Saturday / April 13

Literacy Equals Equity

Literacy Equals Equity

Literacy is freedom’s gatekeeper. We know that the more literate an individual, the more capable he is of reaching his educational and career aspirations.  After all, a major measure of effective schooling is the literacy attainment of its graduates. But the impact of literacy reaches far beyond classroom walls. Literate consumers can read rental agreements and challenge unfair housing practices. Literate citizens can discern between real and fake news and question sources. Literate community members can use their voices to advocate on behalf of those who are marginalized. Literate members of a society are less vulnerable to being victimized by those who do not have their best interests at heart.

Among the most vulnerable in this country are those who are not fully literate in English. This limitation is a source of unintended, but very real institutional inequities.   The conversational aspects of language acquisition, which are primarily of a social nature, are important in everyday human interactions. Children and adolescents who are learning English as a subsequent language need to develop these skills, and generally do so early on.  But too many stall when it comes to developing more formal academic reading and writing skills that match their critical thinking skills. When these Long Term English Learners (LTEL) fail to advance in their acquisition of academic language, the result is a diminished level of independence. Instead, they are forced to remain dependent on others to make decisions that require a high degree of literacy. Progress for LTELs must be accelerated. It’s time to double down on our efforts by doubling up on our practices. Two nested practices can go far to forward academic language acquisition, and both involve collaboration. The first is collaborative discussion among students. The second is collaboration among the educators who serve them.

Foster Critical Thinking and Academic Language Through Discussion

Collaborative discussion is extended discourse among learners about worthy and cognitively challenging issues and topics. This isn’t interrogation, when the teacher is in control of the conversation, and is primarily posing questions in order to check for understanding. At a 0.82 effect size, true extended discussion can double the speed of learning, and is equivalent to two years’ worth of growth for a year in school (Hattie, 2009). Collaborative discussion allows children to take the lead, while the teacher facilitates. Well known practices such as Socratic seminar and debate are often cited as examples of discussion formats. However, these practices are less relevant when working with younger children.  In the elementary grades, the practice of collaborative reasoning requires that children engage with intellectually challenging texts and open-ended questions for the purpose of arriving at decisions about a situation (Reznitskaya et al., 2001). These rich, small group discussions are of particular benefit to English learners because it simultaneously fosters critical thinking and reasoning along with the academic language required (Zhang & Stahl, 2011).

Raise Expectations and Collective Teacher Efficacy

Collaboration among adults is also of great importance for accelerating the achievement of LTELs. Hattie’s most recently reported finding is that collective teacher efficacy (the belief that the group has meaningful impact) has an effect size of 1.57, equivalent to nearly four years’ worth of growth for a year in school. This has everything to do with raising expectations of students, as collective teacher efficacy fosters confidence in its members that students have the capacity to perform at higher levels.  A recent longitudinal study of nearly 10,000 elementary students found that there is a positive interaction between teacher collaboration, the professional learning community, job satisfaction, and the math and reading achievement of students (Banerjee et al., 2017).  There’s really no surprise to these findings, as many of us have witnessed the collective sense of agency that arises when teachers have meaningful time and purpose for collaboration.

A Call to Action

Literacy is the gatekeeper to a better life.  Those equipped with high levels of literacy form the cornerstone of an engaged and accomplished society. But we must teach and lead with a sense of urgency. Identify high-impact approaches that accelerate student literacy learning and amplify teacher collaboration, and then apply them with a degree of frequency, intensity, and duration such that they can deliver on their promise (Fisher, Frey, & Hattie, 2016). By doing so, we deliver on our promise for more equitable schools.


Banjeree, N., Stearns, E., Moller, S., & Mickelson, R. A. (2017). Teacher job satisfaction and student achievement: The roles of teacher professional community and teacher collaboration in schools. American Journal of Education, 123(2), 203-241.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Hattie, J. (2016). Visible learning for literacy: Implementing the practices that work best to accelerate student learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Hattie, J. A. C. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.

Reznitskaya, A., Anderson, R.C., McNurlen, B., Nguyen-Jahiel, K., Archodidou, A., & Kim, S. (2001). Influence of oral discussion on written argument. Discourse Processes, 32(2&3), 155–175.

Zhang, J., & Dougherty Stahl, K. A. (2011). Collaborative reasoning: Language-rich discussions for English learners. The Reading Teacher, 65(4), 257-260.

Written by

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is the recipient of an IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, NCTE’s Farmer Award for Excellence in Writing, as well as a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. Nancy Frey, Ph.D., is Professor of Literacy in the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. The recipient of the 2008 Early Career Achievement Award from the National Reading Conference, she is also a teacher-leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College and a credentialed special educator, reading specialist, and administrator in California.

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