Meet Alice Thomas: Recipient of IDA Presidential Award of Excellence

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September 2013

By Carolyn D. Cowen

Alice ThomasAlice Thomas is a fierce champion for “children at risk” and a passionate standard bearer in the campaign to ensure thatall teachers are well prepared to teach all children how to read. That became very clear during our interview—a delightful conversation that ranged over the landscape of her career and underscored her belief that nearly all children can learn to read and achieve school success. As Alice and I spoke, a tangential thought occurred to me. Perhaps one of IDA’s least lauded but most important contributions to the field is that IDA brings together from across the country all kinds of people with shared or aligned missions. My interview with Alice Thomas reminded me that IDA’s conferences, publications, and branches help weave together powerful networks of people working toward shared goals. Without IDA, I would not be getting to know Alice, a most deserving recipient of the IDA Presidential Award of Excellence. Read on and you, too, will get to know Alice Thomas, her work, and her convictions. If you already know Alice, you will recognize and enjoy her words of wisdom. Whether you are a parent, educator, or someone with dyslexia, her story and messages will resonate and inspire. If you are attending the conference in New Orleans, please join us in honoring her during the “Conference Kickoff” Wednesday evening. Meanwhile, let’s hear from Alice and rally around her message to “keep our goal firm, our aim steady, and our commitment unyielding.”

Q.   Tell us a bit about your journey: What led you to become involved with dyslexia and active in the field? What is the nature of your work today?

A. Initially, it was a merging of two roads. I accepted a position to teach 14 ninth and tenth grade students who were academically and socio-economically at risk. My charge was to ensure that they received their 9thand 10th grade ELA Carnegie units. About two weeks into the school year, I knew I was in trouble. My well-mannered, eager-to-learn students were reading on third and fourth grade levels … and I had no idea how to teach them to read. I knew I didn’t know what I needed to know, and I was riddled with guilt. Then, about the same time, my own children began displaying the characteristics of dyslexia. So my initial interest in reading problems was both professional and personal. Additionally, I was serving on a board of a local nonprofit organization that worked to rehabilitate children and adolescents who had offended the law. I volunteered to counsel these young offenders, and being a teacher at heart, I looked into all of their school records. Most were abysmal. Now three roads were converging. Eventually, in 1992, a juvenile judge— Judge John— and I founded a nonprofit organization that would focus on helping high-risk students to succeed. Twenty-one years later, that is still what we do: the mission of the Center for Development and Learning is to increase the life chances of all children, especially those at high risk, by increasing school success.

Q. What do you see as the most pressing challenge facing students with dyslexia or who are at risk for reading failure, their families, and professionals working on their behalf?

A. The most pressing challenge: the paucity of adults in the know. Almost all children— 95%—can learn how to read, including those with dyslexia. But all children do not, and it is not because they cannot; it is because we have failed to teach them. They are instructional casualties.As Louisa Moats said so well, teaching reading IS rocket science. Teachers want to be successful. The challenge, then, is to ensure that teachers are well prepared to teach reading in an evidence-based, systematic, and cumulative way. All states should adopt a Foundations of Reading exam that candidates must pass before becoming licensed to teach in the elementary grades.

Q. What advice do you have for people when they first learn they are dealing with dyslexia or reading challenges—be they parents, educators, or those with dyslexia? Parents:

  1. Trust your instincts (if you think there is a problem, there probably is).
  2. Be proactive, even if the school isn’t (don’t wait).
  3. Become an informed consumer: Seek out the best of experts (they range from awful to awesome).
  4. Remediation trumps accommodations (bypass strategies will get you only so far); pursue remediation andaccommodations, but not accommodations instead of remediation.
  5. Do not let your child be defined by a label—no learned helplessness.
  6. Never give up (you will surely lose if you do).
  7. Loosen up the tension at home over homework (it is important that you are a “decreaser,” not an increaser of anxiety).
  8. Build upon and celebrate your child’s strengths all while you are working tirelessly to address his/her dyslexia.
  9. Come to grips with the diagnosis and put it in the right perspective (it is not the kiss of death).
  10. Use all leverage points: The new ELA Common Core State Standards, Appendix A makes a clear case for explicitly teaching foundational reading skills.


  1. Be proactive even if the system isn’t: Educate yourself— it’s a moral imperative. Become an expert at teaching the reading foundational skills outlined in ELA Common Core— Appendix A.
  2. Express empathy, not sympathy.
  3. Avoid avoidable embarrassment (don’t call on poor readers to read aloud in front of their classmates; save that for small group intervention time).
  4. Do not let even one student be defined by a label (no learned helplessness allowed in your classroom).
  5. Teach your heart out.

Those with dyslexia:

  1. Accept reality and be strong (there’s no way around having to work harder— but it will make you stronger).
  2. Do not let your deficits define you (you are much more than that).
  3. Ask for help when you need it.
  4. Believe in yourself (you have immense potential).
  5. Reach for the stars.

Q. What do you think are the exciting new opportunities or most promising developments in our field? A. I’d prefer not think about a new opportunity, but rather to keep front and center the same worthy opportunity to make a positive difference in children’s lives. We still have the same journey across the desert to reach the oasis, one step at a time. The challenge is to keep our goal firm, our aim steady, and our commitment unyielding.

Alice Thomas champions children “at risk” and advocates strongly for the urgent need to ensure all teachers are well prepared to teach all children to read! Do not miss the Conference Kickoff on Wednesday, November 6, 2013, at 6:00 p.m., when she will be honored with an IDA Presidential Award of Excellence!

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