Once you learn to read, you will be forever free. – Frederick Douglass
In the world of education politics, fewer things have captured people’s attention more than “The Science of Reading.” For those unfamiliar, the Science of Reading refers to the proven practices demonstrating that almost all children (except those with deeply impairing intellectual disabilities) can learn to read English. It is just a question of whether or not they are being taught based on that research. It turns out many of us, including me, were not and are not taught how to read based on what is proven. According to research, language comprehension, while essential, cannot take place to the fullest effect without a process called “word recognition,” a process that should deeply include explicit and systematic phonics instruction.
Long story short, all those “you need Hooked on Phonics!” disses we said to each other in elementary school in the 90s were told to each other because we thought most kids did not need phonics instruction when. In truth, it is necessary for most students and benefits all students (National Reading Panel, 2020).
Folks like Lucy Calkins and Fountas and Pinnell sold foundational literacy curricula to major urban school districts with Black and Brown students for years, knowing that their products did not align with the research regarding explicit and systematic phonics instruction. As a result, many of our youth who went through and are going through the K-12 system struggle to find worth, purpose, and power in becoming strong readers. Fortunately, the truth about what has happened and how to teach our kids to read is getting out there.
Much of the narrative about this injustice centers on Black and Brown people as the victims instead of regularly including them as experts. Currently, in this narrative, there is a disproportionate focus on our youth being disserviced in our schools and not enough focus on the overlooked skillsets of our thought leaders and experts, past and present, who knew the truth about how to teach children how to read. After all, this is the same community that literally risked punishment of death and/or mutilation during chattel slavery to learn to read. It is also the same community whose teachers were known for spending extra time on phonics instruction during the Jim Crow era.
This may be obvious, but it is important to note that exposing those harmed by these illiteracy-fueling instructional choices is honorable and vital. However, suppose during this exposure, we do not include those unheard heroes from the community that has fought for the best foundational literacy practices. In that case, we risk keeping Black expertise on the issue invisible while keeping White know-how loud and pronounced, effectively tossing the ball of literacy instruction from the hard arm of American racism to the soft arm. If the problem is told and addressed this way, the story of the wrongdoers and the wrong exposers may end up sharing the message that white experts (and “experts”) have all the answers.
If you are a professional educator of any shade that is passionate about this educational justice issue, or if you are a Black or Brown parent, student, or community advocate that wants to learn and contribute to this fight in a manner that keeps some color in the expertise and the solutions,
I encourage you to check out folks like Ameer Baraka, Julie Washington, Mitchell Brookins, Ernest “Tre” Hardrick III, Lacey Robinson, Marva Collins, Jawanza Kunjufu, Dyslexia Alliance for Black Children, and Kareem Weaver who have been extremely knowledgeable and contributive to this challenge.
Literacy, plus an accurate social narration, leads to liberation. Let us keep sight of that as awareness of this issue continues to gain traction. Peace and Progress!