The First Step Toward Improving Literacy Rates — Student-Centered Learning

Dr. Jilliam Joe on Why the Way We Teach Reading Must Change

Over hundreds of hours observing classrooms, education researcher Dr. Jilliam Joe has witnessed firsthand the impact of children’s lack of foundational literacy skills they need to succeed.

There’s an elephant in the classroom: literacy rates continue to lag behind with 2/3 of students reading below grade level. Why does the trend of low literacy persist? we asked.

“It’s not a failure in terms of the content,” Dr. Joe said. “It’s the way we are delivering that content year after year. It’s just not working. The way we teach young people must change.”

In an interview with Learning A-Z, Dr. Joe offered several ways to do just that.

5 Ways to Address the Elephant in the Classroom

1. Shift Instruction to Be More Student-Centered

Dr. Joe believes one reason for our nation’s persistently low literacy rates is a lack of student-centered instruction that leverages students' strengths, needs, and interests to build foundational skills. “We cannot continue to teach from a system-centered perspective, it has to be student-centered,” she said.

But it’s not about what students are learning, it’s how. Are they learning in ways that are joyful, with content that’s connected to their interests? Are they seeing how these skills apply outside the classroom? Are they learning collaboratively?

She believes all of these strategies create more student-centered instruction and work to increase motivation, and subsequently, literacy rates.

2. Don’t Ignore the Impact of Race and Ethnicity

Dr. Joe believes there’s a second elephant in the classroom — race and ethnicity.

“There are some deeper issues that we continue to ignore,” she said. “We cannot ignore the fact that while children overall are seeing lower literacy rates, there are gaps that can be explained by race and ethnicity.”

The pandemic has only exacerbated equity gaps among African-American and Hispanic communities. Addressing the educational inequities among black and brown students is a key part of addressing low literacy rates overall, Dr. Joe said.

Dr. Joe's keynote address at our CONNECT conference highlighted the ways our existing models of education have failed to serve all children equitably and offered insights about the transformations necessary for a more equitable education system.

3. Integrate Education Technology Meaningfully

Students have a wide range of proficiency and needs. Tasking teachers with meeting all

of those needs simultaneously is overwhelming. Technology can help bridge the gap to differentiate instruction but only if integrated intentionally.

“It’s not just about sitting a student in front of a computer all day,” Dr. Joe said. “Good student-centered learning is supported by technology that’s integrated very purposefully. Students are not only engaging with technology, they are engaging meaningfully with their classmates and their teachers.”

4. Support Teachers With Professional Development

During her research, Dr. Joe said she observed just how much skill it takes to not only manage a classroom of 25+ students but also deliver effective instruction.

“What we are asking educators to do is no small thing,” she said. “They need support. They need not only content support but structural support to do their jobs well.”

Dr. Joe said teachers need continued professional development that incorporates technology solutions for differentiation. School leaders can support teachers by carving out more time for the professional development necessary for student-centered instruction.

5. Work Together to Improve Literacy for All Students

Dr. Joe’s research showed her just how siloed education is. She said all stakeholders — educators, students, parents, school leaders, policymakers, researchers — need an equal voice.

“If we are going to address this problem on a large scale, we gotta get in the same room and start having conversations about the elephant in the room.” Progress toward higher literacy rates will be slow, she warned. “Nothing in education happens quickly. But we have to start.”

How Foundations A-Z Addresses the Elephant in the Classroom

The stakes are high if we don’t address the elephant in the classroom today. Research shows that all students benefit from explicit and systematic foundational skills instruction to set them up for advanced literacy success.

Built on the Science of Reading, Foundations A-Z empowers teachers to develop the confidence needed, regardless of experience, to effectively teach all foundational skills and instill the joy of learning.

Promote Literacy for Every Student With Foundations A-Z

Start a free trial of Foundations A-Z to see how engaging, student-centered instruction can boost literacy rates in your classroom.

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