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Navigating Literacy Challenges, Fostering a Love of Reading

With ongoing debates around the best ways to teach reading, what makes for truly effective literacy instruction?
Teacher reading with a student

How do we teach children to love reading amidst the ongoing debates surrounding literacy curriculums and instructional methods, and the emphasis on student outcomes? It's something Senior Lecturer Pamela Mason thinks about a lot. She's been both a teacher and school leader, and has spent decades training teachers on literacy instruction. She says it takes many pieces coming together to create the perfect mix — especially making it fun — for successful reading instruction. 

As data continues to show dips in children's reading assessments nationwide, some states like Florida and Mississippi have been able to make progress and capture the attention of educators. 

"There's a whole systemic approach to literacy improvement. A lot of people looking at Mississippi say, 'Oh, it's because there's going to be third grade retention. Yes, that is part of their literacy plan, but there's so much more. There's in-school support. There's after school support. There's even books being given free to families who attend schools who are underperforming," she says. "So we have this merging of teachers, and community, and families, and administrators, all shining a light on the importance of literacy, and hopefully we're keeping some of the joy involved in that, as well."

In this episode, we explore the intersection of effective literacy instruction, cultivating joy in reading, and empowering educators and families to ignite a passion for lifelong learning.


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

Pamela Mason knows teaching reading takes more than just a great curriculum to make an impact. She's a Harvard expert on literacy pedagogy and has spent decades not just as a teacher and leader in the classroom, but also training reading coaches and specialists.

As more districts change literacy curriculums, she says we need to focus on supports and resources and sustaining those efforts for teachers. She knows many educators are under pressure in ways that student outcomes often override the process of learning to read. Mason says a big piece of learning to read is just making it fun. I wanted to know more about how the debates around literacy and changing curriculums impact teaching reading and how educators and families can teach children to love reading.

First, I asked her about the complexities in learning to read and teaching reading.

Pamela Mason

PAMELA MASON: Every child who starts school in kindergarten, or even in pre-K, they're very excited about learning how to read because they see people in their lives reading what looked to them like squiggles, and they're making sense of them. They are laughing about them, they're sharing them, and so there's a lot of motivation to figure out how to read. For most of our languages, there is a connection between what those squiggles are, we know them as letters, into sounds, and the letters work together to make words.

So there is this code that learners need to learn, and that is what we're seeing in terms of what we call phonics, matching sounds to symbols, symbols to sounds, and putting those symbols and sounds together to come up with words, come up with sentences, paragraphs, and whole stories. 
So that's what's involved in learning how to read.

In terms of teaching how to read, then we need to have the teachers kind of back up and say, "All right. We're going to start with sounds and symbols and make those symbols into words." And that is what we see as the kind of phonics instruction in schools. While they're making symbols into sounds, and sounds into symbols, and learning how to read, learners need to be joyful about it. They want to have fun with words.

Even little kids, when they're just learning to talk, make up silly little rhymes because they're experimenting with language. And that same joy and feeling of experimentation should carry over, actually, into how we teach reading. I don't think any of us would continue learning how to do something if somebody kept telling us how hard it was, how important it was, how necessary it was. Yes, we know that a lot about things as adults that we do in life, but if there's no joy in it, why bother, or we're like half invested in it.

So having teachers think about how to give good instruction and engender this joy so that we have children who know how to read, enjoy reading, and so they want to read. And there's a lot of research around that cyclical positive reinforcement, of-- you do something, you get better at it, it feels good, you do it more. And we can think about that as adults, things that we've learned how to do as adults, and so what keeps us in the game. And success and joy keep us all in the game.

JILL ANDERSON: I imagine it has to be hard for literacy instructors, any kind of teacher, trying to teach kids how to read, just because it feels like there's so much pressure. It's easy for that joy, I would imagine, to just disappear.

PAMELA MASON: Yes, there has been a lot of pressure, especially coming out of the pandemic and thinking about the learning loss that may have happened. And whilst we have children for whom reading doesn't click, right, but in keeping at it, and providing them with extra support, we still need to hold out that this can be fun, this can be interesting. They may be interested in a hobby or a sport, and so bringing that in and showing how learning how to read will help them in that endeavor, or that people that they look up to are readers, so that we can always kind of keep that motivation going.

As Jeanne Chall said, "A good program in the hands of a great teacher is optimum," but we need to also get the learners thinking about their agency and their interest in reading. We see that also with children who come to us who are multilingual.


