Category Archives: deficit thinking

Does the “Science of Reading” Fulfill Social Justice, Equity Goals in Education? (pt. 1)

[NOTE: See part 2 HERE]

Two things are important to consider.

First, simply stating something (or posting on Twitter) doesn’t make it true.

And, second, good intentions are not enough—especially in education.

Before considering whether or not the “science of reading” movement is fulfilling social justice and equity goals in education, let’s acknowledge how two relatively recent movements in education help inform a credible answer to that question.

For many years now, educators have been embracing both grit and growth mindset uncritically, promoting these concepts and practices as both scientific and especially necessary for marginalized and vulnerable populations of student (Black students, poor students, multi-language learners, and special needs students). [See HERE and HERE for research and examinations of grit and growth mindset.]

However, two important aspects of these movements must be considered: the science and research base is increasingly challenging the initial claims of both grit and growth mindset, and the appeal of both are grounded in deficit ideologies that are essentially racist and classist.

Grit and growth mindset prove to be cautionary tales, in fact, because education is often victim of faddism that spreads before the full science is understood and that is embraced without critical analysis of how well the concepts and practices actually accomplish what advocates claim.

Grit and growth mindset speak to a cultural belief that struggling students (disproportionately minoritized racial groups, speakers of languages other than English, impoverished students, and special needs students) lacks experiences and qualities existing in students who excel (disproportionately students who are white and affluent).

These beliefs are a subset of the rugged individualism mythology of the U.S. that needs success and failure to be centered in who people are and whether or not people work hard, even in the face of substantial challenges not of their making (and even when we are dealing with children).

This is why faddism in education is often driven by sloganism also—“no excuses” charter schools thrived even as they harmed the vulnerable and marginalized populations that they were disproportionately marketed to.

That belief system either carelessly ignores or brazenly rejects the power of systemic forces such as racism and classism.

Again, the science is gradually catching up with these claims and proving them to be false: A Reckoning for the Inexcusable?: “No Excuses” and the Collapse of Misguided Educational Reform.

Over the past few years, the “science of reading” movement has ridden a similar wave of claiming “scientific” paired with advocates associating the movement with social justice and equity goals. As a result, the “science of reading” movement is still in the uncritical phase of fadism.

What complicates this dynamic is that we have a century of evidence that the students who struggle the most as learners and as readers are the very vulnerable and marginalized groups that these fads’ advocates target, and justifiably so.

This brings us to the opening points: Saying the “science of reading” movement is a social justice and equity movement doesn’t make it true, and those very real and justifiable good intentions simply are not enough to ignore that the “science of reading” movement, in fact, is harming the students who need reading reform the most (see, for example, HERE).

Over the course of a 65-year career, educator Lou LaBrant lived and worked through multiple back-to-basic movements, lamenting those cycles in her memoir.

In the U.S., we seem fatally attracted to viewing children and students in the most harsh and deficit perspectives, determined to prove that those who succeed and those who fail somehow deserve those outcomes.

The “no excuses” movement has been one of the worst examples of demanding that children/students and their teachers somehow ignore the realities of their lives when they enter schools and just suck it up and learn.

Like grit and growth mindset, the “science of reading” is a reductive and deficit belief system that diagnoses students struggling to read as lacking structure and basics (the exact same claim that has been made without success for a century, LaBrant lived and documented).

The result is reading policy that promotes scripted curriculum that erases teacher autonomy and student individual needs and then reduces reading in the early grades to pronouncing nonsense words.

The social justice and equity reckoning hasn’t quite taken hold yet with the “science of reading,” as it has with grit and growth mindset, and the “science of reading” movement has successfully deflected that the practices and policies actually are not supported by science (see HERE).

But the evidence is starting to build as critics have warned.

First, the education miracle machine is being unmasked. Florida, for example, represents how political marketing can use early test-based achievement mirages to mask that the entire system still fails to meet the needs of all students (see also Mississippi where celebrating 2019 NAEP grade 4 reading scores masked their persistent achievement gap and struggling students at later grades).

And, reading programs marketed as meeting the “science of reading” mandate are being exposed as failing to meet social justice and equity goals.

Consider for example two reading programs heavily marketed as “science of reading” endorsed: Wonders and HMH Into Reading.

An analysis from NYU of three programs, including these two, found the following:

1. All three curricula were Culturally Destructive or Culturally Insufficient.

2. All three curricula used superficial visual representations to signify diversity, especially skin tone and bodily presentation, without including meaningful cultural context, practices or traditions.

3. All three curricula were dominated by one-sided storytelling that provided a single, ahistorical narrative. 

4. All three curricula used language, tone and syntax that demeaned and dehumanized Black, Indigenous and characters of color, while encouraging empathy and connection with White characters.

5. All three curricula provided little to no guidance for teachers on engaging students’ prior knowledge, backgrounds and cultures; or reflecting on their own bias, beliefs and experiences.

We found that these three curricula, which collectively reach millions of students across the country, have deficits that are mostly not being raised in the current public debate about curriculum. Their texts, language, tone and guidance communicate harmful messages to students of all backgrounds, especially Black, Indigenous, students of color, LGBTQIA+ students, and students with disabilities. 

Lessons in (In)Equity: An Evaluation of Cultural Responsiveness in Elementary ELA Curriculum

The “science of reading” movement is often championed for legitimate concerns about learning and students and by people with good intentions. But that movement is also another example of faddism and marketing boondoggles at the expense of the vulnerable and marginalized students who need and deserve a reckoning for reductive mythologies and deficit ideologies.

Ultimately, the “science of reading” movement is not fulfilling social justice and equity goals in education, and like grit and growth mindset, the reckoning is one the horizon, but our students and teachers deserve better and now.


Recommended

Poverty and the ideological imperative: a call to unhook from
deficit and grit ideology and to strive for structural ideology
in teacher education
, Paul C. Gorski

Grit and Growth Mindset: Deficit Thinking? Rick Wormeli

Paulo Freire: “Reading the world always precedes reading the word, and reading the word implies continually reading the world.”

