Lesley University’s first faculty endowed chair honors two pioneers in the field of literacy while recognizing the importance of extending educational opportunity to all, particularly children who face special challenges in becoming successfully literate in the early grades.
On July 1, the university will formally name Dr. Irene Fountas the first recipient of the Marie M. Clay Endowed Chair in Reading Recovery.
Fountas, director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative, says she is thankful for the honor, especially one named for her mentor and developer of a “revolutionary approach” to literacy, which within 12 to 16 weeks helps first-graders with extreme difficulty in learning to read reach the level of their peers. Dame Marie Clay, a New Zealand-born researcher, developed Reading Recovery beginning in 1976, before it was implemented nationally in New Zealand in 1983, and launched the next year in the United States. Fountas and others founded Lesley’s center in 1990.
The purpose of Reading Recovery, both globally and here, is to “make sure these children don’t enter a cycle of failure,” Fountas says, explaining that inadequate success in reading, writing and language skills puts the youngest students at a significant disadvantage, which can vex them throughout their time in school and during their working lives. Reading Recovery demonstrates the world can be different for the lowest achieving children.
“This is a program that builds on children’s strengths, instead of targeting their deficits,” says Fountas, adding that Lesley offers “a very powerful training model for teachers who are going to provide the intervention.”
Fountas says the $2.5 million endowed chair “ensures there will always be someone (at Lesley) with expertise in Clay’s work.”
Jack Gillette, dean of the Graduate School of Education, adds: “This financial support will ensure the sustainability of the Center and all its good work.” He says that Fountas’s selection as recipient of the endowed chair recognition “is a fitting tribute to a faculty member whose work has shaped the way the world approaches literacy, one who deeply honors her mentorship with Marie Clay, and someone who has touched the lives of so many.”
A Reading Recovery lesson in action.
The Marie M. Clay Endowed Chair in Reading Recovery was established by Lesley University in conjunction with the Reading Recovery Council of Massachusetts. In addition to recognizing faculty expertise and distinguished scholarship on the Reading Recovery early literacy intervention model Clay developed, it is designed to play a pivotal role in sustaining advocacy, dissemination, and research of this literacy model by Lesley University’s Center for Reading Recovery/Literacy Collaborative. Provost Selase Williams selected Fountas as the recipient.
“Among the number of outstanding teacher and scholars at Lesley University, Irene Fountas casts perhaps the longest shadow,” says university Provost Williams. “She is a national icon in her field, one who works so quietly and humbly that one would not know about her prominence were it not for the tremendous impact she and the Reading Recovery Center have had on school districts, classrooms, and, most importantly, on the lives of young readers.”
“Irene is a giant in her field,” adds Dean Gillette. “Beginning with her groundbreaking work with Gay Su Pinnell, ‘Guided Reading: Good First Teaching for All Children’ — about to have its 20th anniversary — Irene has led the way toward a systematic approach to literacy, from assessment to text selection to the network of teaching competencies that need to surround all children.”
A longtime and respected member of the Lesley community, Fountas has also demonstrated her impact can be seen away from the university, in the myriad classrooms and school districts that employ her literacy approaches.
“There is hardly a district in America you can walk into without seeing copies of her various texts out and well-used,” Gillette says. “Her widespread reputation has always been a huge plus for Lesley. The awarding of our first chair allows the university to honor that reputation in a formal way, bringing honor to the university, as well.”
However, Fountas is quick to deflect the attention from her, explaining that she is gratified that the endowed chair recognizes the importance of serving the most vulnerable students. She also believes Dame Marie Clay would feel the same way.
“She was a very humble woman,” Fountas says, recalling Clay’s visit to Lesley’s center as she was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1994. “But she was enormously appreciative of the university’s commitment to helping the lowest-achieving children.”