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The Literacy Tsunami: Drumbeat Edition

We’ve seen a surge in reporting and conversation about strong reading instruction, and I’ve been excitedly blogging about that “literacy tsunami” since it started last Fall and continued this winter.

Now, y’all… the growing chorus around literacy is getting downright overwhelming. Just two and a half weeks after I penned the last Literacy Tsunami update… there’s a lot more to say.

So… let’s do this! Here’s the latest in the now-steady-drumbeat of concerns about – and opportunities around – reading instruction.

(This blog is third-in-a-series, and I’m writing at 201-level now, so it’ll probably only make sense if you’ve been watching this tsunami build. Play catch-up with the first and second editions if you’ve gotta.)

District Leaders Preaching

Respected district leaders Brian Kingsley, Jared Myracle, and Robin McClellan penned a barn-burner editorial in EdWeek, We Have a National Reading Crisis.

It’s an absolute must-read… and apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so. Two weeks after it was published, it’s still topping the EdWeek charts:


Its insights are spot on, and it’s already my nominee for THE Piece of 2019. Catch it if you haven’t.

This week, Superintendent Penny Nixon joined the chorus with How our youngest, neediest learners benefit from deeper phonics and other reforms.

The themes of these two editorials are eerily similar:

  • We need to embrace research-based practices, including phonics in early grades.
  • District and school leaders need to lead on literacy – and their own professional learning about reading is key.
  • Curriculum Matters.

Previously, we’d seen some pretty impactful blogs from district leaders talking about this work. It’s refreshing to now see these conversations in K–12’s top publications.

Teachers Take The Mic

Fifth grade teacher Kyle Redford just brought us another EdWeek gem: Explicit Phonics Instruction: It’s Not Just for Students With Dyslexia. She talks about her “blind spots” around the need for phonics for all students, and reminds us of an under-appreciated benefit of phonics instruction: even kids who naturally pick up decoding still reap spelling gains.

Then, on-trend, Kyle talks about how upsetting it is to learn key research only recently:

“I felt guilt and regret about how I had previously framed much of my own thinking and advocacy.”

Kyle wasn’t the lone voice on any of the above. First grade teacher Katie McGhee recently debunked myths in Phonics and the love of reading go hand-in-hand.

Also, voices of educators feeling “sick” because they learned critical reading research well into their careers are everywhere:


Just in case you think these are outlier voices in the Twitterverse: Chalkbeat published a survey, Teachers weigh in on how they learned to teach reading. It validated the concerns about teacher prep. Also, “most respondents agreed with recent critiques that American schools pay little attention to the science behind reading instruction.”

We then get a hail of stories, such as Kimi Riter’s:

“I graduated with a teaching degree and had no idea how to teach reading. Imagine my panic when I landed my first job and didn’t know where to start. For years, I hid this and took as many classes as I could. I learned later that I was not alone.”

States Seek Solutions

Colorado – which had already been strengthening the requirements of its state READ act – took steps to crack down on weak teacher preparation programs. The lede:

“The reading courses at Colorado’s largest educator preparation program don’t match up with research on literacy instruction, and many of the professors have philosophies that contradict state standards, according to a scathing new critique by state evaluators.”

Also, Nebraska hosted webinars this week to help districts discover the relatively new K–5 English Language Arts curricula that were tailor-built to standards / evidence-based practices. (If you’re wondering: yes, each includes systematic phonics components in early grades.)

Activist Moms Pen Open Letters

Remember the Pennsylvania Moms – one of whom’s a former teacher – who were on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer two weeks ago, with their quest for “structural change” in how their district teaches reading?

They went straight to teachers last week with an open letter, explaining that they are essentially lobbying for better PD on how kids learn to read:

“We are committed to giving you what AIM Institute’s Nancy Hennessy claims is critical for all teachers in top-tier districts that will continue to be literacy leaders: access to the body of scientific research, protected time for your professional learning communities to discuss it, and the empowerment to implement it in your professional practice. We want you to have administrative support to access outside expertise and the resources to attend professional development conferences in science of reading.”

Just wow. An open letter from parent advocates to local teachers. Don’t think I’ve seen that before.

Folks Cry for Professional Learning

Folks are clamoring for solutions. We have a pervasive problem of “unfinished learning” around literacy… where can teachers turn?

They’re taking their search to Edutwitter:

Fortunately, a few new professional learning resources debuted:

Emily Hanford did an EdWeek webinar, What Teachers Should Know About the Science of Reading.

The Curriculum Matters squad of district leaders added new professional learning materials to their excellent curation of resources.

I’d keep watching this space… my fingers are crossed that more is coming.

Raising the Bar Via Curriculum

More good news out of districts using curriculum to improve reading instruction, this time from Detroit:

‘During a school board meeting in January, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the results of testing — which show more students performing at grade level from fall to winter assessments — are a sign that “students are positively reacting to the new curriculum.”’

It’s stories like these that explain why Nebraska is hosting webinars to introduce new curricula. Reading curriculum has vastly improved in the last 2 years, and too few educators know it.

Catherine Schmidt drove this point home beautifully in The Evidence Behind Effective Reading Instruction Is Clear. Now, Classroom Practices Need to Follow. She includes a really helpful oral history of the reading curriculum space, explaining why effective practice has been slow to reach classrooms. It’s a great read, especially in when Catherine gets to the renaissance in curriculum:

“For years, the choice in curriculum and student reading materials has been limited. It has been either/or — educators could have either simple, often silly books that offered only decoding practice, or engaging, rich texts that were too challenging for students to read on their own. Students missed opportunities to practice with accessible texts, to build knowledge of the world, to engage with worthy topics, and to grow their vocabulary.

The good news is that better options are becoming available. There are comprehensive reading programs that focus both on foundational skills and on building knowledge and vocabulary. Publishers are releasing collections of books that expose children to the wider world — history, art, and science — in accessible language so students can practice learned foundational skills.”

Your Turn!

If you’ve read this far… thanks for keeping tabs on this important national conversation.

Wondering what you can do? Glad you asked!

I’m gonna share the wisdom of Brian Kingsley – Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Chief Academic Officer, one of the most thoughtful district leaders I know, and co-author of the National Reading Crisis piece:

Keep talking, friends. Read those articles. Share them with your PLN. Share them in social media. Give them out at staff meetings. Skywrite them above elementary schools. Start the conversations you want your PLC to be having. Let’s keep fanning the flames of this important national conversation.

Then modeling, too.

Published inK–12 EducationLiteracy


  1. Tammy Alcorn Tammy Alcorn

    I am grateful for this information. But wondering what to do once the kids enter the secondary level. Some curriculum are embarrassing for kids to participate in at this level. They feel like they are treated like babies. Suggestions?

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