While Paulo Freire is strongly associated with critical pedagogy, I often remind myself that Freire came to his philosophy of teaching and learning through his commitment to teaching adults to read and write.

The U.S, finds itself repeatedly in a state of crisis-paralysis because people periodically discover illiteracy and aliteracy among our students and even adults.

The irony of the nearly nonstop and melodramatic cries of “reading crisis” is that the need for literacy always remains vital for human autonomy, human dignity, and human freedom, but the crisis approach always fails that need.

The problem is that public fears around illiteracy and aliteracy are often overly simplistic, and then calls for solving the “reading crisis” are equally simplistic.

The current Reading War driven by the “science of reading” movement is once again repeating that failed dynamic, notably by claiming that the simple view of reading (SVR) is the current and settled reading science (it isn’t; see here).

And concurrent with this Reading War is a dramatic rise in censorship and book banning—yet another layer of misunderstanding reading and teaching/learning.

Since we seem destined to remain stuck in misreading reading, I want to share Freire’s The Importance of the Act of Reading as an ideal text to reconsider what reading is and why literacy is central to the human condition.

First and vital to understanding literacy, Freire begins by asserting “the practice of teaching—which is political practice as well.”

In other words, teaching reading and any reading done by students (or anyone) are inherently political acts—behaviors that necessarily place humans in situations of power imbalances.

Freire’s meditation on reading was originally presented as a talk in Brazil in 1981. Then, Freire challenged the mechanical and reductive view of reading:

Reading is not exhausted merely by decoding the written word or written language, but rather anticipated by and extending into knowledge of the world. Reading the world precedes reading the word, and the subsequent reading of the word cannot dispense with continually reading the world. Language and reality are dynamically intertwined. The understanding attained by critical reading of a text implies perceiving the relationship between text and context.

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

One side of the reading debate often focuses on isolated text-only approaches that argue for phonics-first and/or systematic phonics instruction for all before addressing comprehension (or critical comprehension, which is often only approached for some students deemed “advanced”).

Freire, however, grounds reading in the context of reading the world before beginning to decode text for meaning.

In short, context matters, and lived experiences form the basis of anyone acquiring reading and writing. This is key to understanding the problem with focusing exclusively or primarily on in-school reading and writing instruction.

If we in the U.S. value reading for all students and adults, we must acknowledge that addressing the lived experiences of all people—eliminating poverty, food insecurity, job insecurity, etc.—is an essential aspect of needed reading policy.

Simply changing how we teach reading will never achieve the goals we claim to have.

And in this talk, Freire used his own experiences to think aloud and complexly about reading:

I put objective distance between myself and the different moments in which the act of reading occurred in my existential experience: first, reading the world, the tiny world in which I moved; afterwards, reading the word, not always the word-world in the course of my schooling.

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

Yes, young students must make the transition from reading their world to reading the word, but those acts of reading cannot (and should not) be separated (think of the reductive practice of having students pronounce nonsense words).

Freire speaks not only to acquiring reading, but also to why we read—and this is a powerful refuting of the rise in censorship and book bans being imposed by some parents onto all parents and students:

As I became familiar with my world, however, as I perceived and understood it better by reading it, my terrors diminished.

It is important to add that reading my world, always basic to me, did not make me grow up prematurely, a rationalist in boy’s clothing. Exercising my boy’s curiosity did not distort it, nor did understanding my world cause me to scorn the enchanting mystery of that world. In this I was aided rather than discouraged by my parents.

It was precisely my parents who introduced me to reading the word at a certain moment in this rich experience of understanding my immediate world.

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

Like Freire, my journey to literacy was enthusiastically driven by my parents and their commitment to me having free access to essentially anything I wanted to read. And like Freire, I had that freedom significantly reinforced by teachers when I was in high school:

I would like to go back to a time when I was a secondary-school student. There I gained experience in the critical interpretation of texts I read in class with the Portuguese teacher’s help, which I remember to this day. Those moments did not consist of mere exercises, aimed at our simply becoming aware of the existence of the page in front of us, to be scanned, mechanically and monotonously spelled out, instead of truly read. Those moments were not reading lessons in the traditional sense, but rather moments in which texts were offered to our restless searching, including that of the young teacher, Jose Pessoa.

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

Reading and all literacy as well as formal and informal education are human ways of coming to understand the world—including the dark and light—so that we gain agency in our living, so that we are not paralyzed by fear and ignorance.

The why and how of reading, then, are not mere mechanics, but a complex process of critical comprehension:

Mechanically memorizing the description of an object does not constitute knowing the object. That is why reading a text taken as pure description of an object (like a syntactical rule), and undertaken to memorize the description, is neither real reading, nor does it result in knowledge of the object to which the text refers.

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

And regardless of the simplistic calls by Republicans and conservatives to “just teach” and to not be political, we must recognize that all teaching, learning, and literacy are political acts. As he did throughout his career, Freire denounced the banking concept of teaching that erases human agency and views students as empty piggy banks into which teachers deposit value:

First, I would like to reaffirm that I always saw teaching adults to read and write as a political act, an act of knowledge, and therefore as a creative act. I would find it impossible to be engaged in a work of mechanically memorizing vowel sounds, like in the exercises ba-be-bi-bo-bu, la-le-li-lo-lu. Nor could I reduce learning to read and write merely to learning words, syllables, or letters, a process of teaching in which the teacher fills the supposedly empty heads of the learners with his or her words. On the contrary, the student is the subject of the process of learning to read and write as an act of knowing and a creative act. The fact that he or she needs the teacher’s help, as in the pedagogical situation, does not mean that the teacher’s help annuls the student’s creativity and responsibility for constructing his or her own written language and reading this language.

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

Freire builds to this: “Reading the world always precedes reading the word, and reading the word implies continually reading the world.”

