Since coming to WVU in the early 2000s, professors Allison Dagen and Aimee Morewood have been teaching more and more classes online. So when it came time to revamp the reading specialist certification program at WVU, it made sense to make it a fully online program.

Dagen and Morewood grading papers Dagen and Morewood teaching young students Dagen and Morewood reading to young students

This fall they will roll out a new, nationally accredited Master of Arts degree in Literacy Education. Graduates of the new 30-hour program become certified in pre-K through adult instruction.

The program is the only online program of its kind in West Virginia and one of only a handful in the country.

Dagen and Morewood developed the new program using the latest research in literacy education and incorporated new standards coming out in 2018 from the International Literacy Association (ILA), formerly known as the International Reading Association.

“Students are reading differently today,” Morewood said. “When we think about reading, we need to think about reading and understanding digital media, as well as traditional books. Literacy now includes not only reading, but writing, speaking, listening, and visual literacy as well.”

“There’s also currently a shortage of reading specialists in West Virginia and a great need for them in this state,” Dagen said. “Most of our candidates are working in elementary schools. Other ideal candidates for this degree, I believe, are the math, science and social studies teachers at the middle school and high school level. We had some of these teachers come through our program in the past and they added so much to the conversation and helped our elementary teachers see where their students are headed in the future.”

The new ILA standards now define the specialized literacy professional as having one of three roles: interventionist, literacy coach, or reading coordinator.

“The reading specialist as interventionist is what we picture when we think of the Title I teachers, who work with the kids on skills. That is a very common model in West Virginia,” said Dagen, who was the lead writer on some of the ILA standards.

“Today’s teachers are part of the leadership, that’s how things are evolving in the profession. Many teachers aren’t aware of how much leadership they are actually providing.”

“The reading specialist as literacy coach works one-on-one or in a small group with teachers so that they can have an impact on the regular classroom. The third role that ILA is identifying is reading coordinator and that’s when the specialist is evaluating school-wide issues and creating policy.”

Dagen and Morewood developed a program that prepares graduates for all three roles identified by ILA. They also focused on preparing teachers to be leaders.

“Today’s teachers are part of the leadership,” Morewood said. “That’s how things are evolving in the profession. Many teachers aren’t aware of how much leadership they are actually providing. They are leading in different ways and most of it is informal.”

One of the biggest changes in the new program is in the reading specialist practicum. For many years, candidates in the program came to the WVU campus in Morgantown during the summer and lived in the Towers dormitories in order to do their practicum.

Now the candidates do a job-embedded practicum, working with students at their own schools, supervised by WVU faculty members. Morewood piloted this site-based practicum in the fall of 2016 and it provides a lot more flexibility than the old model.

To get certification, candidates also have to pass the PRAXIS exam, which is a very challenging test. WVU students currently have a 98 percent pass rate on the exam.

“Our students pass on the first go around and they get jobs,” Morewood said.

There are a few other totally online literacy specialist certification programs at other universities across the country, but not many.

Morewood and Dagen recently received a Big 12 Faculty Fellowship Grant and spent part of the spring semester at other Big 12 schools, looking at how they are addressing their online literacy specialist programs. Schools such as Oklahoma State and Texas Tech have a similar population and setting as West Virginia and Dagen and Morewood hope to work collaboratively with them.

They also regularly publish and present their research, including information about classroom reading and literacy practices.

“We are using all of our research to continue to improve our new Master of Arts in Literacy Education program at WVU,” Dagen said. “Right now, our candidates are mainly from West Virginia, but we hope to expand that to other states in the future.”

“We are providing a terrific new program and we’re very excited about starting it this fall. This is a great advanced degree for all educators.”