Closing the Literacy Gap

Closing the Literacy Gap

A little less than a year ago, I asked my seventh grade students to give me honest feedback about how they were spending their time.  With reading levels lower than their grade (7th) indicated, I anticipated a lack of commitment to reading.  But their responses ‘floored’ even me.  Time on various screens (computer, phone, video games, television) dwarfed the time spent with books.  As a class, they spent 75 times more minutes with on screens than in the act of reading!  As their English teacher, It’s safe to say that I knew that I had some work to do.

In order to close the achievement gap, it’s critical that ‘our kids’ read at increasing frequencies, duration, and rigors. We know that many of our students see and hear less words, per day, than their peers. It’s a fact that many of our students come to us several grade levels behind. We also know that reading skills are prerequisites for excelling in most college-prep content area courses.

So if we are serious about giving students both a) literacy skills for future success and b) a love of reading and learning, we will:

Increase their exposure to words. While factors impacting a child’s ability to read are many, one factor may trump all others. For over three decades now, we have known, via the research of Stanovich, that reading volume is directly related to a student’s ability to read (as cited in Fisher & Frey, 2013). Simply stated, kids who read more are better at it. In fact, correlations between reading volume and achievement were quantified in a study by Anderson, Wilson, and Fielding (as cited in Fisher & Frey, 2013). They demonstrated that students who read 21.1 minutes a day score in the 90th percentile. On the other hand, students who read less than five minutes a day (4.6 and less), score in the bottom half of their class. At the end of the day, students will improve in reading if we can just get them to read consistently.

Vary the format of their reading. We will increase the number of words our students see and take in, if we commit to varying the ways we ask students to engage in reading. We can read aloud captivating pieces. We can read with them, asking them to follow the text with their eyes, at the pace of a fluent reader (shared reading). We can approach a more complex text with a close reading strategies, to move readers into analysis and evaluation. We can have students read chorally, in partners, or in small groups. Additionally, we should have students read independently, both with a purpose and strictly for enjoyment. Varying the approach with students will not only keep text-based instruction fresh, it will increase the chances students engage in the act of reading.

Teach explicit strategies to help them access rigorous content. The truth is, students need more than just ‘time behind the wheel.’ They need some technical know-how. As a teacher of reading at the middle, high school and college levels, I’ve seen how a student’s confidence and competence can surge, when they master a handful of reading strategies. There are a multitude of strategies and approaches that teachers choose to introduce to their students (I personally like Jim Burke’s collection in Reading Reminders). What really matters, however, is helping students find strategies that they can use outside of the literacy context. Questioning, making connections, using graphic organizers, and inferring (to name a few) are all powerful. But if they do not go with students into their future science classrooms, independent reading times, or job training environments, the strategies will become like rusted tools locked in a storage garage. To increase the chances that students carry on with the explicit reading strategies we introduce, we should (1) introduce a wide variety of strategies (2) give them multiple opportunities to practice each (3) push them to reflect and identify a few that really work for them (metacognition!) and (4) recognize them for using the strategies unprompted.

Fight for high quality materials. Access to high quality literature and non-fiction, is an equity issue. If we expect our students to read regularly and we hope that they begin to love reading, then it is on us to connect them to engaging texts. Many of our on-campus libraries are under-staffed and over-dusty. We have access to laptops, but struggle to direct students to text that is appropriately leveled. One solution elementary teachers have used for some time is building leveled classroom libraries. Students then have access to appropriate reading on a daily basis. I decided to create this support for my sixth and seventh grade students last year. This involved hustling for books around campus, asking friends to donate, and writing multiple DonorsChoose grants. It required hours of looking up levels here and organizing them in a way that was clear and inviting. It meant inquiring about student interests and getting a pulse on trending young adult literature. In the end, students respond.

Provide timely feedback on developmental progress. Students should know if their reading skills are improving. Last school year, I made it a point to assess students reading levels at the beginning and end of the school year. Additionally, we celebrated the completion of independent reading books, tracking the totals per student. While this was helpful on many levels, students were left guessing about their in-year progress. Many NCUST award-winning schools have taken on systematic approaches for tracking student’s reading skill development. At the elementary levels, schools employ programs like Accelerated Readers. In the upper grades, schools are beginning to track lexile level improvement with programs like Achieve 3000. No matter the program, students will benefit from a systemic approach that pinpoints their realistic reading levels and tracks their progress incrementally.

Employ research-based principles of motivation. We all want our students to love reading. We want students to see reading as a frontier to be explored rather than an internment camp to endure. Furthermore, we know that positive attitudes towards reading translate to positive outcomes for children (Frey and Fisher, 2013 p.104) To get students there, I argue, we should consider proven principles of motivation.

From a classical behaviorist approach, we should consider reinforcing both big and small behaviors of reading engagement. Following a stimulus-response chain of events, we are hoping to see behavior change that results in more frequent and increasingly engaged independent reading. To achieve this, we should administer positive reinforcement in a timely manner, and in ways that students feel reinforced. This might look like stickers on a chart, special recognition, or treats. Over time, our rewarding of desired reading behaviors should be spread out, shifting from continuous to intermittent. As extrinsic rewards are spaced out, students will begin to experience and value the intrinsic value of reading, including increases in fluency, enjoyment of storylines, feelings of accomplishment, and reading efficacy.

Another approach to motivation, that I believe holds more promise, is Self-Determination Theory (SDT) (Ryan and Deci, 1985) This framework for understanding human motivation has demonstrated fidelity in multiple domains. In fact, my masters-level research showed its promise in motivating youth in physical activity and exercise. But I believe it can be instrumental with reluctant readers as well. SDT recognizes that individuals are highly motivated when they feel (1) related (2) competent and (3) autonomous. With these critical predictive variables in mind, we could do a lot to help students autonomously select (and have access to) books that they are highly interested in. We have work to do in terms of helping students see their reading progress. If we can do that, their sense of competency will increase. Additionally, we can use book clubs and partner reading strategies to help them feel connected, or related, in the reading experience. There are countless other ways to increase students sense of autonomy, competency, and relatedness around reading. Our students reading skills will benefit if we work towards finding more!

The group of students, represented in the graph above, responded well to the approaches discussed here.  Over the course of a single year, students gained 2.16 grade levels on average (measured using the Analytic Reading Inventory). While most still have progress to make, many are on their way to closing the literacy gap and have promising futures!


Burke, J. (2000). Reading reminders: Tools, tips, and techniques. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/ Cook.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York, NY: Plenum.
Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2013) Rigorous reading: Five access points for comprehending complex texts. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.


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