A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 21 2009

Why the Achievement Gap = the Literacy Gap

The ‘achievement gap’ is the ‘literacy gap’ is the ‘word gap’. Our literacy special-ist has been emphasizing this over and over again throughout our weekly literacy sessions (Note: for some reason, the blog won’t let me put the letters ‘s-p-e-c-i-a-l-i-s-t’ together… so I’ve used “special-ist” instead).  We’ve been told that ‘every teacher must be a literacy teacher’ or that ‘literacy is the new civil right’ or that ‘teaching literacy is our job’.  We’ve been told about the ’30 million word gap by age 3′ (children of low socioeconomic status (SES) have a mere 10 million words addressed to them by age 3, whereas their high SES counterparts have 40 million by that age).

In short, I’ve learned a lot about what the literacy gap is.  But until today, I wasn’t quite convinced.  Until today, I had yet to see any concrete evidence of the literacy gap. Where were the students who could not read?  My students, it seemed, were reading fine.

Until today.  I only have to mention one anecdote with one of my students, LA, to show how the literacy gap exists right here in the school where I am teaching for the summer.

To provide context, LA is a smart student. But I always noticed he was a slower reader than the rest of the class.  I was not too concerned because he seemed to perform quite well on the daily assessments.  But I recently asked him after class if he was interested in receiving some extra reading help outside of class.  He gladly agreed. He told me how he loved reading but most of the time he “just didn’t get it”.  Clearly, he wanted to read.

Well, we met for the first time today and spent 45 minutes going over an article about Sonia Sotomayor (side-note: I was stunned when I asked my class if they had heard of Sonia Sotomayor before and not an eye blinked–my class is 90% Hispanic).  From the very first sentence we read together, it became clear that LA had trouble reading.  He could not sound out words that he did not already know or recognize.  However, when we got to “investigative detective” (Sotomayor had once dreamed of being one), the literacy gap materialized right in front of my eyes:

LA: “Ivee… Inveeee… Invayy… Investeeeeee… Inveeesti…. Investaayyy… I can’t read this.”

Me: “Okay, so let’s read this word piece by piece.  I’m going to break the word into chunks and I want you to read each chunk individually.”

LA: “In-veeeestt-tteeeeeeee-gggaaaaaaaay-tion…tive.”

Me: “Okay!  In-ves-tig-a-tive is exactly how we pronounce it.  Now what might ‘investigative’ mean? What does it mean to investigate? What is an investigation?”

LA (without a pause): “Isn’t that what a detective does?  He investigates, right? It’s like searching for answers?”

Me: “Exactly, LA!  You’re right on!  Let’s continue reading.  So Sotomayor dreamed of being an investigative what?”

LA: “D-d-d-diii-diii… Mr. K, I can’t read this.”

Me (stunned for 2.5 seconds): “Are you sure?  You just said this word to me in your last sentence… It begins with a ‘D’.”

LA: “Detective?”

This anecdote highlights the literacy gap. LA cannot read.  He never acquired the ability to phonetically sound out new words.  He told me after our session that when he “reads” he looks at new words and compares them to the limited set of words he already knows and sees how they are similar.  Based on this familiarity analysis, he literally “guesses” what a word might mean.  He told me he never actually sounds out new words because he doesn’t know how to.  So, when he sees “America” he often says “Americans” since he is more familiar with the latter word and doesn’t actually “read out” the former.

I really didn’t know what to think or say.  I told him that it was crucial that we start sounding out words together phonetically. That while his strategy might work in the short-term, it wouldn’t help in the long-run (note: I am not a literacy special-ist, but I think this point is valid–any teachers out there have any words of wisdom? Have you seen this problem before?).  Anyways, from that point on, we began sounding out words by breaking them down into chunks (usually by syllables).

LA is living proof that the literacy gap is real.  LA is an extremely capable student who has brilliant ideas.  But his weak literacy skills are holding him back.  He may not pass this summer because the reading intensive final exam might stop him.  I spent 45 minutes after class today working with him and, although we have agreed to meet every day after class until summer school ends, I know that LA can only learn so much in the week that remains.

The whole situation saddens me and it is sometimes hard to think that there are many more LAs out there in this world.  In the end, I know that I can only do what is in my locus of control. Here, I’ll do my best to follow my literacy special-ist’s command, “TEACH WORDS!”

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5 Responses

  1. rstanton

    Yes, this literacy gap is real and your example is quite apt. You have probably also noticed that some students will read “does not” when the text says “does,” failing to notice that this misreading renders the text nonsensical. These “small” misunderstandings accumulate quickly and make reading for comprehension basically impossible. Once the guessing leads the reader too far astray, he can never guess his way back.

    Unfortunately, you will meet many other students like LA. Some will have developed remarkable compensatory strategies and you will see how such a deficit can be finessed and disguised. To further complicate matters, you will meet students who you will suspect can’t read, but they will be just dogging it. It’s a challenge to know what’s happening right in front of you.

    If you can arrange comfortable circumstances for students to read aloud with you, you can gain a lot of insight and help the students a good bit. This is the kind of close work that will be rewarding even if it doesn’t have much glamor.

  2. Yeah, we who are regular teachers have noticed that. We want to tear our hair out at the elitist arrogance that actually teaching kids to read, and NOT passing them on when they can’t, is virtually guaranteeing them failure in high school science. There, the mismatch between their sight-reading strategies and the unfamiliar terms leads to bright kids failing.

    I know I’m out of step. I know that honest-to-God phonics is so “old school”.

    But, it works. Really. It’s not as fast as teaching sight words. But, using it, by the time kids get to 4th grade, they read. The trouble is, schools don’t want to know how many kids can’t read. So, they test on the “words they know”, and announce that they can – surprise – read them.

    No kids fails THEIR class that way.

    Just the middle school and high school classes – primarily science and math.

  3. rstanton

    It’s true that schools “don’t want to know” the extent of this problem.

    We (high school teachers) are told that “we have to teach the students we have, not the ones we wish we had, or the ones we used to have.” This is a noble-sounding sentiment and it sounds like wisdom the first time you hear it, but it’s very suspect. If anyone is hunting for the achievement gap, they could probably find its source somewhere in that formulation. It’s a long version of “get over it” or “talk to the hand.”

  4. Children should play a board game called Er-u-di-tion that incorporates both sight words and phonics.

    This award winning game helps children learn to read, spell and understand the most common words in the English language while playing an entertaining board game.

    Cards are categorized so children of all reading levels can play together!

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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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