Why Do I Believe in Literacy for All?

Let’s imagine that you are a toddler.  Someone says “I don’t think xxx Is ever going to read.”  And you don’t.  This is due to a simple cause and effect.  You “aren’t capable” – so therefore people don’t read books to you; they don’t provide letters for you to play with; they don’t assume competence and attribute meaning when you scribble.

That statement made when you were a toddler now follows you at school, because by the time you get to school you are well behind the game.  No-one has ever shown you what it is you can do with books – and so you ignore them.  Or rip them for that lovely sensory feedback.  No-one has ever done incidental alphabet instruction – so you don’t know your letters.  No-one has encouraged you to do emergent writing – so you don’t have any sense of yourself as someone who could be a writer.  Your initial school assessment shows that you don’t have the “reading readiness” skills that the program they use at school needs - and so that statement someone made when you were a toddler now turns into a fact.  You don't learn to read.  You don’t get literacy instruction because you don’t have any of the baseline skills expected of you. When the other kids are learning to read and write, you do other “life skills” while you miss out on one of the most important life skills there is.

With time, you become a “failure” at school.  Then, when you leave school, you can’t participate in further education and, because you aren’t literate, you find it very hard to get a job.  You are dependent on others for information and communication.  Every time you get a text message, you need someone or something to read it out to you.  You have a Facebook account – but you need to wait until someone else can spare the time to help you read and write comments.  And you don’t ask often because it is embarrassing.  So when a party invitation gets sent to you, you don’t go because you don’t know about it.  People stop asking and you become more and more socially isolated.

And all of this because someone decided when you were young that you “couldn’t”.

If this had really happened to you, you wouldn’t be reading this blog post - or much else. And I hope you would be angry about it, because you’d have every right to be very, very angry.

You might now be thinking that the world isn’t this unfair.  Or that this is a ridiculous scenario because it could never happen. But unfortunately this happens every day.  Every day, someone tells the parents of a toddler with a disability that they “can’t”.  Every day a teacher decides to work on other areas because a student with disabilities “can’t” or because they don’t demonstrate “reading readiness”.  Or a special education advisor recommends working on “functional literacy” because, in their opinion, a student with a disability isn’t capable of becoming fully literate. (And this last one is despite information summarised by Katims (2000) that functional literacy programs have no literacy outcomes.)

And the fact that this happens for anyone makes me angry.  It should make you angry too.  It’s not fair that people can change the future for any individual by making a decision at an early age (or at any age) from a position of ignorance and bias.  Because the reality is that if we do GOOD literacy teaching at any age, every student can progress as a reader and writer.

So, what would happen if we all made the opposite statement?  What would happen if we all agreed that every student was capable of learning to read and write and that our job is to provide GOOD literacy instruction for all?  What if we realised that some children come to school with no interest in books because no-one has ever shown them how cool books could be – and so we realise that rather than saying they “aren’t ready” and moving them to an alternative program, that instead we should provide them with a great emergent literacy program which would give them the literacy opportunities and experiences that they haven’t had up until now?  What if we realised that some students need more time to become literate – and we didn’t give up teaching them just because they had “failed” by our imposed timeline?

What is the worst that could happen if we all believed in literacy for all?

Maybe Tyson, who is currently 6 years old and shreds books, will leave school a fluent reader and writer.

Maybe Autumn, who is currently 8 years old and doesn’t yet know the alphabet, will leave school still an emergent reader and writer – but with the many other benefits that participation in a good literacy program will give him.  She will leave with an increased vocabulary, attention span, joint attention, and an understanding of how print works, etc.

Maybe John, who is a 15 year old emergent reader and writer, will leave school reading at a Grade 1 level.  The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development tells us that a grade 1 reading level means you can participate in many daily literacy tasks – which is an awesome outcome.

And I deliberately say maybe about each of these students because I just don’t know how far they will go. The last 17 years of teaching using balanced literacy instruction has taught me many things – and one of them is that I don’t have a crystal ball and many students achieve far more than their team originally thought they would.  So,  I just teach each and every individual the best that I can – and I work to make sure that was well as GOOD comprehensive literacy instruction, they also get enough of it.  Two hours each school day.

And what I do most definitely know is that if we ever say a single individual “isn’t capable” that this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  As soon as we believe that they can’t, we change what we do with them – and as a result they don’t.  They don’t learn to read and write.  They don’t get the other benefits of good literacy instruction.  And we have decided that they will have a much less positive future.

And so I continue to believe in the words of David Yoder.  “No student is “too anything” to learn to read and write.”  I can’t believe in anything less and still sleep at night.

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Comments (30)

  1. Helen Brunner


    Hear, hear Jane. Onwards and upwards. FYI I'm moving on to the next step re study to keeping growing in my ability to follow in your inspiring footsteps

    • jane


      Helen - you do an amazing job. And as I said to Bex - it's not following. We're in this shoulder to shoulder 🙂

  2. Reply

    This is the best post eeevvveeerrr written in the history of blog posts!!! I can feel the passion and I share every word and sentiment with you Jane-o.

    • jane


      I know you do Rach. I love that I get to work with you and so many other fabulous people 🙂 xx

  3. Jamie B Austin


    Thanks Jane! I have to brag about a friend of mine. We were playing Superheros today. He uses two switch step auditory scanning to access his sgd. During our play, he went to his alphabet page. I whispered when people shout, they might say a-a-a-a-h! He typed "hae b a a aa aa aa" and laughed when we read it out loud! Literacy for All.

  4. Michelle Shull


    Jane, of course you are 100% right. I've believed this for years, but how do you convince an entire Special Ed system this? My daughter's school wrote her off, (and all the kids) from day one. While trying to get some academic instruction in her high school placement, I was told "These kids aren't college bound." That's a direct quote. How do we open eyes and minds? I've had enough! I am VERY angry but it's not getting her anywhere.

    • jane


      Hi Michelle - that's really frustrating for you. I'm so sorry that's happened. I'd try and get some change using articles like this one. I'd ask them if they have looked at the research and resources coming out from the Centre for Literacy and Disability Studies at the University of North Carolina. Have they considered going through some of their free online modules aimed at schools - http://clds.dlmpd.com/. And I'd start working on some things with her at home to prove she can - if you have the option of doing that. You yourself can use those DLM modules as a guide for teaching. I don't know if you are on Facebook - but there are some great Facebook groups with families in a similar situation to yourself who are supporting each other - both to advocate and to do literacy at home. They should be a great support for you.

      • Michelle Shull


        Wow! Thank you Jane! I'll get busy with the DLM right away! I'll also make attempts to share that information and see if I can at least start the conversation with them on a good note. Having research to back it up will be very helpful.

        I am on Facebook. Do you have links or names to the groups? They sound exactly like what I need. Thank you again, so much!

  5. Reply

    Jane, thank you for the website in the last comment. Wish you were still in Melbourne, and that I had come to visit you a couple of years ago. My son is 32 and I think he can tell his letters apart. He can certainly match them, and write some cursive alphabet on an iPad.
    Anything could happen...

  6. Reply

    I think that you make a good point that we need to realise that some students will take more time to become literate than others and we need to keep on teaching them. This would probably especially apply to kids from poorer families because they'll have less opportunities. Literacy programs could help these students get to the reading level they need to be at.

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