Margie Gillis, EdD, has been a nationally recognized expert in literacy and dyslexia for decades. Throughout her career, Dr. Gillis has steadfastly worked to improve reading education for all children, especially students with dyslexia, by targeting teacher preparation and professional development, shaping state policy, and broadening education and information about reading. Specifically, Dr. Gillis has been instrumental in enacting Connecticut’s state policies on reading through her efforts in the adoption of universal screening of K3 students, incorporation of certification tests for teacher candidates in reading, and implementation of evidence-based reading practices. As the founder of Literacy How, Inc., Dr. Gillis has been a pioneer in supporting teachers implement evidence-based reading instruction through coaching and other professional development opportunities. She has also founded and served in leadership roles in organizations dedicated to conducting research and disseminating information and education to educators, families, and the public about reading and children with learning disabilities.
Where did the passion for reading education and helping children who struggle to read originate?
When I was a young girl growing up in a family of six children, I loved to read and learned to read pretty easily. I taught my little sister to read. She was sad when I went to school without her, so we would play school. One of my older brothers, though, really struggled with reading. He learned some phonics [at school], but it wasn’t enough. I’m sure he was dyslexic, but he was never diagnosed. I was unaware of what was driving his struggles at the time, but I felt like I wanted to learn how to teach reading. Then, when I was 11 or 12 years old, a family friend had a child in the family who was about my age who couldn’t read. The mom said, “You love to read so much, Margie, would you help?” I didn’t know what to do, and I would sit and read with him, but it was clear to me, even at that young age, that some kids couldn’t read easily.
As I got older, I went into an undergraduate program. There wasn’t an education major there, so it was more of a generic program to get certified. This was in the early 70s, and it was a time of learning more holistically. We learned about how you can motivate and engage children, and we just read a host of articles about how they taught children to read in England. It was really the precursor to whole language, and I knew enough to know that wasn’t going to get the job done.
After substitute teaching for a year after I graduated, I realized I had no idea what to do to teach reading. Having had the different experiences with my sister, brother, and my family friend’s son, I knew I wanted to teach kids who struggle with reading. [I often wondered], what was it that distinguished children who could [read easily] from children who couldn’t? Then I heard about the program at the University of Connecticut with Isabelle Liberman, who was a cognitive psychologist, and when I got into that program, that started to become clearer.
How have you approached your work in changing the educational landscape to better support literacy for all children?
I [focus on] teacher preparation. For the last 22 years, my team and I have been working with teachers who are already certified, and we know how hard it is to change practice. When someone’s been teaching, even if they’ve taught only one year, they’ve gone through a teacher preparation program. If the program taught balanced literacy, which the majority of them do, then it takes more to persuade the teachers of the Science of Reading.
If we start at the pre-service level, at the undergraduate level, then we get it right from the beginning. In these programs, you have to provide substantive practicum experiences for students to learn how to teach the structured literacy content. And you know this at Windward—those practicum experiences matter greatly, particularly when you’re working with students that struggle, including kids with dyslexia, kids with other reading disabilities, or kids with other profiles that necessitate individualizing instruction.
You could have one practicum experience that’s steeped in word recognition skills and how to address those, but then you could have another student who has comorbidities with executive functioning that impact reading comprehension and writing. As a result, you have to learn some other strategies associated with that learning profile that necessitate looking at comprehension and writing.
Inspiring pre-service teachers with good models is key. They need to be with master teachers who know what they’re doing. Developing pre-service teachers—because that’s how they’ll stay in the profession—is a long process. I feel that basic certification should be a five-year program, where pre-service teacher candidates devote that fifth year to being out in the field, to developing the application of [what they learn in the university program]. Then the teacher can go on to get a specialization, for example, in dyslexia or other reading disabilities.
The final piece is coaching. We really need to prepare coaches, and you see the importance of this in Mississippi, where they have been able to provide teachers with the right knowledge and understanding to be able to coach their teachers effectively.
In your career, what is one story that sticks out to you as a moment you felt most proud for the work you’ve done?
One of the most satisfying things that happened fairly recently was teaching my granddaughter to read during COVID. She was five years old, in kindergarten. They stopped going to school in person, and she had Zoom sessions, but it wasn’t enough. She wanted to read, and I wanted to teach her how to read, or at least encourage her to read.
Every day, we’d spend a half hour, sometimes longer, on Zoom calls. We used [phonics-based] books, really cute books; Phyllis [Bertin] wrote some beautiful new PAF books and she and I had this conversation once about how important it is that kids don’t rely on pictures.
