Congratulations to Dr. Tony Sanders on his appointment to the role of State Superintendent! Tony is an incredible advocate for educational equity and a visionary leader and bridge-builder. We partnered with Tony as members of the Funding Illinois’ Future coalition during the years-long battle to overhaul Illinois’ outdated school funding system, and are confident that he will bring that same commitment to equitable school funding to his role.

Tony has served at the agency previously, successfully advocated for legislation to improve educational equity, enhanced communications and family engagement programs at his district, and managed the second-largest school district outside of Chicago. (All while building rapport with the students he serves at U-46 through, among other things, clever snow-day-related banter on social media.) Those past successes are demonstrative of Tony’s ability to bring people together to make progress, transcending politics and other things that keep us divided.

We are especially eager to partner with Tony on the literacy work that is underway at ISBE. The literacy crisis is urgent and solvable – but not without strong leadership from ISBE. Many states have undertaken literacy reform and perhaps the most critical factor as to whether those changes succeed has been the leadership from the states’ education agencies through implementation. ISBE held a literacy retreat on October 25, 2022 as a first step and has continued engaging stakeholders toward a comprehensive literacy plan.

Earlier today, members of the Illinois legislature took the oath of office for a new term as members of the General Assembly. On Monday, Governor JB Pritzker was sworn in for his second term as governor. I was there on Monday, along with my colleague Jessica, for the ceremony and the pomp and circumstance.

As our elected officials set their agenda and plan their ’23 goals, now is a great time for us to congratulate them and urge their support for our shared priorities.

I’m talking about common sense priorities like ensuring Illinois schools have the funding they need to give kids the education they deserve; providing evidence-based literacy instruction to boost our state’s sagging reading scores; working to ensure racial justice in the youth court system; and, working together to offer students expanded opportunities for advanced coursework.

Let’s congratulate our elected leaders on their inauguration and urge them to focus on issues that will make a positive difference for Illinois children and their families!

Thank you for standing with us as we start the new year. I look forward to everything we accomplish together this year.

The right to read is foundational to our community and our democracy. Literacy is essential for an individual’s ability to earn a living, be informed consumers, participate in their children’s education, and pursue happiness. But did you know that about one-third of Illinois students read below a ‘basic’ level? The consequences of missing out on evidence-based literacy instruction can last a lifetime.

Your $5 gift today will help us keep up the momentum on improving literacy!

The literacy crisis is urgent and solvable. Other states have taken action while Illinois has largely sat on the sidelines. But not anymore!  Here’s what we’re doing to address it:

  • We facilitate the Illinois Early Literacy Coalition to empower parents, educators, and community members from up and down Illinois to join their voices and collectively advocate for all children to have equitable access to evidence-based literacy instruction.
  • We hosted a Literacy Summit over the summer, bringing together dozens of literacy advocates to refine our goals, grow our networks, and activate for change.
  • Coalition members also urged the State Board of Education to host a literacy gathering, which culminated in a statewide summit in October.
  • We expect 2023 to be the year for action as we continue the push, along with dedicated legislative champions, to enact literacy legislation.

Thank you for standing with us this year, and I hope we can count on your support as we keep up the fight in 2023 and beyond, until every child has access to the resources and instruction they need to learn to read.

The Illinois literacy crisis is urgent and solvable.

Teachers are one of the most trusted voices on issues impacting education, and for good reason. They are in the classroom on a daily basis. They know what works.

So when a group of educators told us recently that Illinois needs to improve the way we teach literacy, it’s on us to listen.

They’ll tell you that literacy is a lifeline to future success. Literacy instruction helps build our community. The achievement gap will not go away if we do not address literacy.

Educators know that evidence-based literacy practices will help more children learn how to read. They know that Illinois needs to step up their game when it comes to how we teach students to read.

Listen to the teachers. Share this video with your friends and family. Urge them to join us and our Illinois Early Literacy Coalition partners as we continue the fight to improve literacy outcomes for all Illinois students.

Last week, the Illinois Early Literacy Coalition held a day-long retreat where over 40 literacy advocates came together. With a wide range of life experiences, from regions across Illinois, we learned from each other and broadened our perspectives. Speaking for myself, I emerged feeling super energized to continue advocating for improved literacy instruction in Illinois…and, also, a little overwhelmed by the depth of the problem and the complexity of potential solutions.

One thing is clear: with a third of Illinois’ 4th graders reading below “basic” on the Nation’s Report Card, we have major work to do. Every student – no matter their background or zip code – deserves equitable access to evidence-based literacy instruction that meets their needs. Other states have gotten serious about literacy and adopted comprehensive plans to improve outcomes, with varying degrees of success. Illinois’ time to get serious about literacy is NOW.

