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Sun Valley Early Literacy Summit Touts the Science of Reading
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Judi Dodson challenges teachers to tell her what the symbols on the screen mean as part of an exercise meant to build empathy for struggling readers.
   
Thursday, June 20, 2024
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

Eighty teachers stared at the screen at the front of the Community Library’s lecture hall, trying to make sense out of an array of unfamiliar characters.

One of the symbols, which evoked thoughts of Egyptian hieroglyphics or iconographs, looked like a birthday present, a bow on top. Another could have been construed as an ice cream cone. Others resembled a rainbow, diamond, arrow with a crossbow and a sun with four rays. Strung together, they  made a paragraph.

Some of the teachers enrolled in the Sun Valley Early Literacy Summit caught on readily, quickly able to give meaning to the characters. Others struggled. And that was the point.

 
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Keri Paradis of Syringa Mountain School and Kelly Maxwell and Star Neely of Alturas Elementary School were among Wood River Valley teachers attending the Sun Valley Early Literary Summit.
 

“We’re putting you in the shoes of child who struggles to read,” said Judi Dodson, a national literacy consultant and special education teacher. “There are direct correlations between the struggle to read and suicidal ideation. Some children need more repetitions, some less. How did you feel? What strategies did you use to compensate?”

“I had anxiety,” replied one teacher.

“I looked around at others writing and I felt I was less than,” said another.

“One thing we do not want is children on our watch feeling less than,” replied Dodson.

 
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Desi Ballis attended the first Sun Valley Literacy Summit and now helps facilitate it. “There’s a misconception that reading is natural. Reading is a manmade thing. A complex thing in the brain that has to happen in order to learn to read,” she said.
 

The third annual Sun Valley Early Literacy Summit held this past week at The Community Library brought together teachers from the Wood River Valley, as well as teachers from places like Malta, Leodore, Nampa and Castleford, to learn about the science of reading.

Over four days they learned of the latest research showing how the brain learns to read, the phases of word recognition, principles that govern spelling and instructional activities supported by the science.

About 43 percent of Idaho students don’t read at grade level, according to the Idaho State Department of Education’s 2023 Idaho Reading indicator. Not being able to read at proficient level impacts all of a child’s learning in the future. Teaching a child to read changes their trajectory, said Dr. Sally Brown, associate professor at the University of Idaho.

“We’re not born understanding that these marks on the page are supposed to represent something,”  said Dr. Carol Tolman, a teacher who has authored and co-authored multiple books. “The neurons of the brain need to be taught to work together to say, ‘Oh, yes, when I see that, it means …’ ”

 
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El Paso’s Dr. Antonio Fierro, a national consultant on reading, in particular Spanish-speaking English language learners, stands among the many marking pens given to the teachers, who often must purchase their own.
 

The teachers were armed with a towering stack of books, including “The Reading Comprehension Blueprint, “50 Nifty Activities for Reading and Literacy Foundations for English Learners” and “Speech to Print,” which was written by Dr. Louisa Moats who lives in the Wood River Valley and is considered one of the leaders in the science of reading movement. She helped launch the Sun Valley Early Literacy Summit.

“We started this because we saw that reading is fundamental to a library’s mission. And we’re unique because we’re centrally located in a place that people like to come to. And we have one of the imminent literary scholars in the nation who lives here who could map out what the needs are and connect us to the scholars,” said Jenny Emery Davidson, who was an educator before becoming director of The Community Library. “It’s been so inspiring to hear from teachers who have taken it in the past—one told how she had a student who only read three words when entering kindergarten and knew 93 by the end, thanks to the science of reading techniques.”

Dodson told the teachers that she had a Master’s in dance but turned to teaching because she needed a job: “Now my why is social justice. I’m a literacy specialist because I believe reading opens the doors.”

MRIs and other tools have helped researchers map the brain to learn that there are four different parts of the brain involved in reading. One on the back of the brain governs letter or word recognition--the ability to look at a word and sound it out. Language comprehension sits at the bottom of the brain.

 
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The Sound Spelling Wall shows how the tongues of English speakers hits the top of the mouth while those of Spanish speakers hit teeth, all of which makes a difference when it comes to sounding out letters during the early stages of reading.
 

Dyslexic adults and children understand language but they can’t recognize it.

The first step is decoding—taking a symbol and applying the sound to it to figure out what it is. With MRIs, you can see an area of the brain growing with instruction, Dodson said.

“Instruction changes the brain so you all are neurosurgeons!” she told the teachers.

Learned words are consolidated in a Visual Word Form area of the brain.

“Once it gets in there, it’s stored permanently,” said Dodson. “Tell students to try not to read ‘Stop’ and other signs on the way home. They can’t do it. Once it’s stored, you can’t undo it.”

Tolman stressed the value of talking to infants and toddlers as she told of her kindergarten granddaughter, who easily conversed with such words as “cardigan.”

“Hearing words gives children a jumpstart. If she had not heard that word, she would have had to sound it out and try to figure out what it meant.”

Kelly Maxwell, a teacher at Alturas Elementary School, said she learned little of this information during her first stint at college in the 1990s. It’s gotten more attention in the 21st century.

“It totally makes sense,” she said. “We’re incredibly fortunate to have this conference in Sun Valley. “

“The way reading has been taught doesn’t work as well and reading scores reflect that,” said Dodson. “There’s been a big shift over the past few years in how we teach reading and we’re beginning to reap the rewards from that.”

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