When Jill Fitzgerald retires from her position as professor of literacy in the School of Education at the end of May, it will be as a new member of the Reading Hall of Fame.
The honor, given at the International Reading Association annual conference earlier this month, recognizes her extraordinary contributions to theory and research in the study of literacy.
“She’s a fearless researcher,” said Dixie Lee Spiegel, one of Fitzgerald’s longtime collaborators and the person who chaired the search committee that brought Fitzgerald to UNC in 1979. “She doesn’t shy away from controversial topics. She doesn’t pump out 60 articles in a year, but the one or two that she does write become instant classics.”
Two particularly influential theories that Fitzgerald advanced dealt with English language literacy for non-native speakers and improving reading comprehension. “When people say, ‘What is it that you study?’ I say, ‘It’s how people think as they read and write. I study young children’s emergent literacy processes,” Fitzgerald said.
For example, in one study she found that teaching fourth-graders the parts of a story helped them better understand what they were reading because it gave them a way to organize the information in their minds. In her research about teaching English as a second language, Fitzgerald debated the accepted wisdom that students needed to learn to speak English well before they could read in English. She reasoned that using reading and writing in English could help them to learn to speak English. Fitzgerald’s theory was that reading could be taught to young Spanish speakers the way native speakers learned it, with “a beautiful big book.” A teacher holding up an oversized book with a few words in large print and a bright picture and reading it aloud to the class is teaching in two ways – reading English and speaking English.
Fitzgerald took an extra step in her research by learning Spanish herself and taking a year away from UNC to teach a class of half Spanish speakers and half English speakers at an elementary school in a neighboring county. “That was a really wonderful thing for her to have done, just on her own,” said Jim Cunningham, another longtime collaborator. That year of first-hand research in a first-grade classroom resulted in several first-rate articles, in peer-reviewed research journals and also in journals read in the average teachers’ lounge.
Her research has influenced education policy nationwide and so has her ability to turn that research into practical articles for teachers and lessons for future educators in the classes she taught at UNC. After retiring from the University, Fitzgerald will continue her literacy research at MetaMetrics, a psychometric research organization in Durham.
“Jill has changed the lives of thousands of children,” Spiegel said. “She is so deserving of this honor.”