Reading is not simply decoding text or recognizing whole words. Reading is context, and reading requires context—a context that is far more than letters, sounds, words, sentences, and paragraphs.

Reading is a very human and individual act because “reading always involves critical perception, interpretation, and re-wrìting what is read,” which is how Freire wrote his talk before sharing it aloud as yet another act of re-reading in order to re-write.


Freire’s essay anchors this award-winning volume: The SAGE handbook of critical pedagogies.

On Positive and Negative Feedback to Student Writing

Several students in my literacy course in our MAT program chose to read Donna Alvermann’s Effective Literacy Instruction for Adolescents. While the initial discussion around Alvermann’s essay focused on those students struggling with the density of her academic writing, they emphasized the importance and power of her addressing student self efficacy in the fostering of student literacy development:

Adolescents’ perceptions of how competent they are as readers and writers, generally speaking, will affect how motivated they are to learn in their subject area classes (e.g., the sciences, social studies, mathematics, and literature). Thus, if academic literacy instruction is to be effective, it must address issues of self-efficacy and engagement.

Effective Literacy Instruction for Adolescents

That discussion led to some very insightful comments about the importance of providing students feedback, as opposed to grades, on their writing as part of the drafting and workshop process (anchored in their reading Graham and Perin’s 2007 Writing Next analysis of research on teaching writing).

As a long-time advocate of feedback and someone who practices de-grading the classroom as well as delaying grades (assigning grades for courses but not on assignments), I strongly supported this discussion, and was impressed with the thoughtfulness of the students.

That discussion had a subtext also—a concern raised by several students about the need for teachers to provide students positive feedback (so students know what they are doing well), and not just negative feedback. (Some of that subtext, I am sure, was an unexpressed feeling among some of these graduate students that they received mostly or exclusively “negative” feedback from me on their first submitted essays.)

After several students worked through this argument for positive feedback, I asked them to step back even further to consider, or -re-consider, what counts as “positive” or “negative” feedback.

In the sort of way Alanis Morrissette perceives irony, I found on social media Your Essay Shows Promise But Suffers from Demonic Possession posted at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency—a brilliant portrayal of the tensions created by teachers giving students feedback on their essays, which begins:

I appreciate the hard work that went into this essay. It has many merits, but it also has something profoundly and disturbingly wrong with it. In fact, I’m writing this feedback on my phone, cowering in the bathtub with my wife, after your essay terrorized and nearly destroyed us….

The essay was formatted correctly, and each sentence was more or less intelligible in itself. But altogether, the effect was—disorientation. Worse, actually. Pure senselessness. The Void.

Your Essay Shows Promise But Suffers from Demonic Possession

This satirical piece does exactly what my MAT students requested, blending positive (“many merits”) with negative (“something profoundly and disturbingly wrong with it”) feedback; and I think, herein is the problem with the dichotomy itself.

Once dramatically while I was teaching high school and often since I have been teaching at my current selective liberal arts university, I have encountered students who perceive all feedback as negative and reject having to revise their writing.

My argument to my MAT students was that actionable feedback on student writing is not inherently “negative” even though it does suggest something is “wrong” and needs “correcting” (perceptions grounded in students’ experiences in traditional classrooms that focus on the error hunt and punish students with grades).

However, I am well aware over almost four decades that part of my challenge as a writing teacher is how to help students see and respond to feedback as supportive and not an attack on their work or them as people (we had a great discussion about whether or not students can or should see their writing as inextricable from them as people).

In other words, affect matters.

Throughout the past 20 years teaching in higher education, I have been struggling against the perception by students than my written feedback is “mean,” “harsh,” “negative,” etc., while they simultaneously find my face-to-face feedback supportive and “good.”

I continue to seek ways to make feedback on student writing more effective as a key aspect of helping students grow as writers and thinkers as well as fostering their independence as writers and thinkers (learning to revise and edit their work on their own).

Students persist, however, in finding the feedback “negative,” and occasionally shutting down.

If there is a path to moving past the dichotomy of negative/positive feedback to student writing, I think it lies in the following concepts and practices:

  • Having explicit discussions with students about the inherent need for all writers to revise writing, ideally in the context of feedback from an expert and/or supportive writer/teacher. I often share with students samples of my own work submitted for publication with track changes and comments from editors.
  • Rejecting high-stakes for low-stakes environments in the writing workshop format. This is grounded in my commitment to de-grading the classroom that honors that writing is a process (see More Thoughts on Feedback, Grades, and Late Work).
  • Adopting strategies and rhetoric that rejects deficit ideology and the error hunt (Connie Weaver). It is important for teachers and students to prefer “revising” and “editing” instead of “error,” “mistake,” and “correcting” as the language surrounding the writing process. The pursuit in writing must be grounded in the recognition that all writing can be better even when it is currently quite good (and especially if is is somewhat or deeply flawed).
  • Clarifying for students that challenging and critical feedback is intended as actionable by students as writers, and thus, inherently positive. One of the recurring tone issues I experience with students viewing my written feedback as negative is misreading questions; students often read questions as sarcastic or accusatory when I am asking in order to elicit a response (for example, when I write “Did you look at the sample?” how I move forward with helping a student depends on that answer). As my MAT students expressed in the context of Alvermann, students absolutely do need to see themselves as writers and do need to trust they will be successful, but they also must embrace the need to revise and the awareness that no one produces “perfect” writing in one (or even several) drafts.

Feedback and the dynamic between teachers and students (including trust) are the lifeblood of the writing process when students are young and developing. As I noted above, affect matters and the teacher/student relationship inevitably impacts how effective the teacher is.

As teachers providing feedback, we must be careful and purposeful in our feedback, focusing on actionable feedback and creating/maintaining a culture of support and encouragement.

To that end, I believe we cannot reduce feedback to a positive/negative dichotomy that serves only to reinforce the cultures and practices we need to reject, deficit ideologies and the error hunt.

