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Recently I had the honor of interviewing Lynn Givens, M.Ed.  She is currently a Visiting Professor, School of Teacher Education at Florida State University and the creator of the very detailed reading program entitled Connect to Comprehension.

Lynn has been a teacher of struggling readers and a teacher educator for over 35 years. She served as Director of Intervention at the Florida Center for Reading Research where she was involved in providing intervention training and professional development for teachers throughout Florida. Lynn is currently teaching undergraduate reading and English/language arts courses, including a practicum on teaching struggling readers, at FSU’s School of Teacher Education and acting as instructor/facilitator for online teacher endorsement courses in reading.

Ms. Givens also spent eight years at the Schenck School in Atlanta, GA, one of the top institutions for teaching dyslexic students and other struggling readers.

I was lucky to meet Lynn through Marisa Bernard, the Executive Director at the Orton Gillingham Online Academy. Lynn and Marisa are collaborative partners and Marisa is making Lynn’s Connect to Comprehension product available through her site.

I’m particularly excited to share our interview with you because I think Lynn is focusing on closing a very critical gap in our training and teaching of children who struggle with reading. So often we find ourselves without a map after applying the intensive, multisensory teaching approach (e.g., Orton Gillingham) to addressing the foundational issues with phonological processing.  The question becomes “What do we do next?”

As Lynn tells her story, she clearly adds to our map of understanding how to properly support our educators’ efforts to teach our children who struggle with reading beyond the initial foundational layers.

I hope you enjoy getting to know Lynn Givens as well as I did.  Please be sure to add your thoughts in the Comments Section below.

Welcome Lynn!  What led you to create the Connect to Comprehension course?

In 2004, as Director of Intervention at the Florida Center for Reading Research, I began work with Dr. Joseph Torgesen on a year-long study of the types of intervention being provided to struggling readers in the state of Florida.  After visiting with many teachers, principals, and administrators in six Florida districts, I reported to Dr. T that most of these educators did not have a clear and effective strategy for helping these students.  Many of the interventions being implemented were just watered-down versions of the core curriculum.  With that information in hand, we began to develop an “intervention kit” to send to districts and then trained district personnel to deliver professional development in the use of the strategies and methods contained in the kit.  Several of the districts asked me if a reading program was available that incorporated the ideas in the kit, and I had to say “no.”  After my work at FCRR was completed, I began to develop such a program, which eventually became Connect to Comprehension (CtoC).

I connected with Marisa Bernard almost two years ago, as we share a common educational background in the field of dyslexia and a common passion for working with readers who struggle.  After she carefully reviewed the CtoC kit, she asked me if I could write a course for teachers, parents, and tutors to help them understand the link between the elements taught in the OG language courses and the teaching of comprehension skills to struggling readers. The development of the course, which was quite intensive, does, I believe provide this information in an easy-to-understand format.

I know it’s a 10 part course but could you give us a brief overview of the key components—what are your major takeaways?

The course is centered around the five components of reading – phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension – and how these components are all interrelated and are critical to the reading process.  As participants learn about the components, they also learn about how dyslexic students and other struggling readers may have difficulty in each of these and how the CtoC program specifically addresses each of these needs.  The process of using this scripted, leveled program is also addressed in detail, from the initial assessments to determine specific weaknesses in each component through the planning and teaching of the lessons.

The issue of efficiently assessing students is a hot topic of conversation these days.  What is involved in your initial assessments? 

Yes, assessment is critical for all students but especially for students who are struggling.  In addition to possibly having deficits in foundational skills, they often have skill gaps throughout the phonological and phonetic sequences.  An effective assessment for these students must include measures of their abilities to read isolated words with targeted word patterns, to read these words in connected text, and to demonstrate understanding of what they are reading. 

The CtoC assessment is composed of two measures: the Single Word Assessment and the Passage Assessment.  Students begin with the Single Word Assessment, reading word lists that are leveled, beginning with short vowel words and concluding with multi-syllabic words that correspond to the six syllable types. Each level of the assessment corresponds to a level in the Connect to Comprehension program.  Students then read a decodable passage in the Passage Assessment and answer a series of questions based on the passage.  This second assessment provides measures of fluency (WCPM) as well as information concerning critical comprehension skills (recall, facts/details, making inferences, cause/effect, compare/contrast and author’s purpose.)  With all of this information in hand, the teacher can assemble a reliable profile of the struggling student’s skills in terms of strengths and weaknesses and can then determine at which level of CtoC to begin instruction.

While we are speaking of levels, I’d like to give you a brief explanation of the program’s structure.  There are 6 levels in the program, with explicit phonetic and comprehension instruction at each level.  Level A is composed of short vowel words; Level B incorporates reading words with v-e patterns as well as vowel digraphs.  Level C includes words with initial and final consonant blends and digraphs, and Level D targets r-controlled vowels and diphthongs.  In Level E, morphological elements of prefixes and suffixes are taught and practiced, along with variant vowels.  Level F focuses on multi-syllabic words.  Each of the six levels is supported with 6 High Noon decodable readers that are completely aligned with the skills being taught and practiced.  The most unique part of the program, I think, is that upper-level comprehension skills are taught and practiced throughout each level, beginning with Level A.  Because of this unique aspect, students do not have to learn these comprehension skills AFTER their decoding skills have developed.  Decoding and comprehension are taught simultaneously.

And there are several different types of materials provided when you enroll, yes?

Yes.  Participants receive a complete CtoC kit, including the 6 scripted teacher’s manuals (one for each level of the program) and an assessment/implementation manual.  Also included is a complete set of fluency and sequencing strips, which are used throughout the lessons.  In addition to this kit, participants receive a set of the 36 High Noon decodable readers used for teaching all of the levels of the program.  Finally, participants have unlimited access to the course information, which includes powerpoints, audio discussions, and video examples of many of the program’s elements.  As with all OGOA courses, participants receive new information as it is added to the course for an unlimited time, so that they can review, refresh, and expand their understanding.

