the science and social justice of reading


Last fall, I joined a call with Oakland educators exploring content-rich curricula, seeking to move the needle on inequitable literacy outcomes. But it only took a few minutes before someone asked the question on everyone’s mind: 

Which of these curricula will be the most culturally relevant for our students? 

There was a pause. 

Out of the many offerings on the table, only one had built culturally sustaining practices into its design in a meaningful way. It was a quiet moment of reckoning for two movements afoot in districts across the country, both drawing from a growing body of research on how students learn — a movement for the Science of Reading as a requisite for literacy equity, and a movement to challenge and enrich the canon, with Culturally Sustaining practices as a path to educational justice. 

It was a moment of frustration for those of us who saw the urgent need for literacy curricula to do both. But most of the “high quality instructional materials” were not developed with culturally sustaining content in mind.  

Since that call, a wave of neo-fascist memory laws have been pushed forward in state legislatures across the country, calling for war against any efforts to explore the impacts of race and racism on American history and society in our schools (falsely referred to as “Critical Race Theory”). Calling to fine and punish public schools and censor teachers and students.  

Most of the discourse around “CRT” in schools has centered on social studies classrooms. But as anyone who has been inside an elementary school since NCLB knows well, for our youngest students, history isn’t always being taught. The social sciences in many elementary schools exist only inasmuch as our literacy instruction includes them.

That means, literacy advocates: it’s on us.

A people without knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots. – Marcus Garvey

Illustration – student work.

Two Movements to Shift Our Classroom Practices 

The Science of Reading movement is bringing the voices of educators, parents, and students together to support the systematic development of foundational skills; the centering of complex texts; and a renewed emphasis on content knowledge. These ingredients scaffold access to increasingly challenging text through close reading practices that probe its layers of meaning and writing practices that draw upon the richness of the content and text being studied

All of this is critical! The energy behind the Science of Reading comes from a response to a real problem: classroom literacy instruction and curricula in the early grades in particular, and across our K-12, frequently contravene well-established cognitive research on how we learn to read (and how we learn in general).

Having taught in several schools that leaned heavily on:

it’s worth emphasizing that the Science of Reading will be critical to achieving equity.

But on its own, it will not achieve justice. 

We need literacy instruction that draws upon the robust findings of the National Reading Panel and the cognitive processes of literacy development– and the decades of scholarship on culturally sustaining pedagogies. From scholars like Rudine Sims Bishop to Gholdy Muhammad, from Sonia Nieto to April Baker Bell, and from classroom educators and school leaders, we have enormous insight into the ways anti racist content-literacy work with students can advance learning and make schools better.

The Science and Social Justice of Reading: 

Elements of the Science of Reading are now codified into law in several states — which has enormous implications for the large-scale adoption and development of content-literacy curricula, for the substance of what happens in our PreK -12 classrooms, in some cases in the very states where these curricular censorship battles are being fought. 

This is why it is crucial that those developing and advocating for ‘content-rich literacy curricula’ treat as fundamental the question of which content we are “asking students to get smarter about“.

We should ensure that those content choices provide mirrors and windows in every unit, drawing upon a Canon of the Global Majority that captures the full mosaic of human experience. This will require leveraging existing standards — and pushing against and beyond the standards where gaps exist.  

This is why those advocating for complex texts must factor in the many dimensions of complexity that make up our ways of languaging. 

We should be teaching into vocabularies that honor students’ identities, the syntaxes that empower them to describe the world with greater nuance and precision. We must cultivate joyful, empowering discourse spaces that welcome and draw upon home languages and Englishes

This is why it is essential that when we speak about close reading,  we support even our youngest readers in approaching text with a critical eye

As the Jim Crow revivalists seek to simplify and sanitize, we must engage our scholars in asking “Whose perspective is represented? Who is missing?” and in celebrating, “How does the author’s style affirm their community? What references might they be making to their own cultural heritage?” 

Our schools don’t need the Science of Reading alone — we need the Science and Social Studies of Reading. The Science and Social Justice of Reading.  And now more than ever, that will require literacy advocates to show up with our voices, our solidarity, and our commitment.

Don’t Make Our Schools Choose: 

Decades ago, Gloria Ladson-Billings described how “our profession is organized in ways that suggest that issues of justice are tangential to the enterprise.” The emergent conversation around the Science of Reading sometimes has this feeling, a sense that cultural responsiveness and critical consciousness are tangential to the first order project of literacy instruction. A curriculum can get “All Green” on EdReports even if its content is all white.  

Clint Smith wrote powerfully last year about this false choice in Social Studies instruction, describing the ways our profession tends to set questions of rigor and criticality against each other as competing priorities, reminding us that, “We do not have to choose between a rigorous lesson and a culturally responsive one. Our current political moment, and indeed our nation’s history, demands both.

We must insist on this synergy in our literacy classrooms. Literacy organizations still devoted to the myth of ‘balanced literacy’ must pivot to more effective and equitable approaches. And curriculum providers and science of reading advocates must reframe our mission around the true purpose of ambitious curricula: not only for our students to be college and career ready, but citizenship ready, community ready

This requires a bold, vocal stance against the undemocratic erasure laws sweeping state legislatures. It requires direct engagement and support for the classroom educators under pressure to ‘just follow orders’. And it demands steadfastness in the work, despite the budgetary pressure of these screaming school board extremists. 

Because as that Oakland meeting reminded us last winter, there is still so much work to be done. The Science of Reading moves us toward equity, but our schools — our students — deserve equity and justice.  

kid work. cognitive nerdery. curricular justice.

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