Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Logo
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. It is essential that all Massachusetts students attain literacy during the early, formative years of their education, as a critical step on a pathway to thriving.

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, instruction that affirms our students and values the assets they bring to school and the classroom. Evidence-based instruction refers to the practices or programs that have evidence to show that they are effective at producing results and improving outcomes when implemented as supported by valid and reliable research (U.S. Department of Education, Every Student Succeeds Act, 2015).

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 32% 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 engage, support, and cultivate the talents and knowledge of all our students. Throughout the Mass Literacy 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

The great instruction our students need and deserve is culturally responsive. Cultural responsiveness is an approach to viewing students' culture and identity (including race, ethnicity, multilingualism, and other characteristics) as assets, and creating learning experiences and environments that value and empower them. As conceived by leading scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings, culturally responsive teaching and leading promotes three outcomes:

  • Academic achievement: Educators hold high, transparent expectations for all students, and support the development of students' academic skills and identities as learners.

  • Cultural competence: Educators understand culture's role in education, their students' cultures, and their own identity and biases to 1) affirm students' backgrounds and identities and 2) foster their ability to understand and honor others' cultures.

  • Sociopolitical awareness: Educators and students partner to identify, analyze, and work to solve systemic inequities in their communities and the world.

Importantly, all three of the outcomes above are driven by the relationships educators have with their students. According to Zaretta Hammond (2015), strong relationships, and the trust and safety embedded within them, are the cornerstone of culturally responsive teaching. When students experience a culturally responsive environment, they experience teaching and learning that is more likely to promote their growth. Culturally responsive educators ensure that students' experiences in school are affirming of who they are and what they bring to the school community. To improve literacy opportunities for all, culturally responsive educators identify and disrupt systems, policies and structures that result in negative impacts on students of color. These negative impacts can range from lowered academic expectations to less-trusting relationships with teachers to disproportionality in access to high-level classes and suspensions.v

Learn More

Cultural Competence and Sociopolitical Awareness

Academic achievement for culturally and linguistically diverse learners is central to culturally responsive instruction. However, culturally responsive literacy instruction must go beyond "skill-building."vi 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 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. These approaches support literacy learning that is relevant and empowering.

Texts should provide "mirrors and windows" for children; allowing students both to see themselves (characters and communities that are familiar) and to see and learn about others in the texts they read (Bishop, 1990). Diverse representation in texts means that characters, settings, and authors should be diverse as well as reflective of students' community. In selecting texts it is important to go beyond superficial representation and to carefully avoid common biases in curricular materials (Zittleman & Sadker, 2002 ), which can include stereotypes, lack of diverse representation, or "unreality."

Learn More

High Expectations, High Support

High expectations paired with high support are keys to academic achievement for all students. As a starting point, culturally responsive educators see the greatness in, and 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 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. High support can take many different forms depending on the context of the lesson. For instance, when instructing students in phonics patterns, educators provide high support by using use the gradual release model to explicitly demonstrate the phonics pattern and then support students to practice reading and spelling it with increasing independence until they achieve independent mastery. This intentional, carefully released model of teaching gives each student the support and encouragement they need to reach the learning goal. In a text-based discussion, high support strategies may include pre-teaching vocabulary, sentence stems, and "warm call" to support all students to participate fully in the discussion. While the instructional strategies are different, the message is the same: everyone in this classroom can—and will—be successful. One way to think about holding high expectations and providing high support is by being a "warm demander" (Kleinfeld, 1975). As the phrase suggests, a warm demander conveys both "care and push" (Hammond, 2020) that makes a student feel safe yet open to challenge.

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 microaggressionsix
  • 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 structuresx

Learn More

  • Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 6(3), ix–xi.
  • 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.
  • Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32. 465–491.

Bridging School, Family, and Community

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. Culturally responsive educators build relationships with students and their families characterized by mutual trust, respect, and caring.xi According to a synthesis of studies released by the National Center for Family and Community Connections with Schools "when programs and initiatives focus on building respectful and trusting relationships among school staff, families, and community members, they are effective in creating and sustaining family and community connections with schools." Such connection, in turn, resulted in a "protective effect" of students doing "better in school" (Henderson & Mapp, 2002).xii

A Strength-Based Approach

All students bring talents, abilities, and knowledge to the classroom. Students' diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds are assets to the classroom community and to the learning process. For instance, 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.

A growing number of Massachusetts children possess the special strength of multilingualism. Multilingualism contributes to literacy achievement when children receive appropriate instruction that values their linguistic and cultural wealth, builds upon their strengths, and meets their learning needs. Instruction for multilingual learners is intentional about helping them develop metalinguistic awareness to understand similarities and differences between their L1 and English.xiii Districts should prioritize developing or expanding bilingual programs, which have clear academic benefitsxiv and encourage children to develop literacy in their heritage language in addition to English.

Children who are developing fluency in two dialects of English bring similar unique and valuable strengths to literacy learning, such as the awareness of language contexts required for code-switching.xv Researchers have documented specific strategies that are beneficial for bidialectical students to develop fluency in general American English in the early years of schooling (Seidenberg & Washington, 2021). These strategies allow educators to promote students' academic achievement while recognizing and honoring the value of the student's home dialect. This culturally responsive approach supports students to achieve academically and simultaneously to sustain and take pride in the culture of their family and community.

Learn More


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 2021, 51% 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 2021, 32% of Black and Hispanic/Latino students met or exceeded expectations on English Language Arts MCAS for grade 3. For an overview of racial and ethnic disparities in the Massachusetts education system, see #1 for Some: Opportunity & Achievement in Massachusetts, from The Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership.

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

vi Ladson-Billings G. (1995). Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal. 2(3), 465–491.

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

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

ix 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.

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

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

xii Henderson, A. T. and Mapp, K. L. (2002). A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement. National Center for Family and Community Connections with Schools, Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.

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

xiv Petitto, L. A., and Dunbar, K. N. (2009). Educational Neuroscience: New Discoveries from Bilingual Brains, Scientific Brains, and the Educated Mind. Mind, Brain and Education: the official journal of the Mind, Brain, and Education Society, 3(4), 185–197.

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

Disclosure Statement: 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 (DESE). Our office is not responsible for and does not in any way guarantee the accuracy of information in other sites accessible through links herein. DESE may supplement this list with other services and products that meet the specified criteria. For more information contact: .

Last Updated: March 22, 2023

Contact Us

Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
135 Santilli Highway, Everett, MA 02149

Voice: (781) 338-3000
TTY: (800) 439-2370


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.