An Interview with Nancy Coffman

Nancy Coffman has an impressive resume that reflects over three decades of work in the field.

An adjunct instructor for Dallas Baptist University and Director of the Shelton Academic Reading Approach at the Shelton School in Dallas, Texas, Nancy holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from The University of the South, a master’s degree in special education from Vanderbilt University, is a Certified Academic Language Therapist and a Qualified Instructor in Alphabetic Phonics. Nancy is a member of the International Dyslexia Association, the International Multisensory Structured Language Education Council (IMSLEC), and the Academic Language Therapy Association (ALTA). She is a past president of ALTA and of the Alliance for Accreditation and Certification of Structured Language Education, Inc. (Alliance).

Nancy sat down with Justin Carlson, Director of Technology and Adult Learning from Hill, at the International Dyslexia Association Conference at Foxwoods Resort last week to discuss her passion for vocabulary, and her upcoming visit to Hill.

Tell me a little bit about your background?
I think that the most important thing about my background is that I’m a parent – of three children, two of whom are dyslexic. And so, that’s really what launched my career, working with my own children. I’m a Certified Academic Language Therapist (CALT) and a Qualified Instructor. I am with the Shelton School and Evaluation Center in Dallas, Texas where I oversee our Shelton Academic Reading approach which is a structured literacy program that is accredited by IMSLEC. So, I have experience in working with students as well as with teachers in a very direct and explicit way.

You’re visiting Hill on December 7th. What’s the focus of your workshop?
My focus is going to be vocabulary development, and I’m very excited about that. I’ve been reading a lot in the literature about new ways to think about vocabulary development and how important it is for our students to improve their comprehension. I also know that looking at vocabulary in a more comprehensive way also improves their decoding as well as spelling. So, I’m excited about it!

What role does vocabulary play in developing comprehension skills?
Well, if you think about building a structure, you have to start with bricks. So words are the bricks that we put together to form a sentence, and then to form a story. So if you do not understand those individual words, then there is no way you can understand the context of a passage.

What are the important aspects to teaching vocabulary?
What we know about vocabulary now is how not to teach it! Looking up words in the dictionary and then writing sentences has been proven to be very ineffective, which is good because that was very boring. What we know about vocabulary now is that it needs to be engaging, it needs to be interactive, and it needs to be relevant. To me, that means we have the opportunity to look at words in very complex ways as well as simplified ways and make those words interesting and applicable. We can address mono-syllabic words that have so many different meanings, to multi-syllabic words that really are almost like puzzle pieces put together. Once we share that knowledge with students it really activates their interest in words, and they start to look at words in a different way. They become their own instructors really. Because they can put together those pieces. They get interested, and become aware of the many ways for all of us to access the meaning of individual words.

What are the key takeaways teachers will leave with on December 7th?
My hope is that when they leave the workshop on December 7th they will have a better understanding of effective vocabulary instruction. Perhaps the participants will be a little more excited about vocabulary instruction, and I’m hoping that they’ll have at least one activity that they can deploy on Monday. That’s my goal.

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