2022 Could Be the Year We Finally Meld Phonics with Language-Rich Communities

In this new year, elementary literacy will see two trends continue. One is improving foundational skills instruction, with phonics being the headliner. The other is a focus on interactive, language-rich literacy communities. Why do I make these particular predictions? I found no new crystal ball technology out there on the market this holiday, so I’m turning instead to William Faulkner. He reminded us:

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

What will drive literacy trends in 2022 is still tightly tied to how our hearts and minds shifted during 2020. A huge lever driving these shifts was families’ experience of remote learning; another was the murder of George Floyd.

During remote learning, the adults at home tasked with helping their littlest ones were often seeing directly into day-to-day instruction. Many began to watch for a clear and effective phonics curriculum being taught, and too many found room for improvement. They were watching for it because even before remote learning, a movement had been gaining traction around phonics instruction, dyslexia, and the science of reading.

Unfortunately, some families were less able to watch for phonics instruction at all, because they struggled with equitable access to distance learning. We know that the pandemic both revealed and magnified systemic inequities: data show widened gaps across race, for example, in terms of elementary school reading. While talk alone is not action, more plain discussion of these inequitable realities has entered the national conversation.

Improved commitment to evidence-based skills instruction will benefit all kids, but especially those who struggle with learning to read with fluency. At this writing, almost all states have passed dyslexia legislation; over half require evidence-based interventions and over half require improvements to pre- or in-service teacher training. Continuing family advocacy will combine with states’ efforts, and 2022 will continue to see research-based foundational literacy instruction improve.

A second reality that became clearer during remote instruction is that interactive, language-rich community is to be prized. Families felt it, students felt it, and teachers felt it. We all understood plainly that we need the opposite of silent, cameras-off squares in a Zoom meeting. We need each other as humans. Literacy is about this: its focus is language, and language is about sharing meaning with one another.

Something we were struggling to make meaning of more than ever was how our identities matter. Before the pandemic, we saw the #MeToo movement and massive Women’s Marches. During the pandemic, we watched George Floyd’s murder and experienced significant civil unrest. While many students and teachers were logging in to blank squares on Zoom, much was going unprocessed. How do we live in community in the face of inequity, cultural misunderstanding, and racism? How can we grow understanding of one another? And how do our children process feelings and develop socially in environments robbed of language-rich interaction?

More teachers are reaching for new books, ones that open up conversation about identity or about grief. Educators are working to understand what culturally relevant instruction means, and they are learning that it involves giving students real voice. What matters to students? What troubles them? What lights them up? What stretches their perspectives?

Our kids need to learn to read and write fluently, now more than ever. But we are seeing more clearly that literacy offers a place to support so much of what our kids also need: social and emotional learning, language development, and navigation of identity and voice. Interactive, language-rich community is increasingly a goal for elementary classrooms.

The push for evidence-based improvements in foundational skills instruction is often glossed as “the science of reading,” and for some, that is about overthrowing the reign of “balanced literacy.” But in 2022, we are all about navigating a better balance. While we are improving our phonics and foundational skills instruction, we will see that as a tool for our bigger vision for literacy: inviting our students into rich and meaningful conversation—both oral and written—amongst a diversity of voices. Because we can see more clearly now, in 2022, that literacy is about our need for one another as humans.  

Cindy Jiban has taught in elementary and middle schools, both as a classroom teacher and as a special educator. She earned her doctorate in educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, focusing on intervention and assessment for students acquiring foundational academic skills. After contributions at the Research Institute on Progress Monitoring, the National Center on Educational ...

Join the Movement