[UTA Magazine]


The ABCs of success
Reading program pairs graduate students with first- and second-graders

The importance of an education came early to Diana Wisell.

Education Assistant Professor Diana Wisell
Education Assistant Professor Diana Wisell directs the Zoom Ahead Reading Initiative, which targets young children with reading problems.

Growing up in rural West Virginia, she would drop by her grandfather’s after school and read to him, because he never learned to read. Her parents didn’t finish high school.

Reading, she learned, opened a world of possibilities. An education meant growth and options and opportunity.

“Being with students and working directly with them is so much more beneficial than sitting in a classroom and hearing lectures.”
– graduate student and second-grade teacher Rose Elliott

The lessons continue.

Now an assistant professor and reading specialist in the School of Education, Dr. Wisell recently received a $79,000 Eisenhower Grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to develop a program that assists Arlington first- and second-grade students with reading problems.

The grant enables 15 UTA graduate students currently employed as teachers in the Metroplex to help 15 students from a traditionally low socioeconomic school.

“We will be able to really impact the lives of these children,” Dr. Wisell said. “We will also train these teachers in assessment techniques and instructional ideas that they can take back to their classrooms.”

Classes are held from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. every Tuesday at Crouch Elementary School. During the first hour and a half, the children’s reading skills are assessed and instruction is provided. Dr. Wisell uses the remaining time as an instructional period for the teachers.

Called the Zoom Ahead Reading Initiative, the program began with summer classes for the graduate students/teachers. Fliers, personal contacts and press releases were used to attract the graduate students, who will earn nine credit hours and a $300 stipend for their participation.

Many of the teachers have fewer than three years experience. Rose Elliott, who teaches second grade at Carter Elementary School in Fort Worth, is an exception with 16 years.

“Being with students and working directly with them is so much more beneficial than sitting in a classroom and hearing lectures,” she said. “Working directly with the students lets you see what strategies and skills they are using to read.”

The program also partners with the Dallas Zoo in offering four weekend field trips. “Because these are lower SES (socioeconomic status) children, they don’t get far from their communities,” Dr. Wisell explained. “By working with them and taking them to the zoo, it brightens their horizons.”

Rhonda Theobolt, a first-grade teacher at Duncanville’s Merrifield Elementary School, sees the project as a way to help motivate the children to read.

“I am hopeful that one-on-one tutoring on a regular basis will improve the students’ decoding skills and fluency rate,” she said. “I also hope that the zoo aspect of this program will help motivate the young readers to want to learn more by reading.”

Erin Coffed, a first-grade teacher at Arlington Classics Academy in Dalworthington Gardens, says the classes can have long-range effects.

“Applying what I have learned in this program will greatly benefit my own first-grade students,” she said. “I feel that anyone in this level of course work not only has a desire to help children succeed, but also is committed to helping children learn to read and write well enough to meet academic, vocational and citizenship requirements.”

Dr. Wisell would not only like to continue the program after its first year, but build on it. “I want to be able to do some things with our university students. If they want to study for a law exam or a pre-med exam, we can assess their needs.”

Even though some in her family had limited educational experience, they helped instill a passion for reading in Diana Wisell. She continues to carry that passion on to others.

– Jim Patterson

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