Can common ground be found on teaching reading in California?

March 9, 2023

An elementary student reads a book to himself during class.

People that have been perceived as being in opposite corners over how to teach reading in California released a joint paper Thursday agreeing that foundational reading skills like phonics, vocabulary and comprehension should be taught explicitly and systematically to all students.

And children who are learning English as a second language, who make up 1 in 4 first graders in California, also need lessons to practice speaking and listening in English, and to make connections with other languages they know.

In addition, they agreed that all children should be screened early to identify both needs and strengths in reading, taking into  account students’ level of English language proficiency and the language in which they have been taught. They agreed that such screeners, while identifying children who may face difficulty learning how to read, should not be used to diagnose dyslexia or other reading disabilities or to segregate students into separate classrooms as special education students.

The fourteen experts who signed the paper include a wide range of literacy researchers and advocates for English learners, Black students and students with dyslexia, and all are regarded as leaders in their fields.

The authors hope that the agreements set out in the paper will help California policymakers provide clearer guidance for how schools should be teaching literacy for all students.

“Whether this will turn out to be similar to the Good Friday accords, that basically ended the Irish civil war, or the Oslo Accords, that did nothing to end the problems in the Middle East, depends on what happens now,” said Claude Goldenberg, professor of education emeritus at Stanford University, who co-authored the paper.

Arun Ramanathan, CEO of the organization Pivot Learning, which published the paper, said he hopes California will continue these conversations and develop a comprehensive policy around literacy.

“This state has an opportunity to take a different path, and this particular set of apparent conflicts were getting in the way of taking that path,” Ramanathan said. “It’s time. The state needs to take this on.”

Martha Hernandez, executive director of Californians Together, an organization that advocates for English learners, said it was clear that everyone cares about California students.

“Everybody is so passionate about the fact that we need to improve literacy for all students and for English learners. We have that in common. Everybody’s coming from that same spot, of why we are concerned about this,” Hernandez said.

They could not agree on some things, however, like how much time should be devoted to foundational skills like phonics and vocabulary, or exactly how early screening to identify students who may be at risk for reading difficulties should be implemented.

The paper’s authors say they hope the agreements help clear up some misperceptions that seemed to pit English learner advocates against those advocating for comprehensive screening for dyslexia and more explicit instruction of foundational reading skills such as phonics.

“When people are in their different parishes, there’s a possibility of an echo chamber effect,” said Eduardo Muñoz-Muñoz, assistant professor of San Jose State University, who co-authored the report. “We kind of need to burst the bubble of those chambers and get those conversations happening.”

Only 42% of California’s third graders can read and write at grade level, according to the state’s latest Smarter Balanced test. California has faced increased pressure to adopt a comprehensive literacy plan to ensure that all children can read by third grade, including a clear focus on skills known as “foundational” — phonics (connecting letters to sounds), phonemic awareness (identifying distinct units of sound), fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

Yet some advocates for English learners have raised concerns that an increased focus on phonics might exclude other critical skills, such as developing oral language skills, vocabulary and connections between English and other languages.

To Ramanathan, it seemed that experts were talking past each other but that they actually had many more points of agreement than they realized.

“To some extent, people were fighting a battle from 25 years ago versus having a conversation about what’s happening now,” Ramanathan said. “I didn’t think that this perception issue would be resolved unless folks were brought together and had conversations face to face.”

To come up with the agreements, Muñoz-Muñoz and Goldenberg interviewed experts privately and then brought them together in person to listen to each others’ perspectives and find some common ground.

The agreements they made may seem basic, but many participants were surprised that they had so much in common.

“Hearing someone say multilingual learners need foundational skills sounds like such a simple thing to say, but it was super important, super critical, and not often said,” said Kareem Weaver, member of the Oakland NAACP Education Committee and co-founder of the literacy advocacy group FULCRUM.

Participants focused on three topics: literacy for English learners, early screening and assessment of reading skills, and foundational literacy skills.

“Those seemed to be the ones that were most salient, that were creating bottlenecks, so to speak,” Goldenberg said.

Participants agreed that California’s low literacy scores cannot be attributed to one single cause.

