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To Weather the "Literacy Crisis," Do What Works

Language and literacy pioneer Catherine Snow discusses the current state of literacy in America
Diverse group of kids hiding behind books

While the pandemic has challenged literacy development and outcomes for many students, that doesn’t mean America is currently in a literacy crisis. Professor Catherine Snow, a pioneer with decades of research in language and literacy development, says she’s puzzled by the public discourse about a literacy crisis. 

“I am … struck by the degree to which people are willing to invoke a literacy crisis, when the data do not support anything like a literacy crisis,” Snow says. “NAEP scores, over the last 10, 15 years have grown — slowly, but they have gotten better in literacy.” 

There are many districts that weathered the storm of COVID. Snow cautions that it’s important to remember the negative impacts on children’s reading test scores is not evenly distributed, and in time we will have a better understanding of its impact on literacy development. In the meantime, Snow reminds educators to remain steadfast with balanced literacy instruction. 

“What worries me about the post-pandemic instruction is that people are particularly under the influence of these worries about phonics are retreating to a stance of, ‘Oh my gosh. They've missed the phonics instruction. We've got to do that more and more and better and better,’” she says. “And the fact of the matter is that yes, they need phonics instruction. But they don't need an hour and a half a day of phonics instruction. Fifteen minutes a day, in the context of opportunities to read and practice and play with language, is probably more effective than overloading literacy instruction with phonics in order to repair the ravages of the pandemic.” 

In this episode of the EdCast, Snow discusses the current state of American literacy, and how despite knowing what works, we continue to misinterpret modes of instruction and the science of reading. 


JILL ANDERSON: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. 

Harvard Professor Catherine Snow doesn't believe the lag in children's reading scores means there's a literacy crisis. She spent decades as a Harvard researcher, understanding how children acquire oral language skills and how that relates to literacy outcomes. 

Debates have long plagued the field of literacy development. To this day, educators grapple with the idea of phonics instruction, what the science of reading actually means, and what's the best way to invest instructional time. Snow says children need strong, balanced, literacy instruction that incorporates many components, even some that have yet to really catch on in schools. 

First, I asked her to tell me how she thinks the pandemic impacted literacy development. 

Catherine Snow

In other grades, if they've already learned how to read, and in particular if they're avid readers, or if they're at least willing readers, then a lot of the development of literacy skills can occur just because they continue to read, if they have books, if they have someone to talk to about those books. They don't necessarily require literacy instruction after third grade or fourth grade. 

But they do require, of course, access to texts that will help them continue to expand vocabulary and expand background knowledge, and keep the skills current, keep the skills growing and becoming more automated. 

I think the most vulnerable children are those in kindergarten, first grade, second grade, where instruction is directly relevant to how well they're going to grow. And we haven't really seen the NAEP outcomes for those children in fourth grade yet. 

In other countries which do more regular assessments, it seems as if kids did lose about a year of schooling, of growth in literacy, over the course of the interrupted and somewhat scrappier instruction of the pandemic. So I think we have to anticipate that might appear in our fourth grade readers when NAEP is next applied. 

JILL ANDERSON: Try to help put this in a little perspective for me. Because sometimes, it feels like, are we overreacting? Is there really a reason to be worried? 

CATHERINE SNOW: I am, like you, struck by the degree to which people are willing to invoke a literacy crisis, when the data do not support anything like a literacy crisis. NAEP scores, aside from the pandemic then-- but NAEP scores, over the last 10, 15 years have grown-- slowly, but they have gotten better in literacy. 

And it's deeply puzzling to me why we have all of this public discourse about a literacy crisis. If I were deeply cynical, I would say it's probably a useful technique for companies that are trying to sell their programs to get people to buy those programs, if parents and some school districts are very agitated about the so-called literacy crisis. 

Now that isn't to say that all American children are doing wonderfully in literacy. Obviously, they aren't. But it is to say that there's not a new or a sudden decline in literacy performance, other than that associated with the dip that had to do with the pandemic. 

JILL ANDERSON: Right. I got very confused when I started to look at what was said about a year ago, which sounded incredibly dire. And of course, everyone was pointing their fingers, it seemed, to the pandemic. But then I looked at something new. And it said that things weren't as bad as we thought it would be. 

CATHERINE SNOW: Right. And there are school districts, I should say, that have done a very good job of weathering even the COVID challenges. I've been working, together with my collaborator, Suzanne Donovan, with the DC public schools. And their test scores did not drop at all in K, 1, or 2 over the COVID period. They do regular assessments, and they've gotten better. 

So it is not necessary that there were losses. I mean, it was not unlikely. But some districts managed to recruit resources that enabled teachers and families to weather that period without severe loss of literacy skills, even for very young children who were still in the process of acquiring literacy. 

JILL ANDERSON: You've done a lot of work about the importance and value of literacy development beyond elementary years. We don't hear a lot about what's going on for kids in the middle, early adolescent years. How has the pandemic impacted their development? 

CATHERINE SNOW: I think we have less information about that. And I find it a little harder to speculate about what the impacts have been. I think, it's clear that the negative impacts for somewhat older students. The negative impacts of COVID were motivation, social contact, mental health, the emotional capacities that surround and potentiate good school learning. 