PAMELA MASON: They know a lot about language. They know of home language that they've learned to speak. They may have learned to read it. And then they come to our classrooms where most of the time English is the language of instruction, and so it looks a little different to them. But helping teachers see the assets that these learners bring, that they already know a language and it's just applying some of those skills to this new language, English, our language of instruction. And so I think it's important that we really think about all of those aspects of our learners and how we can help them decode the language and then understand it. That's the whole point of it.


PAMELA MASON: It's not just rattling off rhyming words, or word families, or all the words you can think of that begin with the letter B. It's around reading something that's interesting that you can understand and you want to understand.

JILL ANDERSON: We're seeing a lot of movement to change literacy curriculums around the country, and some states-- Florida, Mississippi, those have been highlighted as doing really, really well with reading. How important are literacy curriculums as a piece of this puzzle?

PAMELA MASON: The literacy curriculums are an important piece in that you want to have a good arc of learning.


PAMELA MASON: You want to have good sound pedagogy as well as content. But the other thing that we see is when districts or schools decide that they need to adopt a literacy curriculum they're saying explicitly, or implicitly, there's a problem we need to solve.


PAMELA MASON: So what is that problem? And so there's some self-study that goes on. What are our learners doing well? What aren't they doing well? Is it the curriculum? Is it the teaching? And when they decide it's the curriculum, then they usually have a committee. And the International Literacy Association really describes this process where teachers and specialists come together and say, all right, what do our learners need? How do these curriculum address this need? And then when the curriculum gets adopted, usually from the publisher, you get an influx of support. They may bring consultants or specialists to do professional learning for grade levels or for whole schools, and then you have ongoing literacy coaching that help teachers get used to the new program, and implement it.

And as we see in Florida, with, "Just Read, Florida!" and in Mississippi, a lot of their progress in the National Assessment of Educational Progress has stemmed from this infusion of time, attention, and resources-- money and human resources, to help teachers do a better job. If the story of stone soup, you know-- you're adding all these different things, so you add all of these different variables which are all very important. And it's this infusion of attention, and support, and validation, and so, then you get the Mississippi miracle. You get a lot of success in Florida. You get success in Alabama. In our country, these are not states that one would look to as intellectual powerhouses, which is really unfair.


PAMELA MASON: But it is because of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. They haven't done well, but now they're doing much better, and everyone is kind of scratching their heads. Well, if you actually look at what they're doing, there's a whole systemic approach to literacy improvement. A lot of people looking at Mississippi say, oh it's because there's going to be third grade retention. Yes, that is part of their literacy plan, but there's so much more. There's in-school support. There's after school support. There's even books being given free to families who attend schools who are underperforming. 

So we have this merging of teachers, and community, and families, and administrators, all shining a light on the importance of literacy, and hopefully we're keeping some of the joy involved in that, as well. And so it's really hard to tease out-- if they did this without this, would they have the same results? And in terms of being an educator, and looking at learners, you don't want to say, "All right. You get this, and you get this, and we'll see who comes out on top." I mean, I understand that's part of research design, but in terms of having been a school leader you want all of your learners to have the very best from everybody. In terms of the teachers, and the families, and the learners, we're all in it together.

JILL ANDERSON: Because I do wonder if after some of those districts and states get propped up, if other districts in other states might say, "Oh hey, we should look at our curriculum and change it, too." But then maybe they don't put all that support in, all those additional resources, to not just get through the first year but to sustain it.

PAMELA MASON: Exactly. That's important, that it's sustainable. And though Mississippi had this great increase in the NAEP, in 2019, there was a slight drop in 2022, and so you wonder whether the shine has gone off the apple, you know, whether some of the resources may have been pulled out, because it's not an inexpensive endeavor. So one again has to wonder whether everybody's getting all of this attention and so we all rise to the occasion, and then the attention wanes, and we're thinking, "Oh well. You know, let's kind of ease back in." And perhaps we're not maintaining our enthusiasm in being at the top of our game.

JILL ANDERSON: Right. One of the things about literacy that has always fascinated me is the endless debate around it even though we seem to know what works. You're someone who supports-- teaches literacy specialists, literacy coaches, what do you think is getting lost in all of these endless debates we have?

PAMELA MASON: The basic debate is, do we teach code or phonics, or do we teach meaning? And we have to teach it all.


