EdNC – In our quest to improve early reading in North Carolina, let’s remember the ‘Five W’s’

Perspective | In our quest to improve early reading in North Carolina, let’s remember the ‘Five W’s’

By Johanna Anderson - Posted Mar 9, 2020

Growing up, one of my favorite shows was Nick News with Linda Ellerbee. For those who missed it, Nick News was a long-running news show for kids hosted by Peabody-award winning journalist Linda Ellerbee.

Early seasons of the show explored myriad topics framed by the “Five W’s” (Who?, What?, When?, Where?, Why?) and the occasional 6th, How?

I didn’t realize in the early-90s how much Ellerbee’s approach would impact my future work.

A few weeks ago, the Belk Foundation hosted a series of sessions under the banner “North Carolina and the Science of Reading.” We brought in national presenters to speak about how Mississippi had an unprecedented boost in fourth grade reading scores, why we need to focus as much on content knowledge as foundational skills, and how to support teachers in bridging the “research to practice” divide.

In my opening remarks, I referenced the resurgence of the “reading wars” playing out in my Twitter feed. I asked the attendees to remember why there’s so much passion in reading. We all know how important it is, but in 2019, only 45.2% of North Carolina third graders were reading at College & Career Ready levels. Keeping the reading wars in mind, I urged attendees to take off their “team stripes” and listen to the presentations with curious ears.

I’m watching (and admittedly, participating) in a precarious tug-of-war playing out in early reading discussions right now. In our collective outrage about our nation’s dismal reading proficiency, we are picking sides and digging in. Over my decade of education philanthropy, I’ve never seen the term “salvo” used so often to describe competing educational practices.

Why is this happening? In Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, the seminal business school text on negotiations, authors Roger Fisher and William Ury use their first chapter to tell us why not to bargain over positions. It doesn’t take long to see how clear cut the positions are defined in the battle for reading instruction: there’s “Team Science of Reading” (otherwise known as drill-and-kill phonics worshipers) and “Team Balanced Literacy” (aka Whole Language wolves in sheep’s clothing).

In Fisher and Ury’s method, they tell us to “insist on using objective criteria.” Wait a minute — isn’t that what research is?

A notable exchange caught my attention when the North Carolina State Board of Education Pre-K-12 Literacy Instruction and Teacher Preparation Task Force met recently. Dr. Barbara Foorman, professor emeritus at Florida State University and arguably the nation’s foremost expert on reading, made a fervent plea to add the word “current” before “science of reading” in North Carolina’s foundational definition of high-quality reading instruction.

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