Northern Illinois University

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Mayra Daniel
Mayra Daniel

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News Release

Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472

June 6, 2007

College Reading Association honors NIU professor
as promising researcher in literacy education

DeKalb — Mayra Daniel’s passionate work to preserve the native tongues of English language learners is easy to understand.

The professor in NIU’s Department of Literacy Education was only 10 when she and her family escaped communism in Cuba to live in the United States. Her family, which spoke no English, settled in Chicago.

She then began to learn English without any help from teachers.

“My goal is to make it possible for English language learners to succeed and be happy in U.S. classrooms and to remain bilingual,” Daniel says, “not just to simply learn English and forget their roots. I want schools to acknowledge the merits of being bilingual and bicultural. It strengthens individuals, and it strengthens our country.”

Daniel’s zeal now has earned her the first Jerry Johns Promising Researcher Award from the College Reading Association.

Named after the retired NIU professor and internationally known literacy educator and researcher, the new honor includes a $500 stipend to support Daniel’s research. It will come in November at the association’s annual conference in Salt Lake City.

“It’s an award given by the College Reading Association to faculty who have less than five years working at the university level,” she says. “I just finished my fourth year, and I think it’s wonderfully encouraging that they thought what I’ve been doing merits this award.”

Norm Stahl, chair of the Department of Literacy Education, says Daniel “brings to the department a scholarly interest in literacy for English language learners and a pedagogical commitment to training all teachers to serve the growing new-to-English population throughout the NIU service region.”

“She is providing important leadership to teachers in Guatemala through her involvement in the International Reading Association’s initiatives to train literacy teachers in that country,” Stahl says. “Such experiences power her research and inform her teaching. Such is but one example of Dr. Daniel’s belief that scholarship and pedagogy must be integrated together.”

Before coming to NIU in 2003, Daniel taught English as a Second Language and bilingual English/Spanish in K-12 schools. She completed her doctoral degree after 15 years teaching in elementary and secondary schools, about five of those years spent as a “pull-out” teacher.

Daniel also taught college-level Spanish but “simply couldn’t get away from the English language learners.”

“Once I started to do that, that was what I loved. If you’re going to be a teacher out there, and you have the opportunity to work with English language learners, it can be one of the most creative teaching positions that a teacher can have,” she says.

“You have learners with different educational backgrounds and different home experiences. They speak and read and write using different alphabetic systems,” she adds. “A teacher has to be very creative to engage them all, looking at everything we have in common and considering our differences.”

Daniel’s research is a part of Project REAL, NIU’s federally funded partnership with the Rockford Public Schools and Rock Valley College. The grant aims to enhance teacher quality and student performance in Rockford’s District 205.

She is concentrating on students in kindergarten through second-grade at John Nelson Elementary School, nestled in an urban area near the city’s Midtown. The research there will continue through the spring of 2008.

“I’m working with students who are in bilingual classes and seeing what challenges they have learning to read and write,” she says.

“A lot of them come to school as heritage speakers of their first language, speaking their language not because they’re in the country where it is learned but because their parents are speaking to them in that language,” she adds.

“They sometimes will have siblings who talk to them in English, rather than their first language, and they use a little bit of both languages. It’s OK if they know they’re doing that but, when they don’t, this can affect the learning. This is when being enrolled in a solid bilingual program helps English language learners to transfer information from one language to another.”

Daniel’s work in Rockford also examines whether the long-standing criteria for “leveling” books that teach reading are appropriate for texts written in Spanish.

Leveling is a process that connects books with kindergarten, first grade, second grade and beyond. Daniel is identifying what aspects of Spanish might suggest the need for specific criteria and formulating a rationale for leveling books written in Spanish.

Laurie Elish-Piper, a professor in Literacy Education and director of the NIU Reading Clinic, says Daniel is “a passionate advocate for English language learners and for teachers who work with English language learners.”

“The CRA is very committed to mentoring new professors and supporting their research, and this award is one way to honor the work these individuals are completing,” says Elish-Piper, president-elect of the College Reading Association.

“We were thrilled that Mayra was selected to be the first recipient of this new award. Her research with English language learners is both timely and important, and she’s been a wonderful addition to our NIU faculty because of her enthusiasm, dedication and expertise.”

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