Mass Literacy

Pathway to Equity in Early Literacy

"Literacy is inseparable from opportunity, and opportunity is inseparable from freedom. The freedom promised by literacy is both freedom from — from ignorance, oppression, poverty — and freedom to — to do new things, to make choices, to learn." — Koichiro Matsuura

Literacy impacts all aspects of our lives. Literacy affords access to ideas, opportunity, the beauty of literature, the power of self-expression. Being able to read, write, and speak confidently are essential for full participation in our society.

In the Massachusetts school system today, some of our children receive the instruction and support they need to develop this powerful literacy— and some don't. While decades of research in various fields has shown that nearly all children, from every racial, ethnic, and socio-economic background, can learn to read by the end of first grade with appropriate instruction,i only about half of Massachusetts third-graders today are meeting literacy expectations.ii Unfortunately, children who don't receive the support they need to be on-track in grade 3 often never catch up.iii To achieve equity, every student in our schools must receive the high-quality curriculum and evidence-based instruction they need and deserve.

Evidence-based instruction, provided within schools and classrooms that are culturally responsive and sustaining, is necessary for all our students to thrive. Our education system has particularly marginalized and failed to serve Black and Hispanic/Latino students. Massachusetts data suggests that our system supports fewer than 38% of Black and Hispanic/Latino students to meet literacy expectations by third grade.iv This statistic reflects not student effort or ability, but opportunity and support to learn. Black and Hispanic/Latino students, like all their peers, need and deserve to be taught with the most effective evidence-based practices, in a culturally responsive and sustaining environment.

Evidence-based instruction and culturally responsive practice are both essential to harness, support, and cultivate the talents and knowledge of all our students. Throughout the Guide, information about culturally responsive practices is linked with other evidence-based strategies for early literacy. This page provides an initial orientation and set of resources to frame this intersection. As we build collective capacity to better serve all our students across the Commonwealth, you are invited to lend your insight and experience by filling out this form.

Culturally Responsive Practice

When students experience a culturally responsive environment, they experience teaching and learning that is more likely to promote their growth. Cultural responsiveness is an approach to viewing culture and identity as assets, including students' race, ethnicity, or linguistic assets, among other characteristics. Culturally responsive educators promote student growth and achievement by:

  • developing an authentic understanding of the students and adults in their school communities
  • ensuring that their students' experiences in school are affirming of who they are and what they bring to the school community
  • unpacking how their own culture impacts their worldview and approach.

Learn More

Identity Development and Critical Stance

Academic achievement for culturally and linguistically diverse learners is central to culturally responsive instruction. However, culturally responsive literacy instruction must go beyond "skill-building."v Literacy is not a simple collection of skills but a powerful tool for access to continued learning, civic participation, economic opportunities, and the joy of the written word. In her book Cultivating Genius, Gholdy Muhammad connects American Black literary societies of the 1800s to our students today, describing the "brilliance, intellect, ability, cleverness, and artistry that have been flowing through their minds and spirits across generations." Muhammad argues that literacy instruction must build not only skills and knowledge, but also support students' development of their own identities and critical literacy stance. While skills for early reading, such as decoding and fluency, are a critical foundation for future access and opportunities, students also need and deserve to engage with authentic, relevant texts with opportunities to discuss and explore identity and social issues from a critical lens.

Learn More

  • Muhammad, Gholdy. (2020). Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. New York: Scholastic.
  • Ladson-Billings, G. (2009). The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African-American Children, 2nd ed. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.

High Expectations, High Support

Culturally responsive educators hold high expectations for each and every student. This is essential because some studies have documented lowered expectations for students of color, especially from white

To improve literacy opportunities for all, educators must examine how bias may lead to disproportionately negative impacts on students of color. School systems, policies and structures can be shaped by implicit bias, resulting in negative impacts on students of color that range from lowered academic expectations to less-trusting relationships with teachers.vii

One form of high expectations is providing all students access to grade-level texts, tasks, and experiences, rather than leveling student opportunities to learn. When "differentiation" refers to leveling or simplifying instruction, students of color are more often denied access to the rigorous track and can fall behind as a result.viii

High support is equally important. Culturally responsive educators build relationships with students characterized by mutual trust, respect, and caring.ix High expectations must be communicated along with affirmations that educators believe in students' capabilities to meet those expectations-these affirmations ring truest to students when they have trusting and personal relationships with the educator.

