Of all the skills elementary students acquire, learning to read is probably the most important. Literacy unlocks all the other skills and information that teachers have to teach and students need to know.
The Reading League is an organization whose purpose is to help teachers bring evidence-based practices into their classrooms, and Maria Murray is its founder. The league is a volunteer partnership made up of educators, researchers, school administrators, parents, support specialists, healthcare providers and others.
Murray has been a literacy professor at SUNY Oswego since 2008. With the Reading League, which she started two years ago, she focuses on reading instruction and assessments that help students learn to read.
Many local educators are now embracing the use of evidence-based practices in helping their students build literacy skills. The Reading League offers professional development opportunities, instructional materials and support.
“We know we are filling a hole that needs filling,” says Murray, who lives in Syracuse with her husband, Dan. She is the mother of a grown daughter, Kate, and a son, Mark, who is a junior at Centre College in Kentucky.
“It is a proven fact that everyone can learn to read to some degree,” Murray says. “When we take a fifth-grader who is reading at a first-grade level and finally teach them to read, it’s not that they couldn’t have learned—they did.”
Murray became interested in the effectiveness of literacy education as a graduate student at Syracuse University. She was fascinated by the research her adviser did in Central New York. Using grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, they spent a year working with struggling second- and third-grade non-readers, teaching them to read. Their research showed that, after the interventions, the students’ brain activation patterns began to measure similarly to those of non-impaired readers.
“You would think that this would set people on fire and they would say, ‘Oh, now we know what to do.’ But it didn’t. It just languished,” Murray recalls. “The sun came up, the sun when down. And nothing changed in schools.”
Murray has since studied more strategies for teaching literacy, incorporating data from psychologists, as well as speech, language and reading specialists. “We know how reading works and how it really can be taught effectively,” she says. “There is consensus in the scientific community, but we are not using those methods consistently in schools.”
But change is afoot. The workshops and professional development opportunities offered by the Reading League every other month are attracting educators from all over Central New York. Each event is hosted by a different school district.
“Schools are now asking for us to come in,” Murray says. “And we make our events tailored to what the teachers need and have requested.”
The Reading League aims to educate parents, too. “Parents are starting to realize that when they hear ‘Oh, don’t worry. Give them another year. It will be OK. Some kids are just delayed,’ that this advice isn’t right,” she says. “We’re trying to clear up those misconceptions.”
Teachers did, indeed, previously have access to literacy-focused continuing education and professional development. New York state encouraged collaboration among school districts and educators in 1948, when it established statewide BOCES (or Boards of Cooperative Education Services). Murray says that the Reading League’s professional development events complement those offered by BOCES, giving teachers the tools they need to apply evidence-based practices to their own teaching styles.
As someone who works with future teachers at SUNY Oswego, Murray knows that the formation of an educator doesn’t end upon graduation. She wants those already working in the profession to have access to the best information available, and the guidance to use it.
“With reading, we now have evidence” of what works, Murray says. “We have brain-imaging studies. We have the science and the research showing that to teach kids to learn to read, it has to be a systematic program.
“For example, start with the easiest sounds—short vowels and single consonants—and you slowly move up to more complex patterns. A lot of the programs out there just have everything thrown into a soup pot. Today you’re talking about plurals, tomorrow you’re talking about short ‘a’ and the book you’re reading has nothing to do with either of those things,” Murray says. “Sometimes it’s simple things like that that contribute to underperformance in learning to read.”
Murray points out that even in some of the most affluent districts, where students have been read to since birth, and have access to steady streams of books, some 40 percent to 50 percent of the fourth- and eighth-grade students are not reading at grade level.
“We could just tweak a few things and bring the children’s eyes and brains to the pages in a way that makes them go, ‘Oh, I get it. I now notice this and will use it when I see it again instead of guessing,’” she says.
Murray would like to see teachers stop encouraging what she calls “guess reading.” Looking at pictures to determine what words are is not a strategy that builds literacy skills; nor does placing too much emphasis on the first letter of a word.
Murray says there is a strong link between literacy and behavior. Students who score low on their earliest phonemic awareness assessments (phonemes are the sounds that make up words) in kindergarten are often the kids most frequently sent to the principal’s office by the time they are in fifth grade.
“Kids know that they are bright. They know everything there is to know about the things that interest them. But they become aware of how important reading is and they can’t understand why they are having trouble with this task that they need for everything,” Murray says. “They think, ‘All day long I have to do this thing that’s hard for me. I hate school. It’s not for me.’ That’s where we get behavior problems.”
Murray is excited about a slew of new partnerships and projects that the Reading League has in the pipeline. A new director, Stephanie Bartling, is on board. There’s a planned partnership with the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading on a quarterly journal; the possibility of building a leadership team that would work with teachers directly in applying proven reading strategies; and the making of two videos (thanks in part to a $5,000 Jim & Juli Boeheim Foundation grant) that will enable the organization a straightforward means of conveying its mission.
Murray is inspired by collaborations among educators, fostered by the Reading League. More information can be found on the league’s website, TheReadingLeague.com, and through its YouTube channel.
Whatever other endeavors the league pursues, the organization remains committed to solving the problems that have always fascinated Murray in her career as an educator.
“I think there is no more honorable profession out there,” Murray says. “Every teacher wants to do the best for their children. I have seen teachers with tears in their eyes—just giddy with relief.
“We all have to practice what we preach, which is to never stop learning. Everyone’s doing what they can. But if we all get together with the knowledge as our fuel, we’ll be unstoppable.”
Award-winning writer Tammy DiDomenico lives in DeWitt with her husband and two sons.