For the Love of Literacy

UTA’s Literary Studies program is a driving force in transforming literacy education for future educators and the next generation of classroom learners.

By Cristal Gonzalez
Illustrations by Samantha Morales


Some books are just worth reading over and over again. For a young Robin Jocius, that book was Anne of Green Gables. She would curl up in the corner of her childhood room with a copy of the classic novel and be taken to another world. She’s had many favorites since; today, she cozies up with any of the books in the Harry Potter series to take flight (via broom) to the magical wizarding world.

But while she always loved reading, Dr. Jocius, associate professor of literary studies, never imagined being an English teacher growing up, much less a college professor.

“I lived in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and in the aftermath, there were so many valiant efforts by community members to contribute to the community and rebuild,” she says. “I was not very skilled with hammers or nails, but I thought about the schools in New Orleans and how they really needed teachers.”

Her first teaching job was as a high school English teacher. Now, after years of fostering lifelong readers and nurturing students who loved books, Jocius’ new purpose is to equip future educators with the tools and resources to teach a new generation of learners.

That sense of purpose is essential for educators today as literacy rates continue to decline. And while literacy rates are low all over the nation, they are particularly low in Texas. The state is the third-most illiterate in the nation, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, and more than 28% of Texas adults have difficulty using or understanding print material.

Jocius is part of a dedicated team of faculty members in the College of Education that is focused on correcting the problem. Together, the literacy studies team is working to prepare future educators to combat years of steady declines in literacy rates, recently exacerbated by nearly two years of pandemic-era remote learning.

“Literacy provides access, whether it’s educational or social,” Deborah Williams, clinical assistant professor in literary studies, says. “It’s a broad way of looking at things, but it gives you access to a lot of other things in school and in life.”


Building on Solid Ground

Literacy is really the basis of everything, notes Dr. Williams.

Illustration by Samantha Morales

“Think of a foundation for a house,” she says. “If the foundation is not properly established, the house is going to be shaky, and there will be serious problems.”

Williams uses this analogy with her students to remind them they are responsible for building this foundation.

“There is research out there that states if children go through two or more years with a weak literacy education, it’s going to be really hard for them to catch up,” she says. “Not just in reading and writing. Subjects like science and math are also going to be difficult. The terminology and vocabulary that goes along with these subjects will be difficult.”

The essential connection between literacy and subjects like math and science was on full display at a recent STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) workshop for school-age children hosted by the College of Education and UTA Libraries.

Jocius, who led the initiative, says she wanted to create a more authentic teaching experience for her students. With the help of Morgan Brickey-Jones, director of community engagement and former K-12 librarian, she began to develop ideas for a STEAM workshop through UTA’s Experiential Faculty Fellowship Program.

The workshop, held in May 2023, consisted of four interactive and hands-on activities involving Lego car balloon races, 3D-printed gravity batteries, and glass-jar terrariums. Each lesson was designed by Jocius’ students, drawing upon their coursework, student teaching experiences, and the library’s various resources.

“My students focused on developing activities that helped the participants break down complex problems, collaborate, and communicate,” Jocius says. “Our focus was on these STEAM concepts, but literacy also played a big role in our workshops.”


Excellence in Literary Studies

Holly Hungerford-Kresser, associate professor of English education and literacy studies, was honored for her contributions to shaping educators in 2019 with the UT System Board of Regents Outstanding Teaching Award. The award recognizes educators who best exemplify excellence, innovation, and a commitment to student success.

Dr. Hungerford-Kresser says she didn’t always want to be a teacher, but after taking on a mentorship role with a high school student when she was in college, her professional ambitions changed. Following a stint teaching in South America, she took a job as an English teacher at an underperforming high school in East Austin, Texas. There, she saw firsthand the transformative role educators can play in students’ lives.

“I taught in a high school a lot of people thought was really difficult,” she says. “But we had some of the best English teachers, and I saw the difference those teachers made. The government could mark it low-performing by whatever standards it wanted, but those teachers were making a huge difference.”

“Think of a foundation for a house. If the foundation is not properly established, the house is going to be shaky.”

Inspired by the progress there, Hungerford-Kresser decided she wanted to try to transfer that passion for making a difference on to her students.

“I thought if I could train more teachers to be like the teachers in East Austin, I wanted to do that,” she says. “There is a bigger reach there.”