So rather than there being direct impacts on literacy development, I think there are probably indirect impacts. I see later literacy development, starting in fourth or fifth grade, as generally quite a neglected domain in the schools, as if they learned how to read up to third grade. And now we just give them stuff to read and assume they can do it. 

And that's, of course, a mistake. There are many new challenges after third or fourth grade. There's new kinds of texts. There's much more complex language in those texts that older children read. There are new topics. There are new genres. There are new disciplinary challenges, learning to follow arguments in history or in science, in a way that first through third graders don't need to. 

So there is a lot left to teach. But in general, that's conceptualized as let me just teach my content, and not worry too much about how students read that content. And of course, you can give lectures and convey the information. The challenge then is that students are not given the skills to read and learn on their own. 

So I wish there were much more attention to literacy in the content areas after grade four. But given that that's not universally available in US schools, I think the negative consequences of the pandemic of this break in schooling on students will have been mediated primarily through these motivational and social mechanisms, and of course, lost opportunities to learn content. 

And content ultimately does contribute to reading. It's easier to read about things you know about. And you read much more successfully. If you're reading about familiar topics. 

JILL ANDERSON: Why has it been so difficult for that focus in the middle years to catch on with literacy development? 

CATHERINE SNOW: I think many teachers don't have the tools to support them in making that change. The mechanisms that we've found in our research are very helpful in making that change include opportunities to enter the texts, to read texts with an understanding of how they are relevant to really important and big questions, and to discuss those important and big questions, and then use the texts as resources in thinking more deeply about those questions. 

And that's an approach to teaching that is a little bit hampered by many of the emphases in US schools. It's an approach to teaching that suggests slowing down and spending more time on a topic, rather than getting through the topic as quickly as possible so that the material is all covered. 

It's not consistent, or is not seen as consistent with the demands of preparing students for the end of year tests, which require coverage of the material. It's an approach to teaching that requires much more discussion and open consideration of alternatives in the classroom. It's hard to do that when you're on a pacing guide or when you are afraid to let the students talk too much. 

So I think there are a lot of ways in which we have set up the assessment system, the accountability system, the teacher accountability, as well as the student accountability system, to counter the opportunities for deeper learning. 

JILL ANDERSON: Literacy development seems like it's always been an area of debate, way before the pandemic. Why has it been so challenging to come to any consensus on what works? 

CATHERINE SNOW: That is a great question. Because in fact, we've come to a consensus on what works a dozen times over the history of American. We know what works. The problem is not to achieve a consensus about what works, but rather to ensure that consensus is implemented in such a way that the integration of attention to the different skills required is maintained. 

So people become very distressed when they think that some piece of the set of components that students have to be taught about is being neglected. And then the response is to go in and push that component. So you might think that, as many people do right now, that phonics is being neglected, and mount a campaign to emphasize the teaching of phonics. 

And that's a useful campaign. Students do need to learn phonics. But of course, they don't need to learn phonics all the time. They need to learn phonics in the context of many other skills that are also crucial to literacy. But other people would say, well, you're overemphasizing phonics. We need to have more discussion of literature. We need to have more engagement in reading aloud. 

And that's, of course, also a crucial component of literacy instruction. But it can't be emphasized to the exclusion of teaching students how to deal with the code. I mean, I think everybody agrees about the basic principles. But they don't agree on how you prioritize those instructional components, those instructional tasks. 

And there is, I'm afraid, in the literacy field, a little bit of a holier than thou, accusatory style of discourse, which leads to problems for students and parents and backward progress on good instruction. 

JILL ANDERSON: What do you hear from educators, especially right now, those who are working with kids, about their challenges? 

CATHERINE SNOW: Well, I hear from educators, deep commitment to adhering to the, quote science of reading, unquote. And I but I put it in quotes. Because the science of reading has become something more like a religious commitment than anything that you would call a science. 

I mean, there is, of course, a science of reading. But it is not guiding instruction, particularly. It's a very broad set of scientific findings and accumulation of scientific knowledge. And yet it's being wielded as a cudgel in many educational discussions, partly because people don't really know what it means. 

If you ask 10 people what is the science of reading, they will define it somewhat differently. I mean, one of the assumed principles of the science of reading is, of course, that children learning to read in English, a complex and abstract orthography, need explicit instruction in the code, in the alphabetic principle, in how letters represent sounds. 

And that is, as I say, part of the science of reading. But the science of reading would equally dictate that in an orthography like English, because it's so deep, you also have to teach a lot of sight words, words that don't adhere to the decodable principles that guide many reading activities. 

And you have to teach morphology. You have to teach how frequent morphological markers don't adhere to those phonics principles. And you have to ensure that students have wide vocabulary and a wide background knowledge basis in order to help them decode and comprehend what they're reading. So those aspects of the science of reading, which are just as well demonstrated as the importance of phonics, are often left out of the discussion, unfortunately. 

