In an effort to help teachers be more effective at teaching reading as well as identifying children who may have dyslexia, the New Mexico State University College of Education has launched a Read to Succeed concentration in the Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders.
The specialized concentration, initially to be funded by President’s Performance funds at NMSU, involves five graduate courses for students pursing a master’s in special education or for community teachers wanting to increase their skill set. The program also includes a practicum for students to spend time in the field working with children and a free community workshop series scheduled to start later this year.
“The project will allow the department to train teachers in the area of reading disabilities and to impact the reading scores of students in New Mexico in a positive way, said Marlene Salas-Provance, department head, who wrote the proposal for the program with department faculty Deborah Rhein and Victoria White. “This puts NMSU in the forefront of programs providing cutting-edge teaching training and practices, outreach to students in schools and research in the area of reading disabilities.”
The program launched this spring with two eight-week, on-line courses offered during the university’s mini-semester. Antonio Fierro, a national expert in reading disabilities and a new assistant professor in the SPED/CD department, is coordinating the program and teaching the first two courses.
“We were thrilled to find someone with Dr. Fierro’s background to lead this effort,” Salas-Provance said. “Reading and writing are linguistic skills and dyslexia is a language-based disability. We have really merged our two fields of study – special education and communication disorders – to offer this program for the benefit of teachers and children.”
“Teaching children to read is an extremely difficult task,” Fierro said. “We underestimate it, but it is one of the most difficult tasks we undertake as human beings. Language is natural, but literacy is not. Children need to be taught to read.”
Fierro, a former kindergarten teacher, school administrator and researcher, said teachers need to be true experts in language development.
For seven years, Fierro has been part of the research team of Louisa Moats, vice president of the International Dyslexia Association, who specializes in the implementation of school-wide interventions for improving literacy.
“Being mentored by such an expert in reading is an honor,” Fierro said. “I want to share that expertise with teachers in the field.”
Fierro said his work has given him exposure to state education departments and he is keeping those departments aware of this new program.
“Many kids are struggling readers in New Mexico and we need to fix that, as well as train teachers to identify children who may be dyslexic,” he said. “Children with dyslexia need precise instruction and more training.”
Dyslexia literally means having difficulty with words – it is not a visual problem, it is a language-based problem. In dyslexia, certain areas of the brain have trouble figuring out connections between the sounds we use to make words and the letters that represent those sounds, Fierro said.
There are about 2.4 million children in the U.S. with learning disabilities; about 85 percent of those children have dyslexia. With almost 25,000 students in the Las Cruces schools, it is possible that 4,000 have symptoms of dyslexia.
“This is why teachers need to understand how a child develops language and literacy and how to teach reading as well as recognize those who are having difficulty,” Fierro said. “We want to develop a program to meet the highest standards possible.”