Laura Lay | Movers & Shakers 2019 – Educators

Developing a youth literacy program wasn’t in Laura Lay’s job description when she joined the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) in 2015. But the literacy crisis facing California’s youth—55 percent of third and fourth graders can’t read at grade level—was too critical to ignore.

Laura Lay

CURRENT POSITION

Learning Differences Librarian, San Francisco Public Library

DEGREE

MLIS, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2010

FOLLOW

@theOGlibrarian; sfpl.org/fog

Photo by Jason Doiy

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Leader of Readers

Developing a youth literacy program wasn’t in Laura Lay’s job description when she joined the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) in 2015. But the literacy crisis facing California’s youth—55 percent of third and fourth graders can’t read at grade level—was too critical to ignore.

In response, Lay started the Free Orton Gillingham (FOG) Readers program. Each month, she trains volunteers to tutor elementary school students using Orton Gillingham, a method aimed at children with dyslexia. The program has taken off: last year, 194 students received tutoring, and 140 students are now participating, at 23 of SFPL’s 28 locations. FOG Readers was recognized with a 2018 Urban Libraries Council Innovation Award and is available to other libraries via a toolkit Lay created.

The tutors have no formal background in education, but with Lay’s tutor training, once-struggling readers are soaring. “Students enter[ing] the program are an average of 1.3 grade levels behind but progress more than half a grade level during the first three months of tutoring,” says nominator Kate Eppler, program manager of the Bridge at Main at SFPL. “At the end of a year of tutoring, they have progressed an average of 1.7 grade levels.”

Lay credits the program’s success to its emphasis on breaking words down into individual sounds. “Many kids are able to compensate [for] poor decoding skills by memorizing hundreds and even thousands of words,” she says. “This works great until they encounter a word they do not know.” Orton Gillingham, however, uses a multisensory approach, incorporating movement, touch, and hearing, to help children identify unfamiliar words.

The approach is counterintuitive to many educators who found learning to read easy and who focus on fostering a love of literature rather than on explicit reading instruction, notes Lay. “My pie-in-the-sky career goal is to change the way we teach reading. For now, that means building a popular and effective program and sharing our success with others.”

Though Lay has made huge strides, meeting the demand for reading remediation is tough. There are about 250 kids on FOG Readers’ waiting list. Private tutoring in San Francisco is expensive, and the consequences of low-level literacy are far-reaching: unemployment, decreased income, and more. The program speaks to the power of the public library.

“The library is the one free place left that is for everyone,” says Lay. “For me, literacy is a big part of creating a more equitable society. Every aspect of our lives is built upon literacy.”

 

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