In the McSweeney’s parody above, the writing teacher and their wife are ensnared in a demon-possessed student essay, but the more horrifying detail of this piece is the ending—the realization that teachers and students are actually trapped in an even greater hellscape:

“I did it,” she sobbed. “I killed it. I killed it.”

“You did it,” I said, climbing into the bathtub with her, holding my wife close. “It’s over. It’s all over now.”

Silence.

Then she said, “It’s not over.”

“What—”

“You still have to grade it.”

80%

Your Essay Shows Promise But Suffers from Demonic Possession

Yes, let’s work on feedback and the affect created around the writing process, but let’s not ignore that their are larger dynamics (grades and testing) at play that erode the teacher/student relationship as well as the effectiveness of teaching and the possibilities of learning.


See Also

Student Agency and Responsibilities when Learning to Write: More on the Failure of SETs

The Problem of Student Engagement in Writing Workshop

Teaching and Learning as Collaboration, not Antagonism

Teaching and Learning as Collaboration, not Antagonism

James Baldwin wrote in 1966 about the antagonistic relationship between Black Americans and the police; his willingness to interrogate that dynamic provides a powerful framework for rethinking the antagonism between educators and students. (The Nation)

Teaching in my third academic year impacted by the Covid pandemic, I am feeling nostalgic for some (but not all) of the pre-pandemic dynamics in the classroom.

My university established and followed strict protocols throughout the 2020-2021 academic year that allowed many courses to be taught face-to-face (while professors were allowed to teach remotely and courses provided many hybrid opportunities to address student needs). But last year was a very stilted teaching and learning experience with faculty and students fully masked and social distancing (maintaining the six-feet requirement typical pre-vaccine).

This fall we are face-to-face, masked, but not social distancing; therefore, I am enjoying being able to do small group work in class again. A return to semi-normalcy in the classroom means that Monday, as my first-year writing seminar students formed groups to discuss their reading of Baldwin, I waited a few minutes before strolling around the room to listen to the discussions.

Anyone who teaches knows what happened; as I approached each group, students fell silent, and several looked up, concerned.

I always take these moments to begin a discussion about the antagonistic relationship that exists between teachers and their students. Students admit that a teacher approaching makes them afraid they are doing something wrong, even when they are fully engaged in the assignment.

Many of us who went through teacher training or conduct teacher training have discussed walking toward students as a classroom management technique.

It does work, but we rarely unpack why and almost never interrogate that the technique should not “work.”

My first-year students at a selective liberal arts college (having almost all been very successful in K-12, either straight-A students or close to that) are quick to acknowledge the many ways that they feel antagonism from and toward their teachers. From dress codes to bathroom restrictions to grading policies to late-to-class rules—students find the school days filled with landmines policed by their teachers.

Of note is how difficult it is for first-year college students to shift away from student behaviors (raising hands, asking to go to the bathroom) and toward autonomous adult behaviors (we explicitly focus on the difference between access to going to the bathroom in high school and college).

Part of this reductive and dehumanizing dynamic is the prevalence of uncritical embracing of simplistic behaviorism grounded most vividly in the punishment/reward elements of school rules and grading.

Despite my commitment to creating a classroom environment driven by collaboration and not antagonism, students still primarily experience antagonistic relationships with their teachers/professors when learning formally.

As a professor, I witness that reality because of one of the worst aspects of the teaching profession—educators publicly shaming student behaviors.

When I started teaching high school in 1984, I quickly learned to avoid the teachers’ lounge, where my colleagues tended to gather and endlessly rail against (by name) students that I taught (and loved). What I noticed was a proclivity for teachers to angrily berate teenagers for behaving like teenagers.

One of my fortunate gifts as a teacher is that I chose to teach high school and that I genuinely love teenagers because they have reached an early stage of adulthood but also maintain some of the most endearing qualities of childhood. I very much enjoyed discovering and unpacking the world with teenagers who found everything to be new (even as I realized that none of it was new).

Jump about four decades later, and I see that played out just a bit differently on social media, where teachers and professors routinely hold forth in anger about a student’s email asking if they missed anything when absent. This sort of public (although anonymous) student shaming seems to be common at the beginning and end of semesters so there has been a flurry of them over the past few weeks.

Tip toeing the line of subtweeting, I Tweeted this yesterday with those type of social media posts in mind:

Later, I added this:

Throughout my career as a high school teacher and now a college professor, I have worked diligently to be student-centered in the way that honors the autonomy and human dignity of my students; I have also embraced Paulo Freire’s concepts of choosing to be authoritative and not authoritarian as a teacher, parent, and coach.

This critical commitment has often been well embraced by my students (although not all of them) but rebuffed by many, if not most, of my colleagues. A typical criticism I hear (which I confront in the second Tweet above) is that if adult authority figures are not authoritarian, students will take advantage of them.

The nasty (and false, I think) Puritanical belief that humans (especially children and teenagers) left alone will behave in base and selfish ways seems to be how many teachers/professors view their students. This deficit perspective is pervasive in education, often manifested as racism, classism [1], sexism, and agism but masked as “necessary” lest we lose all control!

I firmly reject that my job as a teacher is to “fix” inherently flawed young humans and instead embrace that to teach is to provide the guidance necessary for young people to develop their autonomy and recognize their and other’s basic human dignity.

Over almost 40 years of teaching, I have had very few students attempt to take advantage of me, and most of them have suffered the consequences they deserved for that behavior while many of them have directly reached out to me over the years to apologize.

A low-stakes teaching and learning environment has allowed me to be very demanding, having extremely high standards for students, and I have found that students respond well to high expectations couched in clear expectations, detailed support and feedback, and patience paired with firm guidelines for student behavior and artifacts of their learning.

I have documented on social media several times that my students submit work on time at well over 90-95% rates although I do not grade assignments and do not record or deduct for late work. Almost all the work that is late can be traced tp legitimate reasons (the types of real-world justifications for late work that adults enjoy).

