By Zakiya Stewart
October 27, 2023
During my time as a first grade teacher, my greatest joy was watching my students begin to fall in love with reading. I watched them transition from sounding out words letter by letter to going well beyond decoding to reading and composing sentences. They were beginning to discover the world around them and, on the best days, reimagine what was possible.
I remember Michael. He loved reading. Every time it was his turn to read, he’d pull out his little finger, point to the text, and read every word as his finger followed. He could talk all day about what was happening in the pictures, and what might happen next. Most of all, he relished in the moments when he could find reflections of himself and his life experiences. If there was a pesky little brother in the story, he had a pesky little brother he wanted to talk about. He loved to make real-world connections to almost anything and anyone.
Then there was Anthony. He was a rising 4th grader I met during a testing period when I was asked to help proctor for the third and fourth graders. This was a different experience with far less joy. Right away, I noticed that their testing booklets had fewer pictures and that many of the students struggled with fluency and decoding – Anthony in particular. He was still using his finger to track the words and had difficulty sounding them out. He was spending so much time trying to figure out what the words were, he could barely retain any of the story for comprehension. I could see he was stressed and trying so hard. I later learned that this was not his first time taking this test. He failed. I was devastated – but not more than Anthony. He cried and then left with another teacher to be consoled.
I said to myself, “What’s Happening between first and third grade? When did reading lose its joy and become so arduous?” I shared what I had observed from Anthony and the other students with some of the third and fourth grade teachers. Ultimately, I was told that the school’s balanced literacy curriculum was what they were expected to use even though balanced literacy lacked the explicit and direct instruction in areas like phonics that students needed to actually learn how to read. This can be particularly problematic for students with learning disabilities like dyslexia. So despite after-school tutoring and collaboration with parents, any gains were hard won and far from enough.
Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents, and despite the critical value of effective reading instruction, reading proficiency remains a serious issue in schools across the country including Pennsylvania. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), nearly two-thirds of Pennsylvania fourth-grade students are reading below proficiency (1). Additionally, according to Dr. Ed Fuller of Penn State, Pennsylvania has the highest socioeconomic and racial success gaps of any state in the nation on the NAEP, mostly as a result of unfair educational financing and opportunities (2).
But how is this possible? The answer: we got it wrong. But when you know better, you do better.
The science of reading, despite its existence over the past 20 years, has recently been gaining more traction in education and for good reason. It’s better. Its evidence-based methodology emphasizes explicit phonics education, combined with a focus on phonemic and phonological awareness. It also takes into consideration factors like vocabulary and fluency so that students are not only able to decode but also comprehend complex text without heavily relying on pictorial cues (3).
Taking inspiration from the gains Mississippi has made after emphasizing the science of reading, Pennsylvania policy makers have begun to take more advantage of opportunities to align its practices and instructional materials with the science of reading movement. In the General Assembly, state Representatives Jason Ortitay, R-Allegheny, and Justin Fleming, D-Dauphin have co-sponsored HB998, and Senators Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, and Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, have co-sponsored a companion bill, SB801.
The Literacy Achievement for All bills seek to make it easier to ensure that all students in the commonwealth attain literacy success. In doing so, the bill aims to facilitate the use of evidence-based reading curricula, universal screening within the first 30 days of school to identify struggling readers, and the use of screening data to design and implement intervention plans to prevent any of our children from falling behind. We need everyone to urge their representatives in Harrisburg to ensure all kids can read by supporting HB998 and SB801. Then, once these bills are passed, we will need everyone to work in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Education and their school districts to give focused attention to how (e.g. mindsets, materials, instruction, teacher preparation, family engagement, etc.) these policies are carried out in school communities. We can’t afford to let any more children work their hearts out, only to slip through the cracks as a result of our failure – not theirs. We can and should do better.
Zakiya (she/her) is the Pennsylvania Policy Manager, where she leads the Teach Plus Pennsylvania Teaching Policy Fellowship and continues to grow and support the statewide network of over 400 teachers. She also sits on the PA Schools Work committee, the Pennsylvania Educator Diversity Consortium and is a member of the PA Needs Teachers coalition. Zakiya was also appointed to the Committee on Educator Talent Recruitment in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
Prior to coming to Teach Plus, Zakiya worked at the School District of Philadelphia as a hiring lead for the budgeting and staffing of academic coaches and lead teachers. She also led projects in operations and recruitment for 45 schools including 15 high-needs schools. She has facilitated joint-venture partnerships with emerging and executive leaders in political and business sectors to clear assets for teachers working in marginalized communities in the United States, United Kingdom, Egypt, Brazil, and Canada through the Discovery Learning Alliance. Zakiya led research and development strategies for the expansion plan of the year-old launch of Discovery Education that helped hundreds of school leaders and teachers collaborate through blended learning and leadership programming.
She taught first grade, third, and fourth grade for four years in New Orleans. She also attended American University for her B.S. in Business Administration, The Art Institute of California-San-Diego for a B.S. in Graphic Design, and Johns Hopkins University for an M.A. in teaching.
The Pennsylvania Branch of the International Dyslexia Association is pleased to present a forum for information to benefit its constituents. It is IDA’s policy to not recommend or endorse any specific program, product, institution, company, or instructional material, noting that there are a number of such that present the critical components of instruction as defined by IDA’s Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading. Any program, product, institution, company, or instructional material carrying the IDA Accredited seal meets the IDA Standards.