Returning to Antigua…

I am excited to be returning to Antigua in the coming weeks.  I will be joined by a friend, Christy, who visited me while I was on sabbatical in 2012 and will be staying with my friend, Paula, who sponsored me for my sabbatical.

When the hurricanes hit the islands, I tried to get in touch with folks and it was quite a while before I was able to talk with people in Antigua and then my friend, Paula, left me a message on my answering machine. I was so wonderful to hear her voice…”hello, Dr. Gately, this is “Poolah.”  That wonderful voice and Antiguan accent went to my soul and I had to return to the island.

I hope to make short visits to a few schools, but do not plan on doing any workshops.  Looking forward to seeing so many people.  Antigua will always be in my heart.


New Ideas for the Big Ideas of Reading

In 1997 President George W. Bush supported an initiative to put an end to the reading question…what is the best way to teach beginning reading?   So Congress approved monies to the National Institute Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and the federal Department of Education to gather together a panel of experts to evaluate research t and to determine based on evidence, the best way to teach young children to read.


A panel of experts were assembled and asked to review all the research studies that has been conducted over the years.  Prior to beginning this task, the panel needed to describe the criteria for inclusion of the research in the study. Then these studies were reviewed by subgroups of reviewers and recommendations were made.  At the time thee findings of the National Reading Panel were disseminated, conventional wisdom advocated that the answers to teaching beginning reading skills were solved.  Hurrah!  The  Big Ideas of Reading were developed as the basis for effective reading instruction.

The Big Ideas of Reading

The Big Ideas of Reading

Many thought the reading wars were over.  Not so fast!  Within months of the dissemination of the National Reading Panel’s findings, many considered-experts in reading, including Pearson, Shanahan, Allington, Cunningham, Krashen, and Carbo called, “Foul.”  The objected that the criteria used to include studies, actually excluded many studies on beginning reading.   And yet practitioners in the field, not familiar with some researchers’ objections, embraced this “new” information   and prepared to teach “phonics first,” thinking that an end to “meaning first” programs  (whole language programs ) were imminent.  Soon, publishing houses were reprinting decodable texts used in the 70’s and 80’s.  I couldn’t believe when I saw new copyright dates on Scholastics’ SRA Decodable Readers and Merrill Linguistic Readers at the National CEC Convention, within year of the  NRP publication.  Barbara Wilson, ever the entrepreneur,  was quick to develop classroom materials that mirrored her very successful phonics tutorial program.   The format for the big ideas of reading morphed into various linear models:

Linier models of Big Ideas

Linear models of Big the Big Ideas of Reading Ideas

Notice in this model that the size of each of the big ideas becomes smaller as you reach the top of the graphic; suggesting that the ideas on the bottom of the list should be given more attention in early reading program.   Other linear models are far simpler.   What models like these seemed to implicate was that reading development proceeded in  a linear progression.   So early on there was an emphasis on phonological awareness programs.  Lindamood Bell was already there to corner the market; Reading Rockets, SRA, and many other resources from reputable publishing houses cranked out a variety of options to help children learn phonological awareness skills, especially the two most related to reading achievement, phonological segmentation and phonological blending.  In concert with these materials  were the plethora of phonics programs, new and republished programs that concentrated  “cracking the code.”  This seeming over-emphasis of phonics didn’t follow another Reading Panel recommendation that reading programs should be balanced.

At about this time, I became very interested in understanding the early literacy development of children on the autistic spectrum.  They were so creative in their learning styles.  I noticed that some children would tantrum when they were asked to complete phonics activities or to work on activities to learn the names and sounds of the letters of the alphabet.  I wondered if their tantrums were related to their lack of understanding of what these activities were all about.  We started to use beginning, repetitious stories with the students.  We made reading more interactive, using velcro word and picture cards in simple sentences.  “I like……cake.  I like…pizza.”  It was as though we had opened a door to the students’ understanding.  Tantrums (well, many anyway) stopped and learning occurred. The children were excited.    The concept that they needed to learn was concept of word and of course, all the concept of print tasks that pre-readers learn through handling books.  Thus, the first adaptation of the Big Ideas of Reading:

The SIX Big Ideas of Reading (adapted Gately, 2000).

