Tackling Childhood Literacy: A Grand Challenge

INFO Staff - July 14, 2023

An institutional grant addresses skills that go beyond the classroom

Photo of a boy writing

In 1845, Frederick Douglass, a Marylander whose statue stands in our Hornbake Plaza, wrote that “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” His words ring true today, almost 175 years later. Literacy opens doors to academic achievement, economic freedom, and career and income prospects. 

The ultimate goal for the Maryland Initiative for Literacy and Equity (MILE) is to ensure that literacy is a civil right for every child in Maryland, especially given that illiteracy has severe economic, health, social and political consequences. For example, achievement gaps in our schools systematically increase with the number of students living at or below the poverty line. These statistics coincide with increasing segregation by race, ethnicity, and language background. The perils of illiteracy are underscored in recent research findings as well: 85% of juvenile offenders have trouble reading and three out of four people on welfare cannot read.  All this evidence reveals literacy achievement as not just an educational issue, but one of equity and civil rights.

Most researchers, practitioners, and community advocates view literacy as a complex set of processes and practices that are cognitively and socially constructed, and enacted within cultural contexts, regardless of a person’s age. Being “literate” is inextricably linked with how well an individual can participate productively in society. Bilingual populations, hearing and speech impaired children and adults children and adults with dyslexia and dysgraphia all need full access to literacy. Moreover, literacy is not just about early childhood reading— it is a critical component of all K-12 grade levels, higher education, and workforce development. Full, functional, foundational literacy is a lifelong endeavor: individuals who are not functionally literate struggle with health forms in doctor’s offices, completing job applications, paying bills, and voting on election ballots. 

In short, ​literacy practices span multiple genres, modes, and technology platforms. Likewise, our university’s professional programs on literacy and language acquisition span multiple disciplines and perspectives, with active researchers and practitioners from the College of Education (EDUC), College of Arts and Humanities, College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, College of Information Studies (INFO), School of Public Policy, and colleagues from Morgan State University. Each discipline frames theoretical and practical issues of literacy in complementary ways. The challenge is to coordinate UMD’s considerable multi-disciplinary strengths to overcome barriers to full literacy for every Marylander (and beyond).  

The Role MILE Plays

MILE aims to serve as a bridge linking UMD’s cutting-edge research and scholarship on literacy and language acquisition with multidisciplinary, culturally responsive practices and professional programs that can address the literacy needs of marginalized communities, minority language speakers, and populations of neurodiverse learners in expansive and inclusive ways. 

The focus of MILE’s lead department, EDUC, has often been on formal learning contexts (e.g., schools). However, literacy work in formal contexts is not enough. The MILE team recognizes the critical importance of supporting learners of all ages—whether formally, in schools, or informally, at home, in libraries, and neighborhoods. Children and adults do not stop reading or engaging in literacy practices when they leave school. Literacy is an integral component across all the contexts of people’s daily lives. 

To complement the formal schools’ expertise that many MILE members hold, researchers from INFO will contribute to MILE through their in-depth experience and expertise supporting literacy learning in informal contexts, such as libraries and community centers. INFO faculty who are involved in MILE will promote the community-based view of literacy described by Willie Flowers, President of the NAACP Maryland, when he said, “The reality is that literacy starts at the grassroots level and starts from mother to baby, and from family to family.” 

The two lead INFO members of the MILE multidisciplinary team are Assistant Research Scientist Beth Bonsignore and Professor Mega Subramaniam—but they are not the only INFO researchers who may benefit from MILE’s multidisciplinary infrastructure. Bonsignore and Subramaniam are collaborating with the MILE leadership team to explore how INFO’s community projects might influence and be supported by  university-wide literacy research, professional development, and outreach. For example,  INFO’s community stakeholders include school library media specialists working within formal PK-12 schools; youth services librarians in public libraries serving local communities as informal learning hubs; librarians supporting immigrant communities with multi-lingual, multicultural services (such as job search and health services information search); after-school community organizations working with at-risk youth; and librarians serving the incarcerated and detained.  MILE will promote the professional development of  school media and public librarians, and collaborate on literacy outreach in libraries and community centers. The goal is to seek and act on feedback from literacy professionals (teachers, librarians, speech and hearing educators, ESOL educators, and administrators) who are engaged in the daily work of building literacy practices for children and adults in the state. 

“One of the most exciting things about helping develop the MILE initiative,” says Bonsignore, “is experiencing how committed the whole MILE team is, regardless of home department, college, or community. We all share the vision of literacy as a civil right and equity issue. We are all listening, exploring, and sharing how our different perspectives can support the cognitive, social, and cultural aspects involved in the complex process of learning to read and write in integrated ways.”

The multi-colored, woven graphic in the image below is known as the “Reading Rope” (Scarborough, 2001). The Reading Rope represents the complex language, word, and character comprehension elements involved in the cognitive and contextual process of reading. The Reading Rope is also a visual proxy of the interlacing socio-cultural and cognitive issues involved in unraveling the  literacy knot faced by today’s society.

In many ways, then, the Reading Rope graphic also reflects MILE’s goal to address systemic obstacles to literacy achievement through multidisciplinary research-practice partnerships. MILE’s work will span from brain and behavioral research to knowledge-building and professional training for educators, clinicians, librarians, families, communities. and policymakers. 

Like the multiple individual strands that comprise the “Reading Rope” of skilled reading, MILE team members like Bonsignore and Subramaniam are working with many other researchers across UMD, weaving their efforts into a multidisciplinary force multiplier that will tackle the challenge of promoting literacy from neurons to neighborhoods. 

Written in collaboration with Beth Bonsignore.