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Radical Eyes for Equity: Moving from “All Students Must” to “Each Student Deserves”

Since publishing my book, How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students, that examines the current “science of reading” (SoR) version of the Reading War, I have given several interviews and presentations on that work.

I have also continued to blog about the movement, and in all of these experiences, I am forced to rethink and think more complexly through what I know and understand about the SoR movement as well as how to teach reading and literacy.

The most recent interview, by literacy expert Sam Bommarito, proved to be an enlightening experience on several levels.

First, Sam’s experience and expertise in the field of literacy were a welcomed change from being interviewed by generalists and journalists because his questions dove directly into the core of the issues surrounding SoR and those questions challenged me to think more deeply and carefully.

Our exchange between people with similar levels of expertise on the subject allowed (or even required) us to focus on how best to offer any viewers nuanced but clear explanations of a deeply complex topic; as I noted (and emphasize often now), the evidence on teaching reading is not simple, and not settled.

But the larger take-away for me after the interview was that Sam’s third question—Does it make any sense to effectively ban selected practices found in balanced approaches to reading, e.g., reading recovery, workshop teaching or guided reading?—prompted me to explain in greater detail a core concept that grounds a fundamental reason I reject the SoR movement.

Whether I am addressing literacy specifically or teaching pedagogy broadly, I have relied for many years on the best practice concepts expressed by Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde.

Each chapter in their book (now in its fourth edition) ends with a chart that suggests instructional practices that teachers should increase or decrease; for example, on writing instruction (download sample here):

Key to note is that best practice is grounded in broad and diverse bodies of research on teaching and learning, and that best practice philosophy neither requires nor bans any specific instructional approach; whether a teacher uses any pedagogy is directly linked to student need (not a prescription form some authority such as standards or an adopted program).

When SoR advocates call for “all students must” (for example, systematic intensive phonics for all students and universal screening for dyslexia), they are misrepresenting what we know about teaching and learning: There is no universal silver bullet for “all students.”

Best practice structures promote research and evidence as a spectrum, a range of practices for every teacher’s toolbox; best practice also recommends that instruction begin with individual students, their demonstrated knownunknown, and misconceptions.

If we think carefully about decoding and direct instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness, teachers will face a wide diversity of students in any class in terms of where they are in their reading development; in short, there simply is no situation where “all students must” serves students well.

Literacy is not simple, and literacy development is not linear, sequential, or systematic.

For example, most people do not accumulate vocabulary in order to be able to read, but develop their vocabulary by reading.

Context (in terms of so-called literacy skills) and engagement are extremely important when students are developing their literacy; regretfully, many misguided movements during the history of the Reading War have eroded an essential aspect of literacy that must be honored—literacy as holistic.

Here, we must address a fundamental paradox in the SoR movement.

Several different kinds of advocacy are fueling the SoR movement—from parents advocating for greater awareness of dyslexia to Black and poor parents advocating for under-/un-served populations of students to advocates for the needs of emerging bilingual students.

The common denominator here is a genuine concern for the under-/un-served student, a pervasive belief that for a number of reasons, too many students are being failed by the system itself (although some elements of the SoR movement are also directly blaming teachers and teacher educators for those failures).

The paradox is that the aggressive advocacy behind the SoR movement is driving an all-or-nothing silver-bullet approach to teaching reading, which will mis-serve students as much or more than the current conditions of teaching and learning in U.S. public schools.

So this leads me to Sam’s effort to bridge the divisions in the Reading War (something I am far more skeptical about, as I address in Sam’s question 5: Cambourne and Crouch recently said we should stop using the Reading Wars metaphor and replace it with the metaphor of the Reading Quilt- with different “sides” adding different pieces to the quilt. Do you see any hope for that point of view? Do you see hope for an end to the divisive discourse?  Do you see hope for ending the reading wars? [13:20]).

I am no fan of compromise (as I explain in the interview) but I think we do have common ground in terms of two beliefs: (1) Far too many students are being under-/un-served in our current K-12 public school system (notably in their literacy), and (2) the under-/un-served are disproportionately marginalized and vulnerable populations of students (Black students, poor students, emerging bilinguals, students with special needs).

Not a compromise, but my modest proposal is that all of us concerned with reading and literacy among K-12 students need to set aside the “all students must” mandate and commit instead to “each student deserves.”

“All students must” be screened for dyslexia is a guaranteed disaster for students (consider the over-diagnosing of ADHD as one example), but “each student deserves” access to ample books and other texts in their homes and schools fulfills what we know about literacy development without being overly simplistic or harmful.

Each student deserves whatever teaching and learning experiences they need and want in order to grow and develop at the rate unique to them (not some manufactured and artificial “grade level” proficiency).

This commitment shifts our instruction and assessment gaze away from compliance to a reading program or to a set of prescribed standards and toward the demonstrated needs and wants of each student who enters any classroom.

The ultimate irony here is that the whole language (WL), reading/writing workshop, and balanced literacy (BL) movements (all falsely demonized since the 1990s) offer that exact commitment along with very high standards for teacher expertise (each of us in charge of any student must have a very complex toolbox for teaching and also must be prepared to individualized instruction).

Again, as I stated in the interview, WL, workshops, and BL did not fail our students, but we have certainly failed the core commitment of those movements—serving the learning needs of each student.

What we know about teaching reading is not simple or settled, but I think we can and must all agree that instead of falling prey to the overly simplistic and harmful “all students must,” a better way forward is a resolute commitment to “each student deserves.”

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P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He...