  1. Concept of Word: the concept that speech is mapped to print.
  2. Phonological Awareness: the concept that words are comprised of sounds
  3. Alphabetic Principle: the concept that the sounds we hear in words can be written down
  4. Fluency: (no concept here) ability to read effortlessly, that is automatically aids in the understanding of the text being read
  5. Vocabulary: the concepts that words convey meaning(s)
  6. Comprehension: that connected text (or reading) is meaningful

For many years I introduced this version to my undergraduate and graduate students, studying in special education.  What the addition of this concept does, is to in some ways debunk the idea of phonics first.  It’s not really a matter of what comes first, but a matter of where the child is when he enters school in his/her understanding of what literacy is all about.  Concepts of word studies were not included in the research as there was little research done in this area. After all, most students coming into kindergartens have already grasped this idea that the speech could be mapped to print.  However, with inclusion of children with disability in schools, this is an important early concept for them to discover.  Including concept of word as a Big Idea of Reading is necessary to those teaching students who haven’t developed this  concept.

Well, I continued to think about this and perhaps my research on first graders in Antigua was most instrumental in helping me to see that one of the things that was happening in the instruction of reading was that the linear models of  the Big Ideas, seemed to allow a disregard of  vocabulary and comprehension development until the students were able to “read to learn.”  (Chall). I don’t mean that teachers neglected helping children learn new word meanings, but measurement of growth of literacy development became dependent on scores of  DIBELS and AIMSWEB curriculum based measures, which didn’t have vocabulary or comprehension measures of any worth.  So…what gets tested is

DIBELS One Minute Phonemic Segmentation Fluency

DIBELS – Phonemic Segmentation Fluency.  On this task the student is asked to segment each word into sounds; the number of sounds segments within a minute is a measure of phonemic segmentation.

Another thing occurred with the onslaught of curriculum based measurements (one minute checks on various sub skills of literacy) was the focus on fluency or automaticity of each of the skills, The big ideas were not only to be mastered, but mastery meant automaticity.  Of course the need for automaticity is important, perhaps even essential in some cases, but with these one-minute measures came an over-focus on fluency.  I remember reading an article about how a teacher was really focusing on making connections when reading and thinking about one’s thinking when reading.   She was administering a one-minute reading passage to a student to determine her correct words read per minute (CWRM) when the student started to discuss some of the connections she was making with the passage.  The teacher didn’t know whether to encourage the student to use the comprehension strategy or to tell the student just to read…a conundrum for sure.  Current research indicates that students are reading faster, but the concerns of the testing community about comprehension has lead to movement of the new Core to include Close Reading.


The next morph of the Big Ideas of Reading came to me as Pat Howson, a colleague of mine and I prepared  some presentations we would be doing in Antigua this past June.  Many of the children in Antigua come from homes where a dialect is used. When children start school, they are expected to master British English, which for some children is like learning a new language.  While Antigua and Barbuda was an English colony one might think that many of the children would find learning English to be easy for them to master.  Not, so, the research during my sabbatical indicated that many of the children had trouble learning English. This was partly due to the pedagogy used, which was authoritarian, based on choral responses, and the “sage on the stage” model.  There was little room for discussions, peers sharing ideas or working together.  So, once again I adapted the order of the Big Ideas of Reading as follows:

The Big Ideas of Early Reading (adapted Gately & Howson, 2015).

