Literacy and justice for all

By Ryan Lee-James, PhD, director of the Rollins Center for Language & Literacy and Laura Bollman, director of operations of the Rollins Center.

Since the advent of the written word, which created the need to read, literacy has been used as a tool of power and oppression. Who is taught to read – and who is forbidden to learn to read? Who has access and who is denied?

In America today, literacy is a necessity to unlock life’s potential, yet less than 35% of children can read proficiently.

America’s literacy crisis affects all children of all demographic groups. This crisis – like all societal inequalities – affects our black, brown, poor and multilingual children the most. Less than 18% of black children and less than 21% of Hispanic children read well – and we reject the commonly accepted implications that this national failure falls on any child, family or teacher. Responsibility for our illiteracy crisis rests squarely with the systems that have knowingly withheld, and those that have refused to implement, the established body of evidence and the broad interdisciplinary sciences that make up the science of reading.

We know that 95% of all children can learn to read through structured, evidence-based literacy practices (the science of reading). When we consider that it is possible for 95% of our children to read but only 35% of children read today, we are called to raise our voices on behalf of the 54 million young people who are excluded from their own lives.

At the Rollins Center for Language and Literacy (a program of the Atlanta Speech School) and our Cox Campus, we are committed to building the deep reading brain for all kidsfrom the 3rd trimester of pregnancy, through language development to literacy.

We align with the philosophies of deep literacy and deep reading outlined by Dr. Gholdy Muhammad and Dr. Maryanne Wolf. In Wolf’s book Reader, come home, it articulates deep reading as moving beyond the widely accepted societal standard of “competence” to a more meaningful purpose, beyond decoding, reading fluency, and literal comprehension. The goal is a deeper, more analytical brain – a brain that thinks critically and takes others’ perspectives while feeling empathy for their plight. A deep-reading brain demonstrates self-reflection in imagining a better choice, a better idea, and a better world. Muhammad extends this philosophy, by Cultivate geniusdescribing reading and writing as “transformative acts that improve self and society – ‘essential for a person’ to read, write, think and speak in ways that understand power and equity in order to understand and to promote the struggle against oppression”.

During Black History Month and each month, we are motivated and consider the black literary societies raised by Dr. Muhammad as our North Star for all children, regardless of zip code, race or ethnicity. The betterment of humanity, the advancement of democracy, and the realization of freedom depend on a literate population, which we are obligated to achieve – for our future.

  • The literacy crisis in the United States is not the fault of teachers, families or children. We reject the narrative that continues to afflict disenfranchised communities.
  • We affirm that a family or caregiver is not responsible for teaching their child to read – structured, evidence-based reading instruction is the responsibility of our schools.
  • We reject 3rd the level as the standard by which all children should acquire a literate language; that is to say, we need a system that allows all the children not to be able to read at the same time.
  • We affirm that all children, regardless of background, have inherent strengths and rich experiences. We believe it is the responsibility of education systems to build on these strengths and cultivate every child’s unlimited human potential for academic success.
  • We refuse that the crisis of illiteracy is a “black problem”. While black children have paid the highest price, given the systemic denial of education in the South and elsewhere, persistent national data across all demographics indicates that this crisis is not confined to just one group of people. children.
  • We reject the claim that children cannot have language-related learning disabilities (such as dyslexia) if the learning challenge can be a result of “environmental, cultural or economic disadvantage” (quoted from Federal Special Education Act, IDEA 2004, 34 CFR 300.307). This definition is used to deny special education services to black, brown, poor, and multilingual children to which they are entitled under federal law.

As a global response to this persistent systemic failure, the Cox Campus is democratizing the sciences of healthy brain development, language, and reading – making classes, content, and community free for everyone. We are committed to literacy and justice for all. We do this through an equity-based learning platform where together we build the expertise and agency for every adult to play a part in helping every child find their voice and live boldly to reshape the world.

Literacy denied is access, equity and justice denied. We see states across the country elevating the importance of the science of reading through reading legislation. Simply put, READ Acts addresses evidence-based teacher training and allocates public funds to curriculum and resources grounded in the science of reading so that all students learn to read and thrive. We invite you to join us today as an ally for literacy and justice for all Georgian children. Write to us to find out more and make the difference [email protected]

(1) In Atlanta in 2019, before schools were closed due to the pandemic, these rates translated to 76% white children, 16% black children, and 23% Hispanic children reading at the grade level or at the above in fourth grade. For children eligible for free or reduced lunch, 15%.

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