Students and educators deserve a teaching/learning environment grounded in collaboration and not antagonism—where everyone has their autonomy and human dignity honored, and even celebrated.

If K-12 and undergraduate students already knew and behaved in all the ways adults want, why would they need to be in our classes?

When Student Y sends a preposterous email, our job as educators is to teach the student why it is preposterous, and how to engage with another human in ways that show respect to both the student and the teacher.

And that teaching—even when our last nerve is tested—must be as patient as possible, although firm, and our students must trust that we are here to work with them for their success, not to police them for their flaws until they are properly “fixed.”

At its core, I think James Baldwin’s view of policing serves us well here: “The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer.”

And so, many days while teaching, I explain to students that I work for them, and when all is going as it should, I actually am there to work with them.

None the less, every time I walk toward a small group of students, they fall silent and look up, faces expecting antagonism and not yet sure we are there for the same thing—whatever any student needs to live autonomous lives where their human dignity is seen and appreciated.


[1] See:

The return of the deficit signifies a depressing symmetry in demographic trends and public policy. Deborah Stone (1997), writing on the art of political decision­making, argues that “political reasoning is [about] metaphor­making and category­making . . . strategic portrayal for persuasion’s sake, and ultimately for policy’s sake” (p. 9). Portraying disproportionate school failure among Black and Hispanic youth in terms of “personal troubles” (Mills, 1959) or cultural deficiencies sustains public policies that emphasize individual self interest and personal responsibility (e.g., welfare reform, high stakes testing), leaving no reason to consider the effects of poverty and discrimination or underfunded schools and deteriorating facilities on children’s learning.

Dudley-Marling, Curt (2007) “Return of the Deficit,” Journal of Educational Controversy: Vol. 2 : No. 1 , Article 5.
Available at: https://cedar.wwu.edu/jec/vol2/iss1/5

Correcting Course on Correctness in English/ELA

My granddaughter is six, in the first grade, and currently in the throes of learning to read—as commanded by formal schooling. Recently, she has shown some of those typical bursts of improvement I have witnessed in learning by young children; those moments give meaning to the word “marvelous.”

In an effort to inject some joy into my granddaughter’s reading journey, I have given her some comic books (a medium that was central to my own journey to being a voracious reader and writer). I was concerned that the text and format of a comic book would be beyond her, but she loves to make her own books, which are heavily picture-oriented to tell stories, so I thought even if she couldn’t read comic books, they would be very appealing to her own hobby.

But what surprised me was when she picked up a graphic novel of Marvel’s Spider-Gwen, she immediately began reading quite well—until she hit very commonly used wording and words that aren’t served well by structured phonics; she stumbled over “gonna” and “wanna,” but was really thrown by “MJ” as the way characters refer to Mary Jane Watson.

Having been taught formally how to read in an environment grounded in correctness, my granddaughter stumbles over the far more prevalent language usage in the real world.

This tension is represented well by the fate of the pronoun “they” (and its forms); “they” for centuries has served in the real-world of speaking English as a gender-neutral singular pronoun even as so-called standard English has persisted in tossing that usage into the “incorrect” bin (although this nonsense is finally losing momentum in formal formats).

For more than a century, the field of English/ELA has resisted real-world language usage and awareness and preferred training children in language acquisition through systems of correctness (phonics rules and grammar rules). Teaching that is grounded in rules and correctness appears to be easier because that approach contributes to control and simplistic forms of assessment and grading, but approaching language through correctness is a dis-service to children and language.

Even though there are increasingly important calls for de-emphasizing correctness in English/ELA, such as the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC)’s call for Black linguistic justice, those of us who teach reading, literature, or writing face an incredibly complex paradox—the challenge of fostering in students a healthy and valid view of language while also raising their awareness of the politics of language (that dialects such as so-called standard English, for example, do carry political weight in the real world even though it shouldn’t).

Boland and Queen address the tyranny of correctness in the real world in their Why grammar mistakes in a short email could make some people judge you. Here they investigate why “readers judged strangers harshly simply because of writing errors”—themselves using language of “correctness” (“errors”).

Every semester when I once again address issues surround formatting (citation styles, submitting assignments), I must confront the tyranny of correctness in terms of not wanting to perpetuate the unhealthy culture of correctness while also wanting my students to be aware of the power of correctness so that they have power over their language use instead of being victims of the “error hunt.”

Here, then, are some of the ever-evolving ways I am trying to navigate the tensions in teaching language against the tyranny of correctness:

  • De-grade correctness and formatting related to language. Removing grades and punishment allows a teacher still to address language use and shifts the focus to editing and away from correcting.
  • Change the language we use about language. I avoid “correct/incorrect,” “right/wrong,” and any reference to “fixing” or “correcting” when I mean “revising” or “editing.”
  • Use minimum expectations that move issues of correctness and formatting outside the more substantive elements of language usage. I often have students submit early drafts to address formatting (such as the working references list for a cited essay) well before submitting the essay for my feedback.
  • Examine all dialects and forms of language as powerful and complex language while also interrogating the politics of dialects, including that “standard English” exists and why it exists. Student awareness about the growing debate to de-center standard English is the least we can do in English/ELA on the path to actually de-centering it.
  • Foster a culture of purposefulness instead of a culture of rules. When we examine, for example, the arcane formatting guidelines involved in formal citation, I try to emphasize not that this or that format is “right,” but that formal writing needs to exhibit purposefulness by the writer as part of their credibility and authority. A submitted essay with two or three fonts and font sizes appears careless, for example, and diminishes the reader’s trust in the purposefulness of the writer.
  • Shift all explorations of language to discovery instead of complying with correctness. This, as I noted about my ploy with my granddaughter, is about the joy and wonder of language usage. Once we set aside corrupted and debasing beliefs about “good” or “bad” language (especially that one dialect is more or less rich than another), we allow students to engage with all language in healthy and complex ways.