Professors like Hungerford-Kresser are a big part of the reason why the master’s literacy studies program at UT Arlington is among the best in Texas, boasting a 100% pass rate on the state’s reading specialist exam since the program was established in 1998. The other reason, notes program director Kathryn Pole, is that both undergraduate literacy courses and the graduate literary studies program closely follow not only Texas state standards, but also International Literary Association standards.

“We modify our program to fit into the standards, and when something new comes out, we tailor our program accordingly,” says Dr. Pole. “The 100% pass rate on the state certification exam is in large part due to that.”

Following state and national standards doesn’t just have an impact on test scores. Upon program completion, the master’s program candidates are ready to start sharpening young learners’ reading acumen. Graduates develop the necessary skills and tools to be successful in their roles as either advanced classroom reading specialists, curriculum developers, or district-level reading administrators.

That standard of excellence means the program has an even wider reach well beyond the UTA campus. Pole says the faculty are “intimately involved” in shaping and revising the same state and national standards they follow so intently. Many other universities wanting to build new literacy programs and improve ones already established also reach out to UTA for help.

“A lot of people who contact us do so because they know our credentials,” Pole says. “It feels good to share and help others. One of the best things we can do is share what we know.”


A More Literate Future

At the core of the undergraduate and graduate programs Pole oversees is the Science of Teaching Reading (STR), essentially a body of research—including developmental psychology, cognitive science, educational psychology, and more—that informs how literacy is defined, taught, and evaluated in classrooms all across the U.S.

For aspiring educators like Hayley Westmoreland, knowledge and understanding of STR is critical. Along with earning teacher certification, they must also ace the STR exam, a new certification mandatory for candidates wanting to teach Pre-K-6 grade students.

Westmoreland, a senior majoring in early childhood-grade 6/ESL, has always wanted to be a teacher. She’s been playing school with her little sister for as long as she remembers. Being the big sister, Westmoreland was, of course, always the teacher.

Now close to graduation, Westmoreland has already been offered a letter of intent from the Arlington Independent School District, guaranteeing her an interview at the Arlington school of her choosing. She’s aiming to get placed in first or second grade to be able to teach all subjects, but she’s most excited to teach students how to read.

“I taught in a high school a lot of people thought was really difficult. But we had some of the best English teachers, and I saw the difference those teachers made.”

“I’ve always been a math person, but when it comes to teaching, I love literacy,” says Westmoreland. “It’s very fascinating because of how intricate it is. I can’t wait to sit down with my students and read them all the books I can, especially one of my favorites, The Sideways Stories of Wayside School.”

Westmoreland has the four-book collection ready for her future classroom, but she won’t stop there. She hopes to get her students excited about reading by bringing around books, poems, magazines, comics, and more—just anything they’ll learn from and enjoy.

Emily Hernandez, another senior in the early childhood – grade 6/ESL program, is also aiming to join the nearly 320,000 public school teachers in Texas to guide students to have successful lives and inspire them to become forever learners.

“Part of what I want to instill in my future students is to develop a growth mindset. I want them to think positively about themselves and their learning,” Hernandez says. “If they can’t do a math problem, I don’t want them to just give up. I want them to think ‘I can’t do this right now, but with the help of my teacher and my peers I will.’”

During the summer, Hernandez tutored students as part of the service-learning component to her upper-level class centered on literacy learning. The class met with 25 students participating in Hope Tutoring’s summer reading camp in the downtown Arlington Library for one month. The program kept children learning during the summer and build on their reading skills.

“I’m here to help the students learn, even if I have such a short amount of time with them,” Hernandez says. “I’m very excited to be working with these kids, and what’s even better is that these kids want to be here to learn and read books. I’m just happy I can be here and play a small role in their love for reading.


Beyond Academics

The transformational nature of literacy competency extends much further than classroom learning, notes Mikayla Stringfellow (’21 BA, Education).

Stringfellow’s expectation is not for every student in her class to love reading as much as she does. Her goal is for her students to become self-motivated learners. She wants them to grab books off of shelves and read because they can and want to read.

That pull toward reading has substantial impact on access to experiences and emotions that individuals would otherwise not have the opportunity to live and feel, Stringfellow says.

“My fellow teachers and I would choose books that we thought the kids really needed to learn from,” she says. “Not just for literacy purposes, but so they could learn about different cities, history, and even emotions. We would read all kinds of books, and it really helped my students explore their interests and widen their experiences.” UTA


Illustration by Samantha Morales


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