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Irene Gaskins Presents the Clark Lecture

Dr. Irene Gaskins, founder and director of the Benchmark School for struggling readers in Media, Pennsylvania, was the Diana Brewster Clark lecturer at a November 19 event.

Diana Brewster Clark was a TC alumna who specialized in teaching the dyslexic and was the author of Dyslexia: Theory and Practice of Remedial Instruction, a standard text on the subject. She was an adjunct faculty member at the College and leader of the College's Alumni Council, serving as head of the Council in 1988 and 1989. After her death in 1993, her family established the Diana Brewster Clark Fellowship to honor her memory. Bob Lane, who was awarded the first Clark Fellowship last year, introduced Gaskins.

As founder and director of the Benchmark School, Gaskins has received a number of grants to develop cutting edge programs for working with children who have reading problems. The Benchmark School was founded in 1970 as a nonprofit, independent school to provide a full-day program for children between the ages of 6 and 14 who are functioning at least one reader level below actual grade placement in reading. Instruction in all subject areas is individualized according to each student's needs.

A recent program Gaskins has developed, called "Word Detectives," was the topic of her lecture. She stressed that research shows that struggling readers need a school-wide program, because simply meeting with students for a short period of the day or week won't work. She also noted that after third grade, the prognosis for a struggling reader to catch up is poor. Intervention should occur in first grade and should be coordinated with all classroom instruction. Providing ongoing support to struggling readers for a number of years will allow them to move from a lot of support to minimum support.

"Struggling readers have failed for so long, they believe reading does not make sense," Gaskins said. To become good readers, she noted, they need to actively interact with the text by referring to prior knowledge, identifying key events or main ideas, constructing images of what they are reading, analyzing the components of the story, asking questions, and summarizing what they have learned, immediately and repeatedly.

Research-based instructional practices are important to follow, Gaskins said. One practice is to show students what to do, rather than just telling them. Another practice is to follow a systematic plan for reading and providing immediate and meaningful application of the concepts. To foster motivation, she suggests having children read to one another and having a choice of what they read. Providing every-pupil-response (EPR) activities, she adds, will keep all students involved in the learning experience, and not create a passive learning environment. "Knowledge is a social experience," she notes. To gain confidence and to keep the momentum going, children need to learn at a rate they can handle, and they need to receive feedback and be accountable for their achievements.

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