HOW DO YOU improve society? Through reading. “It’s that simple,” says Gay Su Pinnell. To spread that message, the literacy trailblazer and philanthropist has honored a fellow early-intervention literacy advocate by establishing the Dr. Billie J. Askew Endowed Chair in Reading Recovery at Texas Woman’s. Named after the late founder of TWU’s Reading Recovery program, TWU Distinguished Alumna and Cornaro Professor Emerita of Reading, the $1 million gift will bolster the Department of Literacy and Learning and preserve Askew’s legacy.
The early literacy intervention the late Askew brought to TWU in 1989 is based on an individualized approach to reading that has helped struggling students in more than 50 school districts across a dozen states learn to read. Since 1984, when Reading Recovery was introduced to the United States, 2.5 million Americans have learned to read.
The new endowed chair recognizes Askew’s leadership and Texas Woman’s role in promoting the Reading Recovery program both nationally and internationally. “It’s important to maintain that strong leadership,” Pinnell says.
Pinnell, who established the endowed chair after Askew’s passing in 2021 says, “Billie and I were colleagues for almost 40 years. She not only was a scholar and a researcher, but she was dedicated and passionate, an advocate for literacy and children and a very warm and generous person.” Pinnell herself is professor emerita in the Department of Teaching and Learning at The Ohio State University.
Pinnell’s passion for reading began when she discovered comic books at age 4. She later decided to teach first grade “to bring that gift [of reading] to children,” says Pinnell. Yet she quickly noticed that some students struggled with reading and writing assignments. “I wanted to do something to ensure a route to success for everyone.”
While pursuing her master’s and doctoral degrees at The Ohio State University, Pinnell encountered the work of Marie Clay, a New Zealand cognitive psychologist. Clay pioneered the internationally acclaimed Reading Recovery method. The program provides struggling first-graders with 30 minutes of intensive, customized reading instruction for up to 20 weeks. “It’s responsive to exactly what the child knows and needs to learn next, not a one-size-fits-all approach,” Pinnell says.
Pinnell not only helped pioneer the statewide implementation of Reading Recovery in 1984 by establishing a pilot program in Ohio, she also helped develop other innovative literacy methods for young children. And she has published dozens of scholarly books and instructional guides for fellow educators, often in collaboration with her colleague Irene Fountas, the Marie M. Clay Endowed Chair in Early Literacy and Reading Recovery and Director of the Center for Reading Recovery in the Graduate School of Education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Pinnell hopes her gift to Texas Woman’s will enable the university to continue changing students’ lives, one book at a time. “Reading is essential to living a quality life,” she says. “Becoming an informed citizen with the ability to participate in and contribute to society starts with literacy.”
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