Hopkinton educator plans to use sabbatical to explore and teach about orthographic mapping

  • Christa McAuliffe Sabbatical recipient Elizabeth Cannon is the Reading and Writing Specialist at Harold Martin School in Hopkinton. Eileen O'Grady—Monitor staff

  • Elizabeth Cannon works one-on-one with a student in her office at Harold Martin School in Hopkinton on May 5. Eileen O'Grady / Monitor staff

  • Elizabeth Cannon helps a student to identify the sounds in a word in her office at Harold Martin School in Hopkinton on May 5, 2022. Eileen O'Grady—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 5/11/2022 5:44:49 PM

In her office, lined with colorful folders and alphabet charts, reading specialist Elizabeth Cannon helped a first-grader figure out the sounds in the word “shin.” To help him visualize, she pointed to a row of three differently colored tiles on the table in front of them, one tile to represent each sound: “sh-i-n.”

“Now we’re going to change one sound. This is ‘shin’ and I want to change it to ‘ship,’” Cannon said. “Which sound changes?”

“Ship,” became “shop,” then “hop,” then “hot.” They discussed the way the letter Y can have “i” sound in words like “cry” and “why” and an “ee” sound in words like “baby” and “funny.”

The process Cannon was using is called orthographic mapping, and focuses on teaching sounds first and connecting them to written letters and words after. It’s part of new research that has emerged in the last decade about the Science of Reading, and has children today learning to read differently from their parents or grandparents, who likely started with letters and used early reader books like “Dick and Jane” to attach sounds to the words they read.

Cannon will be studying this and more next year as the 2022 recipient of the Christa McAuliffe Sabbatical. The sabbatical, sponsored by the NH Charitable Foundation, gives teachers a year-long leave of absence with pay and a materials budget to explore a self-designed project that will result in new ideas and ways to enhance classroom teaching.

Cannon plans to devote her year, from August 2022 to August 2023, to researching how children learn to read, incorporating new research into lessons that teachers can use, and sharing the information with schools around the Granite State.

“It’s really how you can look at your own teaching, reflect and be open to change based on research,” Cannon said. “And working with teachers around the state and in schools to help supply resources.”

In her role at Harold Martin School, where she has been teaching for 12 years, Cannon currently does one-on-one instruction with students who need reading interventions, conducts testing three times a year, collects and manages data to track students’ reading ability over time and manages the budget for the literacy programming, including buying books and materials.

Cannon plans to divide her upcoming sabbatical year into three trimesters, one for diving into research and classes to build her own knowledge, one for using that knowledge to create online resources like YouTube videos and a website that other teachers can access, and one for leading professional development work in schools around the state.

Part of the research Cannon cited was Functional MRI brain scans of people completing language tasks show that separate parts of the brain light up when the focus is on individual sounds, versus when reading words made up of blended sounds – an indication that methods like orthographic mapping, which teach sounds separately before reading words, are helpful.

“If you go directly to that word recognition place without building the other piece, they will hit a wall at some point,” Cannon said. “They start getting into bigger words, like content words, and they they don’t have word attack skills about how to break them down.”

Measuring phonological awareness, or a child’s ability to process sounds, early can also help screen children for language-based learning disabilities such as dyslexia before they even start reading, Cannon said, and teachers can then adjust their literacy techniques to help them succeed.

Getting students to be competent readers by third grade is important to overall development – without adequate literacy skills, the likelihood increases that a student will drop out of school and be below the poverty line or become incarcerated in adulthood.

“It has long lasting effects,” Cannon said. “And the research has shown us that we need to get ahead of it now.”

New Hampshire ranked ninth in the nation for reading proficiency in pre-pandemic 2019, but only 38% of fourth grade students were proficient or higher in reading. In early April, the New Hampshire Department of Education announced a new initiative called “Leaning Into Literacy,” to train educators in the fundamentals of how children learn to read, to address low reading proficiency among Granite State students two years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In her sabbatical year, Cannon also plans to establish an organization for reading teachers to network and share resources, either revitalizing New Hampshire’s chapter of the International Literacy Association or starting a new group. Cannon said it’s easy for reading specialists to be isolated in small New Hampshire towns without many opportunities to share resources or collaborate.

“The plan for this sabbatical is really about supporting teachers,” Cannon said. “I really believe strongly that the more knowledge teachers have, the better results you’ll get.”

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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