Credit: Randall Benton / EdSource
A student reads along with classmates during a reading class at Ethel I. Baker Elementary School in Sacramento in June.

As the pandemic has raised concerns about “learning loss” and widening achievement gaps, California policymakers have focused increasingly on how to strengthen literacy instruction in the country’s most diverse state. In 2021 the Legislature passed Senate Bill 488, which outlines teacher preparation for teaching reading.

Over this past year, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond has convened a Literacy Task Force. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2021 budget included funding for literacy training, early identification of struggling readers and a new screening tool to flag potential reading challenges such as dyslexia. His 2022 budget went further, funding literacy coaches and reading specialists for the state’s highest need schools.

What will it take to ensure literacy for all children? Here I summarize California’s progress and needs, what the science of reading suggests, and what the state can and should do to accomplish this goal.

The current context

After decades of disinvestment that followed the passage of Proposition 13, California’s education system was one of the most poorly funded and lowest achieving in the nation. In 2009, before Gov. Jerry Brown took office, California ranked 48th in f0urth grade reading and 49th in eighth grade reading on national tests. Since then, the state’s equity-oriented investments (through the Local Control Funding Formula) have produced achievement gains in both reading and math, but we are still well below the national norms.

In 2019, when statewide test results were last reported for all districts, 51% of students in all grades met the grade-level standards in English language arts — up from 44% in 2015, the first year the tests were given, and 22% nearly met the standard — but more than one-fourth (27%) were well below the standard. Since then, the effects of the pandemic have expanded these needs, especially for the youngest learners.

What matters most for literacy progress?

Meeting the needs of all students for literacy skills in a state like California — where 43% of students come from homes where the first language is not English — requires not only understanding what all students need to experience in the process of learning to read, but also the particular needs of multilingual learners, as well as the needs of those at risk of reading difficulties and those who may experience dyslexia or other learning disabilities.

Research suggests that at least five policy supports are needed to ensure that every child will become fully literate:

  1. High-quality learning opportunities in the critical preschool years.
  2. Thoughtful approaches to K-12 teaching that derive from the science of reading and literacy.
  3. Skilled teachers who can implement effective instruction.
  4. Settings that provide the staffing, materials and assessments needed.
  5. Targeted interventions for students who are at-risk for reading failure.

While California has historically lagged many states in providing these elements to all communities, we are making rapid progress today that we can build upon to achieve our goals.

  1. Early learning: Research is clear that quality preschool can make a significant difference in children’s academic success. An evaluation of California’s transitional kindergarten program found that TK significantly increases literacy skills for all students, including in key areas like phonological awareness (recognizing words made of different sounds) and letter-word identification skills, with the largest gains for English learners and children from low-income families. In the last two years, the governor has substantially increased funding for preschool, and we will achieve universal TK access for all 4-year-olds (nearly 450,000) by 2025-26. The first year of that expansion begins this fall with an additional 75,000 children eligible across the state.
  1. Guidance for literacy development grounded in the contemporary science of reading: A great deal has been learned over the last three decades about how reading skills develop. As summarized by the National Reading Panel in 2000, the formal process of learning to read — which builds on oral language in early childhood (speaking, singing, rhyming and more) — begins with the foundational skills of phonemic awareness (understanding how sounds function in words) and the alphabetic knowledge needed for understanding how letters correspond to sounds and how words are constructed. It continues with ongoing attention to building vocabulary and background knowledge that are essential to comprehension and meaning-making. As a recent call to end “the reading wars” stated, “the relationship between letters and sounds is necessary and nonnegotiable when learning to read in alphabetic writing systems. … Yet reading scientists, teachers and the public know that reading involves more than alphabetic skills.” Good literacy instruction teaches these skills explicitly while building on what students already know (including their culture and home language); building background knowledge about the world to support reading comprehension; and integrating reading, writing, speaking and listening to provide reinforcement for understanding. These same principles apply to multilingual learners — students who speak a language other than English at home — with even greater attention to developing vocabulary and background knowledge to support comprehension, integrating literacy work into all content areas and offering dedicated English language development focused initially on the words used for beginning reading and writing instruction. Research confirms the benefits of biliteracy for cognitive development and language proficiency. Over the long term, dual language programs produce equivalent or better outcomes in literacy for both English learners and native speakers of English. All of this research is built into California’s core documents for guiding literacy instruction: the English Language Arts/English Language Development Framework, the California Comprehensive State Literacy Plan,  the Teacher Credentialing Commission’s Literacy Teaching Performance Expectations, and a new set of standards currently being finalized for literacy instruction in the state’s teacher education programs, all of which attend to explicit instruction in the foundational skills plus the comprehension and language development strategies described here.
  1. Skilled teachers: While California has well-grounded guidance for teaching literacy and for preparing teachers, teacher shortages have been a major challenge since at least 2015, and about half of entering teachers each year are not fully credentialed, which means they have not completed, or in many cases even started, a preparation program. These underprepared teachers work disproportionately in schools serving the greatest number of low-income students and students of color. A recent California study found that the strongest predictor of low achievement in both reading and math was the share of such underprepared teachers districts hired. California’s 2021 budget included nearly $3 billion to address this problem by providing service scholarships for prospective teachers and underwriting new high-retention pathways for teachers in training, such as teacher residencies, plus providing funds to districts for mentoring and supports. Enrollments in teacher education, which have been plummeting for 20 years, are now on the increase, but there is still a long way to go.
  1. Teaching conditions: To succeed with students, teachers also need reasonable class sizes, useful materials and supports for differentiation. California has long had among the largest class sizes in the nation, often exceeding 30 students per class, even in elementary grades. During the era of intensive budget cuts, many schools were unable to maintain libraries with librarians or reading specialists who could work directly with struggling readers. These conditions are beginning to improve with large increases in LCFF funds (more than 30% since 2019). In 2022, at the governor’s urging, the state also allocated $250 million for literacy coaches and reading specialists as well as multilingual libraries in the highest-need schools.
  1. Targeted interventions for struggling readers: Finally, there is the need for early identification and intervention for the 10% to 20% of students who struggle to read because they are dyslexic or experience other learning difficulties. Neuroscience has discovered several distinctive sources of reading difficulties that can now be identified and successfully addressed if they are understood. Effective interventions have been identified for a wide range of reading challenges, and this year California funded two centers to train teachers and paraprofessionals to learn to use such interventions. The state has also launched a California dyslexia initiative and has funded the UCSF Dyslexia Center to develop and pilot a new screening tool that addresses the different sources of reading difficulties. This screener will be freely available by 2023 for use in kindergarten and first grades — initially in English and then in Spanish and Mandarin, with other languages to be added over time — and will be accompanied by guidance for teachers about supports and interventions for the different kinds of challenges children may be experiencing.

