By Emily Freitag

This post is part of a series on early literacy. If you’re looking for more resources for supporting reading instruction, go here.

Though many issues in education are hard to solve right now, there is one urgent need that we can agree feels clear, critical, and solvable: we can and must teach each and every child to read.

The next five years could be a defining chapter in the American story of reading instruction. We could lean into this challenge and, when we look back in fifty years, see that the 2020s were a decade of dramatic progress in how we teach reading that yielded benefits in the strength and security of our country and also increased opportunities and expanded freedom for a generation of students. In an op-ed this summer, I shared that it is within our reach to eradicate illiteracy within the decade, and how we do it is already fairly clear.

Clear does not mean easy, though. In response to that op-ed, I received the question: If this is clear, why haven’t we done it already? We could point to a number of challenges: a deficit view of students; a confusing product market; emotional attachment to legacy practices; the need for a deeper and more wide-scale understanding of the reading research across teacher and leader prep programs; stronger on-the-job professional learning; system incoherence; a policy context that is too agnostic about approaches to reading instruction.

All of these can be true, but I would boil down the root challenge in this way: System and school leadership teams are not yet clear on what a system of reading instruction that delivers for every single student really looks like in practice.  

There are a number of fundamentals to reading instruction that make the role school and system leaders play particularly important:

  • Teaching every single student to read is a team sport, not an individual act. Almost every member of the school community plays a critical role. Everyone involved needs to share a common science-based vision for early literacy and an understanding of their specific roles and responsibilities in bringing that vision to life.
  • Teaching every single student to read requires attention to precision. Only when every member of the team can pinpoint the exact early literacy skill a child needs will they be able to understand how to see and celebrate progress.
  • Teaching every single student to read demands both consistent and adaptive systems. Though every child has different needs that require different solutions, there has to be a backbone of agreements and practices so that every child has access to strong instruction as the foundation.
  • Teaching every single student to read requires that everyone who interacts with students believes absolutely that every child has a human right to a literate life and operates with dogged determination to ensure it happenseven if that has not been the historic pattern. The culture of how teams approach every conversation matters immensely.

Leaders always play an important role in instruction, but when a solution requires a large team to operate consistently, adaptively, and with very precise focus and absolute determination to find a way, the leader’s role is especially critical. Products can help people play their roles, but nothing will fly if the team leader doesn’t put forth a vision and provide support. Given the way instruction is managed, both the school system leaders and the school leaders need to bring that vision and support to the work.

I have met so many leaders with big questions and heavy emotions about their leadership of reading instruction. The leaders I talk to all desperately want to deliver for every student, and they may have a sense of the pieces of the puzzle, but very few feel confident they can see and lead the whole.

Leaders come by these instructional questions and insecurities honestly. They might have taught middle school science before becoming an elementary principal; their leadership training may or may not have included instruction on reading (and if it did, that instruction may or may not have reflected the research); they might have been told that three different approaches to reading instruction are “best practice”; their teachers may be equally passionate about very different practices; they may have five different sets of materials on shelves in their building and six emails in their inbox from people trying to sell them a new product.

There is no one person or factor to blame, and looking for how to assign blame is not useful to students. But we will not eliminate illiteracy in America if we do not support system leaders and school leaders to lead the change.

At Instruction Partners, we’ve been learning alongside pioneering schools, school systems, and states to really understand what it will take to get to 100% reading proficiency. As we learn, we want to share the tools and framework that we are finding useful to our partners, knowing that so many educators are grappling with the same questions.

This month we are releasing Essential Practices in Early Literacy, a set of five practices for building an effective early literacy system, along with resources for observing, coaching, and reflecting on the current state of K–2 literacy instruction. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to poke around. Feel free to share these links with anyone who might benefit from the tools.

In the months to come, we will share additional case studies, reflect on common challenges we are seeing states grapple with in how they create coherence at a macro level, and dive more deeply into the support and attention needed to center multilingual learners.

I welcome your feedback and notes on what you’re learning as we work together to make the 2020s a decade of powerful progress in how we teach children to read. When we apply all we already know to support all children in learning to read, I believe we will all benefit in ways we cannot yet fathom.

This post is adapted from an email originally shared on December 10, 2021. If you would like to receive future emails, you can sign up here.