I have always considered myself to be a strong reading advocate. I started my career as a special education teacher and I was not a very good one. I was an English major in undergrad, and I had access to Baldwin, Faulkner, Malcolm X, Audre Lorde, Shakespeare and many others. Then I found myself as a classroom teacher who could not teach kids well enough to give them access to those same authors. I could teach children the comprehension and vocabulary, but that was about it. I was not given a structured methodology of how to teach children how to decode. I learned early in my career that having sound foundational pedagogy was a must, but I have been in education long enough to have seen the pendulum swing from whole language/balanced literacy to a hard, fast entrenchment in the Science of Reading (SoR) framework. I believe this is a good thing, but I have concern.
My unaddressed concern is that as the reading war pendulum swings, there is no authentic conversation on the research and what it means for Black children. I have familiarity with LETRS and in my opinion, it does a very good job addressing support for bilingual students. However, SoR is a methodology not a program, and there is little to no research on how these practices support Black children. In a podcast interview with We Are Here Lit Dr. Alfred Tatum noted that less than 2 research articles per year are written that focus primarily on African American male reading and literacy development. I tweeted at him, and he confirmed it. It appears SoR advocacy is largely driven by middle-class, white women who are concerned about the reading difficulties of their dyslexic sons. It does not present itself as a reading-for-all initiative. According to dyslexicadvantage.com, 49 states have passed dyslexia laws or reading legislation. Are there more dyslexic students who struggle with literacy than African American children who struggle with reading? What does that legislation mean for Black children, their families and those who educate them? What does that mean for bilingual students, impoverished children, and linguistically diverse communities? Blacks have historically struggled for literacy, from enslavement to anti-literacy laws to segregation to the racist imbalance of schools funding.
I do not entirely fault LETRS, Heggerty, Orton Gillingham, Logic of English, The Reading League, or any other program aligned with SoR. Because of marketing, these programs are billed as silver-bullet cure-alls for reading woes. Social media, ignorance of the reading in this country, and the trench warfare that is the reading war all play a part in the perception of SoR. And maybe the above-mentioned companies bear some responsibility. That is up for debate. I have recently joined the board of The Reading League, a nonprofit focused on science-based approaches to reading instruction, I ask all such organizations: “How are you assuring that the advocacy advances the literacy of all?” The reading proficiency of Black children has been just as problematic, if not worse, than it has been for dyslexic students for a protracted time.
The use of the word “science” is loaded if not problematic. Science is always changing. Not so long ago, Pluto was a planet, and science now postulates that plasma is the fourth state of matter. Human advancement and new knowledge buttress old information or debunk it completely, making previous information obsolete. Seemingly this has happened with theories that support how we teach reading, as well.
As a person of African descent, I see science in the hands of whites with power as a cause for skepticism because it was James Marion Sims who believed Black women did not feel pain to the extent of white women; he abused them for his cruel experiments in the name of science. Johann Blumenbach postulated that white people were the most beautiful people and had to be the original people on earth because their skulls were white, and it matched their outer skin. Arthur Jensen was a noted psychologist. He asserted that intelligence was linked to genetics. Charles Murray, author of “The Bell Curve” asserted much of the same. Dr. William Shockley was a proponent of sterilizing Blacks and other minority groups who scored low on intelligence testing because he believed they were a drain on society. “Science” has often advanced whiteness while hampering people of color. Who will the SoR movement benefit? Who will SoR supporters advocate for? Is it all children or is it suburban whites who need extra academic support? Is it a literacy-for-all movement? The need for strong literacy practices is much needed in communities of color. Breaking this cycle is going to take transparency, planning, and ongoing conversation between SoR organizations and communities of color to ensure this movement is truly a literacy movement for all children—and not just privileged kids struggling with dyslexia. If not, Black, Latinx, and low-income people are being sold a story.