August 04, 2014

School of Language

Alicia Roberts Frank helps improve Oregon’s special education programs.

Beneath her office wall, covered in posters of hand drawn letters, Assistant Professor of Teacher Education Alicia Roberts Frank raises her arm and traces a letter “T.” “T, turtle, tuh,” she recites, with the precision of a drill sergeant and the reassuring voice of a therapist. The “sky writing” Frank demonstrates is one of many approaches she uses for teaching students with dyslexia.

Roberts Frank says the one-one tutoring approach that was championed by American physician Samuel Orton proves too expensive for many families. She uses cards like the ones on her wall to teach the Slingerland method. With Slingerland, one teacher can work with a class as large as 19 students.

Nonprofits and advocate groups throughout Oregon ask Roberts Frank to train teachers, and she serves as a higher education advisor on reading disabilities and dyslexia. She consults with the grassroots movement Decoding Dyslexia, the Oregon Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, and the Oregon Council for Exceptional Children. On the State Advisory Committee for Special Education, she joins advisors across the state every other month to discuss improvements to Oregon’s special education programs.

Teaching abroad and at home

Roberts Frank’s compassion and patience for teaching the basic elements of language trace their roots to her work with the Peace Corps at a “nettie,” or school for girls, in Morocco. As part of her work toward a master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (MATESOL) from Monterey Institute of International Studies, she spent two years there teaching and writing curriculum. 

With only a blackboard and a piece of chalk as teaching aids, Roberts Frank got creative. She helped students make connections to their own language. (“Sift,” they discovered, has the same meaning in both English and Tachelhit.) When Roberts Frank was teaching the difference between count and noncount nouns—eggs, as opposed to a packet of flour or a spoonful of sugar—one girl joked, “a packet of love.” Roberts Frank laughed along with the students.

“I tried to play with language and make connections as much as possible,” she said.

After Morocco, Roberts Frank found a teaching position at a school for students with dyslexia, then taught at Cabrillo Middle School in Santa Clara for a year. She then worked as a teacher for five more years, though one year was spent teaching every other day while researching and writing her dissertation—put simply, a 20-minute intervention in spelling.

On her days off of teaching, she observed other teachers in the classroom. She measured the reading comprehension and fluency of a group of students using her word study techniques for 20 minutes against another group in silent reading for the same amount of time. The first group showed more improvement. “Because we were taking time to study words, it slowed things down a bit, but it helped with comprehension,” Roberts Frank said.

Next steps

In 2013, Roberts Frank joined Lewis & Clark, and soon after she began her work with regional advocate organizations, including Decoding Dyslexia. She plans to condense her years of classroom teaching techniques into a teacher training book on the basic elements of the English language (phonology, morphology, orthography, and syntax), a more user-friendly version of a classic text called Speech to Print. Roberts Frank believes that basic strategies and rules, like dropping the “e” before adding “-ing,” aid students more than memorization.

“They’ll go home and ask their parents why ‘hopping’ has two ‘p’s’ and hoping has one,” Roberts Frank said. “Parents can’t tell you, but how empowering for the kids to know why, to say that language isn’t a mystery.”

Caleb Diehl ’16 contributed to this story.