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Preparing Leaders in Literacy

Bethel is positioning itself on the cutting edge of early reading instruction through efforts in the undergraduate education program and through Structured Literacy and the Science of Reading—a graduate-level course debuting this January to equip current and future teachers with the most recent science on reading. And these efforts could carry wide-reaching effects for students.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

November 24, 2020 | 10 a.m.

Abbey Payeur

Associate Professor of Education Abbey Payeur GS’09

Associate Professor of Education Abbey Payeur GS’09 started her teaching career with a passion to help struggling readers. When she taught a sixth-grade language arts class, she thought she knew how to get kids excited about reading. She introduced her students to great literature and tried using their interests to inspire a love of reading. But she struggled. “What I found was there’s just about nothing you can do to get a sixth grader who still isn’t a fluent reader to want to read,” she says. “That’s when I realized I was missing something.”

Today, Payeur is not only better prepared to teach struggling readers, she is also equipping Bethel education students in both undergraduate and graduate programs with the tools to be successful teachers. She and Lisa Silmser, the program director for M.A. in Education K-12 program, developed Structured Literacy and the Science of Reading, a graduate-level course debuting in January. And Payeur is teaching the same concepts to undergraduate education students. This positions Bethel at the forefront of a movement to make sure teachers understand the cognitive science of reading and are then able to implement structured literacy methods to better serve students. “It's exciting that Bethel is on the cutting edge of early reading instruction,” Silmser says.

In the Graduate School, Structured Literacy and the Science of Reading (TEAC601) will be offered as an elective for Bethel’s M.A. in Education K-12 program. Thanks to partnerships with the Minnesota Department of Education, practicing teachers can take it as a standalone course to meet Minnesota mandates for dyslexia preparation. The fully online, six-week course will explore current science on reading, including the Simple View of Reading, the Reading Rope, the Four-Part Processing Model for Word Recognition, structured literacy components, and spelling acquisition. By better understanding how students’ brains work, teachers will be better equipped to engage students in practical ways. They’ll also learn to apply this knowledge in the classroom to guide decisions regarding interventions and curriculum.

“We are super excited, and we know that all kinds of teachers have been searching for this information. How do I reach my students? How do I reach my students with dyslexia? How do I reach my students who are struggling with reading? Teachers are so thirsty for this information.”

— Associate Professor of Education Abbey Payeur GS’09
Payeur was one of the teachers seeking this kind of instruction. Her education training emphasized reading and writing workshops. The idea was that if you gave students time to read and write, they’d develop those skills and become strong readers and writers. “I was actually super passionate about that idea and so were my colleagues,” she says. But the results didn’t match. In fact, Payeur points to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores showing stagnant reading scores since the 1970s. “It just shows that the methods we’re using to teach reading are inadequate,” she says.

Then “At a Loss for Words,” an American Public Media’s audio documentary, brought issues around reading to the forefront, sparking new conversations in the education community. For teachers like Payeur, this outlined the challenges they’d experienced. Soon, Reading Research Quarterly devoted it’s entire September issue to reading science, while American Educator also highlighted the issue. “It has national attention right now,” Payeur says.

This latest movement aims to help educators implement teaching methods that match how the brain learns. Part of the problem has been that the education leaders and education psychology specialists have often been siloed, not sharing ideas and best practices. Thanks to technological advances, scientists can see what’s happening in the brain when someone is reading. Such science equips teachers to blend cognitive science with reading best practices. If teachers know how students’ brains acquire reading skills, they will become more critical consumers of curriculum, Payeur notes. “We know so much more now and that knowledge needs to get to teachers,” she says.

Some students struggle with reading because they have dyslexia or because they weren’t exposed to adequate amounts of oral language as preschoolers. Those students’ brains need explicit instruction to build the processors and strengthen the pathways in the brain to acquire reading at a strong level. While science-driven approaches to reading greatly help students with dyslexia of other challenges, the same tactics apply to all readers—all students benefit if lessons are more systematic in providing students with reading skills. Struggling readers and students with dyslexia are going to crawl through that sequence of skills, while others will walk or run through the same lessons. “It’s the same sequence for everyone,” Payeur says. “It’s just that those who aren’t exposed to literacy as much or those who have the neurological wiring of somebody who’s dyslexic, they need longer time, they need more practice, they need more repetition with it than the typical learner does.”

Silmser and Payeur see improvements in literacy education having wide-reaching effects. Structured literacy methods are important for all students, but Silmser calls it a game-changer for students of color and students in poverty. Socioeconomic factors often play a role in literacy, and then literacy affects much of a students’ education and life. “We know that reading is critical to learning and later success in life, and therefore quality reading instruction is equity work!” Silmser says. “When kids become readers, a world of opportunity opens up to them. Structured literacy provides teachers with tools for reaching every single child in their classroom.” While affluent parents are more likely to secure additional reading help for their children, families that can’t access or afford assistance are often left behind. Strong reading education can better set up all students for success. “We’re really hoping it will help with the achievement gap or the opportunity gap,” Payeur says. “Minnesota, we’re known as a great state for education, but we have one of the largest achievement gaps, which I prefer to call opportunity gaps, between students of color and white students.”

Reading ability is also often tied to behavioral issues. Payeur witnessed this as a teacher because students would rather act out or become the class clown than appear dumb if they’re struggling with reading. “In fourth grade when you can’t read, it starts affecting every subject because you can’t do science or social studies without reading the text that goes with it,” she says. “You can’t do math without reading the instructions for the problem. So it’s just a snowballing issue.”

But Silmser and Payeur are confident educators are moving in the right direction. They see efforts like Structured Literacy and the Science of Reading as promising steps in empowering teachers to give their students the tools for success. “I think that our program offers a great avenue for those who want to be leaders in literacy, whether that’s just a team lead in the school or whether that’s an instructional literacy coach for their district or maybe they want to work in choosing the curriculum for the district. Our program will help those people gain the skills that they need in order to advance their careers,” Payeur says.

And Bethel undergrad students are also being prepared to meet these challenges. “Our undergrads, I’m confident, are going to have the skills so they won’t have to feel that frustration that I did,” Payeur says.

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