1.  Vocabulary: the concepts that words convey meaning(s)

2. Comprehension: the concept that connected text (or reading) is meaningful

3.  Concept of Word: the concept that speech is mapped to print.

4.  Phonological Awareness: the concept that words are composed of sounds.

5. Alphabetic Principle: the concept that the sounds we hear in words can be written down

6.  Fluency: (no concept here) ability to read effortlessly, that is automaticity

This version of the Big Ideas of Reading indicates that reading to students, studying words, vocabulary, multi meaning words, relationships between words, understanding sentences and story are a prerequisite for gently learning the concepts and skills of concept of word, phonological awareness,  and the alphabetic principle.  An integrated approach that starts young children with listening and talking about stories, stories and more stories will help them to learn about print, about sounds and about the orthography they will learn.  They will learn these concepts and skills more easily and become more fluent with a such hefty background in understanding how words, sentences and stories work.  They will enjoy the best of what reading is all about and when they do this within a balanced approach that calls attention to phonological aspects of the words, sentences and stories, they will be more apt to become life long readers, because they have been engaged.  One of the recommendations of the National Reading Panel that got less attention was that reading should be taught with a balanced approach.  In many schools and classrooms this gets lost with an over-focus on instruction was on exploit teaching of phonics approaches to reading.

When we are given “new” findings in our field, it is important to carefully examine the background of the findings, to understanding the research decisions and to avoid formulaic answers.  Formulaic approaches are like putting things in boxes ….when we do this, we must always remember that the differences between the things inside one box may be even greater than the differences between the boxes.

We’re back!!!

Dr. Joanne Nichols, professor at Fitchburg State University makes an important point listening and speaking in the classroom to over 60 kindergarten teachers in Antigua.

Dr. Joanne Nichols, professor at Fitchburg State University makes an important point about listening and speaking in the classroom to over 60 kindergarten teachers in Antigua.

Drs. Gately, Howson and Nichols just returned from an exiting 10 days in Antigua, West Indies.  Working with reading specialists and kindergarten teachers kept the consultants busy during their stay.  This was the fifth visit to the island of Antigua, West Indies for Dr. Susan Gately, who had previously pent her sabbatical there in the spring of 2012.

Here is Paula Spencer, Director of Language Arts for the Antigua Public Schools.  A wonderful champion of our work.

Here is Paula Spencer, Director of Language Arts for the Antigua Public Schools. A wonderful champion of our work.

As a result of my research, the team of college professors made the journey to the island to discuss the importance of peers talking with each other as they learn standard British English.  One of the highlights of the visit was Dr. Nichols’ adaptation of “Reading is for Meaning,” sung to the tune of “She’s Coming Round the Mountain when she comes.”  Check out my Literacy for All page on this blog to get the words to Dr. Nichols version.

Teachers work to solve a problem during one of Reading Teachers' Workhop.

Teachers work to solve a problem during one of Reading Teachers’ Workshop.

Dr. Gately spent some time at the Victory House, a small private program for students on the autism spectrum.  The teachers, assistants, volunteers and administration were very engaged in learning about teaching their students how to read.  Many of the techniques shared with the group are included in an article I wrote on Concept of Word.  An abstract of that article is included in the Literacy for All page on this blog.

Drs. Gately and Howson visited the Adele School, a small public school that supports students with developmental delays.  The teachers and principal were gracious hosts, providing lunch and other treats.  We had so little time there;  I hope we get to return to this beautiful school.

Of course we discovered more of Antigua on our time off.  New finds for us were Darkwood Beach, and the beautiful Fryes Beaches…Little Fryes and Big Freyes.

Darkwood Beach, Antigua.  A beautiful setting for some relaxing.

Darkwood Beach, Antigua. A beautiful setting for some relaxing.

Perhaps our most poignant moment on the island was the retirement celebration of Mrs. Jacintha Pringle, Director of Education who officially retired in May, 2015.

