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Incoming IRA President Aims to Prepare Literacy Teachers to Instruct Diverse Classrooms

As a teenager in Albany, Ga., Patricia A. Edwards took the lead in teaching the younger kids in her community to read. When boys came to her father’s barbershop for haircuts she told them, “If you don’t let me teach you the alphabet, I’ll tell my daddy to give you a baldy.”

In the role she will take among the global community of teaching and literacy professionals next week, she won’t have to persuade anyone.

On April 28, at the close of its 55th annual conference in Chicago, the International Reading Association, an 80,000-member, Delaware-based organization that “teaches the world to read,” will install Dr. Edwards as its president.

As an international organization for literacy professionals, IRA provides resources and professional development activities toward disseminating best practices and lobbies Congress on policies to improve the quality of reading instruction in the U.S. and abroad. 

As IRA president, Edwards says she plans to continue work she has already started that aims to arm teachers with tools to successfully instruct students in diverse classrooms.

“Teachers need to learn the cultural background of their students,” said Edwards, a professor of language and literacy at Michigan State University, in an interview with Diverse.

As IRA vice president, Edwards has developed an international survey to collect data about literacy practices in communities around the world. Edwards said continuing to develop this research is important for reading instruction globally and in the U.S. as more immigrants and refugees arrive.

“We have a lot of diversity in this country but we don’t have a lot of diverse teachers. People from all over the world come to America, but teachers are unaware of what they do to become literate,” Edwards said.

For example, efforts to relocate populations out of war-torn East Africa have resulted in Minnesota having the largest population of Somali residents in the U.S. With the different religious and cultural backgrounds that Somalis bring to traditional Midwestern American classrooms, “there are no notions on how you teach them,” Edwards said.

Edwards’ perspective on preparing teachers for the diverse communities and students they will serve is the core message in her new book, Change Is Gonna Come: Transforming Literacy Education for African American Students.

The book, released this month, unpacks the stereotypes about literacy in the African-American community to challenge negative viewpoints some educators may maintain about the desire and learning ability of African-American students.

In the book, Edwards, along with two professors she mentored while they worked on their doctoral degrees at Michigan State, includes a mix of firsthand accounts from students of all ages and explanations of African-American life and culture that reveal students’ motives for engaging or not engaging in traditional literacy activities. The book also reviews best practices and gives educators a new way of understanding African-American students, their families and learning styles and how to use those insights to succeed in the classroom.

The book addresses issues that teaching professionals, who primarily are White, middle-class and female, have brought to their teacher-education classrooms, said co-author Jennifer D. Turner, who teaches advanced reading methods courses for teacher candidates in the University of Maryland’s master’s certification program. It also is a valuable resource for all educators as they encounter increasing diversity among the student body in their school systems, Turner said.

“We wrote the book because it’s hard to talk about cultural communication — how to talk to families and kids who are different from you,” Turner said. “We thought that the voices in the book were exposing some of innermost thoughts of students and parents.”

Past practice has led to disproportionate placement of African-American students in less-challenging classrooms and the belief that their parents are unconcerned about their academic achievement. But Edwards’ argues that these practices reflect a misinterpretation of students and their families.

Edwards shows that teacher and student success in the classroom is tied to the education system being equipped to understand and adapt to what is inside their students’ cultural backpacks.

Activities Edwards will participate in over the next few months to promote these ideas and those of IRA include speaking at six education conferences and taking a group of educators to Zimbabwe, Johannesburg, South Africa and Cape Town, South Africa. She also plans to write more guidance and produce teaching videos to show U.S.-based teachers what classrooms are like around the world.

Edwards’ research and insights on improving teacher preparation are consistent with IRA as it seeks to provide professional development services for teachers, said Dr. William Harvey, IRA executive director. The IRA, established in 1956, also seeks to raise its profile in the U.S. and across the world as a key organization for the development of education policy. It also wants to open membership to parents and community members. 

“Pat is one of the country’s foremost experts in family learning and parent involvement,” Harvey said. “We will be able to provide her expertise on our website and we will be able to use her research to communicate with the public.”

Edwards’ past work includes development of two family literacy programs—Parents as Partners in Reading: A Family Literacy Training Program and Talking Your Way to Literacy: A Program to Help Nonreading Parents Prepare Their Children for Reading. Edwards also has written two books, A Path to Follow: Learning to Listen to Parents (Heinemann, 1999), and Children’s Literacy Development: Making it Happen Through School, Family, and Community Involvement (Allyn & Bacon, 2003).

As the Obama administration develops policy pushing higher education to produce more Americans with two- and four-year degrees to keep pace with academic attainment in other countries, Edwards wants to remind policymakers that elementary, middle and high school education is the foundation for successfully moving students through college.

“In order to have strong higher education, we need a strong K-12,” Edwards said.

As classrooms get more diverse, Edwards also would like to bring more diversity to IRA and develop a pathway for diverse leadership within the organization.

“We must have multiple people at the table. When you are out of sight, you are out of mind.”


Illiteracy Facts

  • 42 million American adults cannot read (Source: National Right to Read Foundation)
  • 20 percent of high school seniors can be classified as functionally illiterate when they graduate (National Right to Read Foundation)
  • 85 percent of juvenile offenders are classified as functionally or marginally illiterate (
  • 43 percent of Americans with the lowest literacy skills live in poverty (
 Percentages at or above each achievement level for reading, grade 4, by year, and Race/ethnicity (from school records)
Year White Black Hispanic Asian/Pacific Island American Indian
Below basic At or above basic Below basic At or above basic Below basic At or above basic Below basic At or above basic Below basic At or above basic
2009 22 78 52 48 51 49 20 80 50 50
2007 22 78 54 46 50 50 23 77 51 49
2005 24 76 58 42 54 46 27 73 52 48
2003 25 75 60 40 56 44 30 70 53 47
2002 25 75 60 40 56 44 30 70 49 51
2000 30 70 65 35 63 37 30 70 37 63
2000¹ 28 72 65 35 59 41 25 75 40 60
1998 30 70 64 36 63 37 42 58
1998¹ 28 72 65 35 62 38 37 63
1994¹ 30 70 70 30 66 34 34 66 41 59
1992¹ 29 71 68 32 61 39 40 60
† Not applicable.
‡ Reporting standards not met.
¹ Accommodations were not permitted for this assessment.
NOTE: Black includes African American, Hispanic includes Latino, Pacific Islander includes Native Hawaiian, and American Indian includes Alaska Native. Race categories exclude Hispanic origin unless specified. Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding. Some apparent differences between estimates may not be statistically significant. Analyze results with NAEP Data Explorer.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 1992, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009 Reading Assessments.
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