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Reading Upside Down: Identifying and Addressing Opportunity Gaps in Literacy Instruction

reviewed by Althier Lazar - March 09, 2016

coverTitle: Reading Upside Down: Identifying and Addressing Opportunity Gaps in Literacy Instruction
Author(s): Deborah L. Wolter
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807756652, Pages: 160, Year: 2015
Search for book at Amazon.com

Focusing on what is wrong with students who do not meet grade expectations in literacy is a major flaw in the educational system and must be stopped. Deborah L. Wolter elegantly argues this point in her book Reading Upside Down: Identifying and Addressing Opportunity Gaps in Literacy Instruction. Wolter is an elementary school consultant in Ann Arbor, Michigan who discusses identifying deficits within children and their surroundings rather than looking deeply at school-related causes such as ineffective instruction. Teachers, administrators, and parents often turn to simple explanations for low literacy levels such as students being unready, disabled, homeless, or emotionally disturbed. Reading difficulties are often attributed to non-dominant cultural statuses such as students speaking a native foreign language, speaking a nonstandard form of English, or having Black or Brown skin. Wolter pushes educators to see the absurdity of these excuses by stating, “None of these conditions should be an excuse for students’ failure to learn to read and write in a timely manner” (p. xvii). These explanations veil the true nature of the problem, namely that student literacy needs are neither well understood nor addressed. Students may be shunted to special education or other remediation placements that “are often characterized by reduced expectations and a tendency toward instruction in isolated and fragmented skills” (p. 105). Wolter does not wish to minimize the value of special educators, ESL teachers, or other support specialists. Rather she rails against the ill-considered process of placing students in more restrictive environments when their literacy needs could be better met in general education classrooms with the right blend of authentic, engaged, scaffolded, and strategy-focused instruction.

Wolter believes that when educators rely on simple explanations to inform instruction they risk limiting student literacy opportunities. Without these opportunities, students may doubt their abilities and turn away from literacy altogether. Each chapter of Reading Upside Down presents a new group of students who are misunderstood, misclassified, and misplaced in situations where they have even fewer literacy development opportunities than before. Wolter supports her assertions with research that reveals the dysfunction of the current identification and referral educational structure.

Readers might wonder if this broken system can be fixed, but Wolter challenges us to act. One recommendation is that educators need to recognize how ableism and racism fuel deficit-oriented explanations for reading problems. Wolter supports Milner’s (2011) call for educators to shift from achievement gaps identifying the negative outcomes of undeveloped literacy and instead focus on opportunity gaps that illuminate why a child’s literacy growth has been stunted. She discusses beginning readers’ lack of access to expert instruction and limited opportunities to texts as key factors undermining their development. Wolter challenges teachers to listen to their inner voices about the inherent literacy capacities of children, take control of their assessment practices, and become aware of why children fall off the developmental literacy track.

While Wolter believes that general education teachers are primarily responsible for making good instructional decisions, she acknowledges that teacher decision-making abilities are often limited by external factors and that instructors frequently lack support to serve student literacy needs:

Districts that provide a one-size-fits-all reading curriculum make it difficult for teachers to embrace and foster diversity in classrooms. Further compounding the situation, teachers have little training in reading diagnosis and instruction, whereas special education teachers, who have much training in a specific disability area, have little training in reading as well. This hyperspecialized structure is an issue in attempts to provide differentiation for all students, whether they have identified disabilities or not. (p. 37)

Also weighing against teachers is the reality that relatively few are provided with the recommended 30 to 60 hours of high-quality professional development instruction to develop their expertise in literacy teaching.

One might wonder why Wolter did not also find teacher education programs complicit in the miseducation of students who fall behind in literacy. Deficit-oriented language and labels used to describe students are often incubated in university teacher preparation programs and professional development offerings. Teacher educators and school administrators need to be held responsible for designing educational programs that push teachers to scrutinize pervasive labeling, question invalid assessments, interrogate misguided referral processes, and provide high-quality differentiated instruction within general education classrooms.

Wolter does a masterful job of giving educators ideas to further their own learning. This includes adopting Townsend’s (2001) so-what strategy to avoid biases when disciplining students and engaging in thoughtful explorations of race within professional learning communities. The book also launches inquiries about issues that can be explored through additional reading, discussion, and classroom research. For instance, the notion of literacy as a cultural practice could be further investigated to explore student and family funds of knowledge and cultural capital in different social communities. Wolter’s discussion of authentic assessments including the use of observations and running records can lead to the adoption of deeper more capacity-driven assessment routines such as descriptive reviews of children (Carini, 2001). The book also sets an agenda for prompting general and special educators to speak across their disciplines and come to a consensus about how to help students reach their fullest literacy potentials.

I believe Reading Upside Down should be standard reading for all future and practicing teachers, education specialists, teacher educators, and school leaders. It reminds me of The Learning Mystique: A Critical Look at Learning Disabilities (1989) by Gerald Coles. He criticized the pervasive practice of classifying children as learning disabled if they did not learn to read on schedule nearly thirty years ago. Almost a generation later, we are now riding a horse of a slightly different color. Reading Upside Down exposes new sets of reasons to be outraged by current educational problems but also provides a reasoned plan that addresses this broken system so that children can once again read right side up.


Carini, P. F. (2001). Starting strong: A different look at children, schools, and standards. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Coles, G. (1989). The learning mystique: A critical look at learning disabilities. Westminster, MD: Ballantine Books.

Milner, H. R. (2011). Five easy ways to connect with students. Harvard Education Letter, 27(1). Retrieved from http://hepg.org/hel-home/issues/27_1/helarticle/five-easy-ways-to-connect-with-students_492

Townsend, B. (2001). The disproportionate discipline of African American learners: Reducing school suspension and expulsions. Exceptional Children, 66(3), 381–391.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 09, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 19565, Date Accessed: 5/19/2022 6:24:05 PM

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About the Author
  • Althier Lazar
    Saint Joseph's University
    E-mail Author
    Dr. ALTHIER LAZAR is Professor of Education at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Her research focuses on preparing teachers to serve the literacy needs of children in high poverty communities. Her recent books include: New Teachers in Urban Schools: Journeys Toward Social Equity Teaching with co-editor Leslie Reich (Springer, forthcoming), Reconceptualizing Literacy in the New Age of Multiculturalism and Pluralism, Second Edition, with co-editor Patricia Ruggiano-Schmidt (Information Age Publishing, 2015), and Bridging Literacy and Equity: The Essential Guide to Social Equity Teaching with co-authors Patricia Edwards and Gwendolyn McMillon (Teachers College Press, 2012).
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