The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 24, 2012

Professor, Capstone take literacy in a new direction

By Amanda Dyslin
Free Press Staff Writer

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.

Johnson said the three primary causes of reading disabilities are deficits in comprehension, fluency and word identification. So when students come into the center, a diagnostic assessment, including listening to the child read, lets Johnson know how to specifically tailor instruction to that child, he said.

Johnson piloted the program with two students. He said one made gains over the course of a few weeks. But learning to read with a severe disability takes “baby steps,” he said.

“It’s like learning to play the piano,” he said.

A new approach

Shortly after, Johnson approached Bob Coughlan of Coughlan Companies, who was eager to help. Coughlan donated use of myON Reader, a digital program that gives students access to thousands of “high/low” books online (high interest, low readability). The company also donated use of office space at Capstone. (Capstone’s parent company is Coughlan Companies.)

The official nine-week pilot study over the summer this year for Capstone Literacy Center included 14 students who read a total of 459 books. With 24-hour access to the online books, the children could read whenever they had free time, said Maryellen Coughlan, director of new initiatives for Capstone.

“As an ex-teacher, I was stunned by the number of books these students read,” Maryellen Coughlan said. “I’m sure you know that kids don’t generally like to read during the summer, so getting these struggling readers to sit down and find pleasure in reading is a sure way to get their skills to improve.”

At the end of the study, Johnson said students showed improvement in comprehension, fluency and Lexile scores (an educational tool that measures reading levels), Johnson reported.

Maryellen Coughlan said Johnson is passionate, and he’s a fun teacher for the students, which helps to engage them.

“He gets the kids,” she said.

The literacy center uses a number of techniques, and word identification is key.

For example, Johnson will have a student write a paragraph about some facet of his or her life. The student knows the words on the page because he or she wrote them. The words are associated with a recognizable context, because they are about the child’s life.

So as the student reads, he or she is not sounding out the words, he or she is remembering the words from experience, which is how people read, Johnson said.

“The one thing that works the best is language experience,” he said. “We’re using our background knowledge to understand the word.”

Johnson also avoids phonics-focused sentences and books. A child can’t draw on real-life experience or context with a sentence such as “Dan the man sat on a fan,” he said.

Moving forward

Johnson said he sees a lot of “second-generation” students, kids whose parents also have severe reading disabilities.

“They don’t want their kids to go through what they went through,” Johnson said.

The devastation for the reading disabled can be far-reaching, he said. A lack of reading skills can affect comprehension of all other subjects in school and can be a profound “economic barrier” for adults.

As such, Capstone Literacy Center is aimed at first-graders through adults, Johnson said. There is no cost for the instruction.

Fall term, there are 13 students being served at the Capstone office in North Mankato by Johnson and trained volunteers. Through a partnership with the St. Clair school district and volunteers, 14 students are being served in St. Clair. Both places have a waiting list, Johnson said.

Johnson is as frustrated as he is excited about the possibilities of the center, he said. He needs space, he needs volunteers and he needs funds to expand.

“I really need to be in the schools,” he said.