New Literacy Ph.D. Will Change the Teaching of Reading

A new approach to understanding why a child doesn't learn how to read includes looking underneath the scores to the humanity of the individual. Children are indeed being left behind because the totality of the person isn't being taught. A new Literacy Studies degree forces professionals to rethink and relearn the teaching of reading by bringing together many disciplines that support successful literacy.

Experienced and successful educators with graduate degrees and a minimum of three years of field experience will be returning to Middle Tennessee State University in the fall because they realize that what they already know about helping a child become a skilled reader isn't enough anymore. In fact, it falls far short.

School psychologists, speech-language pathologists, reading teachers, classroom teachers and school administrators at all levels will be among those enrolling in MTSU's new Ph.D. in Literacy Studies degree. This program will come face to face with why the National Assessment of Education Progress consistently shows that an average of four out of 10 children fail to read at grade level by fourth grade.

The interdisciplinary doctorate is based on the idea that narrow expertise in a single area does not equip graduates to understand the many factors that support successful literacy.

The new doctoral is a first-of-its-kind partnership that has emerged from the Center for the Study and Treatment of Dyslexia at MTSU, a hands-on learning lab that may be the only one of its kind in the nation. The Dyslexia Center is a unit within the College of Education and Behavioral Science where professionals with different backgrounds work together to improve educational outcomes for children with dyslexia. The doctorate has been shaped and will be governed by faculty representing several academic departments: educational leadership, elementary & special education, dyslexic studies, psychology, sociology, English (linguistics) and communication disorders. Program faculty are listed at

"This degree is important because it reflects the direction of the institution as manifested in the academic master plan, which identifies areas that are strategic, for the discipline and for the region," commented Dr. Kaylene Gebert, MTSU executive vice president and provost. "This program will be a fulcrum for additional research projects … and for bringing students to MTSU who will learn from the very best faculty."

Dr. Diane J. Sawyer, holder of the Katherine Davis Murfree Chair of Excellence in Dyslexic Studies at MTSU, explained that in formulating the course of study for the Ph.D. in literacy, program faculty from many areas looked at what the research in each of their disciplines reveals about how people learn to read and how teachers need to understand the teaching of reading.

"We looked at a curriculum, stemming from both research and practice, that typical preparation programs do not provide," Sawyer said. "We're bringing together neurobiology and neuropsychology to help people understand that the learning of reading really does involve the brain. It also involves the culture and environment in which one learns—and so we included the socio-cultural aspect as well."

A practicum will require students to go out into the field and test what they're learning and then bring back the reality of the field to their classrooms, Sawyer said.

"We're looking across disciplines to bring people into the study of literacy in an interdisciplinary way -- and to take their learning back into their respective fields to enhance the educational process," she noted.

"Because of the unique, interdisciplinary and comprehensive approach that characterizes this degree, it really fills a void in the learning environment," stated Dr. Gloria Bonner, dean of MTSU's College of Education and Behavioral Science.

"Given the crisis in the schools, and in particular ‘No Child Left Behind' and the achievement gap that is really expanding, this ought to have tremendous appeal."

A key question that reflects the bottom-line meaning of this new degree is … How will the pedagogical issues and academic jargon trickle down and really affect the child in elementary school who is struggling with reading?

"If we don't catch [this struggle] before grade four, it has implications for the rest of their academic career," Bonner observed.

One goal of the program is to train professionals who can support changes in how and when schools identify and help struggling readers.

"The models by which schools identify and support at-risk and low-performing students are changing," explained Dr. Stuart Bernstein, director of the MTSU Dyslexia Center. "The current model is nicknamed ‘wait to fail' because schools are forced to wait until children have fallen many years behind the other children in their grade before certain resources can be brought to bear.

"A new model called 'Response to Intervention' represents a departure in which frequent focused assessments are closely tied to instructional decisions so that children can get help at the point when they do not learn something rather than years later," Bernstein continued. "However, this shift requires that the classroom teacher, reading specialists, curriculum supervisors, even principals understand the nuances of literacy assessment and how to shape instruction based on those more focused assessments. The Ph.D. in Literacy Studies will address this. … We can no longer train reading professionals in just one narrow domain," Bernstein added. "They need training that is broad and the opportunity to integrate this spectrum of knowledge."

Sawyer says that schools need to "get beneath the scores" to reach a better understanding of where learning has broken down. "Traditionally, what those who teach reading have learned about measurement is that tests give you scores and that children are scaled on those scores—and if you have a particular kind of score, you're in trouble," she pointed out. "But there's no instruction that helps them to understand where and how learning has broken down. So we use the shotgun approach, thinking that more of the same must be appropriate because they didn't get it the first time. But we don't know why or where specifically that breakdown was."

It is Sawyer's vision that the new doctoral degree will produce a greater understanding of learning and of both the strengths and weaknesses of current reading assessment tools and instructional practices.

"It's looking underneath the scores to the humanity," she summarized.

Sawyer and Bernstein point out an interesting paradox. On one hand, four out of 10 children cannot read and comprehend at grade level. Similarly, four in 10 adults can't read an average newspaper. Yet, reading is "one of the most over-studied things on the planet," Bernstein notes. "It's like talking about the weather—everybody does it. The over-studying of reading results in too much information of varying quality, and it's hard for anyone at any point in the process to understand what has a good chance of working and what doesn't."

Once the new degree is launched in the fall, Sawyer and her team plan to hold a series of roundtable sessions composed of classroom teachers, principals, parents, professionals and doctoral students to discuss the learning process and reading instruction.

"We hope to attract people who are good at what they do and want to become even better," Sawyer said. "It takes very bright and dedicated educators to rethink what they know to be right and good, to analyze their successes and failures and to reach out for new learning experiences that will enable them to arrive at new concepts."

To learn more about the new Ph.D. in Literacy Studies degree, including course requirements, visit or call Dyslexic Studies at 615-898-5642.