Teaching Teachers: Dr. Marla Mallette on Reading, Education, and Books That Grow

An Educator’s Educator

When you teach college classes and it’s the middle of winter in Binghamton, New York, nothing warms your heart quite like walking into a classroom of bright-eyed, future educators who are ready to learn. Although professors of weaker stock may be tempted to trade in Binghamton’s snow-clad valley in favor of sunny beaches and palm trees, Dr. Marla Mallette isn’t daunted by the weather because she’s on a mission.

Dr. Mallette is an Associate Professor of Literacy Education in the Graduate School of Education at Binghamton University. Prior to joining the faculty at Binghamton University in the fall of 2012, Dr. Mallette taught for 12 years at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She earned her PhD in Literacy Education from UNLV and taught first grade in the Clark County School District. Currently, in addition to her work at the university, Dr. Mallette serves as a co-editor of The Reading Teacher, a practitioner journal, published by the International Literacy Association, an organization committed to “ensuring that literacy is a fundamental, inalienable human right worldwide.”

Binghamton University consistently ranks as one of New York State’s best public universities, with low professor to student ratios. Along with other State University of New York (SUNY) schools, Binghamton University is becoming a highly sought out institution for students, and has more recently been referred to as a public Ivy. Fortunately for Dr. Mallette—and future students of America—this means her graduate education courses are filled with intelligent and thoughtful students. Her students are both certified inservice teachers, who are returning to graduate school to seek professional certification in literacy education, as well as, preservice teachers who are entering graduate school with bachelor’s degrees from other fields and seeking initial and advanced certification. These preservice teachers bring an array of educational backgrounds to their teacher education studies, with bachelor’s degrees in areas ranging from history to English to human development. About one half of the students are returning to Binghamton for a second degree, with the other half beginning at Binghamton as graduate students as they completed their undergraduate work at institutions throughout New York state, and, sometimes beyond – one of her current students studied applied psychology at Sun Yat-Sen University, in China.

We corresponded with Dr. Mallette’s students about their decisions to pursue graduate degrees in education. What becomes apparent, however, is that these students share an unwavering faith in the transformative power of education, a desire to share their own love of learning, and a keen awareness that today’s children are tomorrow’s future. For example, graduate student Natalie Baker remarked that, “Working with children is one of the most fulfilling careers one can choose. While it is hard work, there is constant joy in seeing children learn. That joy alone fuels you with the energy and motivation needed to keep planning and teaching.” This sentiment was echoed by Caitlin LaFergola, who added, “I want to inspire my students and let them know that they can accomplish anything they put their minds to and to never doubt themselves. I want to make learning fun and interesting.” And Xi Yan’s sentiments ring true for the rest of her peers—and educators everywhere—when she wrote that, “Scaffolding children to be better educated can bring a country a better future, and I want to be a part of that.”

In addition to being passionate about pursuing careers in education, these students don’t seem to fear overextending themselves. They are part of a specialized cohort that, upon graduation, will receive a Master of Science in Education degree (MSEd) and teaching certifications in three areas: early childhood education, childhood education, and either special education, or literacy education. After two years of rigorous coursework and fieldwork, Dr. Mallette’s students will be qualified to work with children from birth through Grade 6 in a number of capacities.

Community Engagement / Service Learning for Future Teachers

Understanding the literacy development among children whom experience difficulties, is  one focus of Dr. Mallette’s research and teaching. As such, she reminds her students about the importance of recognizing that striving readers span a large spectrum when it comes to individual differences. As a result, literacy instruction requires considerable individualized attention. Dr. Mallette and her students embrace this ideal in their spring semester course, LTRC 518: Literacy Assessment and Teaching. As part of the course requirements, her graduate students are participating in Bearcats’ Kids Academy (BKA), an afterschool program sustained by a partnership between the GSE and the Windsor School District. In BKA, the graduate students meet once per week at Floyd Bell Elementary School in Kirkwood, NY. They spend two hours of the course time as students, learning about how to assess and instruct children who struggle with reading; and they spend one hour of course time applying this knowledge, by providing one-on-one instruction to third-grade students.

During the first few sessions of BKA, the graduate students administer multiple literacy assessments, and then they analyze the assessment data to determine the children’s strengths and needs as literacy learners. One of the assessments they use is an informal reading inventory, which the students administer to determine the children’s independent, instructional, and frustration reading levels:

●           A student’s independent reading level is the highest level a student can read without support, and is characterized by 99%-100% oral reading accuracy and excellent comprehension (i.e., 88%-100%).

●           A student’s instructional reading level is the level in which a student would benefit from instruction while reading, and is characterized 95%-98% oral reading accuracy and good comprehension (i.e., at least 75%).

●           A student’s frustration reading level is the level at which the reading is too difficult for the child, even with instruction, and is characterized by less than 90% oral reading accuracy and limited comprehension.

In terms of reading levels, Dr. Mallette reminds her students that, “a child’s reading level is neither static nor fixed; rather, it is quite fluid and can fluctuate based on a number of aspects, for example, the child’s familiarity with certain words and phrases, prior knowledge, interests, motivation, and/or amount of practice.”

Going back to her point about literacy instruction requiring significant amounts of individualized attention, Dr. Mallette acknowledged that she wasthrilled that [her] students can access the texts from the Books that Grow library for their tutoring instruction.Because each text in the Books That Grow library can be accessed by multiple reading levels, the process for choosing text is streamlined. Tutors can choose which level they want to match, and then with great ease, provide the children with texts at that level. Tutors can now plan instruction more effectively. That is, they can very easily match the type of reading level to the instructional focus.

Stay tuned for the second half of our interview with Dr. Mallette, where she speaks in greater depth about Independent and Instructional Reading Levels, and research-based strategies for assisting children in developing their reading fluency.