If you want to be a part of the solution, add your name to the Illinois Early Literacy Coalition. We welcome people from all walks of life, who live up and down Illinois, who work in schools or not, who struggled to read or excelled, who speak one language or many, whose kids started reading before preschool or needed years of tutoring. There is a place in this coalition for every Illinoisan who is committed to advocating for equitable reading outcomes. Join us.

P.S. – I wrote this blog post a few weeks ago that summarizes my experience as I began digging into reading policy. If this is new to you, you might find it interesting. Or helpful. Or controversial. Either way, let me know if you have feedback.

Download this column as a PDF

Me too. Let me walk you through my journey to better understand this complicated topic, featuring a heavy dose of honesty, the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and a debt of gratitude to the many kind souls I’ve met along the ride who pour their hearts into literacy work every day.

This is the Dunning-Kruger Effect:

Early in my professional life, when I was a legislative staffer diving into lots of topics that were new to me, I remember having a revelation that the more I learned about a subject, the more I realized how much I still didn’t know. Over a decade later, I discovered that this phenomenon has a name: the Dunning-Kruger Effect! My journey to learn about literacy instruction is following this trajectory, from knowing nothing to progressing along the “slope of enlightenment.”

But let’s go back in time about two years. Lots of states have undertaken literacy policy work, but Illinois hasn’t made any big, splashy literacy reforms. Our literacy rates, like literacy rates nationally, are frighteningly low. (One-third of fourth graders don’t meet “basic” reading standards.) “Someone should do something about that,” I thought. But I’m not a practitioner and this is so deeply embedded in pedagogy. It was around this time that a friend of a friend connected me to a local teacher who was having similar thoughts from the opposite direction (i.e., “I know the practice, but I don’t know policy and advocacy.” Here she is, talking about reading instruction in a TedX Talk.)

There is clearly a problem here:

  1. One-third of fourth graders don’t meet “basic” reading standards. Two-thirds don’t meet “proficient” standards. The picture looks about like that whether you consider national or State assessments. Within that statistic, there are deep inequities. A strong majority of incarcerated adults and court-involved youth are struggling readers.
  2. Tutoring is a booming business, but it’s cost prohibitive for most students. If a family can afford it, they will shell out tens of thousands of dollars to get their kid the literacy instruction they need. It is a tremendous inequity.
  3. Lots of other states have taken action. Some are getting great results. Some don’t seem to be moving the needle. But policymakers in these states have said enough is enough and prioritized literacy on their policy agenda.

I went “down the rabbit hole.” First, I binged the Emily Hanford documentary series, a convenient entryway into the literacy conversation. I signed up to the “Science of Reading—What I Should Have Learned in College” national and Illinois Facebook pages. I studied findings of the 2000 National Reading Panel report, and the 2006 National Literacy Panel Report for Language Minority Children and Youth. My podcast queue is heavily literacy-focused, as are most of the personal conversations with whomever I cross paths.

Around the same time as my immersion in the world of literacy, the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus was hard at work negotiating several reform pillars, including education, under the leadership of State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D—Maywood). Rep. Rita Mayfield (D—Waukegan) had filed an early literacy bill for years, and she was committed to seeing it through. It was in the ILBC bill at one point, but it came out so that it could be worked on further. After that, we started networking more, finding lots of committed parents and advocates, introducing folks to each other, and jointly establishing the Illinois Early Literacy Coalition.

At this point in my journey, here were my top three takeaways:

  1. Reading is not natural. It literally re-wires our brains as we make connections between the sounds in language, to the letters on a page, to meaning of the text. Some children make the inferences they need to figure it out no matter how they are taught, but most need direct, explicit instruction to “crack the code.”
  2. Phonemic awareness gets shortchanged, and phonics is often added as a side dish that isn’t well integrated with the rest of the lesson. The five pillars of reading are phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary development, and comprehension.
  3. Emerging readers should decode words while reading books with phonics patterns they have learned, rather than being encouraged to figure out the words from looking at pictures or memorizing repetitive text.

I was watching my then-kindergartener go through remote schooling, where his phenomenal teachers delivered instruction from a poorly rated curriculum that “cues” students to look at the pictures in their books when they come to an unknown word. (With the type of books they use, it’s really the only option, since most kindergarteners haven’t learned the phonics patterns to decode “scientist,” or “elephant,” or “porcupine.” These books typically feature a repetitive text pattern on every page, like “I went to the playground and played on the [insert equipment here],” and a picture that hints at that type of playground equipment. More advanced versions might have something different on the last page, like “I love going to the playground.”) I noticed his struggle to remember letters and their sounds, and his adorable language quirks, like saying “tremote” instead of remote, “pagic” instead of package, and “garjib” instead of garbage. This was the first time it occurred to me: he is one of the kids for whom explicit and systematic phonics and phonemic awareness instruction will be absolutely critical.

