Improving Literacy in America: Guidelines from Research

Improving Literacy in America: Guidelines from Research


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An alarmingly high number of American students continue to lack proficiency in reading, math, and science. The various attempts to address this problem have all too often resulted in “silver bullet” solutions such as reducing class size or implementing voucher programs. But as the authors of this critically important book show, improving literacy also requires an understanding of complex and interrelated social issues that shape a child’s learning. More than twenty years of research demonstrate that literacy success is determined by a combination of sociocultural forces including parenting, preschool, classroom instruction, and other factors that have a direct impact on a child’s development.
Here, Frederick J. Morrison, Heather J. Bachman, and Carol McDonald Connor present the most up-to-date research on the diverse factors that relate to a child’s literacy development from preschool through early elementary school. Urging greater emphasis on the immediate sources of influence on children, the authors warn against simple, single solutions that ignore other pivotal aspects of the problem. In a concluding chapter, the authors propose seven specific recommendations for improving literacy—recommendations that can make a real difference in American education.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300194647
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 03/21/2005
Series: Current Perspectives in Psychology
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.55(d)

About the Author

Frederick J. Morrison is professor in the Department of Psychology and research professor at the Center for Human Growth and Development at the University of Michigan. Heather J. Bachman is research scientist at the Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University. Carol McDonald Connor is assistant professor, College of Education and Florida Center for Reading Research, Florida State University.

Read an Excerpt

Improving Literacy in America
Guidelines from Research

By Frederick J. Morrison Heather J. Bachman Carol McDonald Connor
Copyright © 2005 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10645-9

Chapter One
The Scope of the Problem

A doctor for schools calls Philadelphia's very sick. New York Times

Education chief takes steps to close ailing school system. New York Times

Drastic action urged for 15 city schools. Chicago Tribune

These headlines and others in newspapers and magazines throughout the country in recent years have trumpeted the continuing problems the United States is experiencing in educating all of its children. A steady drumbeat of evidence in scientific journals and the popular media continues to declare that significant numbers of American children are not developing the skills they need to be successful in school and in the workplace. Despite growing national awareness and the efforts of three separate administrations to address the problem, little progress seems to have been made in improving the levels of literacy of American children from elementary through high school in the last ten to fifteen years (National Center for Educational Statistics 2003b).

In our view, part of the problem rests with the manner in which we have tackled this problem. First, most discussions have focused on single issues with an either-or quality to them. For example, recent discussions have concentrated on whether we should allow vouchers or not, or whether we should decrease class size or not. These issues are all presented and debated in isolation as holding the key to understanding the literacy problems of American children. Little effort has been made to integrate these issues into a more systematic and coherent attack on the problem. Second, most of these single-issue solutions have a silver bullet quality to them. That is, the solutions are offered as the one way to solve all of our nation's problems. If only we could pour more money into the public school system, one argument goes, our problems would evaporate. Another quick-fix solution is seen in reducing class sizes.

The failure of many of these proposals to quickly and dramatically turn around our children's educational outcomes is seen by critics as demonstrable proof that the solution was misguided. Seldom do we see discussions of these individual solutions as part of a more comprehensive strategy that must be implemented across a variety of contexts and over a significant period of time. Finally, and most crucial, the dominant analyses of the causes and cures of America's literacy problems have tended to focus primarily on the schooling years. Here, too, while scientists and analysts have identified a number of very important issues pertaining to schools, the exclusive focus of concern on the schooling years has blinded us to a much larger picture about the nature and origins of problems children can experience as they develop.

A Comprehensive Perspective

In contrast to this single-issue, silver bullet mentality, research accumulating quietly over the past ten to twenty years paints a decidedly more complex picture of the extent, nature, and sources of problems facing American children, families, and society as we strive to improve education in this country. Theoretical and empirical advances have documented clearly that many factors operating over long periods of time in the child's life combine cumulatively to produce greater or lesser academic and literacy skills. Single-factor solutions focus on only one facet of the problem, when in reality it is embedded in a complex network of factors operating at different levels. In some instances, as we hope to demonstrate, concentrating on a single factor (like class size) may merely be treating the symptoms of the disorder, distracting attention from more genuinely causal influences. As is the case in medicine, treating symptoms produces some degree of short-term gain but does not eliminate the problem by tackling the underlying cause. Silver bullet proposals, while they attract attention and headlines, likewise distract us from appreciating the systemic nature of the forces operating across broad segments of society and over long periods of time in the child's life to shape each child's pattern of strengths and weaknesses.

Critically, as we will document, psychologically and educationally meaningful individual differences among children emerge and begin to stabilize well before school begins. These differences among children cut across a range of important language, cognitive, literacy, and even social skills that shape and support academic growth as children transition to and progress through school. Any lasting solution to America's literacy problems must recognize and confront the importance of these early differences.

