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Giving the Gift of Literacy

“Literacy acquisition can be a child’s ticket out of poverty.“

Debbie Gray, Title I Reading Specialist and Literacy Support Teacher

Today’s schools understand that teaching a child to read provides one of the most essential skills for being successful in life. Many school districts are so committed to providing every child with this skill that they are focusing resources on providing literacy support specialists. Such support is paying off in Springfield school district, as evidenced by a recent award to Guy Lee Elementary School.

Guy Lee is one of two Oregon schools to receive a Closing the Achievement Gap award from the National Title 1 Association’s Distinguished Schools program. Ninety percent of the school’s students qualify for a free and reduced lunch and nearly twenty-five percent of students are English language learners. The school has consistently met Annual Yearly Progress benchmarks. Last year students improved their math scores by 16.7 percent and their reading scores by 9.4 percent.

What systemic efforts contributed to this achievement?

Teresa Lewellen: Springfield District Literacy Specialist

When Springfield schools decided to implement Response to Intervention (RTI) across the district, Teresa Lewellen, District Literacy Specialist, and Elementary Education Director Sara Ticer saw the need to have a district literacy team that would look at district-wide data. Ticer and Lewellen facilitated the creation of a collaborative team that consists of principals, Title 1 teachers, SPED teachers, regular education teachers, literacy support teachers.

This team looked at how other districts in the Northwest were implementing RTI. Many had received training from Jennifer Ashlock. When the state brought in Ashlock to do a 12-day training for all K–5 teachers, Springfield district jumped at the opportunity to send representatives. Those who attended became trainers of the Ashlock template and lesson map. They trained all regular education teachers, specialists, and instruction-related education assistants.

After the Ashlock traning, a district team (Sara Ticer, Teresa Lewellen, Susan Coleman, Val King, Diane Bova, Nicole Nakayama, and Brian Megert) wrote an RTI manual with all of the decision rules. To implement RTI, people have to know how to conduct meetings designed to review student data.

So the district brought in representatives from the schools (SPED teacher, title teacher, primary teacher, intermediate teacher, principal, and school psychologist) to teach them how to look at whole group (school-wide) data and how to dig deeper and look at more individual or small group data. By looking at student data, you can see how to target areas of deficit and whether instruction needs to happen in whole group, small group, or by individual intervention.

Lewellen emphasizes that communication has to flow in all directions: from the district to schools, from literacy support teachers to principals to the district, from the district literacy team both to the schools and to the district office. This collaborative model might look somewhat like the image below:.
Lewellen came to her current role after years of special education (SPED) teaching where she collaborated/consulted with regular educators in order to figure out how her students could learn to read. She had acquired both an administrative license and experience working with many types of teachers. Her current role—in which she does alot of facilitation, training, and data analysis—evolved from that of district test coordinator five years ago. Lewellen also supports individual schools, one of which is award-winning Guy Lee Elementary School.

Teresa Lewellen understands the need for everyone to be in alignment around meeting the needs of each child. It is not enough to have district personnel addressing literacy issues. Personnel are needed in the local schools as well. One such role is that of Title One Reading Specialist or Literacy Support Teacher. Every title school in Springfield has at least one Title One reading specialist.    

Debbie Gray: Moffitt Elementary School Title One Reading Specialist

Debbie Gray already had a reading endorsement when she went through the Ashlock 12-day training. She was involved in providing the initial district training to all K-1 and 2-3 district teachers. Returning to Moffitt, she continues to provide ongoing training and support to the teachers and educational assistants in her building.
While she collects and presents literacy data to the teachers in her building, the majority of her time is spent overseeing the reading interventions that are provided by Moffitt’s Title I staff to ensure that each student’s skill deficits are being targeted with the appropriate level of intensity. Debbie also works directly with students, teaching side-by-side with the educational assistants that she oversees. Because she wants to keep the connection to students, Gray prefers to be in a local school.

