As the country’s increasingly diverse, crowded, cash-strapped schools look for ways to help teachers bolster students’ literacy skills, school districts in every state are turning to the work of two University of Nevada, Reno professors for help.
“They won’t tell you this, but Dr. Bear and Dr. Templeton are world-renown; they are considered the gurus in the literacy field,” said Nevada doctoral student J-Lynn Van Pelt, who was a struggling eighth-grade literacy teacher in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area when she found the work of Donald Bear and Shane Templeton, Words Their Way, a textbook and series of materials on teaching phonics, vocabulary and spelling.
“Many of my eighth-graders were at a second- or third-grade reading level,” Van Pelt said. “I was trying to teach them to read with Shakespeare and Chaucer. I was not prepared for teaching literacy in a diverse, urban environment, so I started looking for interventions and ways I could help these students. I found Words Their Way and started implementing it in the classroom, and started seeing huge gains.”
Van Pelt’s passion to help large, diverse, urban school districts tackle literacy led her to pursue her doctorate at Nevada, where she could work with “the gurus,” Donald Bear and Shane Templeton in Nevada’s College of Education. Bear, professor of educational specialties and director of the University’s E.L. Cord Foundation Center for Learning and Literacy, is lead author of the Words Their Way textbook, which Bear says is also now used by most colleges to teach future teachers. Nevada colleague Professor Shane Templeton, University of Virginia Professor Marcia Invernizzi and University of North Carolina-Greensboro Professor Francine Johnston are co-authors of the popular series.
Helping local schoolchildren and aspiring teachers
While completing her doctorate, Van Pelt is working side-by-side with Bear at the Literacy Center’s on-campus tutoring program based on Words Their Way, which serves local schoolchildren up to the eighth grade. Graduate and doctoral students, such as Van Pelt, supervise and work with upper-division undergraduate students in the College of Education who are completing their coursework, to tutor the local children.
“The growth that we see each semester by both the K-8 students who are taught at the clinic and by the pre-service teachers (undergraduate students) is incredible,” Van Pelt said. “I’ve been teaching for 10 years and this is one of the harder jobs I have ever had, but it is one of the most rewarding because of the visible growth that we see each and every semester.”
Janice Ackerman, mother of 9-year-old Collin, says she has seen great improvement since Collin has been attending the tutoring program.
“He’s almost caught up. Some days he really surprises me with the words he’s able to figure out. And, he’s doing well in spelling now. One thing I really like about the Center is that it’s not just reading – but it’s the writing they do also.”
According to Bear, the Words Their Way program incorporates five activities: read to students, read with students, write with students, word study, and talk with students.
“It’s an active way of learning,” he said, “based on the child’s development. The most important thing is to be mindful of the student’s development and to teach to it. And, we always try to keep it fun.”
Janice says that Collin enjoys the tutoring sessions – “He’s in the car waiting for me before it’s time. He loves going.”
Reading Buddies – reaching out to local schools
For students who can’t come to sessions at the Center, Bear works closely with schools and school districts to help them incorporate the program into their classrooms. And, the Literacy Center is providing the tutoring program on-site at three local elementary schools, Elmcrest, Peavine and Sierra Vista, in a program called “Reading Buddies,” which is flexible and customized to meet the goals of the teachers and principals at each school.
Bear is also currently working with 40 ESL teachers in Washoe County to help them incorporate Words Their Way. But, it’s not just Washoe County schools benefitting from the Center. Bear says that all districts in Nevada use Words Their Way in some way. He and Templeton spend much of their time helping school districts throughout the state, and the country, incorporate the Words Their Way style of teaching phonics, vocabulary and spelling to improve literacy.
The E.L. Cord Foundation Center for Learning and Literacy is part of the College of Education, housed in the William J. Raggio Building, at the University of Nevada, Reno. The Center’s mission is to improve literacy instruction in Nevada through teacher education, and to provide literacy services to children and adults in northern Nevada. The fourth edition of Words Their Way is available now, with a fifth edition in production. The second edition of Words Their Way with English Learners will be published next month. For more information on the Center or Words Their Way, call (775) 784-4951.