image of readwood trees

The Overstory of Literacy

The Overstory is a best-selling novel by Richard Powers. It tells the stories of a few enormous formidable trees and how their existence affects the trees’ people. I never heard of an overstory before reading the novel, and I have since learned that they are giant trees that live above the other trees in their own climate—they even breathe their own air.

If nature is a metaphor for life, then we are the understory. We are connected to the overstory by our circumstances or knowledge. We advocate for science, data, and the logic that has alluded widespread adoption of evidence-based literacy instruction and interventions. We progress in some states, districts, and sectors, and it’s never fast enough or equitable enough. How can we rest with small victories when we’re looking up at redwood trees, and we have only glimpses of the sky.

How we write our overstory is when we grow as strong and formidable as those unmovable redwoods. Nobody can do it alone. At Teach My Kid to Read, we believe in reaching parents and caregivers as quickly as possible and educating them about all the skills parents like me wish they had known about when our children were young. Faith Borkowsky even created a book series called “If only I would have known…” Knowledge is power, and we need that power to summon the strength for our overstory.

We create widespread change by working with sectors dedicated to literacy and a love of reading. The former is a bonus, and it’s a reason why we love working with libraries. People go to the library to pick out a book or story in some format. Children’s librarians lead fun, engaging programming that promotes literacy skills. When we present to libraries, we often point out how much we learn from librarians about building language skills. Integrating phonological awareness skills into Storytime and other library programming is a natural fit.

We hope that librarians partner with us to write a new overstory and enlist other sectors and anyone interested in literacy education with the resources to help more children learn to read. The symbolic redwoods guarding so much of our progress cannot ignore logic when we grow stronger and as formidable as they are. Here’s what the story could look like:

  • Parents or caregivers go to the library and learn about ways to help all children learn to read and access resources that guide them in the process.
  • More people understand common signs of struggling/striving readers, and children at risk of reading issues like dyslexia receive the help they need while they need by kindergarten or lower grades.
  • Children struggling in upper grades have options if the school is not providing the help they need.
  • Public libraries have collections of books, such as decodables, that support or supplement reading instruction in the schools. Public and school librarians work together to improve in-school and out-of-school reading instruction.
  • Literacy is a community priority and woven into the fabric of our day-to-day lives. Within communities, parents and caregivers begin to learn about literacy through conversations and information at places where people congregate and at locations like libraries that serve as hubs for the resources.
  • School administrators and staff receive training about ways proven to help all kids learn to read with demonstrated gains.

Seeing through the forest is never easy, especially when it involves any child advocacy. Awareness and education on all fronts are necessary, and it is just as important to provide many, many solutions. There is a broad message to share-our kids are not learning to read. Most of us know that two-thirds of fourth-graders are not reading proficiently. The statistics are lower for children of color and children diagnosed with a learning difference like dyslexia. Suppose you are a higher education faculty member involved in training future teachers and cannot speak to this data and talk clearly about improving these dire statistics. In that case, you are the overstory and not breathing our air.

We believe that everyone wants to improve literacy and that change will eventually occur one way or another. Reaching the community through widespread initiatives is one way to spread knowledge and offer more kids opportunities to learn to read. Visit us at to learn more about our work, to support our programming, and to join us in writing a new overstory.

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