UM professor named to early literacy position

Posted June 18, 2010, at 1:25 a.m.

ORONO, Maine — An assistant professor at the University of Maine has been named the Correll Professor in Early Literacy, an award that will bring $80,000 to the College of Education and Human Development to help fund research and a new informational website.

Susan Bennett-Armistead’s work at the university focuses on childhood cognitive development from birth to age 5, which she describes as “the critical window” for language acquisition. She hopes the website, created with funds from the award, will help better connect early literacy research programs throughout the state.

“There are a number of stellar projects going on throughout the state, but we’re all sort of in silos and don’t always know what others are doing,” Bennett-Armistead said in a statement. “This generates possibilities for interaction.”

The award is part of a $2 million gift given to the university by Alston D. “Pete” Correll and Ada Lee Correll of Atlanta. Remaining funds from the gift will be used to hire an expert on wind and tidal energy as the Correll Presidential Chair in Energy in the department of engineering, in addition to funding graduate fellowships for ecology and environmental science students.

In addition to the website, funds from the award will be allocated to a number of research programs throughout the state. Bennett-Armistead now is involved with four separate projects, including a survey of literacy levels in the state’s elementary schools, which will be used to improve the early education curriculum.

“[The gift] very generously did not attach directives for how it could be used for advancing early literacy in Maine,” Bennnett-Armistead said in a statement. “We can use it for conferences, as seed money for research projects and a small stipend for the person who maintains the website.”

According to Bennett-Armistead, traditional early education programs have focused primarily on developing social skills, a maturation phase during which children learn to interact appropriately with authority figures and other students. This has led elementary education teachers to neglect reading and writing instruction until the first or second grade, well after the critical window has closed, she said.

Changing the elementary curriculum to reflect Bennett-Armistead’s findings presents an “interesting puzzle” since students enter grade school with a wide range of skills. While some students may have attended preschool or some other early education program, Bennett-Armistead said others have spent the first five years of their lives “in grandma’s basement” with little or no instruction, presenting a unique challenge to kindergarten teachers.

“For a long time, early educators have not perceived themselves as professionals,” Bennett-Armistead said, adding that her work has given these teachers “a research-based place to say, ‘Look, this is affecting children’s lives.’”

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