One Believer in Phonics Undertakes a Novel Teacher-Training Effort

Candice Alcantara

Pledger Fedora
March 24, 2014

Pledger Fedora’s new job, as director of the Rose Institute for Learning and Literacy at Manhattanville College, is built on the hope that students who struggle to read can be taught more effectively. The institute, supported by a philanthropist known for her gifts to New York’s museums and public library, will begin offering a 13-credit graduate certificate program to five teachers this May. They will be shown how to use a distinctive multisensory phonics-based approach to literacy.

Ms. Fedora’s experience teaching ninth-grade remedial reading in South Carolina, in 1978, helped spark her interest in teaching and studying at-risk readers. One of her students had handed in a paragraph composed of what looked to her like an incomprehensible string of letters. But when she asked him to read it aloud, he spoke in full sentences. "I had never seen a student with dyslexia before that," she says.

Since then she has become a leading voice in the field of multisensory and phonetic instruction.

Phonics focuses on the sounds made by letters and phonemes, or groups of letters, to teach reading, writing, and spelling. The multisensory method that Ms. Fedora will train teachers to use, known as the Orton-Gillingham approach, reinforces learning through sight, hearing, touch, and awareness of motion. The teachers will take two courses at the college and will be coached in the new methods at their schools twice a week during a yearlong practicum.

Ms. Fedora’s Ph.D. dissertation explored how lack of phonemic awareness impaired the reading ability of children in low-income and rural areas.

She believes that even students who don’t have dyslexia can benefit from a phonics-based approach. One in five children, she says, will struggle to read without phonics. But many elementary-school teachers aren’t trained in the method.

"The teachers that I’ve worked with are always so excited," she says. "They say, ‘Why didn’t anyone ever teach me this?’"

Phonics has often been pitted against "whole language" instruction, a commonly used method that introduces children to whole words first and uses literature to teach reading. The debate over which method is more effective has been called the "reading wars."

Ms. Fedora isn’t interested in reviving any of those battles. Phonics is just one part of the Orton-Gillingham method, she says, but "it’s an integral part, because you have to start with the sound."

After earning a doctorate in education in 2008 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (she also got her B.A. and M.Ed. there), Ms. Fedora began teaching in Seton Hall University’s department of educational studies. In 2012 she proposed redesigning some of her courses to include more phonics instruction. But she was met by resistance within the department. she says. (Grace M. May, dean of Seton Hall’s College of Education and Human Services, says the department "supports the use of a balanced literacy curriculum, including phonics, to prepare future teachers.")

"It was then that I started looking for other positions, specifically in literacy," Ms. Fedora says.

At the time, Manhattanville was in the midst of a three-year pilot program with the Reading Reform Foundation of New York. The program took seven teachers at a local elementary school with ties to Manhattanville and trained them in phonics.

"The teachers found themselves to be much more purposeful and much more knowledgeable about teaching literacy," says Shelley B. Wepner, dean of the School of Education at Manhattanville. The college, a private nonprofit institution in Purchase, N.Y., has 1,000 students enrolled in its graduate courses, including 785 in the School of Education.

The pilot’s success convinced Sandra Priest Rose, a Manhattanville alumna who is a founder and chairman of the Reading Reform Foundation, that the college was the right place for her namesake program. She donated $1.2-million to the college to establish the Rose Institute last year.

The widow of Frederick P. Rose, a New York City real-estate magnate, Ms. Rose speaks passionately about phonics and its effectiveness in reading instruction. She has high hopes for Ms. Fedora as director of the new institute.

"We first saw her résumé and screamed with delight because she’s published a great deal," Ms. Rose says of Ms. Fedora. "I think she can bring us into a larger sphere."

Ms. Fedora, who called the director’s role her "dream job," hopes the institute will start a trend of including phonics-based instruction in teacher training throughout higher education.

"It has the potential to be a model for other colleges and universities," she says. "There really isn’t another program like this."

Correction (3/24/2014, 2:23 p.m.): This article originally gave an incorrect figure for the number of students in Manhattanville College's School of Education. It has 785 students, not 300. The number has been corrected.