The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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November 24, 2012

Professor, Capstone take literacy in a new direction

NORTH MANKATO — The common term for a reading disability is dyslexia, which used to be thought of as a person who transposes letters, words or phrases.

Actually, dyslexia is a broad term encompassing a range of impairments in fluency and comprehension, among other areas — “an inability to learn to read that is of unknown origin,” said Andy Johnson, a professor of literacy at Minnesota State University. The issue is so complex — and so egregiously under-addressed, says Johnson — that he has literally begun to write a book on the subject.

He’s also developed his own program for dealing with severe reading disabilities, which he and volunteers have begun to address on the local level through the founding of the Capstone Literacy Center, based at Capstone Publishing in North Mankato.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” Johnson said, adding that his No. 1 rule is, “Thou shall not frustrate students.”

Big problem, few solutions

From Census data, Johnson estimates there are about 2,000 adults and 350 children in the Mankato community with severe reading disabilities. One reason, he said, is that the general focus when teaching reading is on phonics, or sounding out words.

Johnson, who has taught literacy at MSU for 17 years, began thinking about the idea for the literacy center in May 2011 while on sabbatical. He was tutoring kids, one of whom had a severe reading disability.

“I realized I didn’t know what to do,” Johnson said.

Johnson began researching literacy methods for severe reading disabilities and couldn’t find much. After delving into research in cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience, eye movement and brain imaging, he realized what that student and numerous others need is “holistic”  literacy instruction, with a focus on phonics, syntax and semantics.

“Reading is not sounding out words; reading is creating meaning with print,” Johnson wrote about the approach.

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