Reading Science Denial and Racism’s Impact on Educational Equity for African-American Students

If strong reading skills are the foundation of all academic success, then African-American students are at a severe disadvantage, argues Kareem Weaver, member of the NAACP Oakland Branch’s Education Committee, in this webinar for the Consortium on Reaching Excellence in Education (CORE).

In the webinar, Weaver explains that despite the 2000 National Reading Panel’s reading research concluding that students require direct, explicit instruction grounded in the science of reading, many schools are failing to provide this instruction due to lack of teacher training and support — particularly in schools and classrooms with high populations of historically underserved African-American students. Watch the webinar on-demand to hear Weaver discuss how:

  • The debate over reading philosophy has left key pillars of reading acquisition, especially critical for historically underserved African-American students, untaught
  • Expectations of African-American students impact the timing and tenor of interventions that could prevent reading problems
  • Perceptions of intellectual capacity create a lens through which learning differences are interpreted by educators
  • Racism and bias within school systems influence policy and practices and create a tolerance for failure

Watch the excerpt above and review some of the key points highlighted below for a preview of this provocative and thought-provoking webinar. In it, Weaver explains best practices behind the science of teaching reading and how failure to provide evidence-based instruction is making educational equity impossible for African-American students.

Educational Equity Is Possible, According to Reading Research

 Weaver points out that there is scientific consensus around best practices for delivering reading instruction to students. He also highlights a statement from the American Federation of Teachers stating that when those practices are followed and students are provided intensive, early instruction by skilled educators, 90% of all children, including those with learning disabilities, can learn to read well.

But, Weaver argues, that is not the reality we live in. Reading science denial and social, political and racial biases prevent students, particularly African-American students, from receiving high-quality reading instruction that follows the structured literacy approach that reading research recommends and that most students require in order to learn to read well.

Elements of Structured Literacy Programs Built Upon the Science of Reading

 If teachers were to follow the science of teaching reading and build an evidence-based structured literacy program, Weaver argues that this could prevent the racial bias that contributes to educational inequity for African-American students.

How? According to reading research, effective K-3 reading instruction must include explicit and systematic core classroom instruction around five key elements: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Racism, Weaver says, needs oxygen to persist. Basing reading instruction around explicit, systematic and evidence-based practices prevents educators from injecting their own assumptions, even unintentionally, about where students should start and what students are capable of, and limits the possibility of discrimination and exclusion in instruction.

Weaver also details additional elements of effective reading instruction. These include:

  • Instructional materials aligned to research
  • Appropriate reading assessments
  • Timely, intensive interventions
  • High-quality professional development

Follow the Science of Teaching Reading to Support African-American Students

Schools and districts must provide African-American students with the same opportunities to achieve academic success as other children, and this starts with reading instruction grounded in the science of reading. Watch the full on-demand, hour-long webinar for insights into how educators can address the persistent issues around racism and reading science denial that make educational equity impossible and contribute to the achievement gap for African-American students.

Video Transcript

But, one of the things we’ve been really focused on learning is why and for whom dialect matters, because we all speak a dialect, but not everybody’s having trouble reading, so who is going to have trouble reading? What does their dialect look like? Well, one of the things we discovered when I was at Michigan in the ’90s was that dialect occurs along a continuum. Some kids use really low levels of dialect, where 10% of their utterances or less are impacted by dialect, and then there are kids who use really high dialect, where more than half of their utterances are impact. Then there’s the moderate users in the middle.

It turns out that this continuum is really important, and these are the ways you see on the screen that it’s been measured. Each one of these measurements, they’re correlated at .9, so they’re all basically the same. They’re just different ways of doing it. And the one that we used is number three, the number of dialect speakers produced by a speaker divided by the total number of words that the speaker produced.

This is what we found, that dialect density impacts language. This is syntactic comprehension, so this is sentence comprehension, and you’ll see that at this end of the graph, that there is little to no dialect use, and at this end of the graph, there is a lot, nearly 100%. The more dialect you use, the lower your syntactic comprehension, so by the time we get to this high-dialect area, there are fewer kids above the line, and the slope is downward, which of course is not what we want. So, density impacts language. The more density you use, the poorer your syntactic comprehension skills.

Well, the same is true for reading, it turns out. This is first through fifth grade, and you’ll see again, this slope that relates to dialect density. This is the passage comprehension sub-test of the Woodcock-Johnson. When students are listening to passages, the more dialect they use, the lower their scores are. This continues through elementary school, and I only study kids up to fifth grade, but those who study kids beyond show that this pattern continues through high school.

At higher levels of dialect, kids are consistently have lower levels of syntactic understanding. The relationship between letter-word ID, which is something we also looked at, is strong and it’s negative, so the more dialect you use, the poorer your letter-word ID. Low-dialect users do not show these patterns of risk, and it suggests that these high-dialect users are using language that’s so different from the language of testing and reading that it negatively impacts their performance, whereas low-dialect users don’t have the same dissonance, because they’re still close to the standard.

We call this linguistic distance. The further the distance is of your language, oral language, from the written standard, the more likely you are to be having difficulty with reading. This is an important finding for us, because now we know which kids to focus on. If you have kids who are using a little dialect, it’s really not going to matter that much, but for the kids who are using a lot of dialect, and in Georgia, we have kids who are using high dialect at a rate of about 80% to 90% of their utterances. For these kids, reading becomes a really difficult process, and as they get older and they code switch some from the use of 80 to 90% downward, by the time they get to fifth grade, it’s still 70%, so they’re still high-dialect users, and they are really struggling.

These are the kids we’re concerned about, the kids who are using so much dialect that their dialect puts them far away from the standard, and frankly, these children seem to function more like English learners than low-dialect users do, so our approach to them has really got to change, and they are now our focus.