Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Curriculum and Instruction

First Advisor

Miller, Grant

Second Advisor

McIntyre, Christie


In recent years, there have been calls for a fundamental reconsideration of literacy policy and practice, and a broadening of perspectives on literacy achievement and assessment (Avineri et al., 2015; Calfee, 2014; Y. Goodman, 2014; Moss, Pullin, Gee & Haertel, 2005; Pearson, Valencia & Wixson, 2014; Pollock, 2008). This critical policy historiography answers these calls and contributes to research on the literacy policy making process by exploring the nature and outcomes of change in literacy policy between Race to the Top (RTT, 2009) and Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA, 2015). Findings are contextualized through historical analysis of education reform movements and examination of policy actors influential in the literacy policy making process. Using document analysis surrounding the RTT and ESSA policy events, this research identifies shifts in ideological positionings in literacy policy language, examining what these shifts reveal about policy makers’ understanding of language and literacy acquisition and learning, with related implications for program implementation and classroom practice. Specifically, the report of the National Reading Panel (NRP) 2000 was chosen as the starting point for analysis of recent history because it represents the first time, in a decades-long pendulum swing between basic-skills-focused and meaning-focused philosophies of reading education, the federal government called together scientists, teachers, administrators, and teacher educators to determine what research said about reading (Shanahan, 2005). While the relatively low number of studies reviewed by the NRP, and its arguably contradictory findings, have been publicly contested (Gabriel, 2018; Yatvin, 2002, 2003), the Panel’s focus on phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary became known as the “big five” pillars of effective reading instruction (Allington, 2006; Coburn et al., 2011 Shanahan, 2005). The NRP report was used prominently in crafting Reading First (RF), the literacy initiative in No Child Left Behind (NCLB) (Calfee, 2014; Yatvin, 2002, 2003). Critiques of RF, however, found a curriculum gap in implementation (Allington, 2006; Coburn et al., 2011). Particularly at the K-3 level, RF was implemented using instructional approaches focusing heavily on phonological awareness, decoding, and fluency, while focus on comprehension and writing instruction was insufficient for the kind of balanced literacy acquisition necessary for continued reading and writing success in the upper-grades (Allington, 2006; Meier & Wood, 2004; Pearson, 2006; Teale, Hoffman & Paciga, 2014; Yatvin, 2002, 2003).As a result of patterns such as these, Alexander and Fox (2013) contend there exists no agreed upon, developmental theory of reading, in part because well-intentioned conceptions of balance in literacy instruction continuously evolve, and in part because the less well-intentioned “Reading Wars” never cease (Benavot, 2015; Dombey, 2014; Gabriel, 2013, 2018; Morrow & Gambrel, 2011; Teale et al., 2014). This study finds ESSA literacy policy represents remarkable progress toward an agreed upon, developmental theory of reading offering significant advantages for diverse learners. In addition, this study identifies potential “danger zones” created by gaps in ESSA literacy policy with important implications for further study.




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