Dismantling the Biases Imposed on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color

Catherine Compton-Lilly, University of South Carolina

Marcus Croom, Indiana University

Mary McVee, University at Buffalo, SUNY

Allison Skerrett, The University of Texas at Austin


As the 2022 LRA Conference came to a close, members gathered to attend the annual integrative review of literacy research. Panelists pursued a shared goal; as literacy scholars, we intentionally and systematically sought to dismantle the biases often imposed on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color through four review-oriented projects that – each in its own way – attempted to counter the systemic whitewashing that has characterized review scholarship in literacy. Significantly, scholarly reviews have long-term effects on scholarly communities, they provide novice and established scholars with macro views of the field, while identifying what is important and worthy of our attention.


Across the papers presented by this panel, we explored silences and obfuscations relative to the voices of Scholars of Color, the experiences of Communities of Color, and the education of all children. This public presentation of syntheses was organized as an intentionally anti-racist act designed to name, describe, and recognize the voices and contributions of People of Color. Below, we briefly describe the presentations of the fours scholars: Catherine Compton-Lilly, Marcus Croom, Mary McVee, and Allison Skerrett.


A Metasynthesis of Family Literacy Scholarship by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color


To explicitly and intentionally explore the scholarly contributions of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), Catherine Compton-Lilly shared an metasynthesis being conducted in collaboration with Tisha Lewis Ellison and Rebecca Rogers. Qualitative metasynthesis provides a review methodology for integrating findings from across primary qualitative research studies that focus on a particular issue or body of scholarship. For our metasynthesis, we explored findings from studies that had particular relevance to our work as scholars with a shared interest in literacy practices in families and communities.


Following an extensive search of academic databases, we sought journal articles authored by BIPOC Scholars whose voices and perspectives have informed our own work as literacy scholars with an interest in families. Selected articles described an empirical study and included a detailed methodological information. Each articles reported on a qualitative research study that was relevant to literacy learning and/or practices in families and communities. Below, we briefly present a few findings from that synthesis. I focus on findings that highlight family literacy as involving time and temporality; well-being, emotionality, and joyful practice; and activism.


Findings related to time and/or temporality point to the longitudinal legacy of resources and knowledges that BIPOC families and communities bring to literacy learning, including: cultural and familial stories; powerful and emotive memories of  strength and resistance; linguistic and transnational expertise; sustained cultural identities; and ancestral inspiration gleaned from past generations. For example, Prichard (2014) addressed historical erasure and advocated for the re-writing selves and communities, explaining that through the reading  and writing of descendants “ancestors gain the advantage of being resurrected from the slow death of historical erasure” (p. 34). 1


Other relevant findings involved well-being, emotionality, and joyful practices. These findings that highlighted literacy practices as creating spaces of connection, communication and support. Lewis (2013) explored emotionality through her analysis of an African American mother and son’s collaborative digital literacy practices 2, while Flores’ (2018) focused on the narratives that Latinx mothers and fathers shared during writing workshops with their daughters. 3


Finally, BIPOC scholars identified family literacy practices as forms of activism. Campano and his colleagues (2013) explored the activist nature of coalitional literacy practices in community contexts 4, while Souto-Manning (2018) focused on family involvement in early childhood education. 5


Based on our analysis of these findings, we believe that BIPOC voices are significant and offer important lenses for all of us as literacy scholars. By highlighting these counter-stories and their temporal, spiritual, and agential roots, BIPOC scholars recognize and honor the humanity and resourcefulness of participants and communities, providing powerful lessons for researchers and teachers who aspire to work with and in BIPOC Communities.


Characterizing and Traversing Racial Literacies Scholarship


Crossing among inquiries and insights, this review characterized racial literacies scholarship and highlighted examples to traverse and advance this essential literature toward post-White futures for us all. As Croom explained, “racial literacies” is a clarifying term encompassing complex, historical, ongoing race critical understandings and practices that have developed among individuals, groups, and institutions amid multifaceted human racialization. Notably, racial literacies are not new literacies; thus, “racial literacies” is a new term that expands upon and further theorizes “racial literacy,” including various uses of this construct posed since France Winddance Twine (sociology) and Lani Guinier (law) published on this construct, for example.


In his panel presentation, Croom brilliantly placed this scholarly review in context 6 noting that:

    • Neither identities nor forms of labor exempt us from the work of developing racial literacies,
    • Black-White binaries must be resisted,
    • White folks must be addressed but without a preoccupation with White folks,
    • Youth are past, present, and future participants in ongoing race practices,
    • Anyone can be anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, anti-Brown, and so on,
    • Anyone can be post-White (which is never anti-White) and anyone can practice “a transcendent approach to literacy”, and 7 8 9 10
    • Racial literacies are for all.