I became a reader and writer vey heavily influenced by collecting and reading comic books, where the text is not simply formatted on the page and where artwork provides a substantial percentage of the textual meaning. My granddaughter has been zipping through reading aloud from children’s books or her homework worksheets (often designed to match the culture of correctness). But comic books and even signage have proven that correctness falters in the real world.

For far too long English/ELA classes and teachers have been associated with a hostility toward language (and students) because of a culture of correctness; our fields have also been too often disengaged with the real world, where WandaVision is more compelling than Shakespeare.

If we love language and our students, we must correct course on correctness in English/ELA.

The Talk

Yesterday I had The Talk with two of my classes—my first-year writing seminar and my upper-level writing/research course.

Doing so proved to me once again that you can’t have The Talk too often with young people. Students were under-informed, misinformed, and worst of all, filled with fear.

The Talk, of course, for these classes was about plagiarism.

Two students in separate classes shared what I think is far too common with the emphasis on what to avoid, plagiarism, (a deficit perspective) instead of what to do and why, scholarly/academic citation—one having been “terrified” by a seminar on plagiarism when they were first-year students and the other struggling to express their concern about teachers being too “harsh” (a recognition that their experience with citation was mostly about avoiding punishment).

Despite the differences in class levels, these students were equally hesitant to answer basic questions about the purposes of citation and what constitutes plagiarism; they offered tentative and incomplete answers when I persisted in coaxing responses.

We tended to agree, eventually, that what constitutes plagiarism is a complicated issue. Students, unlike teachers and professors, were quick to argue that citation errors are not plagiarism, and students also place far more emphasis on intent (which among my colleagues is typically rejected out of hand).

The purpose of The Talk yesterday was to help students make some distinctions about reasonable expectations for citation in academic settings as opposed to intimidating students into not plagiarizing. My questions revolved around the purposes of the bibliographies included in cited essays as well as the basic expectations of in-text citations.

In other words, I wanted students to feel more empowered with increased confidence in terms of knowing they were not plagiarizing even when they remained uncertain about the formatting expectations of the style manual they were being required to use (my students typically are using APA in my courses but have backgrounds in MLA).

Approaching citation at the conceptual level (and avoiding the negative approach of “don’t plagiarize”) seeks to help students understand attribution in academic settings.

Some of the key concepts I emphasized include the following:

  • Recognizing that the primary purpose of the bibliographies included in cited writing is to provide enough information so that a reasonable person can locate the source with a minimum of effort. I urge students to start with what information is essential for that purpose and then to attend to the tedious formatting requirements of that information next.
  • Understanding that in-text citation is required to identify appropriate attribution of other people’s ideas and words. I have found that students often focus on attribution for words (quoting) but aren’t as apt to voice the need to cite ideas. (Note: Students are well aware that blunt plagiarism—passing off an entire essay as your own when it isn’t or pasting huge sections of text from Wikipedia into an essay as if they wrote it—is wrong; therefore, they see plagiarism as a situation about intent and characterize most concerns raised by teachers/professors in their cited work as citation errors, not plagiarism.)
  • Recognizing that the primary purpose of in-text citations is to include the essential information required by the style sheet assigned so that a reasonable person knows which source in the list of references is being cited. Here, the issues of citation at the conceptual level overlap with style sheet formatting so we discuss the different thresholds of major citation systems (APA focusing on author name and year as opposed to MLA using only the name).

The discussion of citation at the conceptual level seemed to help students feel more confidence as most of them faced the unfamiliar waters of APA, but we also had to confront the elephant in the room—what I call the gauntlet of academic citation.

I shared with students the harsh truths about plagiarism in higher education.

First, I explained my experience on my university Academic Discipline Committee, where many years ago I came to the realization that my university has no official definition of plagiarism and that professors vary significantly in their definitions of plagiarism as well as how they identify and punish plagiarism across campus (some religiously using Turnitin.com and others never reporting even blunt plagiarism).

Regretfully, this discussion brought students back to fear, but I think they need to be aware of the unpredictable landscape of citation in college so that they can better advocate for themselves. I specifically urged them to seek out an advocate if they find themselves in situations where they think plagiarism is being misidentified in their work.

Next, I explained to students how systems such as Turnitin.com work (another tool for variation in how plagiarism is addressed in different professor’s classrooms) and that these systems are expensive but not as effective as simple Googling.

I also addressed the student’s concern about many professors being too harsh by admitting that academic citation during college is often much more severe than in the real world (where plagiarists become president or serve in the senate) and far more complex than in the real world.

For me, after 37 years of teaching high school and college students writing and the gauntlet of academic citation, I recognized yesterday that we adults fail the citation/plagiarism talk the same way we fail the sex talk—by focusing on what not to do and instilling fear instead of understanding in young people.

This new recognition sits now beside a long-standing Truth I practice and preach about teaching all aspects of writing; there is no one-shot inoculation (or even two-shot inoculation in our age of Covid-19) because writing and the technicalities of citation are complex, things we gradually acquire even as there is simply no finish line.

Instilling fear in young people is a dis-service to them as well as the lessons we hope to teach and the good we believe we are doing for them.

Thinking Beyond Bean Dad: A Reader

First, Bean Dad (as he would become known) posted a Twitter thread about teaching his daughter a lesson. The thread was flippant, snarky—and about a child not knowing how to use a can opener.

I was, frankly, surprised that Bean Dad took a beating on this because his approach to his child is essentially the foundational belief system in the U.S. about child rearing: The world is dangerous so I better pound on my kid before the world does so she/he is prepared for the Real World.

In far too much of the U.S., that pounding is literal—corporal punishment—but the pounding takes many forms such as grade retention and “no excuses” policies and practices in K-12 schooling.