When I was figuratively at the top of the first peak (“Mt. Stupid”), I think my biggest misconception was that there are two clearcut “sides” to this debate. A term of the 1990s, the “Reading Wars” still seemed to be going strong – with one segment of the population advocating for structured literacy and the other for balanced literacy. (As it turns out, neither is a silver bullet, both can be interpreted in multiple ways, and both actually support a lot of the same principles.) So came my fall from Mt. Stupid into the Valley of Despair.

I thought, “Explicit, systematic phonics instruction is everything.” It’s super important, but… Here’s what I oversimplified:

  1. It’s not more important than other elements (fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension), and there are more elements to throw into the mix, like oral language development and writing.
  2. Different students will need different dosages of instruction of these elements. Some might not need much phonics, others will need many repetitions of the phonics patterns they learn, and all should receive the instruction that meets their needs. Students learning English will need a greater focus on oral language development, while students with dyslexia will need a heavy focus on phonemic awareness and phonics.
  3. Phonics is not an end destination. It is like training wheels. The goal is for word recognition to become so automatic that all of a reader’s attention can be focused on comprehension and analysis.
  4. Integration of the elements is important, so kids learn phonics patterns, have opportunities to re-integrate those skill into meaningful content, and apply those phonics skills when they read.
  5. Decoding should be the first step to tackling unknown words, but looking at context clues after word identification can support comprehension. The “three-cueing” approach suggests that multiple, equally good strategies can help students read an unknown word. (What word would make sense? Does it sound right? Does it look right?) Relying on pictures and context as a primary way to identify a word defies what we know about how the brain learns to read. But these clues can be helpful to understand at the word level (vocabulary) and at the text level (comprehension).

Springfield is lucky to have a Children’s Dyslexia Center that provides an annual, free structured literacy training derived from Orton-Gillingham. I signed up. It’s not a small commitment; this will mean tutoring 100 hours over the year in addition to the classes and homework. But this issue has become so professionally and personally relevant, it makes absolute sense for me carve out the time for this. (I’m pretty close! I’ve got about 10 hours to go.)

People who have dedicated their lives to studying how children learn to read are still somewhere on that slope of enlightenment. There’s no end to it. Experts who seem aligned with each other and have decades of experience between them still get into heated debates about nuances of specific instructional methods. The research will keep going, and the curriculum will keep developing, and we will refine our beliefs about what works best over and over again for as long as we stay committed to this subject. It’s OK that we don’t have all the answers.

But it’s not OK to ignore this issue any longer. There are policies that Illinois should enact to improve equitable access to evidence-based, comprehensive literacy instruction for all students. None of them are silver bullets. None of them are easy. None of us individually have the only recipe for a policy solution.

After the Right to Read Act (SB 3900 (Lightford/Mayfield)) sparked interest from many groups, the State Board of Education (ISBE) announced that it would sponsor a convening of state, local, and national experts to dig into literacy best practices and policies for Illinois. This is exactly the sort of action we should be looking for. ISBE will be the agency to implement whatever changes are enacted, so it makes perfect sense that it will lead the conversation and assume ownership of this important issue. In fact, one of the things I have discovered is that ISBE has already adopted some pretty great literacy standards!

I am hopeful to see comprehensive and inclusive conversations about this going forward, with an eye toward adopting a literacy plan for the state that can truly support Illinois children – no matter where they live – to develop foundations to become strong readers.

P.S. – If you like puzzles, literacy, and the Illinois legislature, try your hand at this crossword we created for Stand’s newsletter. The more people solve these things, the more I can justify continuing to make them!

Governor Pritzker signed the budget this week, securing another $350 million for Evidence-Based Funding! Legislators adjourned early in the morning just under two weeks ago, bringing the spring 2022 legislative session to a close. Here’s a quick wrap-up on our priority issues and some next steps.

Expanding Access to Dual Credit: Both the Illinois House and Senate unanimously passed a bill to boost access to Dual Credit courses and give districts flexibility to launch and grow their own Dual Credit programs. If you haven’t already, take a moment to thank the legislators who led the way in the General Assembly.

Improving Literacy Outcomes: We’re collaborating with education advocates and our fellow members of the Illinois Early Literacy Coalition to improve the Right to Read Act so that it works for all students. We’ll be convening this summer with experts and leaders in the literacy field to ensure the bill is as strong as possible, with the goal of passing it later this year or next spring.

Growing CTE Collaboration and Access: House lawmakers approved a Resolution make access more equitable to Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses and to facilitate the partnerships needed for successful CTE programs to flourish. Join me and thank the lawmakers who made this House Resolution a priority.