I love that you include a discussion of written expression at the end…Talk to us about the philosophical underpinnings of that decision?

We have known for a long time about the critical connection between reading and writing.  My mentor at the Schenck School for dyslexic students in Atlanta, the late David Schenck, always told me, “Be sure to have children write about what they are reading, and always have them read back to you what they have written.”  I have followed this advice for the last 25 years, and it is incorporated into the CtoC program at every step.    More recently, the “Writing to Read” report published by the Carnegie Corporation in 2010, gave us a strong research basis for this connection.  One of the findings of the report, a meta-analysis of many research studies, was that comprehension was most improved when students were asked to write about what they were reading, through answering questions, writing summaries, and making personal connections through written statements.

At another level, we also know that dyslexic students benefit from a multisensory approach to all components of reading.  Therefore, the phonetic instruction and practice in the program consistently tie together reading and writing.

What is the ideal level of expertise needed for this course?  When should a tutor or teacher enroll in this course?

Since the course begins with the basics, a discussion of the five components of reading, it provides a foundation of understanding for anyone who is interested in working with struggling readers, whether as a parent, a teacher, or a tutor.  Although the course can stand alone, it is recommended that participants enroll in the Orton Gillingham Online Academy’s (OGOA’s) Basic Language Course and, if possible the Advanced Language Course before taking this course.  This will give a complete and well-developed understanding of all the elements involved in teaching dyslexic students and other struggling readers. The Academy now offers a “bundled” course option, which allows participants to purchase all three courses at a reduced rate.  I am really excited about this new opportunity, as I am convinced that it will give anyone who works with struggling readers the complete “tool kit” to help these students succeed

How does your program address the different types of dyslexia?  E.g., Students with poor phonological skills v. those with weak rapid automatic naming or those Double Deficit kids with both?

As noted by Maryanne Wolf, one of the leading experts in the research supporting the double deficit theory, “dyslexia does not always involve a failure to decode words.  Rather, it involves a failure to read fluently with comprehension.”  According to Dr. Wolf and her colleagues, practice in automatic decoding should not be an end in itself, but should lead to fluent reading.  This automaticity ensures that students are not using so much of their cognitive efforts to decode that little cognitive energy is left to understand what they are reading.  Another important aspect in an integrated approach that addresses this issue is that fluency instruction and practice should not begin after reading skills are already acquired, but that “efforts to address fluency need to begin at the start of the reading acquisition process.”

So, how does the CtoC program address the needs outlined above?  Automaticity is emphasized on a daily basis through the use of the leveled skill decks.  Students practice reading these leveled decks, using the phonetic patterns that they are learning/have learned, and are encouraged to read these words as quickly as possible.  The opportunity for such games as “minute dash”, where students read and then graph the number of these patterned words read correctly in a minute, is used throughout the program.

Fluency is, as Wolf and colleagues suggest, emphasized from the very beginning of the program.  Students work on reading the fluency phrases provided, beginning in Level A, after receiving instruction and explicit modeling from the teacher.  Questions are asked that require the use of the fluency phrases to answer, thus connecting the elements of phonology, fluency, and comprehension.  In addition, students are frequently encouraged to reread sections of the text to stress elements such as dialog reading and emphasis on important words in a sentence.

How are you tying in semantics, syntax and morphology in your literacy instruction?  

These linguistic elements are all addressed through instruction and consistent opportunities for student practice.  Word meanings are taught through use of a vocabulary deck, which is reviewed on a daily basis and which forms the basis for multi-sensory activities and games.  This deck is also used for written expression activities, which help to incorporate syntax and sentence structure.  Sentence frames are used throughout the program so that students who have difficulty with syntax can be guided and thus become more accomplished in this area.  Words with multiple meanings are explored at each level of the program, using graphic organizers as visual tools.  In addition, elements of figurative language are also taught and practiced, again incorporating written and oral language as students learn about idioms, similes, etc.  Morphological elements of prefixes and suffixes are introduced in the upper levels of the program.  Meanings of these affixes are taught and practiced, using both oral and written activities.  In addition, spelling rules for adding the affixes (e dropping rule, doubling rule, rule for y) are introduced/reviewed.

The instruction in these elements becomes meaningful, as it is tied to the decodable texts that students are reading.  For example, idioms are discussed and practiced when they appear in the text.  In this way, students can connect the concepts and strategies that they are learning immediately to what they are reading.

Does the course require a student teaching practicum or observations of application?  If so, how do you test a person’s knowledge in an online setting?

For course completion, participants are required to develop and submit a series of exercises involving assessment of a struggling reader, planning a CtoC lesson based on the assessment results, etc.  The final submission is a videoed lesson with a self-reflection rubric that I use for scoring the video and providing specific feedback.  I have had extensive experience in developing and facilitating these types of online courses, and these types of submissions work well to ensure that each participant has a solid understanding of the course’s concepts, strategies, and materials.

What kind of certification are you able to provide?

A Certificate of Completion is provided by the O-G Online Academy upon completion of all of the course requirements.

Lynn Givens, I want to thank you for taking the time to chat with me about your Connect to Comprehension course!  Clearly you’re helping us make great strides in answering the key question of “What’s next?” when a struggling reader needs to move beyond the foundational phonological awareness skills and go deeper into fluency and comprehension.

Dear Readers:  I strongly urge you to take a look at Lynn’s Connect to Comprehension program and consider adding it to your tool kit.

To learn more about Connect to Comprehension, please visit Marisa Bernard’s Orton Gillingham Online Academy.