Taking a Close Look at the Achievement Gap

By on April 4, 2016

What causes the achievement gap? Although there are many factors that can contribute to a student falling behind (lack of parental support, poor nutrition, and low teacher expectations to name a few), research tells us that gaps form when support is not given as tasks and texts become more challenging. Explicit reading and writing instruction is visible in grades TK/K to 2nd grade. Early elementary students are learning to read and write at a basic level. Then, in the third grade, students experience a major shift. Students are now reading to learn. They are expected to do more and know more on their own. Reading and writing tasks become more complex and explicit teaching becomes less and less part of the curriculum and pedagogy. To be clear, explicit, scaffolded teaching does happen. But it happens less frequently as students move through their education and is almost non-existent in college.


In upper elementary and middle school, content becomes the main focus of instruction. Since teachers expect (or assume) that older students have the skills and abilities to make meaning on their own, the decision to explicitly teach reading and writing skills is not the focus. Content is king. Reading assignments are longer. The pace quickens. Writing tasks become more complex and frequent.

Here is what troubles me. When students struggle, they lose confidence, and eventually give up.

The diagram above shows rising task and text complexity and falling support. We should expect the support in the classroom to follow the same rise in difficulty. Students can't use the same reading strategies they used in lower elementary to help them succeed in upper elementary or in an honors middle school class. Basic comprehension lessons that were taught in the 2nd grade cannot help students who are trying to read an entire unit in a social studies or history textbook. Explicit instruction seemingly stops when it is needed most.

The gap is everyone's responsibility. One grade level or class cannot cause an achievement gap. But over time, as the diagram shows, the gap starts early and widens over time. The decision to not explicitly teach reading and writing skills has a compounding effect year over year. By the time students reach high school, they face extremely challenging tasks without the necessary support. And without support, students struggle to succeed.

For the next few months, LiteracyTA will talk about the achievement gap and provide teachers, parents, and schools with resources and strategies to narrow the gap so that more students find success in school and in life. 

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