Enacting Economic Security: In the fight for racial justice, Stand joined the Coalition to Make EIC Work, a group of dedicated organizations and advocates that fought to expand the Earned Income Credit. Lawmakers enacted a budget including a permanent expansion of the EIC, providing direct tax relief to more than 4.5 million working Illinois families. The Coalition will continue fighting to create a permanent Child Tax Credit.

Fighting for Youth Justice: The work with our partners in the Debt Free Justice Campaign continues as we grow our coalition and refine the bill to help make the most impact for Illinois youth and their families by eliminating juvenile court fees and fines. We know that creating a brighter future for us all includes ensuring our juvenile court system is just and fair for everyone, and aimed towards healing, youth development, and reducing recidivism.

Thank you for everything you did this spring to help ensure positive results for Illinois children and families. The work continues, and I know you’ll be there as we take those next steps soon.

We’ve been focused on elevating the early literacy crisis here in Illinois and working with advocates in the Illinois Early Literacy Coalition to solve this problem in a collaborative way.

That’s why I was struck by this New York Times article that dove into the current reading crisis. The report elevates the crisis to a national level, showing the impact on students across the country. It illustrates the effects of the pandemic while also noting that the reading problems predate the pandemic.

“The causes are multifaceted, but many experts point to a shortage of educators trained in phonics and phonemic awareness — the foundational skills of linking the sounds of spoken English to the letters that appear on the page,” the report notes. “The pandemic has compounded those issues.”

Based on the progress and updates made by other states in recent years, we know what works when it comes to teaching children to read using evidence-based literacy instruction. As noted above, a number of those practices were highlighted in the Times’ coverage.

Children who struggle with reading face a lifelong impact both in and out of the classroom.

The Times report also highlights that the issue is also exacerbated by the teacher shortage, with a lack of qualified educators and outdated curricula holding back some schools. Even researchers offering intensive, small group tutoring at underserved schools have had difficulty filling open positions.

I hope you’ll dive deeper into this issue and join us on the Illinois Early Literacy Coalition. Visit the Coalition’s website, join the mailing list, and add your voice to those of other Illinoisans who have joined together to improve reading outcomes for our state’s students.

I’ve heard some folks describe learning to read as a “neurological backflip.” Teaching something like that takes a huge amount of skill and persistence – something I’ve seen first-hand as my young daughter has started reading more and more this school year.

But when only 33% of Illinois fourth-grade students are proficient readers, we know it’s time for action. Most other states have already acted to ensure their literacy instruction is evidence-based. Illinois hasn’t…yet. But we now have a bill in Springfield that would do just that!

The Illinois Right to Read Act (HB5032/SB3900) provides the support and professional development that current and future educators deserve – helping them better understand the brain science behind learning to read.

We need to let legislators know we support evidence-based literacy instruction. With one click, join me in contacting Springfield and showing your support for Illinois students and educators.

The Right to Read Act is a solution to help more Illinois students become proficient readers.

It would ensure pre-service teachers demonstrate their knowledge of evidence-based reading instruction. The State Board of Education would offer support to districts across Illinois to adopt evidence-based literacy curriculum and structured literacy training for educators. ISBE would also offer supports to educators to improve their practice in literacy instruction with curated professional development.

The Right to Read Act is on the move in Springfield. We need your voice to help continue this momentum. Act now!

At my house, we read all the time. I push my foster daughters, who are teen moms, to read to their children. While we might grow frustrated with the accumulation of toys to trip over, we are always excited for new books to read. It’s the best part of our daily bedtime routine.

Imagine my surprise when I started digging into literacy research and learned that, while all of this is super important, it’s only part of the equation. Learning to read has been called a “neurological backflip” and teaching children to read takes tremendous skill and persistence.

And that’s why early literacy instruction is one of the issues we are focused on in 2022.

The fact is that only 33% of Illinois fourth grade students were proficient readers on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress. How have we grown to accept this? What is more fundamental to our children’s education than learning to read?

Most states have acted recently to ensure literacy instruction is evidence-based. But Illinois isn’t one of them…yet.

Join us and show your support for improving literacy instruction here in Illinois.

This year, we joined forces with advocates from across the state to form the Illinois Early Literacy Coalition. This is a diverse group of individuals and organizations who want to improve public policy and funding so that all students have access to evidence-based literacy instruction and teachers have the support they deserve.

Would it surprise you to learn that many teacher preparation programs still highlight instructional methods that aren’t evidence-based? Or that many Illinois schools use curriculum that also isn’t aligned with the boatload of evidence about how children learn to read? We can do better!

We’ll be in touch soon with other ways to get involved in this campaign. In the meantime, I hope you’ll join me (and many others across the state!) by showing your support for helping more young Illinoisans learn to read.