Language and literacy pioneer Catherine Snow discusses the current state of literacy in America
While the pandemic has challenged literacy development and outcomes for many students, that doesn’t mean America is currently in a literacy crisis. Professor Catherine Snow, a pioneer with decades of research in language and literacy development, says she’s puzzled by the public discourse about a literacy crisis.
“I am … struck by the degree to which people are willing to invoke a literacy crisis, when the data do not support anything like a literacy crisis,” Snow says. “NAEP scores, over the last 10, 15 years have grown — slowly, but they have gotten better in literacy.”
There are many districts that weathered the storm of COVID. Snow cautions that it’s important to remember the negative impacts on children’s reading test scores is not evenly distributed, and in time we will have a better understanding of its impact on literacy development. In the meantime, Snow reminds educators to remain steadfast with balanced literacy instruction.
“What worries me about the post-pandemic instruction is that people are particularly under the influence of these worries about phonics are retreating to a stance of, ‘Oh my gosh. They’ve missed the phonics instruction. We’ve got to do that more and more and better and better,’” she says. “And the fact of the matter is that yes, they need phonics instruction. But they don’t need an hour and a half a day of phonics instruction. Fifteen minutes a day, in the context of opportunities to read and practice and play with language, is probably more effective than overloading literacy instruction with phonics in order to repair the ravages of the pandemic.”
In this episode of the EdCast, Snow discusses the current state of American literacy, and how despite knowing what works, we continue to misinterpret modes of instruction and the science of reading.
Harvard Professor Catherine Snow doesn’t believe the lag in children’s reading scores means there’s a literacy crisis. She spent decades as a Harvard researcher, understanding how children acquire oral language skills and how that relates to literacy outcomes. Debates have long plagued the field of literacy development. To this day, educators grapple with the idea of phonics instruction, what the science of reading actually means, and what’s the best way to invest instructional time. Snow says children need strong, balanced, literacy instruction that incorporates many components, even some that have yet to really catch on in schools. First, I asked her to tell me how she thinks the pandemic impacted literacy development. Catherine SnowCATHERINE SNOW: From my perspective, and from the data, the pandemic has negatively impacted literacy development. But I think it’s important to realize that negative impact is not evenly distributed. Students in certain grades in school are particularly vulnerable to not receiving steady, systematic, and enough instruction. In other grades, if they’ve already learned how to read, and in particular if they’re avid readers, or if they’re at least willing readers, then a lot of the development of literacy skills can occur just because they continue to read, if they have books, if they have someone to talk to about those books. They don’t necessarily require literacy instruction after third grade or fourth grade. But they do require, of course, access to texts that will help them continue to expand vocabulary and expand background knowledge, and keep the skills current, keep the skills growing and becoming more automated. I think the most vulnerable children are those in kindergarten, first grade, second grade, where instruction is directly relevant to how well they’re going to grow. And we haven’t really seen the NAEP outcomes for those children in fourth grade yet. In other countries which do more regular assessments, it seems as if kids did lose about a year of schooling, of growth in literacy, over the course of the interrupted and somewhat scrappier instruction of the pandemic. So I think we have to anticipate that might appear in our fourth grade readers when NAEP is next applied.
Author: Jill Anderson, March 24, 2023