Students at the historically Black school with a growing Latino population read books they can see themselves in, Principal Aresa Allen-Rochester said.

A bulletin board features books like “Daddy Calls Me Man,” “Grandma’s Records” and “Los Angeles Then and Now,” celebrating history, culture and daily life for the school’s population, half Black and 43% Latino.

It’s a shift from before, Allen-Rochester added, referring to the decision to customize its approach to literacy for its students as the school integrated its book choices with its new curriculum.

La Salle Elementary is one of seven Los Angeles Unified schools getting extra state funding after a lawsuit named them and other schools statewide among the lowest performing schools in the state.

The funding aided in growing its interdisciplinary approach and newly implementing the Success for All curriculum, which takes a phonics-based approach to literacy. The plan also includes training for teachers.

The changes have led to an increase in the number of students in kindergarten through third grade who meet early literacy benchmarks in the first year of the three-year program. The number of students reading at grade level increased by more than a quarter from the beginning of the year, according to the school’s DIBELS assessment. At the beginning of the year, more than half of the students were scoring below that.

“Currently just looking at the scope of the program and how it’s been benefiting our students, you know, we’re seeing a lot of changes in our DIBELS data and just their oral skills, their speaking skills and just understanding the whole concept of print and all of that,” English language arts and reading instructional coach Cassondra Holt-Hightower said.

Each morning, the school reserves time for classes to focus on phonemic awareness, phonics and phonological awareness, through a lesson and reading and writing practices to allow students to apply the skill they are learning. The groups for these lessons are based on skill level rather than grade level, and students are able to move up and down groups throughout the year.

Curriculum is divided between expanded transitional kindergarten and TK, kindergarten, first and second grade and the upper elementary grade levels. The school has also implemented more progress monitoring so that teachers are on top of their classroom data and can change lessons accordingly.

Those lessons are followed by reading comprehension, which is where the school begins integrating its thematic units, involving topics such as family and traditions. Those units are also integrated into other school subjects and among upper grade levels.

“In the classroom, what we get to see is that real mixing in that connection,” said first grade teacher Meredith Rhodes, who joined the school in 2019. If she teaches a lesson on prefixes and suffixes, for example, she’ll read a book with her class that reflects characters or historical figures that look like the students as they work together to identify the word beginnings and endings throughout the story, she added.

“We know that the more kids read, the better readers they become,” Rhodes added. “The books for the culturally relevant piece have been chosen to make them love reading and to really encourage reading and that practice. That’s sort of how we mix it all together.”

Beverly Crespo’s “Melanin ‘n’ Me” and Rita Williams-Garcia’s Gaither Sisters trilogy, which respectively revolve around skin color and reflect Black characters, have earned top spots in popularity among students.

La Salle’s approach to literacy is different from LAUSD’s approach. District schools have largely relied on Benchmark Advanced, which does not take as direct of an approach to phonics. However, the district added a new curriculum last year called Core Knowledge Language Arts, which takes a more structured approach to foundational skills than Benchmark Advanced.

Other schools in the district also selected for the grant have made changes too: Some have opted for curriculums such as Heggerty and Consortium on Reaching Excellence, which both rely on a more phonics-based approach, just like Success for All.

Allen-Rochester said the team has found that the videos and repetition and rhyming that Success for All provides have been a big help for students because it keeps them more engaged.

“Africans and Latinos are just very kinesthetic — we’re very communal people,” said Allen-Rochester, who is Black. “It speaks to that. It’s very socio-centric in its design. And so that has been a big push for us.”

To make the literacy program come to life, La Salle has also ramped up teacher training. When the new administration first came in, the school started with initial trainings to teach teachers how to combine the phonics-based approach with culturally relevant reading materials.

Because of the grant, teachers are able to earn their regular pay rate rather than a subsidized training rate for professional development, which they largely participate in through Saturday trainings.

“It was difficult at first, but now just to see the change, and just seeing the ease and the teachers’ buy-in,” Holt-Hightower said. “Because once you start seeing students succeed, buy-in becomes easy, because now you’re seeing, hey, this hard work is paying off.”

La Salle Elementary is continuing its phonics-based and culturally focused approach to literacy this school year as it enters its second year of the grant. Allen-Rochester said she hopes that the school’s approach will continue to keep students engaged while also building their foundational literacy skills.

“We really have built a sense of community, and I feel good knowing that our kids are going to leave us and they are going to be great,” she said.

— Kate Sequeira

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  1. Brenda Lebsack - Teacher 8 months ago8 months ago

    How many kids in Calif decided to not come back to in-person learning after schools re-opened?
    And is this having any impact on learning and literacy?