Reporter’s Notebook

May 14, 2003 3 min read

Literacy Needs Drive Teachers to Confab

Budget cuts and travel restrictions placed on school personnel did not dissuade more than 18,000 reading teachers and experts from around the world from meeting here last week for the 48th annual conference of the International Reading Association.

The turnout, organizers said, reflected the urgency among reading professionals to find better ways to meet the literacy needs of all children.

“Teaching reading requires a lifelong professional- development process, and that’s the reason we still have people coming in large numbers,” said Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the Newark, Del.-based organization. “Literacy and reading are such key topics right now that teachers need to network with colleagues and know what the policy issues are that affect them.”

Participants at the May 4-8 event heard from top researchers and experts in the field in more than 600 sessions at the Orange County Convention Center.

One session featuring researchers from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the division of the National Institutes of Health that has been influential in shaping the federal Reading First legislation, was popular among teachers and teacher-trainers looking for insight into translating research into practice.

With about 500 attendees for the session, conference organizers had to move the gathering to a larger room before the parade of scholars presented the details of their studies based on urban districts around the country.

Some of the conclusions and recommendations offered by researchers, such as the value of highly qualified teachers to learning, were not news to many teachers. But their message reinforced for some educators the importance of understanding what research says about effective practice.

“It’s always important to have a theoretical base and research foundation for what you do in the classroom,” said Lynne Dorfman, a literacy coach for the Upper Morland, Pa., school district. “But it’s important to take any study with a grain of salt because I have to meet the needs of all my students, not just the ones who are having trouble reading.”

The International Reading Association has tended to target its resources primarily at K-12 education in its half-century history. Now, association officials are aiming to launch initiatives to address the development of early- literacy skills among preschoolers.

As she took the helm as IRA president last week, Lesley Mandel Morrow, a professor of reading at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., said the organization would initiate the development of standards, a book series for nurturing early reading and oral-language skills in children, and a task force for pushing stronger policies for improving pre-K literacy instruction.

Children who do not have early experiences with books and discussion are the most likely to fail academically later on, Ms. Morrow said. “By age 3, their fate is sealed, and those children are likely to have lifelong struggles with school.”

The organization plans to partner with family-literacy experts to get the word out on the important role that parents play as children’s first teachers.

The marketplace set up in the convention center was like a toy store for teachers. They came here equipped with canvas bags, suitcases, and even wheeled plastic crates to hold their troves of free treasures: alphabet posters, buttons, and little readers. Many also planned to spend their own money to buy books and materials for their classrooms.

Pam Barnette, a 1st grade teacher at Friendship Elementary School in Volusia County, Fla., was out to buy storybooks with matching picture and word cards, and magnetic blocks with letters and letter blends to help students sound out words.

She said she gave herself a $200 budget for instructional materials. As she and her colleagues strolled through the hall with crates in tow, she realized she had already met her limit. And it wasn’t even lunchtime.

—Kathleen Kennedy Manzo