Becky Sullivan, director of K-12 English language arts curriculum and instruction for the Sacramento County Office of Education, said the group agreed that students are not only often missing foundational literacy skills like phonics, vocabulary and comprehension, but English learners are also not always getting the language instruction they need.

“You have to set aside time in your instructional schedule for both,” said Sullivan. “It’s not an either-or conversation.”

Hernandez said she thought this was a big breakthrough.

“We want to make sure that we’re not trading more phonics for less vocabulary or less comprehension,” Hernandez said.

They also agreed that English learners should ideally be in programs that help them become proficient in at least two languages.

Early screening

One contentious issue has been whether California should implement universal early screening for dyslexia and other reading difficulties to identify students in kindergarten through second grade who need extra help matching letters to sounds, connecting sounds to words and linking words in a sentence.

A bill that would have required all schools to screen all students in kindergarten through second grade for risk of dyslexia died in the Assembly Education Committee, in part because of opposition by the California Teachers Association. Many English learner advocates also opposed the bill because they believed it didn’t consider the complexities of bilingual students and were concerned that many English learners might be misidentified as having reading difficulties when they were simply still learning English.

Researchers at UCSF have been working on an early screener called Multitudes, which is expected to be released in 2023, but the tool will be optional for California schools unless legislation mandates its use.

“We want every other child to receive the instruction they deserve, but there’s this history in which assessments have tracked kids and segregated students into lower academic tracks,” said Hernandez.

In this paper, the experts agreed that early reading screeners are not a diagnostic tool to determine whether a student has a learning disability such as dyslexia. Rather, they said screeners should be used to help identify both students’ needs and strengths, taking into account students’ level of English language proficiency and the language in which they have been taught.

The participants agreed that more training is needed for teachers on how and why screeners should be used.

“There’s concern of over-identification, but there’s also concern of under-identification of students who may be at risk for reading difficulties. So we need a lot more professional development in the state around the appropriate use of universal screeners,” Sullivan said.

The group did not take a position on a new bill, Senate Bill 691, that would require all schools to screen students for risk of dyslexia, however.

Megan Potente, co-state director of the organization Decoding Dyslexia CA said she is hopeful that the conversations will help move the bill forward. She said it was moving to hear other peoples’ perspectives and concerns about early screening for reading difficulties.

“People shared deep personal experience and the pain and trauma caused by the mistreatment of children by our education system over many years, and we all agree that we need to do better and we must not repeat the past,” Potente said.

Finding common ground

Several participants said they realized they had more in common than they had thought and the process helped clear up misconceptions and assumptions —for example, the idea that advocates for “science of reading” were only focused on phonics, or that English learner advocates did not care about phonics and other foundational literacy skills.

“I found the process to be inspiring because we unearthed a lot of commonality,” Weaver said. “One of my biggest takeaways was just the things that we think are divisive and nonstarters and contentious, when you really just talk, you find out that most of that stuff isn’t really a problem.”

Weaver said he was unaware of the National Literacy Panel’s report on literacy for children learning English as a second language until shortly before he met with the other participants. This report found that students benefit from instruction in their native language in addition to English and from specific instruction in literacy skills like spelling, sounding out words and comprehension of words. It also found that students learning English as a second language may learn to sound out and spell words with the same instruction as their English-speaking peers receive, but they need additional instruction in understanding the meaning of what they are reading.

“I’m a literacy guy, and I didn’t know about the report,” said Weaver. “So we’re talking around each other and not to each other.”

Muñoz-Muñoz said he would like California leaders to examine why the English Language Arts/English Language Development Framework for California Public Schools, which was adopted in 2014 and encourages explicit instruction in foundational skills in the early grades, has not been implemented in many classrooms.

“One of the things that came up was that the ELA/ELD framework contains a lot of what we’re talking about now. Why isn’t it happening?” said Muñoz-Muñoz. “So what were the mechanisms missing from making this happen? Who’s going to step in and make the services for emerging bilinguals happen? And from the perspective of readers, if California’s reading levels as we know are so low, what’s going to happen?”

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