Experts talk about Importance of literacy
LEARNING TO READ AS AN ADULT: MY STORY
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,
Why didn’t you learn to read as a
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
Did you get the chance to go to
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
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
Challenges, Opportunities and
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
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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
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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