University News

Reading Clinic Provides Vital Service

Tutor Heather Perna-Lacognata '01, M.Ed. '06, works with Kelsey Norton in the clinic

By Mary Beth Zeman

When Jeanne Norton’s daughter Kelsey first began attending the William Paterson University Reading Clinic in 2009, the then-fifth grade special education student was reading at a kindergarten level. Today, after three years attending the clinic once a week, Kelsey, who is now in eighth grade, is reading chapter books on her own.“I can’t tell you how much progress Kelsey has made,” says Norton, who learned of the clinic from her daughter’s school bus driver. “One month after we began at the clinic, she read me a sign on the street, which was an unbelievable moment. She just loves to go there.”

Located in the University’s 1600 Valley Road Building, the Reading Clinic offers comprehensive tutoring, remediation, reading intervention, and enrichment services for local students in kindergarten through grade twelve, as well as incoming William Paterson University freshmen who need to increase their skills at reading on the college level.

But the clinic is much more than that. In addition to providing a vital service for students in academic need, the facility serves as a training ground for the University’s master’s degree candidates in literacy, who bring their enhanced instructional skills as reading specialists back to their own school districts.

“The clinic is truly a hidden gem on campus,” says Candace Burns, dean of the University’s College of Education. “We are helping students in great need, many from urban districts with more limited resources. And at the same time, we are training literacy coaches who can diagnose difficulties early in our school districts and work with struggling readers.”

Reading skills continue to be a critical issue in New Jersey and across the country. According to the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 22 percent of New Jersey fourth graders scored below the basic level on the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge, the state standardized examination. In addition, students eligible for free or reduced lunches—an indicator of low family income—had an average score of twentyfive points lower than those who were not eligible.

“This is the population we target and typically serve in the Reading Clinic,” says Gerri Mongillo, associate professor and chair of educational leadership and professional studies and a reading specialist who supervises the clinic along with Salika Lawrence, associate professor of educational leadership and professional studies. “And, since 2009, when many school budgets have experienced drastic cutbacks, reading remediation has been reduced or eliminated in many New Jersey school districts, so our services are crucial.”

Graduate students enrolled in the master’s degree program participate in year-long, faculty-supervised practicum experiences in the clinic, where they complete diagnostic assessments
and develop instructional plans based on individual student needs. They work one-on-one or in small groups with students, along with University alumni from the reading program who return to the clinic to serve as tutors.

The clinic offers three tutoring sessions per academic year—fall, winter, and late spring—and currently serves seventy-five students per session. Due to increased demand, students are selected through a lottery; for this academic year, applications totaled four hundred. The program draws many students from Paterson, as well as from towns in Bergen, Passaic, Morris, and Essex counties. Students in grades kindergarten through twelve are charged a nominal fee of $50 per semester, well below the fee that would be charged for private tutoring.

“To keep costs down, especially to our low-income families, the University is subsidizing a significant portion of the clinic’s operation,” says Burns. “Our alumni are incredibly dedicated to the clinic’s philosophy, and many work for 50 percent less than they could charge by offering private services.”

Tutor Heather Perna-Lacognata ’01, M.Ed. ’06, whose student clients have ranged from seventh grade through college, focuses on developing critical reading skills by engaging them through non-fiction texts.

“With today’s technology, students like instant gratification, so I have to select something that will grab them,” says Perna- Lacognata, who teaches English at Pequannock High School. She explores topics such as lightning, the gold rush, and the Loch Ness monster with her students, and then teaches strategies they can use to enhance comprehension. “We discuss how to break down the text, find the three main points, and summarize the content, and then how to employ these strategies in the reading they do at home,” she adds.

Betsy Conway, M.Ed. ’08, says reading skills are critical. “Students need to be able to read before they do algebra or science problems,” she says. “Even in elementary schools, formal instruction in reading might end in third or fourth grade. We really need to be teaching students how to read to learn.”

Conway, who teaches at Blessed Sacrament School in Paterson, sees the challenges her students face in an urban district. “I try to bring the skills and ideas I gain in the clinic back to my classroom.”

The problem can be especially critical as students move into high school and college, and need advanced comprehension skills. “Teenagers might think they don’t need to read better, that the computer will do it for them,” says Conway. “But you still have to type complete sentences in a memo, or take a test, or even take a driver’s test, so regardless of technology, you need to read.”

In 2010, the University developed a summer program in conjunction with the Reading Clinic for incoming freshmen whose scores on placement tests indicated a need for basic reading instruction. Students take a five-week summer workshop class to prepare them for college-level reading prior to the start of the fall semester.

“In the clinic, we talk to them about how to read to learn,” says Conway, who along with Perna Lacognata taught in the program this past summer. “The same critical thinking skills you need to make life decisions are the same strategies needed in reading.”

The clinic’s fifteen tutoring rooms have been decorated with posters and book illustrations by coordinator Marie Donnantuono to provide a cheerful learning environment for students. The University recently provided additional funding to install the latest in web-based digital video recording equipment throughout the facility. “The technology allows our tutors to record each session so they can review and analyze the effectiveness of their lessons,” says Burns. “The tutors use these recordings to adjust their strategies or practice, as well as critique each other’s work. It’s a real learning community.”

In addition, tutors have integrated new iPads into their sessions. “The iPads offer the ability to use age-appropriate applications that target specific reading needs for each student,” says Mongillo. “Our students are really enthusiastic about reading with the iPads and our tutors have found that they increase engagement levels.”

Burns says her goal is to expand the clinic’s services. “There is such demand for the clinic’s services, and we are seeking additional funding that would allow us to serve more students,” she says.

“Reading is the foundation,” Mongillo adds. “Students need a place where they can learn this most important basic skill in a nurturing and safe environment.” WP