How Literacy is Like Leukemia

  • 17 May, 2010

Blast from the Past: This blog entry posted on May 17, 2010 and was re-posted on March 1, 2018. It explores the complex reasons why students have trouble learning to read—whether the main roots of those problems are due to disabilities (e.g., dyslexia) or social problems (e.g., poverty, racism). However, despite these profound causes of reading problems, there are two certainties: even with big problems kids are pretty resilient and making kids literate requires quality teaching.

I love Malcolm Gladwell. He is a regular New Yorker contributor and authored The Tipping Point and Blink. Recently, he wrote about how new drugs are discovered, and as usual, his ideas got me thinking.

  A century ago, microbe hunters looked for silver bullet remedies; that is, what is the one chemical that will kill off a disease? Drugs like penicillin fit that category. But that began to change in the 1960s when a couple of smart scientists figured out that for diseases like leukemia and tuberculosis, combinations of drugs were needed. The problem is that some diseases are pretty smart. If you introduce a chemical that messes them up in some way, they often reconstitute and continue to ravage the patient. But when you hit them in multiple ways, it is harder for them to respond and the patient gets better.

  Multiple solutions to a single complex problem... hmmm, sounds like the right ticket for school failure. Back in the 1940s, Helen Robinson did a pretty interesting doctoral dissertation on reading disability. She identified a small group of struggling readers in Chicago, and tested the heck out of those kids. She collected all kinds of psychological, educational, and pediatric data on them, trying to make sense of why they couldn't read.

  What she found out was pretty interesting. There were almost no problems that consistently "caused" learning problems. If a youngster was weak in vision he might struggle or he might not. If a student had a low IQ, that might interfere, and then again, not always. What really put kids in a hole, however, was multiple problems. If a school wasn't doing a good job, and there was a chemical imbalance, and dad lost his job, then there was a struggle. Kids are resilient until too many problems undermine their success: put kids in a high poverty family, they can still succeed. Put kids in a high poverty family and don't send them to school regularly or put them in a poor school, and you might tip them over.

  I wonder if it's the same thing with solving our literacy problems in poverty neighborhoods. Improve the schools and literacy improves some, but so far, only a little bit in most places. But what if you intervened with good schools, safe neighborhoods, better housing, better healthcare, more jobs... maybe the disease of poverty wouldn't be able to reconstitute and kids would do much better--they'd have a permanent remission when it came to learning problems.

  Now, that isn't really a new idea. I hear it expressed often when I visit inner city schools or talk to colleagues at the university. They aren't impressed with my efforts to increase the amount of teaching offered to poor kids or to make sure that teaching emphasizes those things that have been proven to matter in learning to read. They point out that such ideas are meaningless unless those other changes take place.

  And yet, as much as I support the idea of renewed efforts to improve the lives of children living in poverty, the school piece of the puzzle is likely to be essential no matter what the other changes. Teachers can't wait until other conditions improve. They have to teach their hearts out now--you can't just turn such teaching on and off like a water faucet; teachers who are waiting to teach until other conditions improve are not likely to be able to teach when conditions eventually do get better. I think multiple high quality inputs are the way to go, but our responsibility is the teaching part and we need to improve that now. (I have friends who work in housing and health care and law enforcement, and they are all working hard at their part of the problem; they aren't waiting for the schools to get better to do so).


See what others have to say about this topic.

Becki Krsnak Mar 01, 2018 10:59 PM

AMEN!!! I so agree!! I have worked with low poverty students for many years, and we definitely made progress with our students and had them reading fluently! Teachers in these schools must be 110% committed to their students and their missions! They CANNOT use the excuse of lack of parental support or housing issues or poverty issues....there are NO excuses! Forget all those things--and concentrate on what you CAN control!!! It still drives me crazy when I hear teachers making excuses! Focus on students - #1!!!! Thank you for your blogs!! They always inspire me, and I LOVE being able to share them with my teachers!!! (So they hear the messages from someone other than me.)

Nancy Wright Mar 14, 2018 07:12 PM

Yes, Becki -- sounds like what Hattie defines a "collective efficacy". The belief by a group of teachers & staff that they CAN make a difference by working together and trying to reach all learners.

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How Literacy is Like Leukemia


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.