The Science of Reading: An Equity Issue, Part III

July 23, 2021

We’ve been excited to share some thoughts from our UnboundEd facilitator family on the science of reading and how it is an equity issue (see our posts here and here). We want to explore this issue a little more through the lens of secondary teaching and hope you enjoy reading! 

Here are some thoughts from four of our Virtual Summit facilitators: Leandrea Taylor, Mariama Sesay-St. Paul, Andrea Robinson, and Cheryl Dobbertin. 

1. How does what you know about the science of reading influence how you plan and deliver instruction at the secondary level?

Leandrea Taylor, Director of Literacy, Compass Community Schools, Tennessee: Most of the work I do with teachers involves attending to the language associated with Hollis Scarborough’s “Reading Rope” work. This theoretical framework asserts that students become skilled readers by becoming increasingly automatic with word recognition and increasingly strategic. Because students in middle schools need support with analyzing and interpreting complex texts, intentional planning with the language strand of the theoretical frameworks provides teachers with valuable insight to plan for high impact instruction. Before teaching complex text, teachers plan for ”just right” scaffolds that support students to access complex text. During weekly planning sessions, teachers engage in collaborative text-talks. This time is designed for supporting teachers with anticipating ways to give students windows and/or mirrors to access meaning in complex texts or determine places where students may struggle with complex text and plan how to respond. Teachers walk into lessons knowing the hotspots and are prepared to engage students in the thinking work of unlocking complex texts. Planning this way trains teachers to welcome student misconceptions as an opportunity to provide instruction. 

Mariama Sesay-St. Paul, Vice Principal of Curriculum and Instruction, Newark Public Schools, New Jersey: I know that reading fluency is about accuracy, prosody, and speed. I also know that many high school teachers cringe at the idea of having to teach reading. I help high school teachers understand the importance of developing their knowledge and vocabulary around the science of reading so when they recognize that a high school student isn’t demonstrating proficiency of the high school standards, they’re able to use their vocabulary to ask for help.  Instead of saying “she can’t read,” teachers are able to say things like “she can pronounce words properly but needs to be able to summarize what she read” or “she needs to pay attention to punctuation.” I also help teachers understand the text complexity triangle so they come face to face with all the nuances of the English language that they take for granted as thriving readers. PD centered on qualitative measures helps teachers identify where students struggle and then discuss strategies to help the striving students become thriving students.

Andrea Robinson, @MsRobinson_ESOL, ESOL Teacher/Team Leader, Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland: My planning process begins with an analysis of the text I will be teaching. I use explicit vocabulary instruction tied to complex texts to support academic language acquisition. I also incorporate word study to develop knowledge of affixes. To ensure students have the fluency necessary to support reading comprehension, I put routines in place for choral and partnered reading of text. While at first students felt self-conscious about reading aloud, their reluctance quickly dissipated. Within a short time, I observed notable results. This practice also helped foster a sense of community among my students. I further scaffold comprehension of complex text by grouping students heterogeneously in triads to promote oral discourse of text-dependent questions. These practices ensure that my students can access grade-level text.

Cheryl Dobbertin, @CherylDobbertin, Director of Secondary Education, East Irondequoit Central School District, New York: I really like the visual of Hollis Scarborough’s “Reading Rope.”  It shows how the strands of word recognition (like phonological awareness and decoding) intertwine with the strands of language comprehension (like knowledge of the world, syntax and vocabulary) to result in proficient reading. Secondary teachers who want to strengthen their students’ reading ropes have to ensure that they are reading texts that offer opportunities to learn new syntactic structures, acquire vocabulary, unpack subtle inferences, and build knowledge of the world—in short, they need increasingly complex texts and they need instruction that helps them learn to tackle those texts. If we were really tuned in to the science of reading, we could give up the long-standing secondary argument, particularly amongst ELA teachers, that knowing what happens in certain books (i.e. “the canon”) matters as much as ensuring that students climb an interesting, worthy, staircase of complexity.  Understanding the science of reading, particularly in relation to what it takes to help students build their language comprehension, helps content area teachers shift their stance away from assigners of reading who expect full comprehension to teachers of reading who look for opportunities to strengthen their students’ reading ropes.


2. How is applying the science of reading at the secondary level an equity issue?

Oftentimes, students living in marginalized communities face blame for achievement disparities. Fortunately, the body of research around the science of reading has called attention to systemic inequities that can be traced back to institutions like schools and colleges of education ignoring the research around the science of reading. Refusing to acknowledge and act on current research around how students learn to read sets students up for failure. For far too long, Black students and students from other marginalized communities have languished in school environments that have accepted failure as an option. Schools have an ethical responsibility to understand the science of reading research and to demand educators develop the knowledge, skills, and expertise to apply it in the classroom.  

Sesay-St. Paul:There are many students at the high school level who are striving to become thriving readers. If secondary teachers don’t understand the science of reading, they won’t understand the purpose of small group instruction and differentiation. They won’t understand the need to pre-read a text with their teacher lens on and plan purposeful questions for students to answer. They won’t understand the necessity for focusing on academic vocabulary or chunking texts. If the teachers don’t truly understand these things then how can they create and facilitate standards-aligned lessons that help striving students succeed? A wise woman once said, “Literacy is freedom!”  If one truly believes that, which I do, then how can applying the science of reading at the secondary level not be an equity issue?

Robinson: When I made the transition from elementary to middle school, I brought with me some misguided practices. This included using leveled texts with students and modifying grade-level text to reduce the level of rigor. I did this with the best of intentions, however, it should come as no surprise that my students’ growth directly correlated to the level of instruction I provided. I quickly came to realize that using below grade-level text only further exacerbated disparities among my Black and Brown students. When you know better, you do better. I committed to using grade-level complex text from a standards-aligned curriculum, but then wrestled with the temptation to modify or overly scaffold the content. The truth is that as much as I wanted to help my students reach their full potential, my “helping” was actually hindering their growth. Only by applying the science of reading could I equip students with the necessary tools to access grade-level content, thus closing the opportunity gap. I am convinced this is the best way to support students, particularly those with unfinished learning.

Dobbertin: There is little research that shows that adolescent readers make gains, whether they enter the middle grades reading at grade level or if they are still developing. I would argue that this phenomenon is the result of adolescent reading programs and approaches that are not grounded in the science of reading. Students who are not skillful readers have unfinished learning in either the word recognition side of their reading ropes, the language comprehension side, or both – their ropes have broken or frayed strands. Over time, I hope we will shift the conversation from “this student can’t read” to something along the lines of “this student has unfinished learning in the decoding and word knowledge strands, and that has prevented the student from learning enough grade level vocabulary and building enough background knowledge to be independently successful with grade level text. So, what’s our plan?” Every student deserves us to relentlessly pursue an understanding of what each reader needs to continuously develop.  


We also asked our facilitators to recommend freely available resources to support understanding and planning with the science of reading at the secondary level. Here’s what they shared: