Race, Class, and Reading Research

First, a little context:

I am a white literacy coach in a large urban district where half the teachers are of color. When I began my job, I believed that my focus on evidence-based reading instruction, good intentions and belief that all students can learn would make me well-equipped to bring research to our diverse staff. How naive I was! 

Entering this work, I was blind to biases that permeate commonly used “science of reading” materials, but the principals, coaches, and teachers with whom I work have opened my eyes to problems I can’t (and don’t want to) unsee.

Problematic Word Choice

“Language-impoverished”

“Lacking rich opportunities”

“Poor readers”

Publications about reading frequently use phrases associated with low socio-economic status to describe a lack of skill. This problematic word choice tangles two problems and teachers must work hard to untangle them in order to hold high expectations for all students. As long as reading experts seem to equate low income with low skill, it will be unnecessarily difficult for teachers to be optimistic about what our kids can accomplish. 

Implied Superiority

Coach responding to Hart and Risley: “Is this another study where they say we don’t do right by our kids?” 

The optics of white middle class people talking about the 30 million word gap are not good. Period. That doesn’t mean that discussion about the importance of developing oral language in school is off-limits. But while people who are white can easily ignore the long history of scientific racism, people of color can not. Discussion and research related to inequity often, ironically, perpetuate the belief that being middle-class and white is somehow superior.  

Classist Humor

This graph holds an important message, but it also equates custodial work with failure. There are a thousand other ways to label the lowest point on this graph-“Would rather do anything than read.”-  and there’s nothing to be gained by equating hard work with a lack of success. Nothing.

Culturally Insensitive Examples

Any number of phrases- “Hickory dickory dock” or “Pease porridge hot”- could have been used in the place of this line from a controversial children’s book from the 1960s. When a teacher read that part in a training she said, “It’s not your fault, but it is someone’s.” I disagree, I think it is my responsibility to carefully and critically read anything I present in professional development. Though sometimes I misstep, I don’t want to be let off the hook for disseminating materials that alienate, condescend, or offend.

These are just a few of the many examples of the ways in which professional materials unnecessarily alienate diverse educators. The science of reading should be accessible to everyone teaching children to read. For those who aim to help educators, considering an audience that is not white and middle class should be part of the work.

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