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Spotlight: The Gift of Literacy

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Spotlight: The Gift of Literacy

Date Published:
Thursday, December 9, 2010

Diane Browder understands the profound joy of literacy. As a child, her mother instilled in the young girl a passion for reading that she would nurture for life. Browder, the Snyder Distinguished Professor of Special Education at UNC Charlotte, has made a career of passing along that joy along with other educational opportunities to countless children who just a decade ago would have been written off as unable to learn even the most basic literacy skills.

Children like Sam. Sam, a precocious 8-year-old, was born with Down Syndrome. Sam’s special education teacher, Amy, had searched for a years for a way to help her students master basic academic skills including word recognition.

Browder understood Amy’s frustration. For nearly three decades she has maintained a close connection to K through 12 schools, talking to teachers and parents about the pitfalls and successes of modern special education programs.

A ground-level awareness of the problems inherent in educating moderately to severely disabled students, coupled with a passion to provide individuals with disabilities equal access to educational opportunity, led Browder to a career in special education. A desire to share the gift of literacy inspired Browder to embark on a research project meant to shed light on best practices in literacy education for students with disabilities.

Browder’s research led the way in demonstrating how to teach academic content including not only literacy, but also math and science to students with significant cognitive disabilities.

Her research team’s review of the literature revealed that a tested, effective literacy curriculum for moderately to severely disabled students simply did not exist. So she led the team to create one.

The result of Browder’s work is a language-rich literacy curriculum for children ages 5 – 10 with moderate to severe developmental disabilities. The Early Literacy Skills Builder (ELSB) is multi-year program with seven distinct levels and ongoing assessments that allow students to progress at their own pace.

Prior to the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975, Sam would have been denied access to education. As late as 1970, many states had laws excluding children who were deaf, blind, emotionally disturbed or intellectually disabled.

In the last 30 years a sea change has taken place — the nation has moved from paying little or no attention to the needs of individuals with disabilities, to accommodating these individuals’ basic needs, and finally to providing programs and services for all children with disabilities and their families.

While educational opportunities for children with disabilities have grown by leaps and bounds since the implementation of IDEA, Browder’s research led the way in demonstrating how to teach academic content including not only literacy, but also math and science to students with significant cognitive disabilities.

The ELSB curriculum is being used nationwide and by Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, who have partnered with Browder to test educational innovations for the past decade. Lawmakers have taken notice, using Browder’s research findings on alternate assessment and access to general curriculum to craft national policy.

In addition to her research and work in the schools, Browder has helped to shape the next generation of education leaders as coordinator of the doctorate in special education at UNC Charlotte. She also mentors a talented research team who have conducted teacher training in places as diverse as California, South Dakota, Chicago and Louisiana and has published several books that are considered seminal within the field of special education.