PAMELA MASON: In our language there is a code, and to hide that code and not open that code up to our learners, it's just not right, and it's not going to come out with good results. But once we help our learners with the code, you're giving them a key, --

PAMELA MASON: --but they have to have a door to open, and that's comprehension. And so how does knowing all these words, and how to say them, open up poetry, open up narrative, open up mysteries, open up fantasy, so that oh, this is why I'm learning that "B" says "buh", because I can talk about battles, and bullets, and all kinds of horizons and things that we can think of. So it's really important to have that comprehension. So there has to be the, this is the code, this is the meaning, and we need to work it together.

JILL ANDERSON: What do you hear from the teachers, and the specialists, and the coaches, who are coming to you taking professional development, or just coming for a degree? Are they just exhausted from all this debate?

PAMELA MASON: The ones that I work with are on some level exhausted but also eager to know what should I be doing? What does work? And we try to avoid the notion of best practices versus best practicing.

We're in it and we're always learning more about how people learn to read, and how people learn to read in multiple languages. And so education is a process. Being an educator is a process. And so we're always trying to do what's best with the knowledge that we have at this time.

So they're very anxious and willing to do better, and to find out new techniques, and how do they work, and when do they work, and really becoming observers of children and kid watchers. And sometimes that one technique will work for maybe 90% of your learners, and there's that 10% that just not clicking. And so what about those learners? What about your curriculum? What about the way you're delivering your curriculum? It's always about what you teach, and also how you teach it.

You may need to tweak it a little bit just to grab those other learners and get them feeling accomplished, and seeing their growth, and them seeing their own growth. That's also very important.

JILL ANDERSON: So I want to distinguish between these two ideas. One that you had kind of mentioned earlier about finding some joy. And it seems like there is teaching kids to read, and then there's teaching children to love reading. What's the difference, and how do you implement that while adhering to the science of reading?

PAMELA MASON: Well, we know how to teach children how to read.


PAMELA MASON: And then providing them with a reading menu, a reading diet, that's varied. That we have short pieces that they read, long pieces, silly pieces, pieces that tell them why the roots go down and the stems go up, which most children want to know. They're very interested in how their world works. Giving them that variety will help them be more joyous.

The other issue is text difficulty. There is a push, and rightly so, to have our learners at an appropriate level of difficulty, at their grade level, and supporting them to do more. But I'm sorry, I'm not going to cuddle up with a physics textbook at the end of a long day.


PAMELA MASON: And so even as a skilled reader, sometimes I just want to read something lighter. Sometimes we call them our summer beach books. I enjoy actually reading young adult fiction.

It keeps me in touch with what the young adults are reading, are interested in. They're very well written, and they're fun.

I need that variety in my reading diet, and our learners need that variety in their reading diet, so that they, again, maintain that joy. That it's not always this arduous task of, "What does the author mean? What is the deep meaning?" You know, sometimes you just want to have fun with your reading.

JILL ANDERSON: So just letting them choose whatever they want, even when it's always graphic novels.

PAMELA MASON: Yes, there's nothing wrong with graphic novels. There are adult graphic novels. Octavia Butler's work is now in a graphic novel form. And actually involving a lot more parts of your brain, because the words are fewer than if it were in a text, but you're seeing visual images, you're seeing expressions. So you know how the characters are feeling, rather than being told how they're feeling, and so it is a multiple literacy. So you're reading words, you're reading visuals, you're reading how the characters are situated on the page to each other.

So there's a lot of literacies going on with graphic novels, and I have to say that I'm still developing some of those literacies, because I'm a linear reader. I like reading text, and when I see all of those images, and the bubbles, I'm not sure do I go left to right, up to down. But again, some of our learners-- just like a fish to water. They're very comfortable with that, and it's interesting to hear them talk about how they navigate that presentation of text and multiliteracies.

JILL ANDERSON: Is there one thing that you would recommend reading teachers try to do?

PAMELA MASON: Find texts that their learners want to read.

JILL ANDERSON: Is that hard, though?

PAMELA MASON: Sometimes the children don't know what they like.


PAMELA MASON: And so experimenting, and giving learners permission not to finish a book. I mean, as an adult, have you finished every book you've started? I'll tell you, quite frankly, I haven't. You know, yes, you want to give it some time to reveal the storyline, to understand the setting, and the characters, and then sometimes you can say, "Yeah, no. No thanks." And there's no shame in that. This is not the genre, or the author, or the style, or the setting, or the time period in which this text is situated, and it's OK. 

