Emily Hayden, a new School of Education assistant professor of literacy education, works to improve student literacy and strengthen teacher preparation. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Hayden works to crack code for better reading comprehension, teacher preparation

Emily Hayden, a new assistant professor of literacy education in the School of Education at Iowa State University, has two driving passions: improving student literacy and strengthening teacher preparation.

The eastern Nebraska native — who serves as one of the newest members of the Iowa Reading Research Center’s Advisory Council — taught for nearly two decades in K-12 classrooms before entering higher education, kindling a desire to decode the mysteries of reading.

Her experience includes both elementary and secondary special education settings, with roles ranging from a Reading Recovery and literacy specialist for early elementary students, to a special education consultant for inclusive classrooms, to a special education administrator for Lincoln (Nebraska) Public Schools.

“Working with Reading Recovery fueled my love of trying to crack the code of what helps all children learn to read successfully,” Hayden said. “The goal of reading is to understand what you read, not just to say all the words on the page — it’s about getting the message and working to comprehend.”

Preparing tomorrow’s teachers today

Just as Hayden is fascinated by how to crack the reading comprehension code, she is determined to solve the puzzle of how best to prepare tomorrow’s teachers.

“Dr. Hayden has experience and expertise in literacy teacher preparation,” said Marlene Strathe, director of the School of Education. “She is particularly focused on the professional development of teachers through reflection on pedagogical practices.”

Hayden researches reading comprehension strategies with her new colleagues in Iowa State’s Language, Literacy, and Learning (L3) team and co-leads the Fred Duffelmeyer Reading Improvement Clinic. A record number of Iowa Staters — nearly 100 — are teaching this fall in the clinic, which provides students with the skills and experiences that lead to a reading endorsement.

“There’s a recognized need for improvement in literacy skills, and increased state standards that push teachers to provide reading and writing instruction across content areas,” Hayden said. “A reading endorsement tells prospective employer school districts that our ISU graduates have the commitment, experience, skill, and passion to work with all readers in our schools.”

Helping all students succeed

Hayden said that strategies such as breaking passages into smaller segments and following them with quick comprehension checks; inserting graphics, pictures, and charts into textbooks; or incorporating video introductions with reading tasks may help to increase students’ comprehension — especially as they enter middle school.  

“As students move into middle school, they’re expected to read and comprehend more on their own, without as much teacher support,” she said. “Yet, when we’ve done pilot studies, we’ve found that about half the kids stopped reading for meaning before the end of a standard 800-word passage.”

Hayden said she believes that increasing reading stamina and text comprehension is increasingly important in 21st century classrooms.

“Understanding what you read and being able to communicate are skills that are increasingly important,” she said. “We’re moving away from a more industrial society to a more knowledge-gaining society.”

With this shift, Hayden focuses her research more specifically on expanding students’ ability to respond to the discipline-specific texts in their STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) classrooms.

“It’s crucial with STEM — there’s a growing recognition of the need for literacy within science,” she said. “I’m doing research in that right now at the middle school level — how to help students read and understand science text, because science text is different than what you read in language arts.” 

Mentoring that makes a difference

Hayden said that like learning to read, building relationships between seasoned teachers and those just entering the profession takes time, but it is well worth it.

“Veteran teachers have learned to think on their feet and make adjustments to their instruction,” she said. “As teachers gain experience, these areas become smoother and teachers are better able to tune in to their students. That’s fascinating to me — how experienced teachers do this, and how we can share these skills with beginning teachers.”

A major part of this development is, for Hayden, allowing time for relationships to grow.

“Teachers need thoughtful, long-term mentorship, without a lot of outside targets to hit,” she said. “School districts must recognize that relationships take time to develop the give-and-take that is so important.”

Hayden said she looks forward to building those bonds with her students, following the mission of a land-grant university that has historically connected its students with the land and with one another.

“I’m a product of the land-grant,” she said. “It’s exciting to be part of that.”