Therefore, “racial literacy” has begun to be understood according to practice of race theory (PRT) which organizes the varying uses of this construct within the umbrella of “racial literacies” and illuminates some antecedent race critical understandings and practices beyond and within the field of literacy research.


After defining basic terms and criteria for racial literacies scholarship based on history, theory, and examination of existing literature reviews of “racial literacy,” Croom’s review identified the need for basic definitions and criteria for identifying racial literacies scholarship prior to conducting a comprehensive review. For example, racial literacies scholarship refers to inquiries and insights about situated race practice. Additionally, Croom identified racial literacies as:

    • thinking and doing race for human well-being,
    • different from new literacies,
    • different from critical thinking and critical literacy,
    • included among multiple literacies,
    • developing through multiple routes, and
    • contributing philosophically, theoretically, pedagogically, and politically to what we understand about living and learning.

After sharing the basic definitions and criteria identified through this synthesis, Croom maintained that further reviews of racial literacies scholarship are needed. Such future reviews should use clear exclusion and inclusion criteria and explicit definitions of terms (e.g. race, literacy, racial literacies) to prevent unsystematic analyses and conclusions. Having shown the theoretical, historical, current, and anticipated race trajectories that can be clarified by the racial literacies construct, Croom finds that this construct is useful to researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and the public. 11 12 13


Racialized Emotions in the Narratives of Literacy Teachers, Teacher Educators, and Researchers


Dr. Mary McVee and her colleagues (Dr. Aijuan Cun and Dr. Kristian Douglas) focused on racialized emotions that are group-based and grounded in relationships. These racialized emotions are predicated upon the histories of racialized systems and individual lives. McVee and colleagues posed narrative as an important means of representing and constructing racialized emotions. As they noted, narrative can be enacted externally, as a spoken story, a video, or an image; thus, narrative is a tool that communicates meaning and positions. Internally, narrative is used by individuals and communities to organize and make meaning within the interior landscapes of the self. All narratives are dynamic and fluid. They may be captured on the page and in print as static and durable, but to their narrators–real people in the real world–narratives can always be changed, re-interpreted, and re-positioned. While the concept of racialized emotions is not new, studies of emotion in education and literacy education have received scant attention. Despite these silences, scholars, Scholars of Color have explored racialized emotions through narrative inquiry, autoethnography, and counter-narrative, revealing narrative as fertile ground for exploring learning, identity, position, and racialized emotions.


McVee and colleagues presented illustrative examples that draw on the work of respected literacy scholars. They described the work of Ohito who employed narrative inquiry to critically consider affective and embodied literacies, while highlighting healing and reparative practices and spaces. 14 Similarly, they discussed Jackson’s autoethnography of her work as a Black teacher-researcher in collaboration with a Black teacher as they sought to center justice-oriented solidarity and Blackness. 15


Other examples included Baker-Bell’s autoethnographic challenges to the “strongblackwoman trope” (p. 526) as she discussed personal narratives related to her experiences as a Black woman scholar on the tenure track. 16 Finally, McVee and colleagues presented the childhood narratives of Washington, Bauer, Edwards and McMillon as they documented their journeys from girlhood to the academy” and challenged monolithic narratives of Black girlhood and becoming university educators. 17


While all of these narratives do not explicitly name emotions, each narrative telling or retelling provides readers with a sense of how racialized emotions are represented and lived. These remarkable stories reveal significant risk-taking on the part of tellers who challenge not only literacy teachers, but turn their gaze inward to the fields of research, teacher education, and individually to themselves. While grounding their writing in emotion-laden landscapes and foregrounding self-reflective practices, these scholars raise substantive and critical issues, while presenting calls and practical suggestions for enacting justice, equity, solidarity, and anti-racist positions. In letting loose the currents of racialized emotions within and across these works, scholars disrupt willful blindness of racialized emotions and status quo beliefs about what “should” be thought, acted upon, or even felt. In so doing, they highlight powerful connections between emotions and power. 18


Banned Books and Banners for Change: Literacy Education for Troubled Times


During times of deep change and duress, youth have been alternatively, and sometimes paradoxically, positioned as significant contributors to, or manifestations of, troubled times. However, they are simultaneously positioned as the people best poised to tackle social challenges and positively transform their societies. 19 In her review of literacy in troubled times, Allison Skerrett reported on emerging research with young people related to the Covid-19 pandemic, their involvement in social movements and demands for racial justice, and growing efforts to censor students’ and teachers’ engagements with particular texts.


