“We can’t wait,” A Conversation on Oregon’s Literacy Crisis with Angela Uherbelau

CI Blog Header_Angela Uherbelau

by Rafael Otto



On this segment of The Early Link Podcast, host Rafael Otto talks with Angela Uherbelau, founder of Oregon Kids Read, a grassroots literacy and equity group dedicated to ending our state’s literacy crisis.


Angela Uherbelau started Oregon Kids Read because literacy is a civil right. She is a writer, racial equity advocate and past PTA president. Angela grew up in Southern Oregon and her public school teachers there had a huge, positive impact on her life’s trajectory. She’s worked on various local, state and national political campaigns and also served as a legislative director in the Oregon State Legislature. During the early days of COVID, she helped establish the Irvington Westminster Community Learning Hub which offered free full-time child care to families in need and also helped launch a Portland Public Schools one-on-one virtual tutoring program for struggling readers.


In this episode, Uherbelau gives us an overview of literacy in Oregon right now and what’s behind the current crisis in early learning. She also covers the science of reading approach and what that means in the lives of young children. Listeners will also learn about Oregon Kids Read, its goals, and why she founded it. This episode also touches on what we can be doing as a state, as parents, and as advocates to see a real shift in classrooms surrounding literacy, and provides advice to parents & guardians who are concerned about their children in the classroom and in the school system.


[00:00:00] Rafael Otto: Hello everyone. This is the Early Link Podcast. I’m Rafael Otto. Thanks for listening. You can catch us on 99.1 FM every Sunday in the Portland Metro at 4:30 PM, or tune in at your convenience, wherever you find your podcasts. That includes Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, and Amazon Music and others. And as always, you can find segments on our website at childinst.org.

My guest today is Angela Uherbelau. She is the founder of Oregon Kids Read, a grassroots literacy and equity group dedicated to ending our state’s literacy crisis where more than 50% of third graders aren’t reading at grade level. She’s also a freelance and opinion writer whose work has appeared in many regional and national publications.

Angela, welcome to the podcast.

[00:00:47] Angela Uherbelau: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

[00:00:49] Rafael Otto: So good to have you here today. I wanted to start with talking about the literacy crisis and what that means. I know, you know, I mentioned that in your bio and intro more than 50% of third graders aren’t reading at grade level. That data is, I think based on 2019 data, I know there’s some impacts of the pandemic and those kinds of things, but give us an overview of where we’re at with literacy in Oregon right now.

[00:01:16] Angela Uherbelau: Sure, yeah. So we are in the midst of what I would say was a literacy crisis, and since the pandemic has become a literacy emergency. So as you mentioned in 2019, which is the latest data that we have in Oregon, over 50% of our third graders were not reading at grade level. First of all, that is a pretty shocking statistic when you think most families, we drop off our babies in kindergarten, and we just expect that we’re handing them over to an educational system that will provide them at the very least with the building blocks of learning, the foundations of learning. And of course reading is the primary building block of learning.

So the fact that we have so many of our kids who are struggling with that foundational skill is really quite alarming. It’s also important for us to break down that number and look at specific groups of kids who have historically really been underserved and continue to be underserved in the state.

So when we’re talking about literacy, we’re talking about 70 plus percent of our Black, Indigenous, and other third graders of color, not reading at benchmark before the pandemic. We’re talking about with our students who have living… they’re living with disabilities, over 78% of them not reading at grade level.

Because there was a pause in statewide testing during COVID, we’re still waiting to find out exactly where our students are currently. But we know that even before, they were not being served in the way that they need to and deserved to in terms of literacy.

And I do wanna point out too that Oregon is not an outlier in this. This is a national problem, an national literacy crisis. But the good news is, there are solutions to it. There are things that we can do to improve, starting with just the basic understanding that research shows that almost any child can learn to read given the right instruction.

So I want to raise awareness about the crisis, the emergency around literacy. And we also wanna leave people with a sense of hope that this is not something that cannot be solved. We can solve this problem and give our kids the tools they need to become readers.

[00:03:35] Rafael Otto: I’d like to talk about some of those solutions. But before we do, what do you think is behind the crisis? And I know you described it as an emergency now. And I think we are hearing some things at least anecdotally about how difficult it was for young children to continue learning and continue to learn to read through the pandemic. And I know we’ll have more data about that, hopefully soon.

But even leading up to that, the numbers around third grade literacy and reading weren’t great. What do you think is behind that crisis and behind the situation that we’re in today?

[00:04:09] Angela Uherbelau: It’s a great question. I think that what is behind the literacy crisis is systemic failure. So this idea that reading is natural and it comes naturally is actually a myth. Language comes to us naturally. We’re wired for language, for oral language, but we are not wired to read. And so the vast majority of us require really systematic, and what we say is explicit, so very very clear instruction in learning how to build the building blocks of reading.

Unfortunately, it’s the current state of teacher prep programs nationally, and also here in Oregon, where our teachers are not trained in what is known as the science of reading.

The majority of teachers don’t get that training in their teacher prep programs. And so they come into the classroom full of enthusiasm, but they haven’t been given the tools, the really concrete tools they need, to help potential readers become readers. So I think that that is really at the heart of why we have such a crisis, in this country and in this state, is that the kids, the majority of kids who enter the classroom and need a specific kind of explicit instruction are not getting it. And they didn’t get it before COVID and many of them… too many of them are not getting it currently.

Please download the full transcript below.


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