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

The stakes are high if we don’t address this 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.

Learn more about Foundations A-Z.

>> So the elephant in the room, I believe, is just the persisting gaps in children's preparedness for success. Perhaps there are two elephants in the room, one also being just the persisting racial-ethnic gaps in literacy and what that means long-term for the success of this nation. As an observer, as a researcher in this space, what I have seen both anecdotally or what I have ... The insights I've drawn anecdotally and from research suggests that the way in which we teach young people must change, that we cannot continue to teach from a very teacher or even systems-centered perspective. It has to be student-centered.

I believe one of the explanatory factors for these lower literacy rates is that we are not teaching in a way that centers students' strengths, needs and interests and leverages those strengths, leverages students' interests in helping them to build those foundational skills in reading, literacy and comprehension. So, yeah, I think that when we think about personalized or student-centered learning, that conversation has to be at the forefront of this discussion on why there are lagging or persisting literacy deficits in this country. What I'm suggesting is that we revisit this notion of personalized or student-centered learning and recognizing that it's not just about sitting a student in front of a computer and having them engage with technology for the entire class period. That's not it. Good student-centered learning that's supported by technology is integrated very purposefully and instruction in ways where students are not only engineering with the technology, but they're engineering meaningfully with their other classmates. They're engaging meaningfully with their teacher throughout that process.

I think one of the challenges is that teachers, and research supports this, in a given classroom, there's a wide range of proficiency and a wide range of needs, and teachers have ... We were talking about student-centered education and instructions. Teachers, if that is there, motivation and goal to teach in a way that centers the child, they have to do what across a classroom of 25, 30 children. And so I believe what educators need more and more are technological solutions to help them not only differentiate their instruction but also ensure that every child has what they need to progress at their own pace, to master content, and so that's one thing, technological solutions. I think another is professional development. I think educators need continued targeted professional development to help them ... professional development that is aligned with their goals and professional development that also incorporates those technological solutions that I mentioned.

I believe that if we're going to address this problem on a large scale, all of these stakeholders, parents or families, students, educators, school leaders, policy leaders, researchers, you got to get in the same room and start having conversations about the elephant in the room. And there has to be an equal voice in terms of what solutions are going to be the most appropriate for which population of students. And so I think one of the first steps that we can do is to bring key stakeholders together and ensure, empower each stakeholder's voice in, one, calling attention to calling out the elephant in the room and then bringing forward some very practical solutions and how we might be able to address the elephant in the room. Companies like Learning A-Z can continue to offer technological solutions that help educators to support their students in those foundational skills that they might be missing and do it in a way that's fun, interactive, engaging and that it doesn't segregate the student from the learning that's taking place in the classroom, but this very much is integrated in the overall classroom instruction and then supporting educators in that process, making sure the educators have the professional development resources necessary to implement technological solutions like that, that they have colleagues that they can call upon to help them think through certain implementation challenges with their students.

I think it's going to take time, one, to shift how we educate students, particularly in the area of literacy, and then it's going to take time to realize any significant shifts in student outcomes, but we have to start, right? We have to have those conversations. We have to make those instructional shifts. We have to make those structural changes to support what happens at the classroom level. We have to have the technology available that is student-centered and educator-friendly. We have to have all these components in place. We have to have families who are engaged, whom have resources and tools at their fingertips as well to support their students at home. We have to have all of these parts at play in order to eventually see what we're hoping to see in terms of increased literacy, not just overall but especially within student subgroups, within Black and Latinx student subgroups in particular. Overall, I'm extremely passionate about ensuring that every child has an equitable and inclusive learning experience. I am passionate about ensuring that Black and Brown students can excel academically as well as socially and emotionally.

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