Skerrett explored how youth have experienced the Covid-19 pandemic including shifts to virtual schooling, their mental and physical health, and their social relationships and practices. 20 21 While young people have reported physical and mental challenges from long hours tethered to computer screens and being apart from their peers, this small body of emerging research has also suggested that youth exercised agency and innovation in caring for themselves and one another. These counter-narratives attest to the agency and contribution of youth in navigating troubled times. Thus, care must be exercised to not inadvertently re-inscribe deficit perspectives of young people and mask their agency in generating productive responses to personal and societal challenges. 22


Skerrett also reviewed studies that examined the effects of the heightened visibility of anti-Black violence, including the murders of unarmed Black citizens George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others by police officers that resulted in social protests and demands for racial justice. Anti-Asian violence, stoked by dangerous rhetoric from US leaders that absurdly attempted to racialize a virus, also saw a sharp increase. Young people have been at the forefront of agitating for racial justice. The Black Lives Matter movement, founded and energized by Black youth and their co-conspirators, has been arguably the most visible activist group in recent times. 23 24


In education and across the country, there has been a growing movement to censor students’ and teachers’ engagements with particular texts. Linked to anti-critical race theory conservative movements, some social groups have attempted to ban texts that focus on race, racism, and LGBTQ+ issues 25 26 Apparently, some parent and citizen groups do not want their children to develop their awareness of racism and heterosexism while being equipped with tools and dispositions to create a more just world. 27 Young people (see Washington Post, 2022; Woodcock, 2002) have led the way in challenging these efforts. 28 While young people have always been positioned as a mirror of and a contributor to the current times, these last few years present an ideal time to explore how they negotiate these social positions. 29 As Skerrett maintains, there is no better time for literacy research/ers to listen to and learn from youth.


Please cite this work: Compton-Lilly, Croom, McVee, & Skerrett (2023). Dismantling the Biases Imposed on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Literacy Research Association Critical ConversationsCC BY 4.0 license.


Cover Photo by Chris Anderson on Unsplash


The Science of Reading and the Media: How Do Current Reporting Patterns Cause Damage?

The Science of Reading and the Media:  How Do Current Reporting Patterns Cause Damage?

Maren Aukerman, University of Calgary


In the field of reading education, we are in the midst of what can fairly be characterized as a media crisis. In my first previous Critical Conversations contribution, I documented how reporting on the “science of reading” suffers from bias errors, that is, errors where a journalist takes sides and/or pushes an agenda rather than communicating a nuanced story. In my second piece, I detailed specific errors of insufficient understanding, that is, errors that reflect inadequate grasp of the field.


As a result, journalism frequently bestows unquestioned status to systematic phonics instruction while emphasizing other aspects of literacy learning far less. This instructional approach has come to be known in the popular press by the moniker “the science of reading,” even though actual research-based science of reading is far more nuanced and expansive. Furthermore, journalists often dismiss another approach to teaching called balanced literacy, an orientation supported by 59% of reading researchers 1 that advocates for a robust range of literacy learning opportunities that include phonics, comprehension, writing, and other forms of literacy development in contexts that motivate young literacy learners. 2


Error in the Media and Elsewhere Online


To recap, here are some common media errors:


Bias Errors

  • Lack of balance in reporting. Reporting fails to include and/or respect varied perspectives.
  • Sensationalistic “straw man” arguments. Reporting wrongly ascribes outlandish beliefs to those who advocate for balanced literacy, then proceeds to dismiss them by shredding those ideas.
  • A myopic lens fetishizing phonics instruction. Reporting fails to highlight the many essential dimensions of good literacy instruction that go beyond phonics.
  • Logical fallacies. Reporting faults balanced literacy for any and all struggles children have with learning to read, in the absence of causal evidence.

Errors of Insufficient Understanding

  • Weak connection to actual research. Reporting misrepresents research findings and/or over-relies on a narrow slice of research – if it even cites research.
  • Inaccurate, distorted use of terminology. Reporting explains concepts poorly, particularly those related to balanced literacy.
  • Spurious claims that one approach is settled science. Reporting maintains that there is one right, research-based way to teach reading even though there is insufficient evidence for such a claim.
  • Lack of context about previous phonics implementation attempts. Reporting omits information documenting the underwhelming results of previous phonics-heavy mandates.


