We know what it takes to boost literacy skills

Evidence-based Mass Literacy initiative can be game-changer

LONG OVERDUE ATTENTION to racial injustice in Massachusetts and across the US has exposed the inequities that persist in nearly every facet of our communities — from policing to health care to education. While there is no single answer for addressing these issues, we must recognize the role that literacy — and the way children are taught to read — can play in building a more just and equitable society. 

The two of us have spent a total of nearly 30 years in classrooms — teaching young children to read and teaching educators how to teach reading. Here’s what we know to be true: When reading instruction is grounded in a strong evidence base, it can be a powerful tool for equity. But when it’s not, far too many children can fall through the cracks, placed at a disadvantage before they even reach the 3rd grade. 

Consider the fact that in Massachusetts, 24 percent of black students and 25 percent of Hispanic students are reading proficiently in fourth grade, compared to 54 percent of white students. This statistic from the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress does not reflect students’ effort or ability, but their opportunity and support to learn. Black and Hispanic students, like all their peers, need and deserve to be taught with the most effective evidence-based practices, in a culturally responsive and sustaining environment.  

Massachusetts must do better — and we can. With the right instruction, research shows that nearly every child can learn to read. That’s why reading instruction in pre-K through 3rd grade must be grounded in a strong evidence base. To make that the norm rather than the exception, teachers must get the evidence-based training, resources, and support they need. 

Fortunately, Massachusetts educators and administrators now have a trove of information to guide reading instruction. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recently launched Mass Literacy, a statewide effort to promote evidence-based reading and writing instruction in preK to 3rd grade. We worked alongside a team of educators and researchers to shape the resources and information included in the effort. 

We were motivated to do so because, despite our many years working with children and prospective teachers, it took us both far too long to realize that there is a proven way to teach reading, validated by countless studies. We can’t let that continue for teachers and those who prepare them. 

Here’s what we now know, thanks to decades of research: To be proficient readers, students need language comprehension skills as well as word reading, or phonics, skills. Both sets of skills are essential, and both must be explicitly taught. These skills help create a critical foundation for students’ success in school and in life. 

Early in our careers, in the absence of better training and support, we simply didn’t know about the science behind reading. We weren’t bad teachers. In fact, many of our students did learn to read. But some students, particularly those struggling the most, needed more than what we were giving them. They needed to be explicitly taught the skills that research tells us are required for children to become good readers.  

Our stories are the stories of countless educators. Teachers often do not have the tools, training, or resources needed to teach reading using the strategies proven to work best for the most students. Worse, in some cases, teachers are asked to use programs and curricula grounded in flawed ideas about how children learn to read. The result is that what children are taught often strays from what research says they need most. 

And when students fall behind, they face a constant uphill battle to catch up. Many never do. We’ve seen it time and time again: the first grader who does not learn to sound out letters or identify the syllables in a word often becomes the disengaged fifth grader struggling to make sense of more challenging texts and falling further behind their peers. 

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Mass Literacy is all the more urgent given the disruption to schooling caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. When students return to classrooms full-time, struggling readers will have fallen even further behind. 

We hope Massachusetts educators, principals, and administrators will evaluate their instructional practices and look for ways to adopt a more evidence-based approach. When they do, students will benefit, and we will move closer to achieving a more just and equitable future for all of our children. 

Lisa Hanifan is a first-grade teacher in the Malden Public Schools. Stephanie Grimaldi is a professor of education at Westfield State University.