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A Literacy Tsunami Warning for K–12 Educators

Dear superintendents, CAOs, curriculum directors, principals, literacy coaches, teachers, and school board members,

An important national conversation about how we teach reading has been gaining maaaaaajor momentum this fall.

In fact, it recently leapt into the pages of the New York Times, so we can pretty much guarantee that parents will be joining the conversation.

It’s important and exciting stuff for anyone who wants to improve reading outcomes! And it’s must-know stuff for educators who wants to be prepared for inevitable chats with concerned parents… or, uhh, the local paper.

It you’re just joining this essential conversation, lemme catch you up…

The Seismic Stories

Troubling gaps in literacy practice have been getting a bright spotlight in the media.

It started with an audio documentary-plus-article by Emily Hanford, Hard Words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read? She dropped jaws by showing that teacher prep programs aren’t teaching teachers how kids learn to read, and that many classrooms woefully lack phonics instruction, which is holding back many readers.

The best proof point in the article, IMHO, was the powerful gain in Bethlehem Area School District after investing in phonics instruction. If you read the article for one thing, read it for this inspiring case study.  

Hard Words blew up in social media, and I found myself discussing it with Everyone and My Mother. The conversation reverberated, big time. In the span of a few weeks…

EdWeek penned Teachers Criticize Their Colleges of Ed. for Not Preparing Them to Teach Reading. Quite the headline.

A little paper called The New York Times published Why Are We Still Teaching Reading the Wrong Way?, in which Emily Hanford expanded on the themes above. A loud social media buzz ensued; I predict that this article is coming to a parent-teacher conference near you.

Local papers joined the party, courtesy of MinnPostMinnesota educators continue to grapple with one of the most critical — and politicized — education issues: reading instruction.

Then Sue Pimentel, literacy goddess and lead author of the Common Core Standards for ELA, brought things to EdWeek with Why doesn’t every teacher know the research on reading instruction?, which broadened the conversation beyond phonics. In just a few days, it became the most-viewed and most-shared article on EdWeek, and topped their most-read-in-2018 list:

Screen Shot 2018-11-04 at 1.23.35 PM

November ’18 Update: Sue Pimentel then expanded on her editorial, to name names of the ELA curricula “that characterize the [curriculum] renaissance.”

December ’18 Update: A little paper called The Wall Street Journal featured the phonics shortcomings in a little district called the New York City Department of Education. One source described struggling students in NYC schools who hadn’t experienced decoding instruction ‘treated as though they have learning delays. She calls them “casualties of the curriculum.”’

If you’ve read all of the above articles, you’re caught up! Extra credit if you read Hanford’s advice for concerned parents.

Surf Forecast

Here’s my fast take on what educators need to know:

This conversation will come to your shores:

Friends, when a story hits The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, tops the EdWeek charts, and gets local papers reporting on phonics, its wave is gonna pick up momentum, not lose it. This dialogue will happen in your schools soon, if it hasn’t already.  

This conversation keeps gaining substance:

An initial focus on phonics is giving way to a broader discussion of literacy issues-which-are-also-opportunities. Sue Pimentel’s superb piece reminds us that:

  • Many schools aren’t exposing all kids to texts on their grade level.
  • Lotsa folks miss the crucial importance of content knowledge to reading comprehension.
  • Most educators don’t know about new curricula that have been tailor-built to address exactly these issues.

The literacy issues aren’t unknown… the problem with grouping kids by reading level was recently featured in EdWeek, for example. Still, they deserve a serious national conversation that reaches all of our schools, and Sue and Emily’s pieces combine as perfect pre-reads.

I’m saving the best for the end… and it deserves its own heading…

These Are Solvable Problems. WOOT!

It’s one thing to have a growing national conversation about problems in K–12… I get jazzed when they incorporate solutions!


Friends, allow me to me redirect you to #3 on Sue Pimentel’s list: curriculum is a solution we can turn to now, thanks to a recent ‘curriculum renaissance.’

If you haven’t looked at the curriculum landscape lately, this won’t make sense to you. So here’s the skinny: the newest ELA curricula have been designed for building content knowledge, developing foundational skills (including phonics), and providing teachers with strategies for getting all kids reading grade level texts. Which helps carry the water for these instructional must-wins.

Then PD – which is essential – delivers the Why and the How, alongside a classroom-ready What. It’s like a toolkit for making key instructional shifts, and the fastest path to getting ’em done. (Just ask me if you want to talk to a few dozen curriculum directors who can give witness. #NotKidding)  

I’ve had a front-row seat to the renaissance, and y’all, it’s spawning other cool stuff. I’m loving the trend in PLC work around curriculum. I’ve been stoked to watch a national, 3,400-teacher facebook Group collaborate around a curriculum, right down to lesson-level work (!!!).

And when I see principals mixing Kool Aid to experience a hands-on lesson from their new curriculum, in order to understand its instructional model, the power of materials to help align teams around practice becomes tangible:


Reading about our gaps in reading practice is dispiriting. Yet these emerging counter-trends and opportunities give me hope.

Educator friends, please join the conversation

Do it because you like solvable problems, and tangible opportunities to improve reading outcomes. Or do it ‘cause parents might be coming to schools and school board meetings with pitchforks over reading practice. Either way, once you get into this conversation, I suspect that you’ll find this literacy wave to carry a ton of exciting potential for our kids.

PostScript: 2019 CrestWatch

The tsunami has continued to crest, and I continue the story in a March 5th blog, Literacy Tsunami: Crest Edition and a March 22nd blog, Literacy Tsunami: Drumbeat Edition. Catch the wave, y’all.

Extra Credit

Hey Socialites, if you’re gonna be sweet and tweet this piece, feel free to use my other fave meme. ‘Cause why stop at one meme when you can have two?

Thanks for spreading the word about this essential research! Kids win when we bring this conversation to new education PLCs.



Published inK–12 EducationLiteracy


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