Director of Education Mrs. Jacintha Pringle

Mrs. Pringle supported education for all.  In September, 2011 she was instrumental in starting a post-primary program for students who had not passed with entrance exam for admittance into secondary schools.  This was a lifeline for students who otherwise would be finished with their education, unless their parents could afford the tuition for a private secondary education. This photo was taken at the official opening of the school, for which I was present.  Mrs. Pringle urged the students of the school to use this opportunity seriously; that the school was an opportunity for them to start over and achieve whatever they wanted in life.  I remember when she started the speech that some of the students were squirming and talking in their seats.  In her no-nonsense tone, she told the students that they could join her at the podium if there was continued talking.  The students took her for her word and were immediately silent and attentive.   I think it was Kierkegaard who suggested, “We become our choices.”  I believe that was what Mrs. Pringle wanted the students to hear; that no matter what circumstances the students had endured in the past, that their possibilities were endless.

At her retirement many spoke of Mrs. Pringle’s get-it-done  no-nonsense manner and how inspiring she was to those with whom she taught and worked. I remember a meeting I attended at the NTCT (the new school) where she gathered all of her eduction directors (there were a lot of them) and the school staff to discuss how to improve conditions at the school.  She ran the meeting with an intent to listen to the teachers and to help them solve problems at the school.  I believe that the teachers left this meeting with some hope that conditions at the school would be improved.  Mrs. Pringle was always gracious to me in her interactions (even when I think she might have disagreed with me).  I appreciate her pride in her country, the improvements she made in education in Antigua, her influence within the East Caribbean nations, and her belief that all students should be given the opportunity to learn.

Mrs. Pringle’s celebration was a beautifully, planned Catholic mass at St. Michael’s Cathedral in St.John’ Antigua.

The occasion included a steel band and chorus from one of the local schools.  The music was spectacular.  It included Mrs. Pringle’s daughters’ abstract rendition of “Happy Birthday” on steel drums.  There were many thanks and speeches to honor Mrs. Pringle,    It was truly a wonderful, heart-warming experience.  The celebration ended with the song, I know who I am. (find it at ).

Expanding Availability for Consulting

Teacher training in Antigua, West Indies.

Teacher training in Antigua, West Indies.

As the former director of the General Special Education Certification Program at Rivier University, I have decided to expand my availability for consulting in school districts. My expertise is in the area of literacy assessment, planning and monitoring progress.

I have consulted to school districts and private schools for many years.  As a former teacher and administrator in both public and private schools (K-16) and a doctorate in special education from Boston College, I have consulted on a  wide range of topics.  I have presented papers at international, national, regional and state conferences, and conducted teacher training on a many toptics in the area of literacy learning.

I am fortunate to provide  training and mentoring to teachers in Antigua,
W.I. and work with students in the schools there, developing skills in integrated teaching using place-based education principles.  Focus has been on creating environments that promote active learning with emphasis on developing language , dialogue and critical thinking skills.

Principals of primary schools in Antigua work together to solve the

Principals of primary schools in Antigua work together to solve the “marshmallow challenge.” After the challenge they discussed the skills that were necessary to successfully complete the project.

My primary area of expertise is in the assessment of literacy skills in K-12 students.  I have conducted hundreds of literacy evaluations over my career and have helped many teachers improve their understanding of how students develop literacy and their ability to choose appropriate methods to use to enhance literacy in their classrooms.

An example of drawing and writing.

An example of drawing and writing.  Much can be learned about what students’ know by examining their writing.  This sample was in response to the story Tikki Tikki Tembo.  This English language learner demonstrates some understanding of story sequence, excellent concept of word and developing phonemic awareness.  HIs difficulty with grammar is evident.

When I conduct literacy assessments, my first task is to talk to the students about their feelings and emotions (they are differences) and their willingness to engage in literacy tasks, their ability to sustain their attention to literacy tasks and their tolerance for  frustration.  These behaviors may dictate planning recommendations.  photo-77

In the coming weeks, I will be adding literacy information and tips on various pages of this blog-space.  I hope that you will contact me at my email ( if you would like additional information or would like to discuss my services further.   l look forward to helping you “disengage your automatic pilot.”


P.S.  As you explore earlier blogs you will see that I am enjoy needle felting!  Above is a needle felted portrait of my husband I did for Christmas!  What a great way to relax!

