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These Idaho scholars say 'literacy is a right' and presented their research at an Oxford summit

(Left tor right) Meg Osterhout, Dr. Sally Brown and Jaden Hernandez at the University of Oxford
Jaden Hernandez, Oxford University
(Left tor right) Meg Osterhout, Dr. Sally Brown and Jaden Hernandez at the University of Oxford

In 2022, tests revealed a slight improvement in literacy among Idaho’s K-3 students, but the state continues to lag behind a number of neighboring states and at-risk students lag even further behind their peers.

“There are many things we still have to do in our state and across our nation to improve literacy outcomes,” said Dr. Sally Brown, assistant professor at the College of Idaho. “First of all, the instruction in our classrooms really has to improve and become more based on scientific evidence of what works. And not only just our top-tier students … all of our students.”

Brown and current and former C of I students were invited to present their most recent research on the topic at this month’s World Literacy Summit at Oxford University.

Brown, Jaden Hernandez and Meg Osterhout visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about their once-in-a-lifetime moment at Oxford, what Idaho can do sooner than later to improve literacy and how their research particularly focuses on pre-service teachers.

“Literacy is a right. It's non-negotiable. And students should have the same access regardless of the circumstances they're growing up in.”

Read the transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. We're going to spend some time this morning talking about literacy. To be sure, literacy continues to be a challenge in Idaho. The most recent reading scores showed a slight increase for K-3 students; but at-risk student groups continue to lag behind their peers. Meanwhile, Idaho's overall literacy rate lags behind other states in the region. So, we're going to talk now with a trio that has just returned from the fifth annual World Literacy Summit at Oxford in the UK. Dr. Sally Brown from the College of Idaho is here. She's here along with C of I alumna Meg Osterhout, and current College of Idaho junior Jaden Hernandez. And they were all invited to present their research project on literacy to the Global Literacy Summit. Good morning to you all.

DR. SALLY BROWN: Good morning.

MEG OSTERHOUT: Good morning.

JADEN HERNANDEZ: Morning.

PRENTICE: Dr. Brown, how did you get to Oxford? This is quite impressive.

BROWN: It was an exciting experience, to be sure. So, we at the College of Idaho have designed a course called Literacy Assessment and Intervention, and we train teacher candidates on how to administer diagnostics and intervene for struggling readers. So, this is how it all started. Then we turned this into a research project so we could measure student outcomes and also look at pre-service teacher candidates’ knowledge and practice growth within this training. The three of us all had different roles in this project. The World Literacy Summit is held every other year, and it was being held this April, and I decided to apply and talk to these young women to see if they would be interested. And they were. So, we put in the application, and we were accepted.

PRENTICE: Well, let's bring in Jaden Hernandez. Jaden, you're a junior. Yes.

HERNANDEZ: Yes. At the College of Idaho.

PRENTICE: And you're a grad of Vallivue High School and Caldwell?

HERNANDEZ: Yes. Class of the COVID year.

PRENTICE: Can you talk a bit about how that informs you? I'm guessing you've seen firsthand peers that may have struggled with literacy through much of their young lives.

HERNANDEZ: Oh, most definitely. At the College of Idaho, every year that we are there as an education major, we are given the privilege to have a placement. So, what that means is we are placed into the actual schools as pre-service teachers - so people striving to become teachers. And we're able to just kind of observe and teach. And through that, I saw a lot of these students falling through the cracks, which kind of developed a passion for me to help specifically multicultural students that may not know English at the time, and supporting them through literacy.

PRENTICE: And here's Meg Osterhout. And Meg, you're a grad of Capital High in Boise?

OSTERHOUT: 2016.

PRENTICE: And an alumna of the College of Idaho. What motivates you on this journey?

OSTERHOUT: I would say my undergraduate journey… I became really passionate about breaking down barriers for marginalized populations in terms of accessing literacy. We have all these explanations for why students are struggling with literacy, but we can no longer use them as excuses. Literacy is a right. It's non-negotiable. And students should have the same access regardless of the circumstances they're growing up in, because they're not at all at fault for that. So, Sally's been really fundamental in this journey for me, and I have loved teaming up with all of them to get closer.

PRENTICE: Dr. Sally Brown. What aren't we doing right that we could do better tomorrow?

BROWN: There are many things we still have to do in our state and across our nation to improve literacy outcomes. First of all, the instruction in our classrooms really has to improve and become more based on scientific evidence of what works in teaching students how to read. And not only just our top tier students, all of our students.And we do have some of that knowledge in how to do that. So, thinking about training pre-service teachers and teacher candidates, we have to start at that university level to really create change. Also, thinking about how we can work in multiple entities, in teacher training, in professional development, in schools, in leadership in our state, to actually come together to make big impacts. And other states have seen great progress and there are good models for us. So, we definitely have some work to do in our state. But I'm excited about some of the recent changes we've had here to improve literacy overall for students.

PRENTICE: Well, let's talk travel for a couple of minutes. Have any of you not traveled outside of Idaho?

HERNANDEZ: I've traveled outside of the state, but I've never left the country.

PRENTICE: So, talk to me about that.

HERNANDEZ: Well, the initial plan was I was going to do the legwork because I didn't have the financial stability to fly overseas with them. And so, Sally and I got together and looked at what scholarships I could apply for. So, I applied for a handful of scholarships and received funding to fly overseas. So that was checked off. And now I was….” Oh boy, I'm going to cross the United States and UK border by myself,” which was extremely intimidating. And so, I invited my mom along and said, “Hey, here is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Do you want to go to the UK with me?: And she's like, “Are you serious?” So, she was definitely one of my biggest support systems crossing the border. I could not have done it without her.

PRENTICE: Meg, talk to me about Oxford.

OSTERHOUT: Oxford was everything and more that you would imagine it to be. It just feels like a different world. It's a lot bigger than you'd imagine in terms of the campus. There's actually 44 different colleges that make up Oxford. It was just incredible. And the experience of the people we got to connect with… talk about having diversity in one room… and having advocates from all corners of the world. And what better place to do it than Oxford? Of course, part of me didn't feel worthy of presenting in a building -the oldest university in the world  - where so many incredible figures have been. But it was just the opportunity of a lifetime and probably one of the top experiences I've ever had.

PRENTICE: Sally Brown, I've got to give you an opportunity to talk about these extraordinary young women.

BROWN: They are extraordinary, to be sure. And I've seen something in both of these students for quite some time. So, I was so excited they were willing to dive in for this adventure and go outside their comfort zone and present in front of people that are professionals in the field. And it was amazing to be part of the presentation with them. They did an incredible job. They were confident. They understood the research. I think it's built even more passion within them to be great advocates of literacy. And I'm sure they are going to do incredible things in the field in the future as well.

PRENTICE: They are Dr. Sally Brown and Meg Osterhout and Jaden Hernandez. Congratulations to you all. And thank you so very much for giving us some time this morning.

BROWN: Thank you.

OSTERHOUT: Thank you.

HERNANDEZ: Thank you.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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