Zaretta Hammond's Ready for Rigor Framework describes specific culturally responsive practices that support students to be "ready for rigor and independent learning." While all of the practices are essential, several can be highlighted for teaching and learning in early literacy:

  • Reimagine the student and teacher relationship as a partnership
  • Take responsibility to reduce students' social-emotional stress from stereotype threat and microaggressionsx
  • Make space for student voice and agency
  • Connect new content to culturally relevant examples and metaphors from students' community and everyday lives
  • Build classroom culture and learning around communal (sociocultural) talk and task structuresxi

Learn More

  • Benson, T. and Fiarman, S. (2019). Unconscious Bias in Schools. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.
  • Gay, G. (2018). Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice, 3rd ed. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Hammond, Z. (2013). Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

An Asset-Based Approach

All students bring talents, abilities, and knowledge to the classroom. Teachers can intentionally make connections to and build upon students' knowledge when reading about and studying science, history, art, or other topics in the elementary curriculum. Students' diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds are assets to the classroom community and to the learning process.

A growing number of Massachusetts children bring the special asset of bilingualism. Bilingualism itself is not a risk factor for literacy learning; rather, it contributes to literacy achievement when children receive appropriate instruction.xii Students developing bilingualism need and deserve evidence-based practices that respect their linguistic and cultural assets and empower rigorous learning. Districts should prioritize developing or expanding bilingual programs, which have clear academic benefitsxiii and allow children to develop literacy in their heritage language in addition to English. Similarly, children who are developing fluency in two dialects bring their own linguistic abilities to literacy learning, such as the awareness of language contexts required for code-switching.xiv Bilingual and bidialectical children possess cultural and linguistic assets and are fully capable of advanced literacy achievement, particularly when supported with evidence-based instruction that nurtures their growth.

Learn More

  • Barbian, E., Cornell Gonzales, G., & Mejía, P., Eds. (2017). Rethinking bilingual education: Welcoming home languages in our classrooms, Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.
  • Garcia, O. (2011). Bilingual Education in the 21st Century: A Global Perspective. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons.


i Longitudinal studies have shown that upwards of 95% of students can meet reading expectations by the end of grade 1, including reading accuracy and fluency, when provided evidence-based reading instruction. For a review, see: Foorman, B. and Al-Otaiba, S. (2009). Reading Remediation: State of the Art. In Pugh, K. and McCardle, P. How Children Learn to Read. New York: Routledge.

ii In 2019, 52% of all Massachusetts third graders met or exceeded expectations on English Language Arts MCAS, which assesses reading, writing, and language.

iii For an overview, see: Torgesen, J. (2002). The Prevention of Reading Difficulties. Journal of School Psychology, 40 (1), 7–26.

iv In 2019, 38% of Black and Hispanic/Latino students met or exceeded expectations on English Language Arts MCAS for grade 3. View an overview of racial and ethnic disparities in the Massachusetts education system.

v Ladson-Billings G. (1995). Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal. 2(3), 465–491. doi: 10.3102/00028312032003465

vi For an example, see: Gershenson, S. & Papageorge, N. (2020). The Power of Teacher Expectations. Education Week, 18(1).

vii Benson, T. and Fiarman, S. (2019). Unconscious Bias in Schools. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

viii TNTP. (2018). The Opportunity Myth: What Students Can Show Us About How School Is Letting Them Down-and How to Fix It.

ix Gay, G. (2018). Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice, 3rd ed. New York: Teachers College Press.

x For an overview, see the October 5, 2020 post in Psychology Today titled Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life by Derald Wing Sue, a leading scholar on microaggressions.

xi Excerpted from the Ready for Rigor Framework. Read more in Hammond, Z. (2013). Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

xii Lu, C. (2020). Bilingualism and Biliteracy for All: Celebrating Our Linguistic Strengths. American Educator, Summer 2020.

xiii Petitto, L. A., & Dunbar, K. N. (2009). Educational Neuroscience: New Discoveries from Bilingual Brains, Scientific Brains, and the Educated Mind. Mind, brain and education, 3(4), 185–197.

xiv Terry, N. P., Gatlin, B., & Johnson, L. (2018). Same or Different: How Bilingual Readers Can Help Us Understand Bidialectal Readers. Topics in Language Disorders, 38(1), 50–65.

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Last Updated: December 18, 2020

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Disclaimer: A reference in this website to any specific commercial products, processes, or services, or the use of any trade, firm, or corporation name is for the information and convenience of the public and does not constitute endorsement or recommendation by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.