COADY: The science of reading is the answer to North Carolina’s literacy crisis 

Dr. Maria R. Coady

Literacy is, indeed, a foundation for learning, and it is frequently the work of teachers and educators in school settings to build early literacy skills for students to succeed. However, literacy is not the same thing as reading, and literacy development is not the same for all students.  

In North Carolina, we currently have more than 146,0000 identified multilingual learners (MLs). MLs are students who are identified as requiring additional support for acquiring English as a new or additional language. Although that number is significant in N.C., even more impressive is the number of K-12 students who report a primary language other than English spoken in the home: 270,000.  

Even though we have a large number of identified MLs, more students are increasingly multilingual and are developing language and literacy in two or more languages. Linguistic diversity is not only increasingly widespread, but it is here to stay and is growing. 

How we prepare educators for literacy development for ML students in the next decade will be a true test of our ability to think and act in complex, research-driven ways that ensure success for all students. Unfortunately, a single, monolingual policy for reading development (which is not literacy development, a much broader construct) does not work for MLs. 

I recently attended a national summit hosted by The Reading League, a strong proponent of the “Science of Reading.” At the conference were panels of experts, including researchers who study reading for monolingual and ML students, cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists. Scholars spent significant time synthesizing research that has been conducted over the past 20 years.  

A major takeaway from that work of highly skilled researchers is that literacy development for ML students — including the processes involved in learning to read — is not the same as that required for monolingual students. The multilingual brain, though structurally the same as a monolingual brain, adjudicates and activates language and literacy ― that is, “functions” ― much differently.  

While we agree that there are important and essential foundational skills for reading development, there are clear research-based differences for ML students. These differences in literacy development are essential knowledge for highly prepared educators to understand.  

Ultimately, ML students already have a first language and oral language skills that are activated in the process of literacy development and reading. Thus, instructional practices for educators of our 146,000 ML students in N.C. need to be different. And even more so are those instructional practices for students who are enrolled in dual language, bilingual education programs, where students acquire literacy in two languages. As a state with the fifth largest number of DL programs in the U.S. and the largest number of DL programs in the southeast U.S., we have a professional obligation to ensure that those educators are also highly prepared to engage in the complex work of literacy development and reading.   

In N.C. and at NC State, we want educators to be best prepared for all students, including those learning multiple languages and acquiring literacy in multiple languages in schools.  

Maria R. Coady is Goodnight Distinguished Professor in educational equity at NC State University.