Leaders in the Fight for Equity in Literacy
Teamwork that is improving literacy and lives
by Dr. Rod Berger
Dr. Carolyn Brown, Co-Founder and President of Foundations in Learning, Inc. and Jennifer Abramson, Secondary English Language Arts Coordinator for Leander ISD, represent two essential facets in the battle for literacy in this country. Carolyn's efforts at Foundations in Learning tackle the research side of the aisle, while Jenn works on the ground, implementing programs in her district. Together they are leading the way toward equitable literacy education for all children.
Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the national report card, indicates that only a third of our youngsters in fourth and eighth grade are competent in areas of literacy. According to Carolyn, "Third grade is a critical year. There are a lot of predictions that come from third-grade reading proficiency. Without it, you're less likely to do well in school and that, in turn, keeps you from doing well in the workplace." It's not just about improving schoolwork; it's also about security outside of school. As Carolyn sees it, "Improving literacy improves lives. We need to identify the red flags and address the problems early on so they can perform well in life."
Jennifer takes the “literacy for life” idea a step further: "A lot of the tasks that require literacy are not necessarily academic." At a fundamental level, it's about life skills and requirements for the growth of a capable community that can make adjustments as literate people. Literacy is a gatekeeper for a lot of students, and Jenn feels it's important to equip students with the foundational skills and the agency to be lifelong readers. As Jenn puts it, "I'm not here to raise test takers. I'm here to grow readers who are confident, can adjust and are flexible and confident about their reading work in the real world."
Through research and application, Dr. Brown and her team at Foundations in Learning have diagnosed that "decoding" may be the most important determinant of reading skills. "If you cannot make the translation between sounds and symbols in a very systematic way, you can't read well; and if you can't read basic words easily and effortlessly, you will not get to fluency and comprehension." As research dug even deeper, it uncovered a lack of automaticity as the prime indicator of difficulty in skill development. According to Dr. Brown, "Not only in reading but in many areas like sports and language development and perception, researchers are studying how automaticity makes people become skilled users in any domain."
Without a partnership with Foundations in Learning and the use of the Access Code tool, Jenn's work at Leander ISD would have primarily been based on gut feeling and generalized assessment. By using a diagnostic tool, it became more like a doctor’s visit where she could assess, analyze, look at data, and then treat the specific needs of individual students. As Jenn explains, "There are different ways of looking at each reader and reading recovery should not be a life sentence. We should be able to equip kids who have deficits quickly, consistently, with usage, and attention to treating what they need. We should not be guessing."
There is a collective efficacy needed by all adults to assure that literacy becomes a right for every child. Denying a kid access to literacy is equivalent to denying them access to a balanced and productive life. As Jenn so pointedly states, "It's a moral imperative, and it's becoming a civil rights issue if adults can't get on board and give kids what they need. That's the reality."
About Dr. Carolyn Brown
A research scientist and adjunct professor Dr. Brown has devoted her career to developing tools and testing solutions that optimize language and literacy development for all students. Her research has received support from the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Education and the State of Iowa. Dr. Brown received her B.S. and M.S. degrees in Speech Pathology and Audiology from Eastern New Mexico University and her Ph.D. in the same field at University of Iowa. Her areas of specialization are child development, language acquisition and reading. Dr. Brown and her husband Dr. Zimmerman founded Foundations in Learning in 2009 and developed Access Code – a blended, online intervention for struggling readers in elementary and middle school, and iASK, the accompanying screener and diagnostic tool.
Follow Dr. Carolyn Brown on Twitter @DrCarolynBrown
About Jennifer Abramson, M.Ed.
Jennifer (Jenn) Abramson currently serves as the Secondary ELA Coordinator for Leander ISD. Jenn spent ten years writing alongside her favorite people - 8th graders! She continues to grow her own craft as a teacher-consultant with the Heart of TX Writing Project. Jenn graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Texas at Austin and received her M.Ed. in Educational Administration from Concordia University.
Follow Jenn Abramson on Twitter @jennabramson