Taken together, these errors raise serious questions about the trustworthiness of journalism about reading education. Professional journalists are not the only culprits: similar issues appear on many reading-related websites where, too often, biased and non-research-based rhetoric predominates. 3 For example, a viral infographic called the Ladder of Reading and Writing 4 claims that a “structured literacy” approach (i.e., intensive phonics) is “essential” for at least 50-60% of students and beneficial to nearly all students – with fine print maintaining those percentages are based on “the best available evidence” and pointing readers to the author’s website for more information. However, I found no peer-reviewed research to substantiate the percentages on that website or elsewhere. And the author described her process of assigning those percentages with considerable vagueness: “experts in the field were contacted for their feedback about this during the process [and] research articles were explored,” before she conceded that “There is no agreement on the percentages.” 5 Remarkably, that did not stop her from posting them.


Numerical estimates from such a flawed vetting process should have no place in anything calling itself “the science of reading.” Yet, the Ladder of Reading is widely distributed, showing up as unquestioned fact in multiple tweets and Facebook posts as well as on literacy-related websites across North America, from the Colorado Department of Education 6 to the International Dyslexia Association (IDA). 7 8 9 When journalists rely on such websites instead of peer-reviewed research, the questionable information becomes further amplified. For example, a recent Education Week article cited IDA when it claimed that most students “need explicit phonics and the rest can benefit from it”, closely echoing the Ladder of Reading on the IDA website. 10


Consequences of Problematic “Science of Reading” Reporting


When the media cannot be counted upon to paint a fully accurate, unbiased picture of research on early reading instruction, the consequences may be grim. Here are some of them:


As reporting descends into advocacy with tenuous research connections, actual research becomes increasingly marginalized.


When the media fails to engage deeply with the fuller body of reading scholarship, advocates of an instructional technique can circumvent the need to make a compelling scholarly case for their perspective that is convincing to the research community. A perspective on what constitutes quality reading instruction that has convinced barely a fifth of researchers in the field 11 gets pitched in the media as a “research consensus.” 12  13 Those advocates speaking to reporters likely have the best of intentions and may genuinely believe their perspective is the most research-based one. But the passion of advocates does not displace the need for proper vetting. The media should be engaging substantively with a range of perspectives and – even more importantly – with the actual research literature, which tells a nuanced and complicated story about the teaching of reading in general and about the teaching of phonics specifically. In the absence of such engagement, advocacy rather than reading research has come to drive educational journalism, and ultimately public discourse and policy. There is huge irony in the fact that something billed as “the science of reading” may well be undermining the impact of real research on classroom practice, due in large part to lack of quality reporting.


Representing reading instruction in biased and/or inaccurate ways can lead to policies and practices that amount to barking up the wrong tree.


Districts are flocking to ramp up phonics teaching. 14 Politicians have jumped on the bandwagon, passing laws that mandate phonics-intensive reading instruction, place requirements on teacher training, and even require retention for some students on the sole basis of phonics assessment scores. 15 16 The problem is not with phonics being “in,” but with much else being crowded out. 17 One study noted that even preschool teachers are rejecting rich (and research-based) language-building activities such as shared book read-alouds in favor of drill in phonics. 18 Teachers of linguistically diverse students are being directed legislatively to teach phonics at the expense of the vital goal of developing students’ English proficiency. 19 Opportunities to read actual texts are in danger of being overwhelmed by emphasis on phonics drill. 20 In short, rather than benefiting from instruction informed by varied insights from contemporary research, children may receive one-sided instruction, with poor kids least likely to get opportunities for critical and complex thinking, reading, and writing. 21 22  23 


Falsely positioning teachers and teacher educators as out of touch can undermine the teaching profession and public understandings of what researchers do.


There is evidence that different children need different instruction tailored to their needs, such as more or less phonics instruction, 24 yet insistence on one-size-fits-all instruction can make it difficult for children to get the reading support they need. As prescriptive curricula and policies chip away at teachers’ ability to use professional judgment 25teachers may not have flexibility to make decisions in the best interest of their students. For example, teachers may be provided with unengaging phonics programs that treat students as passive learners and leave little room for children’s voice and choice. 26 There are other ways to teach phonics 27 , but teachers may not have the materials or autonomy to choose those.


Moreover, the effort to paint teachers and teacher educators as ignorant about the so-called “science of reading” bears uncanny resemblance to other ugly rhetoric 28  29 30 asserting that teachers and teacher educators are ideologically driven and prone to teach the “wrong” things. While not all proponents of what gets called “the science of reading” would support other teacher censorship, the orientation does align with these other movements in policing what teachers may say and do, contributing to a culture that undermines teacher autonomy and fans the flames of popular distrust of schools and teacher education programs. 31  32 


Divisive rhetoric also gets picked up by politicians and their allies: former US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos 33 recently berated teacher educators for preparing teacher candidates with “junk science,” and an education advisor to the governor of Tennessee is on record saying that teachers are taught “in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.” 34 With all that, the public is easily left with a faulty impression of what educational research is, and with diminished respect for teachers and teacher educators.