The Preschool Years

Growth of these early foundational skills is significantly related to many complex factors operating in the life of the preschool child. Most notable, we will argue, is parenting. As we shall see, parenting for successful academic performance is a complicated, multifaceted task, bringing together many different dimensions operating simultaneously in a child's life. Effective parents teach, mentor, and provide love and support, yet at the same time they establish rules, standards, and limits, all in the service of nurturing and facilitating their child's growth. While parenting is emerging as the most potent environmental force in young children's lives, it is becoming equally clear that preschool experiences can and do have discernible effects on children (albeit in complex ways) and that certain preschool interventions, appropriately focused and implemented, can yield important gains for our most at-risk children and families. We will attempt to identify which are the most productive features of those preschool environments and interventions.

Likewise, we will examine the role of socioeconomic and racial/ ethnic factors. Parental income and education levels are often credited with producing wide variability in children's development, especially when we are trying to understand the nature and sources of minority gaps in academic achievement. Here we will present the results of some surprising and counterintuitive findings: (1) that racial differences in academic achievement are not limited to lower socioeconomic families; and (2) high levels of school success have been achieved by minority children in low-income families. For example, some children from poor immigrant groups (such as Indo-Chinese refugees) have tended to perform well in U.S. schools, while other immigrant children from low-income families have shown more academic problems (for example, Mexicans). In addition, recent evidence has revealed that discrepancies in White and African American children's academic performance (the so-called "Black-White test score gap") are evident in middle- and upper-income communities and emerge well before the children ever get to school. Yet these findings do not lead inexorably to a focus on genetic differences between Blacks and Whites. As we will attempt to illustrate throughout the book, multiple cultural, linguistic, and psychological influences come together in complex ways to shape the growth of academic skills starting early and continuing throughout childhood.

Yet these forces-parenting, preschool, sociocultural-themselves do not operate monolithically. The child brings to the task of development a profile of unique skills and characteristics that parents and teachers are, in part, responding to. Hence the impact of particular parental practices will vary depending on the child. Some children require more discipline than others, some more cognitive stimulation. In proffering suggestions for optimizing literacy in America, we will need to include the child's qualities in our discussion and tailor our recommendations accordingly.

The School Years

As complex and intricate as this picture is of the young child's development, this is only part of the story. The process of schooling now comes into play, but as we can now appreciate, schooling operates on a backdrop of substantial variation in children's skills and the environments that have been operating for five years or more and continue to exert their influence. Hence understanding the role and importance of schooling, as well as making recommendations for improving it, will benefit, we will show, from inclusion of individual child factors in the description. Specifically, instructional strategies designed to promote growth in reading have been shown to differ distinctly depending on the entering skill level of the child in vocabulary, phonological skills, and reading.

Fresh data and new insights about the nature of learning in children emerging from current research point to a distinct conclusion that children learn important literacy skills like vocabulary and letter and word naming in a reasonably specific fashion as a function of the amount and type of instruction they receive. In other words, growth in the foundational skills necessary for successful literacy does not proceed in a broad, universal fashion where progress in one skill is necessarily generalized to all related skills in a more global developmental progression. Rather, specific skills are nurtured by specific instructional or other environmental practices (Wachs 1984). Consequently, we must pay closer attention to the specific factors in the environment that nurture or impede the learning of specific skills. On an optimistic note, the conclusions emerging from recent research point to a program of instruction in the early grades that could, in principle, optimize each individual child's progress in reading.

The goal-or perhaps dream-of individualized instruction has seemingly eluded scientists and practitioners in contemporary educational discussions. As we will argue, progress toward that lofty goal is currently impeded by a number of entrenched problems in the field of education. The first impediment, variability in the qualifications of people entering the teaching field, is yielding variable levels of quality in teaching and hence in student outcomes. Second, unevenness in teacher training and knowledge compounds the problem of qualifications and further erodes the level of instruction children are receiving. Third, constant political and philosophical wars being waged in educational circles divert attention from the systematic pursuit of research that can serve to improve education for all children. Finally, the ongoing separation of research and practice in the field of education has stifled progress and innovation in understanding and improving education for our children.

The Historical Roots of the Problem

We will round out our treatment of the scope of America's literacy problems with some thoughts about how we got ourselves into this predicament. Diverse sources of evidence point to historical changes in two broad domains of societal functioning in America-parenting and schooling-as crucial to how we got here and where we need to focus our efforts to move ahead. As a working metaphor for these large-scale long-term trends, we have adopted the phrase "the perfect educational storm" to describe the coming together in the 1980s and 1990s of two broadly historical forces that independently appeared quite manageable but whose combined force has produced calamitous results for some children. We will try to be careful not to blame parents and teachers, for some of these historical changes have reaped enormous benefits for our society. Yet we must acknowledge the possibility at least that one of the unintended consequences of these trends has been the erosion of the academic progress of some of our children. Finally, we will offer a series of specific recommendations for improving literacy in America, based on our interpretation of the implications of the scientific research accumulating over the past thirty years.

