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Q&A with Grantee UnboundEd: Finding Common Ground for Effective Literacy Instruction in California

In California, twenty percent of students attending public schools are classified as English learners, a term that identifies students who speak a language other than English at home, and who are learning English in other settings. As the state with the largest English learner population in the country, discussions on how to deliver appropriate reading instruction to these multilingual learners is an important educational topic for California.

Last year, grantee UnboundEd brought together literacy experts from different domains to drive consensus on some key aspects of early literacy instruction for all students, including those who speak another language. The synthesis of these conversations was recently published in a paper that will serve to inform California’s education policy from Transitional Kindergarten through Grade 12.

Maryia Krivoruchko, director of innovation at UnboundEd, shares more about the paper, and why it matters, in the Q&A below.

  • The paper, “Narrowing Down to Find Common Ground: Shared Agreements for Effective Literacy Instruction in California,” was published in March 2023 to develop consensus on what constitutes high-quality, evidence-based early literacy instruction in California. What were the potential upsides of developing this consensus, particularly in a state like California? Who was at the table?

As the state with the most K-12 public school students as well the largest percentage of students who are multilingual and English learners, it is imperative that there is a clear vision for evidence-based instruction for all California students, including those who speak another language. Additionally, there has been much recent public debate about best literacy practices, including for multilingual and English learners, and we wanted to bring a productive conversation that would move away from division and toward California-focused solutions.

The paper reflects Pivot Learning’s (now merged with UnboundEd) commitment to start this conversation by bridging both actual and perceived divides in the California literacy community, with the goal of building consensus among education leaders around a clear, aligned vision for literacy instruction. We brought together education researchers, practitioners, experts on dyslexia, multilingual learner and English learner advocates, and leaders from California county offices of education, all of whom have a strong commitment to serving California students in developing lifelong literacy skills. You can see the full list of participants on page 4 of our working paper.

  • What process did you put in place to document and synthesize the group’s collective thinking?

We partnered with Drs. Claude Goldenberg and Eduardo Muñoz-Muñoz to devise a four-stage protocol for developing the paper: (1) conduct individual interviews; (2) conduct focus groups; (3) convene literacy experts; and (4) synthesize findings and draft the working paper.

The first two stages narrowed down the initial question: “What are the main areas of disagreement among the various perspectives?” into three main areas where consensus would be most meaningful: (1) literacy and multilingual learner and English learner students; (2) early screening and assessment; and (3) foundational skills. The third stage, the convening, was designed to identify shared values and create a space to explore areas of disagreement in the three main areas that surfaced during individual interviews and focus groups. A diligent note-taking process enabled us to reflect upon and iterate the paper in close partnership with all participants over multiple drafts and several months. You can read more details in Appendix A, on page 15.

  • The paper mentions three thematic where consensus would be most meaningful: (1) literacy and multilingual learner and English learner students; (2) early screening and assessment; and (3) foundational skills. Could you speak to what these are and why they are key to developing high-quality, evidence-based early literacy instruction?

These are three areas that have seen disagreement among different perspectives and yet are crucial to get right in California, where nearly six million students attend public schools and one in five students is classified as an English learner.

The specific balance of supporting language and literacy development for multilingual learner and English learner students, prioritizing foundational skills (print concepts, phonological awareness, phonics, word recognition, and fluency), and universal screening for dyslexia risk lacked historical explicit agreement, which is needed to provide guidance to districts. Each area matters on its own and together with the others: English learners are historically and presently underserved, with literacy scores routinely lagging behind English-only peers. There is also a body of research that suggests that early screening for dyslexia, as well as an explicit and systematic focus on foundational skills is critical in supporting all developing readers as a part of a comprehensive literacy program (see Reading Wars, Reading Science, and English Learners.) The agreements surfaced in these three key areas at the convening are a start to important conversations that will support all California students.

  • What are the agreements that you collectively agreed to, and what challenges remain?

There were many substantive agreements across the three areas. Participants all agreed on the importance of an asset-based mindset that values multiculturalism and multilingualism, the importance of explicit and systematic foundational skills for all students, and that the purpose of universal early screening is not to diagnose a disability but to identify children who might be at risk for reading difficulties, among many other agreements.

A particularly powerful example was the agreement that both foundational skills instruction and English Language Development (for English learners) have been suffering from the same problem of not getting adequate time devoted in the school day. Participants agreed that both areas need to be prioritized with dedicated time allocated, rather than simply “integrated” into instruction, resulting in both not happening reliably. This example showed powerful alignment on historical problems that matter across perceived ideological aisles. That said, our three topic areas are also complex, and details matter. The nuances behind the implementation of the agreements need further exploration beyond our two-day convening, and these additional considerations are also outlined in the paper.

  • Tell us about some of the potential implications of this paper and how it might inform state-level policymakers on future policy and implementation decisions.

We are hopeful that the guidance will be used in upcoming state-level policymaking processes (for example, the new California literacy roadmap), and we have been pleased to hear that the paper has started some important conversations about supporting literacy goals at both the local and regional levels, where many important policy decisions happen in California.

The paper is meaningful because it brought prominent literacy experts and thinkers together toward an entry point that can lead to further discussions and ultimately meaningful guidance to districts and schools. Importantly, we remain optimistic that the paper will lead to additional conversations focused on consensus rather than division in the literacy community. Our students deserve that.