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Roots of Language Comprehension Fuel Education Professor’s Work


Joanna Uhry, Ph.D., studies how children develop the mental processes that lead to spelling.
Photo by Michael Dames

The letters JRS may be meaningless to adults, but if a first grader writes them to signify a woman’s dress, it may mean that child is a better reader than one might think.

As Joanna Uhry, Ed.D., professor of education, explains, there is a way for the child’s teacher to help him or her make the transition from “JRS” to “dress.”

“Kids’ spellings are a great interest of mine,” she said. “You can tell so much about what processes they’re using to write and to read.”

Uhry’s work occurs at the time of life when language—that most defining characteristic of humans—begins to make sense. She supervises the Graduate School of Education’s Ennis William Cosby Graduate Certificate Program, which is funded by a grant from the Hello Friend/Ennis William Cosby Foundation.

The nine-year-old program is dedicated to the memory of comedian Bill Cosby’s son, Ennis. It consists of six courses designed to expand the range of strategies used in teaching reading and writing to young children with learning differences.

The foundation was established in 1997 to celebrate the life of Ennis Cosby and to help fulfill his educational dreams. Ennis was studying to become the kind of teacher who could reach all children—even those who struggled to learn—so it was a natural connection to start such a program for teachers, Uhry said. The grant has brought in nearly $3 million since its inception, and its effects have been profound.

“These are teachers who are, by and large, successful, but have children in their classes who are struggling,” Uhry said. “Every year, we work with about 27 teachers from high-needs, urban early childhood, kindergarten, first and second grade classes, and we’ve taught and learned from them.

“There have been about 225 teachers who, in turn, have taught more than 20,000 children,” she continued. “So here are 20,000 children taking advantage of these six extra courses in beginning reading. To look back on that is very exciting.”

The program directly informs Uhry’s own research, which she has detailed in Finger-Point Reading in Kindergarten: The Role of Phonemic Awareness, One-to-One Correspondence and Rapid Serial Naming (Scientific Studies of Reading, 2002) and Dyslexia: Theory & Practice of Instruction (York Press, 2005), a book she co-authored with a colleague at Columbia Teachers College.

The subject attracted her interest early in her career, when she was teaching art.

“I was absolutely fascinated that some of my best art students couldn’t read,” she said. “Somebody could be very expressive in paint or clay and have a big vocabulary when he spoke aloud, but just not be able to read. I asked myself why kids can struggle so much in one area but not another?”

People with reading problems, such as dyslexia, were once thought to be damaged in the part of the brain that handles reading, Uhry said. But it has been established that language is processed in different parts of the brain. So the key is understanding how different connections are made in the 15 to 20 percent of the population that struggles with word-level reading in the early grades.

The highlight for the program, which has 29 students this year, is the after-school tutoring that takes place at Public School 163 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

“We wanted to be in a school that was high-functioning, so that when we got there, there would actually be kids for us to tutor and rooms for us to tutor in,” she said. “There are kids who are struggling readers there, but the school is very well managed.”

In her own research, Uhry focuses on finger-point reading, which happens when five- or six-year-old children hear books read to them so often, they learn to repeat the words from memory, even if they can’t map the speech onto the words yet.

“What we found is that some kids can construct spellings themselves by hearing,” she said. “And this helps them with mapping speech sounds onto printed letters in books.”

“For example, if I were going to invent the spelling for a word—take mother—that’s a very complicated word to spell,” she explained. “But if children listen very carefully, they can hear the mmm sound, and mmm sounds like the name of the letter. The letter M makes the mmm sound, so they’re reading mmmmmother, and they’re seeing M, so they know to point there.”

But English is chock full of consonants that don’t sound the way they are used in words, like W, which could be spelled as “doubleyou.”

“Kids do these things that are really rule-based,” Uhry said. “Their rule is when you hear a sound, you find a letter that sounds like the sound. So when you ask them to spell ‘once,’ they’ll spell YNS. The letter Y begins with the sound wha, wha—which is the same as ‘once,’ so the word ends up as YNS. We see this same spelling over and over again in kids who’ve never met each other.”

This is the same logic that will lead a child who looks at a dress to write down JRS.

To the teacher who is not well-versed in linguistics, she said, the reaction might be to teach the child to memorize how to spell “once” or “dress.”

“These kids can memorize a few words, but they don’t understand the phonological structure,” Uhry said. “Eventually you can point to the dictionary and say ‘This is how it is,’ but not with five year olds.”


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