Talking Ed: SMU Experts Connecting Science and Practice
Bite for Bite

Experts talk about Importance of literacy

David Clemons:

David Clemons was 47 years old before he learned how to read with the help of the Washington Literacy Council in Washington D.C. He now works as a Student Support Coordinator for the organization and speaks nationally about literacy. We caught up with him at the conference “Plain Talk About Reading” sponsored by SMU’s Institute for Reading Research and the Center for Development and Learning in Covington, La.

Why didn’t you learn to read as a child?

As a kid, I grew up in a house in a little town in South Carolina with three brothers and two sisters. We lived very poorly. My father was an alcoholic, and he would deprive us of the nicer things in life, including a good meal. My mom had to get the neighbors to read the mail because there was no one in the house who could read it, and I was the youngest of six. One of the reasons was that, back then, there was a lot of sharecropping. At certain times of the year, there might be only five kids in a classroom because kids were out picking cotton. 

Did you get the chance to go to school?

Yes, but I wasn’t learning anything. Other kids could do something I couldn’t do, and that’s read and write. So I had to find something they couldn’t do, and that was be tough. That means I stayed in trouble and would have to go to the principal’s office a lot, and he’d beat me with a leather strap. I got a lot of those beatings because I was unruly, but I was unruly because I couldn’t read.

Eventually, your mother sent you away to live with your brother in Washington D.C., and it was there that you say you became a gang leader. Explain how that happened.

At the school there, I was put in special ed, and special ed back then was designed to put people who weren’t learning out of the way so that others could learn. All the kids at school knew me. They knew I was rough and tough, and I didn’t know how to read. I started doing more fighting because kids made fun of me. I wouldn’t have been that way if I could have done what I wanted to do in the classroom.

You ended up dropping out of school at 15 and didn’t learn how to read until you went to the Washington Literacy Council more than three decades later. What made the difference there?

I learned that letters have sounds to them. I knew my ABCs as a kid, but I didn’t know they had sounds to them. It was right in front of me all along, but no one showed it to me. After I walked out of the first lesson, I knew I could learn to read.  And something else happened. My tutor told me I was dyslexic, and I liked being dyslexic because it was better than being some other things I thought I was ญญญ- like stupid and dumb.

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The Preparation of Teachers for 21st Century Education:
Challenges, Opportunities and Accountability

As Executive Vice President for Research and Evaluation at Dallas-based Best Associates and Whitney University, G. Reid Lyon oversees the development and implementation of teacher preparation programs that are based on converging scientific evidence and have as their sole purpose the improvement of student achievement and the closing of achievement gaps.  We asked him to tell us more about the link between teacher preparation and student performance and achievement.

You stress the importance of using scientific methods when training teachers. Why is that so important?

We can’t count on any one person to be the end-all and be-all for kids. We can’t rely on people who are very charismatic. We have to be educational consumers and be sure that what we are providing in the classroom has some meat to it. We have to distinguish between programs that have good solid evidence and those that haven’t been tested.

What are some of the obstacles to applying the current research in the classroom?

On the average, professors update lectures every three years. Texts are only revised every six to eight years. The point is that a lot of obsolete content characterizes what our teachers in training are learning. We give them old stuff and tell them to employ it using obsolete methodology. We’re doing very good research, but no one is using it. Research is only as good as its implementation in teacher development, but people aren’t using what works. There’s a lot of resistance to science in the face of massive failure rates among students. The question, is how do you take all the research and put it into the big black hole? It’s us that stand between success and failure.

You have served as an advisor on education research policies to President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. What recommendations have you made for changing the trends you just described?

When people say something is research-based, it’s important to know if it really is. The only way we can tell if the program brings about improvement in the students that we’re teaching is by using the right research design and methods to determine effectiveness. And we have to be sure we can replicate the findings.  Then you have to deliver that information to the teachers in a highly consistent and evidence-based way.  But ultimately, everything’s about student improvement. If we don’t have that, we’re not doing it right.

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Sandra Johnson:
How learning to read changed her life

Sandra Johnson also learned to read as an adult with the help of the Washington Literacy Council. It was there that she met Linda Farrell, a volunteer tutor who taught her how to read using Scientifically Based Reading Research (SBRR) methods. Today, Linda is a nationally renowned expert on assessing and teaching beginning and struggling readers and often asks Sandra to speak at her workshops. We asked Sandra to tell us how her life has changed since she learned to read.

 You have worked at a Washington D. C. area hospital for more than 18 years, but for much of that time, you didn’t know how to read. Tell us how you managed to keep that a secret for so many years.

 I remember my first day on the job there.  When I came to work, they gave me a schedule that you had to read, and I didn’t have a clue how to get things done. But since I was new, they put me with someone who had been there and could show me what to do. And even though I was very shy, I also went to everyone who worked on every floor and introduced myself and talked to them about their jobs. There were nine floors, so I had to talk to a lot of people  --- so when they gave me the paper the next time, I knew what to do.

But there were challenges outside of work too, weren’t there? How did you cope?

Yes, I remember going to a doctor’s appointment and knowing that I wouldn’t be able to fill out the forms that they gave me.  So I put an ace bandage around my left hand --- and I’m left-handed. I wrapped it up like I had hurt my hand and when they gave me the forms, I said, “Would you please read it to me and help me fill it out, because I can’t use my hand.” I did that kind of thing until I was in my 20s.

When did things start to change for you?

 I saw a commercial on the Washington Literacy Council, but it took me two years to actually call that number because it’s hard to tell someone you can’t read. They look at you kind of different. But the first tutor that I got would meet me once a week for about an hour.  She’d give me the book, tell me what she wanted me to do, and that was it. And I didn’t have a clue. That lasted about two months, and I continued to go even though I wasn’t learning. But after awhile she stopped coming. After the third time that she didn’t show up, I thought maybe reading wasn’t meant for me.   It took about two years before I decided to go back, but then I met Linda and everything changed.

Now you’re working on another accomplishment. Tell us about it.

 Once I learned how to read, I went to Booker T. Washington High School to work on my G.E.D. because, even though I could read, there was so much that I didn’t learn in school that I had to go back and learn. In my third year, I finally passed the practice test. I still haven’t passed the actual GED, but every time I go, my score gets a little higher and last year I scored a 2110. You need a 2250 to pass, so I’m just 140 points away from passing the actual G.E.D. test.

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