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Faculty

Literacy Specialist program empowers teachers and students

Education

“It’s revolutionary. It opens you up to a world of possibility” 

Being able to read and write seem to be among the most elementary of skills—but there is so much more to literacy than the ability to sound out a word on a screen or sign your name to a paper. In fact, some kinds of literacy engage students in many different ways, and from their earliest days. 

To address all the various aspects of what goes into literacy—from the cognitive to the cultural—Bellarmine University’s Master of Arts in Education (MAEd) Literacy Specialist program helps educators at all stages of their career deepen their knowledge of literacy practices—and, upon passing of the state Praxis exam in the content area, earn a K–12 literacy endorsement that they can use at any level. 

Anyone working to build their content knowledge, to go deep and be able to lead in that way, could go through the program and provide support for their school’s literacy coach or literacy interventionist. 

 

“Ultimately, every subject content has text that needs to be read. Even math. If a student struggles with reading, they can’t access words on the page,” says Dr. Mary Ann Cahill, associate professor of literacy. “Think about how much more information you will have, how much more enlightened you can be, if you can read.” 

As literacy is a lifelong skill, the program has potential to appeal to educators at any point in their journey. “For new teachers—those in their first three years—this is a really good way to start connecting and getting support by being plugged into a community while you’re working to bring literacy into your classroom,” says Cahill’s colleague and fellow assistant professor of literacy, Dr. Winn Wheeler. “Or, for more established teachers [such as those already holding a master’s degree or looking to pursue a Rank I], it is a reinvigoration, with practices you may not have used in your classroom. It’s an opportunity for learning, growing and evolving.” 

“You learn how to be a leader in an area of literacy, such as a reading specialist or coach, or a literacy interventionist.“

“I think any practicing teacher who wants to know more about how to help struggling readers in their classes would be interested in this program, or how to develop second-language learners in the classroom,” says Cahill. “You learn how to be a leader in an area of literacy, such as a reading specialist or coach, or a literacy interventionist.” Literacy education is not just for teachers of young children, either. Wheeler adds that even principals and administrators—and all whose lives they touch—could benefit: “Anyone working to build their content knowledge, to go deep and be able to lead in that way, could go through the program and provide support for their school’s literacy coach or literacy interventionist. Having that [leadership] at school will develop classroom support of literacy development and a knowledge base for the larger community.”

Cahill points out that there is more to reading than, well, A-B-C. “There’s phonological awareness, which is important in beginning to read. Phonics is really quite technical. Fluency and vocabulary, too, are so important in comprehension. We go deeply into all those as concepts, [including] assessment and diagnosis. We explore all aspects of literacy.” Wheeler agrees, as she brings a holistic perspective to those aspects as they are found out in the world—as close as the students’ homes. “I think it’s important to understand and honor the different kinds of literacy students bring—oral traditions, music, church and digital sources,” she says. “Literacy specialists understand what is brought to the table, and they understand the many ways of knowing. It’s a shift we’re making—not just the development of skills; literacy is happening in this context.”

”We engage with culturally sustaining pedagogy and think about how that works with literacy development.”

 

Unfortunately, that is not necessarily recognized in school, and so there is an urgent need for educators to understand the array of literacy typologies. “Literacy instruction builds upon oral language structure,” says Wheeler. “Reading and writing don’t exist in a vacuum, but a context. Singing, rap—those are forms of [linguistic] expression. How do we recognize that in the classroom, and how can we build on that? We engage with culturally sustaining pedagogy and think about how that works with literacy development.” 

Cahill, who has worked with struggling readers in Bullitt County and leads the Bellarmine Literacy Project there, acknowledges that cultural norms can have an effect if families do not understand the importance of reading to their children at an early age. “We do what was done to us,” she says. “If you model reading for your child, that’s huge. If you read to your child, you build vocabulary. Instead of trying to catch kids up, it’s better to educate parents—starting in the hospital when they give birth... I want to believe every parent wants what is best for their child,” she says. This holds true even if parents do not understand how to impart even the fundamentals of literacy, but wait until their child goes to school, assuming everything will fall seamlessly into place. “Reading is a very complex process—it’s not a natural one. It takes several cognitive processes to be working at the same time.” Unfortunately, she says, often when a school is “in trouble,” that trouble could be traced back to literacy practices and students who were never taught to read correctly. 

"I really saw the impact of what happens when kids come to middle school struggling with reading and writing; seeing that brought home to me how profoundly early support is needed."

 

For some students, it can take a long time for such a deficiency to be recognized and remedied. “It’s important to support early intervention, and we just can’t give up on middle and high school students,” says Wheeler, who was a middle school literacy coach before coming to Bellarmine. “I really saw the impact of what happens when kids come to middle school struggling with reading and writing; seeing that brought home to me how profoundly early support is needed,” she says. “That’s why it’s important to understand literacy development and the evolution of literacy skills.” Cahill adds, “With constant assessment, you can pull those kids out and give them what they need.”  

Giving the students what they need is only the beginning. “We want literacy to be transformative in the students’ lives,” says Wheeler. 

“I teach literacy because it’s everything,” adds Cahill. “It’s revolutionary. It opens you up to a world of possibility. It’s the key to an educated society.” 

 
 
The Master of Arts in Education in Literacy Specialist program is available to education professionals as a 12-course, 36-hour full-degree sequence. It is completely online and asynchronous. And, for teachers in Jefferson County who had a taste of deep literacy learning through the JCPS Bellarmine Literacy Project, there is good news: Up to four classes (12 hours) in the project have a direct correlation to courses taught in the Literacy Specialist program, allowing BLP veterans to count that coursework toward their degree, saving time and money as they pursue the MAEd. 

Tags: Faculty , Literacy , MAEd , teacher

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Bellarmine University is a vibrant community of educational excellence and ethical awareness that consistently ranks among the nation’s best colleges and universities. Our students pursue an education based in the liberal arts – and in the distinguished, inclusive Catholic tradition of educational excellence, the oldest and most rewarding in the western world. It is a lifelong education, worthy of the university’s namesake, Saint Robert Bellarmine, and of his invitation to each of us to learn and live In Veritatis Amore – in the love of all that is beautiful, true and good in life.