The other thing I would say about the science of reading is that we know a lot about the process of reading development. We don't know very much about the teaching of reading. There are wild claims made about how American teachers don't know how to teach phonics, or there is no phonics instruction going on in American classrooms. And we don't really know. Nobody's done a large scale survey or a large scale set of observations of American classrooms that would enable us to say what percentage of teachers are completely neglecting phonics, what percentage are overemphasizing phonics. 
It would be nice to know that. But we just don't. 

JILL ANDERSON: That's amazing, that study hasn't been done yet. 

CATHERINE SNOW: It would be a big study. 

JILL ANDERSON: It sounds like there is no one focus and emphasis that educators should be using, that it's a bunch of different things and methods that should be done in order to teach reading.
CATHERINE SNOW: That's exactly right. Students need several domains of competence to be good readers. And of course, those different components of reading skill are acquired in somewhat different orders in somewhat different facility by different students. So it's a very complex task to figure out what this child needs versus that child. 

But they all need rich language exposure and opportunities to interact about interesting topics, using vocabulary and syntax that's appropriate to the complexity of those topics. They all need opportunities to practice reading, to become automatic more skilled in doing the task of reading. And almost all of them need explicit phonics instruction. 

The question is how to integrate and sequence and connect up all those different domains of instruction. 

JILL ANDERSON: Do you think that because of the pandemic, we might need to rethink how we do this work? 

CATHERINE SNOW: Well, I guess I would say the pandemic has certainly opened up evidence about domains, areas where kids are failing, more, obviously, than might have happened without the pandemic. I don't think that post-pandemic students need a different form of literacy instruction. They might need a more intensive and more efficacious form of literacy instruction. 

And in other words, not just kind of let it happen, the way we had been letting it happen, but trying to ensure efficiency and targeting of needs for students who are falling behind more effectively. But what worries me about the post-pandemic instruction is that people are particularly under the influence of these worries about phonics are retreating to a stance of oh my gosh. They've missed the phonics instruction. We've got to do that more and more and better and better. 

And the fact of the matter is that yes, they need phonics instruction. But they don't need an hour and a half a day of phonics instruction. 15 minutes a day, in the context of opportunities to read and practice and play with language, is probably more effective than overloading literacy instruction with phonics in order to repair the ravages of the pandemic. 

I've seen a lot of classrooms in which they're supposed to be two hours for the literacy instruction block. But it always starts with the small skills, letter sounds, sound segmentation, spelling, regular words. And the time that is scheduled for language enrichment, for practicing reading comes at the end and gets squeezed out. 

And that's a terrible mistake. Because those components are just as important and need to be given their full attention as well. 

JILL ANDERSON: My understanding is, we're not always talking about apples to apples. There is a lot of inequality across the board in kids learning to read. 

CATHERINE SNOW: There is huge inequality in the array of skills that kids bring to kindergarten or first grade, when reading instruction starts. That inequality is unfortunately often compounded by inequality in access to good instruction. I trust that when the data finally end up getting fully analyzed about the effects of COVID, I'm sure that we will see that for reading performance, as for health, for other consequences of the pandemic, that children in low income households, that children whose parents have low education levels, will have suffered more, will be showing greater slowdown in their learning. 
And so that's also worth thinking about in a post-COVID recovery, targeting resources to those schools, those districts where the kids most need the support, and where the teachers most need the support. Because their students are at greatest risk. 

JILL ANDERSON: How do you often advise educators to spend their time, energy, and money when it comes to literacy development? 

CATHERINE SNOW: Often, the classroom educators unfortunately don't have a lot of autonomy in that regard. But at the school or district level, I think the focus has to be supporting teachers not just with knowledge about literacy. I mean, that seems like it's the right way to go, that they should become more sophisticated in the science of reading. 

But I think when all of us get into the classroom, we tend to rely to fall back on curricula and techniques that we have available. So I would hope that we're supporting teachers by facilitating their use of curricular materials that give students what they need or that are a basis for giving students what they need, and organizational strategies that help them respond in a more individualized way to students' profiles. 

JILL ANDERSON: Are there any literacy innovations coming down the pipeline or anything new that's coming up that you're excited about? 

CATHERINE SNOW: Well, I'm excited about the tendency in some corners of the world, of the literacy world, to recognize that just teaching literacy skills is an inadequate approach. Literacy skills are tools for children. 

They want to do something. They don't-- it's not that they want to learn the alphabet. They want to learn about the world. They want to have an impact on the world.
Now the alphabet, knowing the alphabet, knowing how to read, knowing how to write, is a remarkably powerful mechanism for learning about the world and for having an impact on the world. But we put learning the skills ahead of those other tasks So. That kids never kind of struggle through first, second, and third grade to get the skills to a high enough level before they're allowed to use those skills in productive ways. 

And I think that's just backwards. I think it's backwards for language, for second language speakers, for example, to teach them several words before you let them talk about something they're interested in. And it's backwards for first graders, who could be learning to read by being exposed to and being given guidance in accessing texts about what they're interested in, by writing texts that express their own interests and perspectives. 

So I'd like to see a rebalancing of the end of literacy-- namely, learning and communication, with the beginning of literacy namely the skills that make that possible. 

JILL ANDERSON: Catherine Snow is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening. 


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