Plan of the Book

There are four major sections that follow in the book. Part 2 focuses on the preschool years, reviewing and analyzing major factors hypothesized to influence literacy development during early childhood. Included is a discussion of the impact of socioeconomic status and race/ ethnicity (chapter 2), preschool experience and intervention (chapter 3), parenting (chapter 4), and child factors (chapter 5). Part 3 focuses squarely on the school years, including discussion of the nature of learning and interactions between child characteristics and instructional practices (chapter 6), followed by examination of factors implicated in fuller implementation of our best instructional practices (chapter 7). The next section, part 4, takes a broader historical perspective on our current situation, examining the role played by significant shifts in parenting and schooling over the past half century (chapter 8). The final section, part 5, makes specific suggestions about ways to improve literacy in America that are based on our reading of the best scientific evidence currently available.

What Is Literacy?

At the outset we would like to define what we mean by literacy and how we are using the term in the present volume. According to the standard dictionary definition, literacy is "the state of being literate." Looking further for the definition of literate, one traditionally, until recently, has found the simple definition "able to read and write" or sometimes more generally "educated, cultured." Recently, however, the term has come to have a broader meaning that is slowly being included in standard definitions. Recent dictionary editions include the entry "having knowledge or competence." This sense of literate recognizes that the term is being used to encompass a broader range of skills and areas of functioning. Hence it has become commonplace to speak of computer literacy or geographical literacy or historical literacy. In this sense literacy includes knowledge and skills needed for functioning in particular segments of society. We will be using literacy in this broader sense to include developing knowledge and skills that facilitate learning.

One other aspect of the focus we have adopted merits explication. In our discussion of schooling we will be focusing heavily on the early school years, from kindergarten through third grade, and our discussion will lean heavily on research and development of reading skills during those years. We chose this focus for two reasons. First, the majority of solid empirical work in the past two decades has emphasized early reading skills acquired during the first three to four years of school. In addition, the evidence is pretty clear that a child's performance during early years strongly predicts later performance in elementary and high school. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that important topics and areas of literacy will not receive the full treatment they deserve. Hence our discussions of mathematical and scientific literacy will not be as detailed as our discussions of literacy in reading. In addition, broader theoretical topics and controversies surrounding notions of intelligence and its role in academic development will not be emphasized (Ferrari and Sternberg 1998; Gardner 1983; Sternberg 1988).

The Nature of the Problem

As we mentioned, at its simplest level, too many American children are not reaching adequate levels of language, cognitive, literacy, and social skills. Obviously there have always been children in our society who have had problems in school (and there will likely be children who will continue to struggle). But there are several things that make our current situation particularly puzzling and worrisome. First, modern problems have seemed to be curiously intransigent, despite increasing public concern and steadily increasing public expenditures. By some accounts the amount of money devoted to education has more than doubled in the last twenty years. Second, the literacy demands being placed on American workers have escalated dramatically over the same period. Without a corresponding improvement in functional literacy levels among prospective employees, productivity, competitiveness, and personal as well as national levels of economic well-being are bound to suffer. Third, it is troubling and unacceptable in a free, democratic society that large gaps in educational opportunities between rich and poor or across racial or ethnic lines should be allowed to persist. Finally, there is evidence that the problem may have been getting worse in the recent past. Although the bulk of the evidence from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) studies over the last few decades has shown little change in the levels of literacy evidenced overall by American children (Campbell, Hombo, and Mazzeo 1999), these general trends may not present the whole story. In recent analyses examining the progression of reading scores from the 1990s, NAEP data revealed that differences in reading scores between the highest- and lowest-performing students have increased over approximately the last ten years (National Center for Educational Statistics 2003b). In other words, although the general trend in literacy has not worsened over time, that may be because some of our children are doing better, but others are not. This implies that forces operating during the 1980s and 1990s (and maybe before) may have conspired to exacerbate the achievement gap among American children.


Excerpted from Improving Literacy in America by Frederick J. Morrison Heather J. Bachman Carol McDonald Connor Copyright © 2005 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This

G. Reid Lyon

This comprehensive work is one of the first to provide critical insights into both reading proficiency and reading difficulties by explaining how multiple influences interact to foster or impede literacy development. This is a must read.—G. Reid Lyon, National Institute of Child Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health

Edward Zigler

At last, a book devoted to the multiple roots of literacy. In a welcome departure from the strictly didactic approach, Morrison, Bachman, and Connor pull together research from many fields to show that the basis for literacy begins very early in life and involves so much more than knowing letters and words. The authors appreciate the complexity of child development and have done a fine job explaining how the child’s motivation, relationships, and larger environment all contribute to the achievement of reading.—Edward Zigler, Sterling Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, Yale University

P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale

This excellent book is a clear and critical synthesis of the many influences on children's learning. The authors also demonstrate that improving literacy among young children should be one of our nation's top priorities. Indeed, one can conclude that the current system of U.S public education should start earlier than age 5, since children's reading and math concepts begin well before kindergarten.—P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, Professor of Human Development and Social Policy, Northwestern University

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