Gradually, the clever thing to do about the Bean Dad trending on social media was to interrogate the phenomenon as an example of everything-that-is-wrong-with-Twitter. While a valid take, I think, it is also careless to set aside how this thread (whether it was hyperbole, as he claims, or not) is one small but ugly picture of how we mistreat children in the U.S., both in our families and in our institutions such as formal schools.

Let me offer an analogy.

One of the most important moments in the U.S. for the safety of children was recognizing the dangers of lead paint. This moment also is a powerful illustration of the need to target the external danger and not the child.

Instead of teaching children a lesson about lead paint—somehow toughening up those kids so that when they did consume lead paint, they would survive the experience—we used the power of public policy to remove lead from paint—to eradicate the danger, instead of pounding on the children.

Bean Dad quipped about his own compulsion to prepare his daughter for the apocalypse—some sort of version of The Road where the child is always alone?—but there seems never to be any consideration, as Maggie Smith concludes, for a better world: “This place could be beautiful,/right? You could make this place beautiful.”

A child is not an inherently flawed human that must be “fixed,” corrected, or improved. A child is a developing human that must be nurtured, and nurturing requires love, patience, and safe spaces.

If nothing else, we must all check our impulses to be Bean Dad so I offer here some reading to reconsider the many ways we fail that calling:

On Children and Childhood

Rethinking grade retention

Rethinking corporal punishment

Rethinking “grit”

Rethinking growth mindset

Resisting deficit ideologies

To “Be” or Not To “Be”: Moving Beyond Correctness and Stigmatized Language

ESPN radio has recently shaken up their on-air personalities across the daily schedule, notably replacing the morning slot held for many years by Mike & Mike (and a recent fractured version after Mike Greenberg left) with a clear signal toward diversity— as reported by Andrew Marchand:

And now, look who is moving into the predominantly white sports-radio neighborhood beginning Monday. It’s Keyshawn, Jay Williams & Zubin Mehenti….

How will it be different?

“First of all, we are three minorities,” Keyshawn said. “That is No. 1. There haven’t been three minorities that I know of on a morning national sports show.”

One of the traditional areas where radio and television in the U.S. has had a strict lack of diversity is the use of language; talking heads—even late-night talk show hosts—practice something of a radio voice (lacking distinct regional pronunciations) and so-called “standard English.”

While listening to the new and more diverse morning radio show on ESPN, I heard Keyshawn Johnson say about a river they were discussing that people “be jet-skiing” in it. The trio’s reactions made it clear this waterway was not safe for recreation.

Since it is early in my first-year writing seminars, I am still helping students re-orient their attitudes and assumptions about reading, writing, and language. A foundational re-orientation for my courses is moving away from seeing language use as “correct” or “incorrect” (as well as rejecting terms such as “standard English” and “non-standard dialect”) and cautioning students not to stigmatize language use as some distinct flag for intelligence or moral/ethical character.

Johnson’s use of “be” to capture a continuous “presentism” of an action along with the omission of “to be” verbs (“Keyshawn home all day”) are often markers for what some call “Black English” (I was taught about Black English through the work of Dillard in the 1970s, but “Ebonics” and “AAVE” have also been used to designate this language usage pattern).

Few people are likely to recognize that ESPN’s new line up is more than racial or cultural diversity; Johnson embodies the importance of language use diversity as well—and he also embodies my cautions to students about “correctness” and stigmatizing language.

While there are people who may have flinched and drawn unfair and racist conclusions about Johnson’s verb usage, I suspect that there will be no professional consequences for Johnson’s language usage.

As I noted to my class, everyone listening knew the meaning of Johnson’s usage, and thus, the primary value of language—clear and precise communication—was completely achieved.

Writing from France in 1979, James Baldwin explained: “The argument concerning the use, or the status, or the reality, of black English is rooted in American history and has absolutely nothing to do with the question the argument supposes itself to be posing. The argument has nothing to do with language itself but with the role of language.”

A few paragraphs later, Baldwin elaborated, focusing on French:

What joins all languages, and all men, is the necessity to confront life, in order, not inconceivably, to outwit death: The price for this is the acceptance, and achievement, of one’s temporal identity. So that, for example, thought it is not taught in the schools (and this has the potential of becoming a political issue) the south of France still clings to its ancient and musical Provençal, which resists being described as a “dialect.” And much of the tension in the Basque countries, and in Wales, is due to the Basque and Welsh determination not to allow their languages to be destroyed. This determination also feeds the flames in Ireland for many indignities the Irish have been forced to undergo at English hands is the English contempt for their language.

It goes without saying, then, that language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power. It is the most vivid and crucial key to identify: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity. There have been, and are, times, and places, when to speak a certain language could be dangerous, even fatal. Or, one may speak the same language, but in such a way that one’s antecedents are revealed, or (one hopes) hidden.

In her work to move teachers of English away from “correctness” and the “error hunt,” Connie Weaver has highlighted Baldwin’s point about language usage being about power and that some forms of language usage have social, economic, and political consequences (often grounded in inequity such as racism, classism, etc.).

Often the use of “status marking” in language usage is accompanied by an uncritical acceptance of “standard English” and the inherent context that some language usage (“She is home”) is more complete and “better” than other language usage (“She home”) (see Pullum).

And language usage as status marking (some threat of observable consequences) is used to justify teaching students about code switching instead of stigmatizing any form of language usage.

The code switching argument has stood for many years as a progressive way to teach language that avoids “correctness” and appears to avoid stigma (which it doesn’t).

Again, Baldwin’s key point—”People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate”—is simply side-stepped when we teach disenfranchised and marginalized young people to code switch because that approach allows us to avoid discussing the larger issues of power and inequity that govern the status marking.

Johnson’s use of “be” comes in a time of high social unrest over race, but also intersects with another harsh reality about language and teaching language: Language use is always in a state of flux, and the loose conventions that structure different groups of language usage are tenuous at best.

“People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate,” Baldwin acknowledges. Language change, then, is also about power, not necessarily who has power but the dormant or repressed power of marginalized humans (children and teens manufacturing slang to build a linguistic wall between them and adults or racial minorities reshaping and reappropriating language as defiance and to claim power denied).