So, we covered up the pictures, and she’d read the texts and I’d say, “What did you picture when you read those words?” She’d tell me, and then we would uncover the pictures. I could see what she had been taught in kindergarten, which was a balanced literacy approach, and that she’d been told to look at the pictures. She was already in the habit of doing that at the tender age of five. I said, “When you don’t know a word, it’s not the picture that’s going to help you.” And because of me working with her every day, she stopped looking at the pictures.
It was exciting, and what was so impactful, for me, was having that hands-on experience with a child after having been removed from the classroom environment for so long. And I realized that it’s really important to stay connected to the kids, because I never want to lose sight of that, the heart of the work we do.
What do you wish more people knew about dyslexia?
What I want people to know is that dyslexia is not one thing. It’s so much more than having trouble hearing sounds. It’s hard to characterize it because it looks so different for every child. It’s complex.
We know a lot about it because it’s the most well-researched learning disability. We have this juxtaposition of something that is a challenge—the complexity of it—but also hopeful in that there are so many people studying it so that we can do better for our kids.
Tell us more about the political and advocacy work you have led in your home state of Connecticut as well as nationwide.
When you’re on the ground every day—and I’m personally not but my team is—I talk to communities and hear the stories of what’s happening in schools that is disheartening. It propels me to think about the policy work and how important it is. You can have great policies, but if you don’t have accountability for those policies, they won’t do what they’re intended to do. At the state and national levels, I talk about how you can take policies and have them be implemented in effective ways. What would that look like? I love the Mississippi story. That is the best example of having policy and ensuring it’s implemented with rigor, fidelity, and accountability.
Something I’ve talked about nationally is finding your partners: Make sure you connect people in different organizations and agencies, as well as stakeholder groups, because otherwise the work gets siloed, which happens all the time. For example, in Connecticut, we have reading legislation and we have dyslexia legislation, and a lot of people don’t see the connection between the two.
One thing I talk about with states, especially those considering legislation, is that they ensure they define the language of the policies clearly. In Connecticut, we developed the literacy model in 2012, and for 10 years we’ve been trying to take that model to scale. We started it with five schools, and we’ve scaled it up to about 70 schools in the state. It’s still not enough, but it’s a model that we have studied to understand: What are the pieces of creating a literacy model for a school that are important? One of the ones that I’ve been personally working with a lot is family engagement. How do we engage families in their children’s education, and what does it look like? That is a significant part of the policy work.
Can you speak more about your experience in the de-implementation practices that are ineffective or not research based?
This is a really important concept. First and foremost, if you’re using three-cueing, it is not compatible with structured literacy. They cannot co-exist peacefully. So, that’s one thing I would take off the table as a non-negotiable. In addition, when Literacy How provides professional development and we go into a school system for a period of years, we talk about coherence within the district and the schools. We refer to coherence in a lot of ways. In this case, if a school district is bringing in some other initiatives, whatever they may be, the leaders of that district have to examine whether all the initiatives are aligned. New initiatives may also mean competition for time, too. There’s only so much bandwidth teachers have for new professional learning opportunities. De-implementing programs that aren’t really priorities, aren’t working, or aren’t evidence-based strategies is important.
How can we empower educators, families, and children to advocate for better reading education in their communities?
One of the primary ways to empower others is to inspire them to advocate, first for themselves and for the people in their close circle, like their family. Once you have done that for your children, how do you then expand so you advocate for others? We can’t stop with our own little world.
Empowering communities, first and foremost, is giving them knowledge and resources that they can actually access easily. Then, I think you have to build in support systems. When we work with educators, we get them together in teams, and we try to build a professional learning community so that they can start supporting each other. For families, it would look similar. If you’re struggling, you’re going to go to another parent who’s walked that walk and will give you good information. We get a lot of parents that come to our offices because someone gave them our name, and they need support. We start with bite-sized chunks of information and explain that getting the right support for their children is a long process. “You’re not going to figure this out in six months or a year. Just know you’re in it for the long haul.” Once we work with families, they see where their children are now compared to where they started. That is when many families think about what they can do for the children of their community who also need advocates.
What is your hope for the future in reading education professional development?
My team and I always feel like we’d like to reach more teachers, because we have limited capacity, and we believe that the coaching support is what really brings teachers to that level of understanding and ability, to really apply the Science of Reading and the research. Maybe 10% of teachers figure it out on their own, but the vast majority don’t, and then they default to what they’ve always done. So, the role of the coach is extremely important. We have to find ways to leverage technology, because we can’t reach all the teachers [without it]. In the near term, we finally wrote our first online course, on syntax. We’ve had about 120 teachers complete it and share feedback. We’re looking at writing a course that inspires teachers to try it out in their classroom, but [integrating] coaching as well, someone observing in the classroom, sharing input, cheering them on, helping them tweak it. The role of the coach is cheerleader: encouraging, facilitating, modeling. For me, this is the next frontier.