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Blanche Podhajski, Ph.D. - Mentor Teacher

By: Blanche Podhajski

Mentor Teacher of the Month talks about research linking professional development for primary classroom teachers, early educators, and childcare providers to children’s future reading success.

Blanche Podhajski

Blanche Podhajski, Ph.D. is the founder and President of the Stern Center for Language and Learning in Williston and White River Junction, Vermont. She is also an Associate Clinical Professor of Neurology at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.

Dr. Podhajski received her undergraduate degree from Boston University in speech and hearing, her masters degree from the University of Vermont in speech pathology, and her doctoral degree from Northwestern University in communication disorders with a specialization in learning disabilities. She is the coauthor of THE SOUNDS ABOUND PROGRAM: Teaching Phonological wareness for the Classroom, and has written and presented numerous papers on language and learning disabilities throughout the country. She has coauthored two recent articles dealing with teacher knowledge and early literacy (“Perceptions and Knowledge of Preservice and Inservice Educators about Early Reading Instruction,” Annals of Dyslexia, Volume 51, 2001; “Promoting Early Literacy Through Professional Development for Childcare Providers,” in preparation).

Frequently Asked Questions

What sparked your interest in learning disabilities?

I began my professional career as a speech and language pathologist, teaching preschool children in a hospital communication disorders program. We seemed to do a good job addressing their early articulation and oral language issues. Several years later, however, many of these same children would return, not necessarily presenting difficulties listening and speaking anymore, but, rather, reading and writing. It was then that my journey to study relationships between our spoken and written language systems began.

Why address literacy through professional development?

Research conducted over the past twenty years has revolutionized the way we think about reading instruction. It has confirmed my belief that the best way to increase literacy is to invest in teachers. Both regular and special educators tell me that their professional preparation programs had not equipped them to teach reading to different kinds of learners. They never learned how our language works. So, in 1994, the Stern Center developed TIME for Teacherstm, a combined didactic training and mentorship program for primary educators in research based reading instruction. To make TIME more accessible to all teachers we created TIME for Teachers OnlineTM in 2001. This distance learning course offers an interactive opportunity to acquire knowledge about best practices in reading instruction from anywhere in the country. When a visitor to the Stern Center asked if this information could be presented to preschool children and their childcare providers, we created Building Blocks for Literacy in 1997. For more information about TIME Online or Building Blocks, please visit the Stern Center website at www.sterncenter.org.

Can you provide a quick summary of reading research?

Since 1965, the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) has been conducting extensive research related to why children succeed or fail at reading. In 1998, the National Research Council (NRC) Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children published a comprehensive research review. I like to summarize their findings by saying that on the fingers of one hand, we as teachers can remember what children need to learn to read: rich language experiences, phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency and comprehension. In the palm of the hand is motivation, that critical variable that often increases with success and decreases with failure. In 2000, the National Reading Panel (NRP) reviewed research further to guide instruction. An excellent summary of their findings can be found at www.nationalreadingpanel.org. TIME for Teachers is based on research results from the NICHD, NRC, and NRP.

What did you learn from participants in TIME for Teachers?

In our study with colleagues from the Universities of Arizona and Texas, recently published in Annals of Dyslexia, teachers were found to have positive attitudes about the use of both phonics and literature to teach reading. Interestingly, however, experienced teachers valued systematic explicit code instruction more than teachers in training did. Both groups demonstrated knowledge gaps about key literacy concepts, such as the difference between phonological awareness and phonics. There still seems to be a mismatch between what research tells us about best instructional practice and what happens in classrooms. We have to continue to work to inform and reform teacher education. Data are now being analyzed to assess the impact of TIME participants’ increased knowledge on children’s spelling, a window to literacy.

What did your Building Blocks research show?

With over 60% of mothers with children under five in the workforce, we wanted to look at the impact of offering childcare providers research information about early literacy. Building Blocks offers a weekend of didactic instruction followed by a six-month mentorship at participants’ childcare programs. We assessed the preliteracy skills of children both at childcare programs where providers had taken Building Blocks (experimental group) and where providers had not (control group). While all children improved with development, children in the experimental group showed significantly greater preliteracy gains than controls. More importantly, a larger proportion of children rose from below to above an at risk literacy level.

What do childcare providers learn through Building Blocks?

Childcare provider with children

The Building Blocks curriculum focuses on prerequisite language skills that promote literacy during the preschool period. Based on recommendations from the National Research Council Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties, the program targets the following:

  • Adult-child shared book reading: Stimulating verbal interactions to enhance language and vocabulary development and expand knowledge about print concepts.
  • Phonological awareness: Using activities that direct young children’s attention to the phonological structure of spoken words, through rhyming games, songs, poems and other manipulations of sound.
  • Relationships between print and speech: Helping children begin to see how speech maps to print (not teaching reading to preschoolers).

What do you hope the outcomes of effective professional development will be?

I hope that all those dedicated to children’s learning will be empowered to increase early reading success through research based best practices. If so, we will see a reduction in the numbers of youngsters whose self-esteem diminishes and motivation declines. All children will enjoy the pleasure of books and be able to read to learn. We will also tear down the artificial wall that exists between regular and special education. By viewing the teaching of reading along a language continuum of explicitness and intensity, classroom teachers, childcare providers, and special educators can work together to identify and instruct readers at risk. We should also be able to relieve some of the financial burdens that the special education and social systems bear as a result of reading failure.

Where do we go next in professional development?

Professional development class

We still have a long way to go to reach all those who teach young children and extend their knowledge about language literacy. We also need to remember that literacy learning is lifelong. Even as we advance in helping children become more successful reading by the age of nine, youngsters with learning disabilities will continue to need well-informed teachers throughout middle and high school. Adults, be they in college or the workforce, deserve knowledgeable literacy instructors. We also need to help meet the needs of students with math and nonverbal disabilities through increased professional development for their teachers.

For more information about TIME for Teachers Online or Building Blocks for Literacy, please visit the Stern Center’s web site at www.sterncenter.org, or contact Dr. Podhajski directly.

All photos are used with permission.

Blanche Podhajski (2002)