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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.

Today marks the final day of spring legislative session here in Springfield.

Before things officially wind down, I’m happy to report that both the Senate and House unanimously approved a bill to boost student access to Dual Credit courses and flexibility for districts to launch and grow their own Dual Credit programs. Thanks to advocacy from folks like you, we’re just one signature from Gov. Pritzker away from helping better prepare students for life after high school thanks to these life-changing courses.

I hope you’ll join me and send a quick thank you note to the legislative leaders who championed this Dual Credit policy in the General Assembly. Take action with one click!

We’ll be in touch as things wrap up in Springfield, but in the meantime let’s thank these legislators for standing with Illinois Dual Credit students and their educators.

Session is scheduled to wrap up on Friday, April 8. That gives us just a few short days to tell our legislative leaders to stand with Illinois students and educators and include $350 million in new funding for the Evidence-Based Funding formula.

Our advocacy over the past few years has made a difference – this year, nearly $1.5 billion more has flowed through the equitable formula than when the formula was first enacted in 2017. Most importantly, it prioritizes funding for the school districts that need it most.

Let’s close out this spring legislative session with another positive step toward closing the school funding gap. With one click, please join me in urging your legislators to support an additional $350 million in Evidence-Based Funding for our schools.

The next two weeks in Springfield will be a whirlwind of activity. Session is scheduled to end on April 8, so the clock is very much ticking.

The bill we support to help increase Dual Credit access and flexibility for districts is nearing the finish line in Springfield. Earlier this month it passed the Illinois House without a single “no” vote and now needs to pass the Senate.

We need your help to boost support for Dual Credit students and educators. Tell your senator to support HB5506 and stand up for equitable access to Dual Credit courses.

The promise of Dual Credit courses is immense. They help prepare students for life after high school and can earn them early college credit. Districts need the flexibility to launch and grow Dual Credit programs with their available teachers while still respecting the quality standards of traditional Dual Credit coursework.

Now is the time for us to show Springfield the deep support for this bill from advocates just like you.

With just under a month left in the current legislative session, I’m happy to report that one of our legislative priorities passed the Illinois House earlier this week. Legislators signaled their support for a House Resolution to improve Career and Technical Education (CTE) collaboration and course access.

We’re grateful to you for your advocacy and to the Representatives who showed their strong support as sponsors. This resolution takes a bold step toward improving equitable access to CTE courses and facilitating the partnerships needed for successful CTE programs to flourish.

The research tells us that CTE partnerships work. Students who complete CTE programs are more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college. This resolution sends a strong signal in support of these vital programs.

Will you join us in thanking the lawmakers who led the way as sponsors of the House Resolution?

It’s hard to think of a more immersive training than the hands-on, work-based learning that Illinois students receive in a Career and Technical Education (CTE) program. These courses preview what a future career might look like.

Engaging and successful CTE programs rely on close partnerships with both employers and colleges. Local employers bring work-based learning to students so they can explore high-wage career paths in their communities. Colleges, through things like Dual Credit courses, help students get started on their college coursework while still in high school.

We can help facilitate these partnerships by supporting a new Illinois House Resolution. Your support today will build the momentum for this thoughtful resolution to improve CTE collaboration and course access. Take action now!

The research tells us that CTE partnerships work. Students who complete CTE programs are more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college.

Yet, improving access to CTE courses in underserved populations continues to be a challenge. The House Resolution, HR582, would study how to better facilitate the partnerships needed for successful CTE programs and also make recommendations intended to bring equitable access so more students can benefit from high-quality CTE programs.

Support for CTE courses means support for high school grads and their future careers. I hope you’ll join us and stand with them today.

Springfield is a busy place these days, with bills moving and deadlines approaching at a steady clip. Included in all the movement is the progress we’ve seen by supporting more equitable access to Dual Credit classes.

I’m glad to say that the bill to boost equitable access to Dual Credit courses and support the educators who teach them is up for final approval in the Illinois House this week. Now is the time for us to show Springfield the widespread support for this bill from advocates just like you.

Join me and contact your legislators to support Dual Credit students and educators by supporting HB5506.

This bill makes many positive steps for Dual Credit students and educators across Illinois. It will help put more educators on the path to teaching Dual Credit courses and allow more students to benefit from the rigor of these college-level courses.

Districts across the state should be allowed the flexibility to launch and grow Dual Credit programs with their available teachers while still respecting the quality standards of traditional Dual Credit coursework. This bill allows them to do just that.

Thank you for standing with us.

Illinois has made great strides in recent years when it comes to improving the number of students taking Dual Credit courses. Those classes help prepare them for life after high school and can earn them early college credit to boot.

As Dual Credit enrollment has risen, community college remediation rates have gone down. Dual Credit is delivering on its promise.

With a nearly 70% increase in teaching vacancies over the last five years, schools are left to do more with fewer teachers. Having enough qualified instructors remains a huge barrier to expanding Dual Credit access.

A bill introduced in Springfield would allow districts the flexibility to launch and grow Dual Credit programs with their available teachers while still respecting the quality standards of traditional Dual Credit coursework.

Can I count on you to take a quick second from your day to urge your legislators to increase equitable access to Dual Credit courses and support HB5506?

Will you add your voice and tell your legislators to stand up for equitable access to Dual Credit courses and support for educators? Just one click is all it takes.

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!