Books and Brains Literacy Services is a reading clinic in Hong Kong that helps children read, write and spell well. We find out from the clinic’s founder BEVERLY SACE about what her work as a literacy specialist entails and how one of the aims of her job in HK is to improve kids’ reading comprehension and their overall literacy skills.
What is your job description, in a nutshell?
A literacy specialist is a specially-trained and experienced teacher, who directly provides literacy skills and literacy instruction support to children who are struggling with reading, spelling and writing. In Hong Kong, I work with schools in writing curricula and the training and coaching of teachers. In addition, I help evaluate the effectiveness of schools’ literacy programmes.
How does someone become a literacy specialist?
In America, reading specialists are licensed after sitting Praxis certification exams and graduate work.
In the United Kingdom, teachers become literacy specialists through study, experience and various certifications. I have an MA specialising in the teaching of reading and spelling from the University of York. I was mentored by literacy teachers from SPELD South Australia, as well as by phonics programme authors Debbie Hepplewhite of Floppy’s Phonics and Sarah Wernham of Jolly Phonics. I’ve been teaching reading since 2008, and will be an approved practitioner with the British Dyslexia Association soon.
What drew you to this field?
I’ve always wanted to work where I try to understand the brain. I wanted to be a neurosurgeon when I was in secondary school! Life doesn’t always go according to plan and I was drawn to English teaching. I taught ESL children, but noticed that they tended to fail exams when they couldn’t read or spell. I explored the teaching of reading and found it to be wonderfully complex, as well as one of the most satisfying and rewarding jobs in Hong Kong where you are able to hear children’s first blended words.
What are some of the key aims of literacy specialists?
I would say that while literacy specialists support children who are struggling and get them to read at least at grade level, my personal and professional primary aim is to prevent reading and writing difficulties in the first place. I do this by educating parents, teachers and schools. Along with spreading awareness on effective literacy skills, instructions and busting reading comprehension myths. I also speak out against unethical practice in the teaching of reading, such as programmes that don’t support the science of reading. This is the body of research that tells us how the brain actually learns how to read.
How do you identify kids who may need help with reading comprehension?
First and foremost, it’s important to know what children should be able to do at different ages. Sometimes, we may have very high expectations of children because their peers are doing “better”, reading more, and so on. But I must remind parents that we should compare with what is developmentally expected, rather than what other children can do.
Various assessments can be done to assess reading skills. Many of these tests are on letter-sound knowledge, as phonics is the main building block towards solid fluency, vocabulary and reading comprehension skills.
Some parents may be worried that their children are dyslexic. There are signs that we can look out for that aren’t limited to reading and writing. (Find them here.) In Books and Brains, we don’t wait for a dyslexia diagnosis. Children are already taught using dyslexia-friendly methods.
How do you then come up with a plan to work with those kids?
The first meeting is really a getting-to-know-you session. We talk about observations at home and school, as well as targets set by learning support at school if any. Considering all the information on hand, and with appropriate assessments, I discuss learning targets with the parents. It’s important that parents understand our common goals so they can offer support on days the children do not see me. There is continuous formative assessment which informs detailed next steps within the learning plan and goals. Feedback to parents is also frequent – after every session, in fact!
Is there a particular age you work with, or can it be children of any age?
I work with children from two years of age up to Year 2. I have a few Year 3 and 4 students, but I implore parents to come earlier at any suspicion of a difficulty. Early intervention in the lower years is more effective than at higher years.
What do your sessions look like?
When children first come in, we do a revision of what we have covered before. For a child learning how to spell, the lesson could start with a quick spelling quiz. In reading comprehension lessons, it could be a letter recognition exercise or blending with the sounds we’ve already learnt.
Every lesson has a goal – it could be to learn a new sound or spelling, or to work on fluency or handwriting – and every lesson is different. I also monitor children’s attention, track eye movements, notice hand grips or assess mood and responding appropriately to match learning needs. We normally do at least four different activities in every lesson. I am biased towards manipulative work such as using magnets or moving cards, toys or other items for the younger ones.
We close every lesson with a “consolidation”, with the child telling me what the lesson was about and what they did – and, if age-appropriate, what the purpose is. After every lesson, a detailed feedback with pictures is sent to the parents, or when the parent is present, a few minutes chat.
Is motivating students and keeping them interested in literacy and reading comprehension a big part of your job in HK?
While I always would want children to read and write for reading and writing’s sake, there are times that very reluctant readers and writers may benefit from a bit of a push using something they would enjoy doing later on. I try to remove demotivating factors by working closely with parents and nannies. This ensures children are ready to learn when they attend lessons. However, I often find that the biggest motivator I have is simply showing the children that they are seen, valued and listened to. They also have choices in what we do during the lessons as long as we hit the same literacy skill goals.
I make sure that children feel comfortable with me and like me. This can only come when they see that I genuinely like them too! It’s important to have good relationships with children so they can be open and willing to do what’s required to get to the next level.
How does your literacy skills programme tie in with what they might be learning at school?
It’s always a balance. I feel that sometimes schools demand too much of children. For example, one of my student’s schools require children to be able to blend sounds at nursery (three years of age). While this can be possible, not all children blend so early. Other times, schools have too low expectations, which can sadly result in a delay in reading skills and reading comprehension.
While I always take into account literacy skill targets at schools, I hold steadfast to what children can age-appropriately do. Sometimes this means that we take a few steps back to be able to move forward.
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This article about how a literacy specialist helps with reading comprehension first appeared in the Autumn 2023 issue of Expat Living magazine. We have more features on Hong Kong living and jobs in HK on our website and our print magazine, so subscribe now so you never miss an issue!