Problematic journalism can contribute to the disintegration of genuine dialogue among educators and other stakeholders by increasing polarization.


There are commonalities between many approaches that call themselves “science of reading” and many that define themselves as balanced literacy if one bothers to look for what is shared. Indeed, “balanced literacy” proponents articulate a key role for phonics instruction 35, and “science of literacy” proponents are increasingly acknowledging the need for high-quality instruction in domains beyond phonics. 36


Yet, for all the commonalities, the media still tells us there is a war. Conflict framing is a commonly used technique in U.S. media stories, and evidence suggests that such framing increases polarization not only in politics but in other domains. 37 In other words, because journalists use war metaphors and us/them descriptions to paint a picture of early reading instruction 38, people may be more likely to separate themselves from one another, to develop animus toward the “outgroup,” and to discount the position of the othered group. Civil discourse suffers.


While competing perspectives on reading instruction are hardly new 39 40 41, the vitriol and distrust in the past few years 42 feel different, eerily similar to the frenzied lack of civil discourse in other arenas of public life that some scholars have called a threat to democracy. 43 Those who believe the “science of reading” storyline often outright reject the idea that there could be value to alternative approaches, and balanced literacy proponents can be dismissive of the concerns and solutions offered by the “science of reading” advocates as well.


Not only are such attitudes anti-scientific, but they also serve no one well. Dialogue around differing perspectives is critical to a robust educational community. Educators should be discussing outcomes questions like what kinds of readers we should seek to develop (How important is fluency? The ability to read critically? The urge to imagine?). Educators should be discussing methods questions, like the pros and cons of different methods of teaching for and assessing decoding skill, comprehension and literacy motivation. Educators should be discussing equity questions, like how to ensure that emergent bilingual students learn to read with understanding. Educators should be discussing questions concerning student variation, like when it is helpful to differentiate instruction for those with reading disabilities, for gifted learners, or for those with ADHD. And educators should be discussing values questions like how important it is, ethically, that children find learning engaging and meaningful. All of these conversations should be informed by the wealth of perspectives and research that the field of reading has to offer. Indeed, they cannot be discussed meaningfully if individuals already believe that those with diverging views have nothing to offer. We learn when we are willing to talk, listen, and disagree; we owe it to one another and to the children we serve to reject rhetoric that demonizes and divides, whether it be a “critical race theory” bogeyman or a “balanced literacy” one. 


Where Do We Go From Here?


In closing, then, my exhortation to readers of popular media is to be on the lookout for the above kinds of journalistic errors, both in the popular press and on popular reading websites. Insist on fair reporting and connections to real, high-quality research. Kick the polarization monster to the curb whenever writers practice divisive reporting: refuse to accept flawed premises and call media outlets out on it, whether you are drawn more toward balanced literacy or more toward what gets called “the science of reading” – or if neither term adequately describes your approach.


My exhortation to education journalists is simpler still. Acknowledge that reading teaching and research are complex; follow best practices for journalism to avoid the aforementioned errors; read a range of high-quality research that takes different perspectives; don’t use the phrase “science of reading” unless you acknowledge it as multi-faceted, evolving, and the domain of all serious reading researchers; and remain curious and open-minded. And finally, stop feeding the polarization monster with what you write. Reading educators and other stakeholders all want children to read well, after all, and we need each other’s voices, perspectives, and research in conversation rather than in battle in order to best make that happen.


Please cite this work: Aukerman, M. (2022). The Science of Reading and the Media:  How Do Current Reporting Patterns Cause Damage? Literacy Research Association Critical ConversationsCC BY 4.0 license.


Maren Aukerman is a Werklund Research Professor at the University of Calgary who focuses on literacy education and democratic citizenship. She studies educational ethics, how youth engage with information in the media, and the preparation of students for responsible citizenship and democratic dialogue, particularly in the context of literacy education. Aukerman previously was on the faculty at Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania and is the recipient of a National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship as well as the 2009 Albert J. Harris Award and the 2018 Dina Feitelson Research Award from the International Literacy Association. In her current work, she is studying how young people make sense of COVID-19 information that they encounter, with a special emphasis on what they do and do not find trustworthy as information sources.


Photo by Julius Drost on Unsplash