To fit into recent state and federal educational reform efforts, Iowa State’s newly created School of Education has a new focus: early childhood literacy.

The School of Education’s new director, Ralph Reynolds, hopes to improve literacy rates by “adding senior faculty.” 

This new faculty will instruct students to focus on “reading and literature, STEM, educational policy, and social context areas.” STEM stands for the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

“We have such eminent scholars in our faculty,” Reynolds said. “It’s important to realize that faculty makes the difference. Faculty teaches the programs.”

One of these new faculty members is Donald Bear, professor in the School of Education as well as a director of the Duffelmeyer Reading Clinic. 

He explained why early childhood literacy is important to Pre-K through third grade students.

“All of the vocabulary you get from middle school on, you get from reading,” Bear said. “You have to be able to read to be able to be a mathematician. The way you learn to think like a scientist is to read like a scientist.”

About 16 percent of children who are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade do not graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than that of proficient readers, according to a study supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Center for Demographic Analysis.

According to a National Kids Count Program study, 67 percent of Iowa’s fourth graders are below-proficient readers, which is slightly better than the national average of 68 percent.

There are multiple ways to identify children who may need help, as well as many ways to help them improve their reading skills.

“Some children have trouble learning how to track print, just being able to memorize a text,” Bear said. “If a child cannot point a finger while she reads, that could mean a delay in phonics learning. We also want to know what children have oral language delays, because children who have oral language delays usually have problems with early literacy skills.”

Another necessity is for children to understand “Concept of Word.” This means that a child can match a written word to a spoken word.

One easy way to help avoid literacy problems is by parents “just talking to their kids,” as Bear pointed out.

“We want parents to read to their kids at home,” Bear said. “We show our students how to involve families in literacy activities. The earlier we get to the kids, the better.”

“We’ve seen in the research that nearly everyone can be taught to read well,” Bear said. “Very few children have neurological problems that will keep them from reading. Even special education kids can learn how to read very well if you give them the right form of instruction with the right form of intensity.”

While this solution may not appear to help the children now, in a few years the students learning at Iowa State will begin teaching their young students how important literacy is.

“This is a long-term solution, not a short-term solution,” Reynolds said.

Iowa State is still helping students in the surrounding area, however.

“Our university students learn from tutoring [others], and it’s a good part of our research as well, so we can educate our Iowa State students at the same time we educate the community,” Reynold said.

Even though the new focus is early literacy, other subjects will not be overlooked.

“To emphasize something, it’s not a zero-sum game,” Reynolds said. “We don’t have to de-emphasize something else. Our goal is to create the best teachers in the state of Iowa.”

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