CSB and SJU education department is honored for reading program

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April 23, 2020

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Madey Israelson teaches her Reading, Writing and Language Growth, K-6 class in October. The class aims to prepare CSB/SJU students for the challenges of teaching reading in elementary classrooms.
Photo by Tommy O’Laughlin ’13.

Madey Israelson knows teaching reading to elementary school students is a challenge.

“Many of us remember singing the ABC song and sounding out words when we learned to read. Teaching reading is actually far more complex, and literacy is the foundation for not only learning, but for fully participating in society,” said Israelson, an assistant professor of education at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University who is the department’s elementary literacy specialist.

Israelson teaches Reading, Writing and Language Growth, K-6 (EDUC 347), a class that aims to prepare CSB/SJU students for the challenges of teaching reading in elementary classrooms. Since Israelson arrived on campus in 2015 she has revised the elementary literacy class, incorporating the latest research and equipping future teachers with evidence-based teaching practices.

Those efforts are paying off. In late January, the National Council on Teacher Quality awarded the CSB and SJU reading program an “A” rating – one of six undergraduate programs in Minnesota to earn this distinction in the 2020 Teacher Prep Review.

“At its core, the reading program seeks to provide preservice teachers with the tools that are needed to foster a love of reading amongst students,” said Lauren Koller, a 2018 graduate of CSB who is teaching sixth grade language arts at Central Middle School in Plymouth, Minnesota. “The central focus of this program is illuminating the pathway for students to become lifelong readers.”

“Students and parents seem to be enjoying this method of teaching,” said Bailey Fowler, a 2018 CSB graduate who teaches language arts for sixth graders at Grandview Middle School in Mound, Minnesota. “There has been significant growth, and that doesn’t go unnoticed. Students love coming to language arts class because they feel challenged and pushed, but also successful.”

What is this method all about?

The course CSB/SJU education majors take is grounded in the findings of the National Reading Panel Report and subsequent research in the field of literacy education and begins with a focus on six literacy learning essentials:

Phonemic Awareness. Put simply, it’s the ability to manipulate individual sounds within words.

“When kids are developing phonemic awareness, they aren’t necessarily even looking at printed words or letters, it’s all about sound,” Israelson said. “Oral language is something I emphasize in this program, because that is especially critical to early reading, and oral language goes hand-in-hand with phonemic awareness.”

Phonics “is when you get the letters involved and you teach students strategies for applying their knowledge of letters and sounds and spelling to recognize and read the printed words they see on the page,” Israelson said. “That gets increasingly complex as students develop as readers and are learning to read harder words.”

Fluency is “reading at a comfortable rate, recognizing the words on the page and reading them accurately,” Israelson said. “Our goal with fluency is to get students to reach ‘automaticity’ - the ability to instantly recognize words on a page without having to sound them out; if a reader is only thinking about sounding out words, they don’t have any attentional resources left for comprehension – that is thinking about what the text means.”

Comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading instruction, Israelson said. “To be successful in any class on our campus, you have to be a reader with a set of comprehension skills that you can draw on to understand whatever your professor asks you to read. Phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, these are all so important because they enable the reader to successfully comprehend.”

Vocabulary and writing are also studied as literacy essentials.

“Motivation is a really important piece that’s a unique addition to the way this course is taught, because often motivation is left out of the conversation,” Israelson said. “For a lot of elementary students, as they get older we see a significant decline in their motivation to read.”

Future teachers learn how to select texts that will engage their elementary students. One particularly powerful strategy for this is facilitating self-identification with books.

“Creating lifelong readers means getting our students excited about reading. How do we do that? The first step is introducing students to books with relatable characters,” Koller said. “I now approach books with the lens of, ‘Will students be able to see themselves in the text? Are they represented? Is this a story that they can relate to?’ ”

After teaching the six literacy essentials, Israelson turns to how to teach literacy. The future teachers are assigned to a practicum experience in a local elementary school and conduct literacy assessments with elementary students.

“They bring their data back to campus and we spend several days analyzing that data, figuring out what elementary students are able to do, and what they are struggling with,” Israelson said. “Once they know who their students are as readers, they are able to plan differentiated, data-driven lessons. They go out and teach elementary-age students and they film themselves teaching.

“They bring back video footage and we share videos which gives them the opportunity to give each other feedback on their teaching,” Israelson said.

Alumnae/i have taken what they learned and applied their teaching skills in their jobs, leading to improved results in actual classrooms.

“We do oral reading fluency checks about four times a year, and students’ scores continue to climb,” Fowler said. “Their reading comprehension has flourished. I have students that at the beginning of the year were reading at about a second-grade level, and now they are where they need to be as sixth graders.”

“It’s also helped them in other disciplines, such as science, math, social studies and music. Students’ reading comprehension directly affects all other subjects in school,” Fowler said.

Koller has also noticed an improvement in reading skills among the 120 students she teaches.

“Differentiating reading instruction has helped build my students’ self-confidence,” Koller said. “Toward the beginning of the year, I often hear my students make remarks such as, ‘I hate reading’ and ‘reading is something that I am never going to be good at.’”

“My ultimate goal in the field has been to change that dialogue in my students’ heads. When the content is scaffolded to each student’s level, it helps create an atmosphere where students feel less overwhelmed and stressed. Students are set up for success when they feel appropriately challenged. When spring conferences roll around, the feedback provided by parents often share common themes – such as increases in confidence, motivation and performance,” Koller said.

All of which makes Israelson one happy professor.

“It’s a rewarding class to teach. It’s exciting to see the growth in the future teachers from the beginning of the semester to the end,” Israelson said. “When they’re sharing their teaching videos, having these collegial conversations, they’re drawing on the professional knowledge they’ve built.

“It’s one of my favorite days each semester, the future teachers sound like confident practitioners who have been teaching for years!” Israelson said. “Our CSB/SJU students go out into their own classrooms ready to meet the challenge of teaching young children to read!”