On a road trip as a child, my brother and I proudly corrected a “mistake” my father made, and he sarcastically joked that us learning how to read was the worst thing that happened to him as a parent. “You no longer believe everything I say. It’s terrible!” He exclaimed, and we grinned back at him, knowing he was kidding. We were reading aloud the billboard advertisements and highway signs, the latter of which confirmed we were much farther from our destination than he was letting on. This was one of many moments where reading allowed me to access information about the world for myself, by myself. This notion of accessing information for ourselves by ourselves, is why reading is such a powerful skill. Reading offers every individual in society a gateway to reach their own ambitions and represents a crucial cornerstone to exercise our rights and freedoms.

However, most of our nation’s students are not receiving the support they need to become successful readers. Data from the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), a.k.a. the Nation’s Report Card, showed that not even half (43%) of all fourth graders in the U.S. scored at or above a proficient reading level. For students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, English learners, and students with disabilities, the numbers are even worse: only 17% of Black students, 21% of Latino students, 11% of students with disabilities, and 10% of English learners can read proficiently by the fourth grade.

Improving literacy rates among all students, especially students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, continues to be a civil rights issue:

  • The majority of novice elementary teachers, who are more likely to teach students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, enter the classroom with training that reflects a limited or flawed understanding of evidence-based reading instruction, while the vast majority of current teachers indicate that they still use ineffective, sometimes unknowingly harmful, teaching methods.
  • Many English Language Arts (ELA) instructional materials used in classrooms are not aligned to rigorous learning standards, and while there is an increase in efforts to equip teachers with high-quality instructional materials (HQIM), varied implementation — compounded by greater teacher and leader turnover in schools serving students of color and students from low-income backgrounds — may exacerbate existing inequities within our education system.
  • Even if instructional materials are deemed high-quality for their alignment to scientifically based reading instruction and rigorous standards, they are unlikely to include a diversity of cultures, ethnicities, and identities that allow students of color and students from low-income backgrounds to see themselves within the materials.

As a result, students of color and students from low-income backgrounds are less likely to receive high-quality, scientifically based reading instruction that validates their identity and interests, ultimately denying millions of bright students the core tools needed to become skillful readers. As advocates focus on improving equity in reading outcomes in their community, here are three things you need to know about ongoing reading reform policy efforts:

Some State Policy Reading Reform Efforts Are Stronger Than Others

While there is a broad evidence base on scientifically based reading instruction, policymakers are tasked with the challenging job of translating decades of research into policy. Forty-seven states have legislated efforts to address reading instruction in some capacity, though these efforts vary considerably. A handful of states have passed legislation that provides a comprehensive approach to reform, a strategy that leaders in Mississippi cite as being key to their monumental progress on NAEP fourth grade reading scores. The state made impressive gains: from the second-worst ranked state in the country in 2013 to second-best in 2019, and 2022 NAEP scores remained higher than the national average.

However, some states have passed laws that focus only on a single or few interventions — or none at all — according to analyses conducted by FutureEd, Albert Shanker Institute, EdWeek, and The National Council on Teacher Quality. States have generally focused on building teacher knowledge through professional development, job-imbedded training, and other supports for evidence-aligned reading instruction, and as well as emphasizing (or requiring, in the case of 17 states) the selection of reading programs and curricula grounded in evidence and scientific research.

Early intervention is another key focus in many legislative initiatives: 34 states require schools to provide interventions for students who struggle with reading, though the type and number of available interventions varies widely, and far fewer states (15) outline a comprehensive (two or more) set of supports available to students that need additional support. Few states make mention of oral development and writing in their legislation, despite evidence that suggests these skills are fundamental to reading development.

Reading Proficiently Relies on Leveraging Prior Knowledge, Which Has Been Largely Ignored and/or Undermined by States

There is overwhelming evidence that suggests that students are significantly better at understanding texts when they can draw upon their background knowledge to help make sense of what they are reading. This is a significant part of skillful reading: A 2020 scientific review concludes that “[T]he main determinant of understanding a text is how much knowledge a reader brings to reading.”

However, few states mention the role of background knowledge and no state has taken steps in their reading reform policies to ensure knowledge-building efforts include diverse cultural perspectives and identities. This is in addition to the fact that most schools in the U.S. do not have a curriculum that reflects the diversity of their students’ backgrounds nor does the curriculum explore a diversity of perspectives. In other words, the majority of students are learning to read with texts that feature a limited range of cultures and identities, creating barriers for students to draw upon their existing experiences to learn new topics, comprehend meaning, and expand their vocabulary. Students are also more engaged when they see people like themselves in school materials, which plays an important role in reading achievement. Moreover, even if the curriculum is aligned to scientifically based reading instruction, instructional materials that represent predominantly White, affluent experiences disadvantage students without those identities.

Despite this, extreme right-wing actors continue to try to sanitize their state’s curriculum on topics related to race, gender, and sexuality. According to a PEN America report, 41% of the more than 5,000 books banned have been on topics related to the LGBTQ+ community and 40% of those banned featured protagonists and secondary characters of color. These policies and practices not only erase honest history but jeopardize the success of a state’s reading reform efforts.

Successful Policy Efforts to Improve Reading Instruction Hinges on its Implementation

While reading reform efforts may begin in the chambers of the statehouse, the success of these initiatives will come down to their implementation. Practical considerations reveal the many resources that must be leveraged to ensure a successful implementation and the several ways that each school context is unique. Without the proper and sustained support given to teachers, instructional teams, schools, and districts, and without advocates being vocal for the continuous improvement of these resources and supports, students of color and students from low-income backgrounds may not be afforded the same opportunities to benefit from new reading reform policies as their White and more affluent peers.

Policymakers must also acknowledge that for all students to become skillful readers, school systems must be equipped with the resources to address all dimensions of student learning experiences. Expecting reading reform legislation to solve the literacy crisis without rectifying entrenched resource inequities offers an oversimplified view of just how deep-seated educational inequities are in our school systems and may limit the extent to which stronger reading instruction can positively impact a student’s reading proficiency.

In summary, students need more support from policymakers, education leaders, and advocates, along with comprehensive and equitable reading reform policy to ensure that they can access information for themselves by themselves. Equitable reading reform must address the multitude of factors that influence a student’s experiences when learning to read: from the instruction a student receives and how well-prepared their teacher is to deliver that instruction, to the books that allow students to feel represented. Advocates must communicate to their policymakers that advancing a multi-pronged, comprehensive state policy strategy that acknowledges a holistic picture of students’ experiences will help ensure that every student becomes a skillful reader.