Maryanne Wolf: The Coming Literacy Crisis

Scholar of reading and the brain outlines historic and pandemic-era inequities that impact children’s skills and opportunities.

Renowned literacy scholar Maryanne Wolf has co-written a commentary for Education Week on “The Coming Literacy Crisis: There’s No Going Back to School as We Know It,” with Comer Yates, executive director of the Atlanta Speech School, and Dr. Renée Boynton-Jarrett, a pediatrician at the Boston University School of Medicine and founding director of the Vital Village Community Engagement Network.

Professor Wolf and her co-authors write that in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, returning to an educational system that has historically failed to meet the learning and development needs of children due to systemic inequities is not an option. They note that by the 3rd grade, children’s reading level indicates, “…one of the more meaningful academic benchmarks by which we can predict, while not perfectly, whether or not they will lead a life of self-determination or one that is too often decided for them – as measured by graduation rates and the opportunity to earn a livable wage.”

Wolf and her co-authors also assert that the failure to teach all children to read proficiently also adversely affects their teachers.

“K-12 teachers experience daily stress that is among the highest of the 14 professions included in one Gallup study (measured before the pandemic) – equal only to nurses and physicians – with 78 percent of teachers reporting mental and physical exhaustion at the end of each day,” they write. “They have been fighting a constant battle to help their students thrive in a system set up to fail them, generation after generation. Teaching remotely for many months has not lightened those stress loads nor revised the necessary objectives ahead.”

Wolf and her co-authors propose a two-point plan of changing universal assumptions of how young children learn, and of equipping teachers with the tools needed to fight the cycle of inequity that impacts learning to read, which include underfunding of education by zip code and other forms of structural racism.

“It took us less than a year to develop and begin administering a vaccine for COVID-19, but research scientists determined 20 years ago what was required to end our country’s illiteracy epidemic,” write Wolf, Boynton-Jarrett, and Yates. “The unspeakable toll we inflict on children through systemic biases and behaviors amounts to denial of access to that science for those who need it most.”

Professor Wolf is the founding director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies. She is currently working in collaboration with a global network of literacy scholars, experts, and agencies to provide schools and families with resources to improve children’s reading skills and opportunities through the Haskins Global Literacy Hub, a project of the Haskins Laboratories at Yale University.

Click here to read, “The Coming Literacy Crisis: There’s No Going Back to School as We Knew It,” in Education Week.

Photo by Ron Searcey