If they're constantly only reading the first couple of pages and dropping it, then we need to be more--


PAMELA MASON: -- focused and really try to help the reader find something that they like, either around topic, around difficulty level, and then get them through it. I'm not trying to say that they should be grazing all the time, kind of at a literacy buffet, --


PAMELA MASON: -- but they do need to sit down and have a whole meal. But finding which type of literature, that type of reading, that type of text, is important.

JILL ANDERSON: Because I can imagine for some children, especially those who are just resistant to reading, it can be really hard to find that one type of book, or a genre, or something that they're even open to reading.

PAMELA MASON: Yes. And sometimes a book of short stories will be fine, or plays on books, so we have, "The Three Little Pigs," and then we have Jon Scieszka's story of the real-- this true story of the three little pigs where it's told from the wolf's perspective.


PAMELA MASON: And it's hysterical. It gives you an opportunity to talk about perspective-taking, and you know, do you believe the wolf, or was he really trying to cover up that he wanted to eat the pig? You can find different books that put a different spin on traditional stories or traditional points of view that may be engaging to some learners that are reluctant.

JILL ANDERSON: What about parents? We know that they play a huge role in their child's reading. As a parent you get in front of a teacher, maybe 10 minutes or 20 minutes a year, for a parent teacher conference. Is there anything that they should be asking their child's teacher about reading?

PAMELA MASON: They should ask the teacher what it is that the teacher is working on in terms of a comprehension skill. Are they working on sequencing? Are they working on knowing fact versus opinion? Are they working on character development? What is this character like? How are they changing throughout the story? And then when the parents, the families are talking with their child about what they're reading, be it for school or be it for leisure, then ask those same types of questions so that the child gets the hint that, oh what I'm learning in school, actually, I'm supposed to be applying any and every time I read. And that is important.

And it also helps open up the conversation between children and their families. What are you reading? Blah blah blah. Do you like it? Yes. End of conversation. [LAUGHING] Rather than, oh, what are you reading? Who's your favorite character? Why is that your favorite character? Would you want that character to be your friend, or not? Is that character a good person or someone that you would want to keep away from? So that kind of opens up the conversation around the storyline. 

I would encourage families not to kind of get out the flashcards, and, all right, all right, we're going to do reading today. And then, all right, these are the 20 words you need to know at the snap of a finger. We'll leave that at school, and hopefully not a lot of that is happening in school. But it should be again bringing in that joy. The other aspect of reading that I encourage families to do is to read.

JILL ANDERSON: Right, read together.

PAMELA MASON: We're always telling our children, it's important to read. When do they see you reading?


PAMELA MASON: When do they see you reading and laughing out loud? When do they see you reading and, you know-- oh my god, I don't believe they just did that! So it's again, you're talking the talk-- reading is important. But you need to walk the talk. You need to do it. And there have been times in my family where I just kind of go in the living room with a book, and sit down and-- don't bother me, I'm reading. Wait, wait, wait, wait a minute. Wait, wait, wait till I get to the end of this chapter, then-- then we can talk. As long as, you know, nothing-- there's no dire emergency in the family, it can wait. 

That's also important, that we don't kind of wait till the our children go to bed for us to read. And then--

JILL ANDERSON: Interesting.

PAMELA MASON: --we kind of look like, somewhat like, hypocrites. We're saying reading is important but they never see us read. Writing is important. When do they see you write?


PAMELA MASON: It could be a book, it could be just the recipe. And talking out loud, "Oh, all right. I need to get these ingredients. All right, what needs to go first?" And that sequencing, those are all comprehension skills. And so talking out loud, thinking out loud about what you're reading, be it for pleasure, be it for information, be it procedural-- recipes are procedural. Test is in the outcome. "Maybe I didn't put this ingredient in." Or, "Maybe I should have left it in the oven. It said 10 minutes but maybe it needed 12 minutes, or 15 minutes."

And so again, that's all those decisions are based on text.


JILL ANDERSON: OK. Well, thank you very much, Pamela.

PAMELA MASON: Well, thank you, Jill, for having me. It's been great talking about literacy with you.

JILL ANDERSON: Pamela Mason is a senior lecturer and director of the Jeanne Chall Reading Lab, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she also teaches the workshop, "Culturally Responsive Literature Instruction." This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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