Willie, my snowy owl

photo 4 Willie, the Snowy Owl

I have finally completed needle felting a snowy owl that I started about a month ago.  Willie is just over 12 inches tall.  I have reworked him a number of times.  I completed primary and secondary wings, and tail feathers, only to pull them off and start again.  Willlie’s chest is different from how I started as well.

These are the original primary feathers that I made for Willie.  I decided they just weren’t correct.

One thing I enjoy about needle felting, besides the peace and calm that it brings me, it that if you don’t like what you have done, you can just pull your wool off and start again. I think Willie is completed, but as I look at him on my desk work area, I’m seeing that his left side looks a bit more bloated than his right side.  I’ll have to take care of that next.

photo 3

Here is Willie, The Snowy Owl

To attempt such as project, I first learned more about snowy owls, especially their physical features.  I looked at numerous pictures of beautiful photographs of snowys and read about all kinds of conservation and protection programs that are aimed to increase the snowy’s numbers.  Then I searched for pictures of  needle felted snowys.

photo 2Willie…side view

 I didn’t base Willie on any one photo or needle felted project, but created him as I went along.  Were I do this again (I probably won’t unless I get a commission for Willie), I would turn his head to the side, posing him differently.

photo 1Willie’s backside…You can see the three sets of feathers (actually there are four…at the top are the wing covering feathers)

For Christmas I created a portrait of my husband, of which I am very proud.  Frank knew I was up to something, but was really shocked when he opened this present.

photo-72I think that this is one of my best pieces.  Even the attitude of the portrait captures Frank’s overall demeanor.

I also worked very hard on a bald eagle for my nephew, Kevin, who enjoys photographing them.   Here is a photo of Kevin’s bald eagle.  I can’t tell you how long it took me to be happy with the, that’s the update on needle felting.  Finally, I’ve found a craft that I enjoy doing and can well fairly well.

TheO Smart Ball

TheO Smart Ball

TheO Smart Ball

TheO Smart Ball is a great tool for kids (and adults).  The ball is made of a great rubberish material that is fun to hold and soft…my friend’s dog, Molly loves this kind of materials…she can really get her teeth into it (probably not a good idea). Anyway this ball is around $35.o0.  You upload to your phone for activity apps, place your phone securely into the space that you see in the picture, turn on the program you want to play and throw the ball.  Each time the ball is thrown, the question or problem changes on the screen.  Great for reviewing material, just adding a big of engagement to the lesson.  Some of the apps are great games for families too (you don’t really need the ball, you can just shake the phone and the question changes.  At a recent “sisters” reunion we had fun playing Interrago, a great icebreaker for use in therapy or just to get to know new people.  There is also a Bowling for TheO, Flying Circus, Word Teasers and Pop Fun.  The developers are working on developing an app that will allow teachers to write their own material to use.  A fun addition to your classroom, home or office.

photo (43)

Here’s the guy at the CEC Convention describing the Smartball to me. Another convention find.

New technology: A Robot for Children with Autism

Click on the link below to see the robot at work.  He is doing a Tai Chi routine, which I started to do with him…thus the poor camera work for a few seconds.  Bear with me, it’s worth it. 

Nao, as the robot is called, is currently being piloted at an elementary school in Haverhill, MA. He can play games, ask questions and interact with children in a much more predictable way than the typical preschooler and is a bit hit with many of the children with autism.

The robot.  At the CEC convention in April in Philadelphia I was checking out the vendors.  One of interest to me was this beautiful, little robot.  Most people just watched for a while and moved on, but I was interested in what this little guy could do.  The gentlemen with whom I spoke was the inventor of the robot.  He told me that he had brought the robot to an event and all of sudden, he heard a woman crying.  Her son, a little boy with a diagnosis of autism was interacting with the robot.  This was the first thing that had ever  maintained her child’s attention.  Since then the robot is being piloting in a integrated preschools  around the country.  Recently the Boston Globe ran a short article on the robot and its possibility for helping children with special needs.  With a  price tag of about $10,000, it might be worth it.