While California is making many investments to support literacy development, and they are essential, more is needed to ensure we have an effective comprehensive literacy plan. In my second commentary, I outline an approach to getting there.

This is the first of two commentaries on literacy in California by Linda Darling-Hammond. Read her second piece here: Other states, select California districts can inform our comprehensive approach to literacy.

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. Shmuel 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Where I grew up overseas, it's common for children to learn to read at home before they are school-aged. And when I lived in New England I got the impression it was common for children to learn reading either at preschool or at home so they could already read a bit on the first day of Kindergarten. This tradition does not seem to exist in California. Most parents here leave it to their children's Kindergarten teachers … Read More

    Where I grew up overseas, it’s common for children to learn to read at home before they are school-aged. And when I lived in New England I got the impression it was common for children to learn reading either at preschool or at home so they could already read a bit on the first day of Kindergarten.

    This tradition does not seem to exist in California. Most parents here leave it to their children’s Kindergarten teachers to teach reading? By then it’s too late. If you start reading when you are 4 you do not have problems when you are 8. That’s a cultural problem that needs to be changed.

  2. Laura Ghiron 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    We have come to understand in our district a major oversight in addressing the literacy learning needs of Spanish-language heritage speakers in particular, since they make up the lion's share of ESL students in the state of California. The gap is that while the majority of attention is on building the English language literacy of these students, there is a gaping blindspot when it comes to ensuring their Spanish language literacy, which is not necessarily … Read More

    We have come to understand in our district a major oversight in addressing the literacy learning needs of Spanish-language heritage speakers in particular, since they make up the lion’s share of ESL students in the state of California.

    The gap is that while the majority of attention is on building the English language literacy of these students, there is a gaping blindspot when it comes to ensuring their Spanish language literacy, which is not necessarily or automatically gained at home. Giving greater attention to, and ensuring opportunities for this student body to gain literacy in their heritage language will go a long way to reducing the achievement gap and inspiring and empowering these students to have an impact in both languages over the course of their lives.

    I would be very interested to discuss this further and to figure out ways to influence state policy to give greater attention to this specific issue. Please reach me (Laura.ghiron@expandnet.net) if you would like to speak further about what we have accomplished in Davis and what lessons we can draw from the experience for other districts throughout the state and beyond.

  3. Karen Rosenquist 1 month ago1 month ago

    I agree whole-heartedly with this article. In my opinion, what is defined would be enhanced by adding two more criteria: early screening and parent education.

  4. Kristi Barcelona 2 months ago2 months ago

    All California educators need LETRS training now, if we want to reach all students. Other states are doing it. Let’s get on board now before we are once again left behind.