Although language can be racist, homophobic, misogynistic, etc., language also can shift toward equity. For example, many publications have now embraced “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. Although some people are pulling out their hair in protest, that usage of “they” is centuries old in the English language because it fills a need left vacant in so-called “standard English.”

This door opened to “they” as singular and gender-neutral is in part about diversity, of course, and we can imagine that some racialized usages of language will walk through a similar door.

Language change is often very slow; it seems to happen organically, and then those with power eventually and some times reluctantly acknowledge a thing that has existed for decades or even centuries.

If this were a case for communication and standardization in the name of that communication, we may find the reluctance more compelling.

But Baldwin’s 1979 confrontation of Black English remains true in 2020 when the world and our language usages are all tinted by racism.

Because all teaching is political, and the very best teaching is activism, re-orienting students’ understanding of language does not have to be slow or organic, as demonstrated by The Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC):

We DEMAND that:

  1. teachers stop using academic language and standard English as the accepted communicative norm, which reflects White Mainstream English!
  2. teachers stop teaching Black students to code-switch! Instead, we must teach Black students about anti-Black linguistic racism and white linguistic supremacy!
  3. political discussions and praxis center Black Language as teacher-researcher activism for classrooms and communities!
  4. teachers develop and teach Black Linguistic Consciousness that works to decolonize the mind (and/or) language, unlearn white supremacy, and unravel anti-Black linguistic racism!
  5. Black dispositions are centered in the research and teaching of Black Language!

In K-16 formal education, language usage still falls on a continuum from correctness/standard English at one end and encouraging code switching at the other; the radical dismantling of language usage as status marking is rare, but some evidence exists that culturally we are ready for it.

This demand by CCCC is not simply about equity and authentic diversity, however, because the 5 demands are more linguistically sound than traditional approaches to framing language usage as “correct” or “wrong.”

Once again, Baldwin remains painfully true as he ends his essay:

The brutal truth is that the bulk of white people in American never had any interest in educating black people, except as this could serve white purposes. It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white. Black people have lost too many black children that way.

And, after all, finally, in a country with standards so untrustworthy, a country that makes heroes of so many criminal mediocrities, a country unable to face why so many of the nonwhite are in prison, or on the needle, or standing, futureless, in the streets–it may very well be that both the child, and his elder, have concluded that they have nothing whatever to learn from the people of a country that has managed to learn so little.

Those of us who teach language usage have a moral obligation to refuse the norm of “correctness” and to dismantle the stigmatizing of language usage. Otherwise we are abdicating our own agency in the service of inequity and at the expense of our students.

“Science of Reading” Advocacy Stumbles, Falls

First, the stumble.

Yet another education journalist (also identified as a novelist and historian), Natalie Wexler, has weighed in on the “science of reading” (SoR). Wexler isn’t an educator, and she seems to suffer from the Columbus Syndrome far too common among journalists covering education.

I am not linking to the article, but it has already been updated since Wexler has received strong challenges to her tactics in this over-stated and misleading article

Accompanying the standard misrepresentations about teaching reading in the U.S., Wexler attempts to cast an accusatory shadow—invoking racism—over teaching reading by joining the “science of reading” propaganda movement.

However, Zaretta Hammond set the record straight on Twitter. In brief, Hammond challenges Wexler’s jumbled attempts at calling out racism and misguided references to recent racist police violence as well as implicating Hammond’s work in Wexler’s claims.

As Hammond notes, Wexler’s failure exposes the problems with fanning a Reading War that, once again, keeps our gaze on so-called failed students and failing teachers instead of systemic inequity and racism.

Wexler is wrong about reading and racism, but the criticism her article prompted has only nudged her to retract the racism stumbles, whitewashing her mistakes by apologizing on Twitter and revising her article.

Now, the fall.

One of the most damaging aspects of the “science of reading” movement has been how swiftly advocates of SoR and dyslexia have translated their movement into state-level reading legislation.

While I have been helping literacy educators and activists resist these efforts to change state education laws, some of us saw at least a pause in the SoR momentum with the Covid-19 pandemic, an unfortunate consequence that now seems to have had unintended positive outcomes for education (flawed reading legislation not passing for financial stress prompted by the pandemic).

For example, “A bid to improve Louisiana’s dismal reading skills for its youngest students died near the legislative finish line, leaving backers baffled on just what happened,” writes Will Sentell.

The surprise at this defeat comes, as Sentell explains, because “[t]he proposal, House Bill 559, had led something of a charmed life until it wilted at the end.”

However, as with other state-level reading legislation agendas across the U.S., this bill was grounded in misinformation about reading achievement as well as claims about the “science” they claim is missing in reading instruction.

Advocacy for the SoR has a fatal flaw found in both Wexler’s article and the “charmed” but failed bill in Louisiana—a “rigid refusal” to address first and fully the systemic inequity that is at the root of all educational measurements, including reading achievement.

SoR advocacy is grounded in a deficit lens that sees only individuals (students, teachers) and measures them against very reduced and narrow ideas of what counts as “normal.”

This advocacy also falls victim to silver-bullet solutions, reducing teaching to “all students must” and suggesting that this program is better than that program (without recognizing that the problem is reducing reading instruction to any program).

SoR advocacy is a misuse of “science” and a misunderstanding of human nature and the teaching/learning dynamic.

There is a powerful relationship among measurable reading achievement by students, reading instruction provided students in formal schooling, and the corrosive persistence of racism and systemic inequity in U.S. society and schools—systemic racism and inequity.

Since the SoR playbook is wrong on all of that, as Hammond ends her Twitter thread, “Know the difference.”

See Also

NEW: How to End the Reading War and Serve the Literacy Needs of All Students: A Primer for Parents, Policy Makers, and People Who Care (IAP)

Policy Statement on the “Science of Reading”