Gray’s passion for reading is rooted in her personal experience. “I got a reading endorsement because reading instruction is my passion. I am determined to prevent other young readers from feeling like they are failures, the way I felt as a child. I was a struggling reader in the first grade.

“I’m a product of the “Look-Say” generation, and was taught words by sight - instead of learning the sounds that the letters represented. I remember coming home with a stack of flash cards each afternoon to practice for homework and not being able to read very many of them. I was really struggling and I thought that I was stupid because everybody else in my class seemed to be able to read the words, except me.

“I remember always getting stuck on the words ‘mother’ and ‘father’. I realize now that the words do look similar and since I hadn’t been taught the sounds for the letters /m/ and /f/, I didn’t have a reliable way to distinguish between the two. My mother said that I always got stuck on those two words, so my younger sisters knew that if Debbie missed a word, it was either mother or father and they would say the other word. I would just start sobbing and run off to the bedroom all dramatic because I was convinced that my younger sisters knew the words when I didn’t.

“In the second grade, my mom, who had a high school education, signed me up for a mail order Dr. Seuss book club. Every week or two, I got two new books in the mail. My mother would sit down with me and we would read the new books until I could read them fluently. Along the way, my mother taught me the letter sounds because her generation had been taught phonics. My brain picked up on the rhyming word patterns and I learned many of the high-frequency sight words that were repeated in the books. By the end of second grade I became a really good reader.

“Even though I caught up with my peers and was reading at grade level, I remained convinced that I still wasn’t as smart as the other students in my class. By fourth grade they put me in the highest reading group. I remember thinking they had made a mistake, because I was in with all the smart kids - everyone knew who the smart kids were. I felt so proud to be in the highest group, but I was scared, too. I thought they would find out that I wasn’t really smart and they would move me to a lower group.

“By the time I got to junior high and high school I was an A student but, because of my early reading struggles, I was still convinced that I wasn’t very intelligent. My friends and I would get our test results back and compare them. I tested really well and they would say, “You’re not smarter than we are. Why are your scores higher than ours?” I’d say, “I don’t know,” since I really thought my test scores were some sort of fluke.

“When I was a senior in high school, they told everyone to meet with their guidance counselor to get our credits checked. My counselor looked over the records in my file and asked me, “Are you going to college?” I said that I was and asked him why he had asked. He said, “Because you have really high test scores. Anyone who tests this high should go on to college.” It wasn’t until that moment that I thought, “Maybe I’m not so dumb after all. Maybe I am smart!”  

Are You a Future Literary Specialist?

To bolster local concern for reading, the University of Oregon’s College of Education initiated two reading endorsement programs this year: 1. literacy in multilingual and multicultural contexts and 2. literacy leadership that includes development and evaluation of systems-level reading interventions. Both endorsement programs provide access to a state of the art reading clinic established by the Center on Teaching and Learning.

If you as a teacher have found yourself asking any of the following questions, you may be ready to become a literacy specialist.
• How can I make more of a difference for kids?
• How do I focus my energy in a more targeted and meaningful way?
• What new skills can I add to my teaching license?
• How can I help my students be better readers?
• Could I get a master’s degree with a specialization in reading?
• How can I assist my colleagues in making a difference for kids?

Gina Biancarosa,Trainer of Literacy Specialists in UO College of Education, explains the role of literacy coaches. “Although the work of coaches may take a number of different forms, the high leverage activity (and also typically the most difficult for coaches to take on) involves individually tailored, one-on-one coaching sessions with classroom teachers.”

The best literacy coaches have the following characteristics:
• They are excellent classroom teachers.
• They have in-depth knowledge of reading processes, acquisition, assessment, and instruction.
• They have experience working with teachers to improve their practices.
• They are excellent presenters skilled in leading teacher groups to reflect on change.
• They have mastered the complexities of observing and modeling in classrooms and providing feedback to teachers.

Application Deadline
The deadline for applying to begin a reading endorsement program in summer term is March 1.
Frequently Asked Questions