Barbara Foorman

Dr. Barbara Foorman stands as a prophet on the benefits of encouraging early reading. But Foorman, who serves as director of the Regional Education Laboratory-Southeast housed at Florida State University, is no voice in the wilderness. Many states, including North Carolina, have now adopted early reading initiatives based on the pioneering work of early reading researchers and practitioners. That’s because early reading proficiency is viewed as the key to lifelong learning success.

An internationally acclaimed academic with a career spanning decades, Foorman says she has found deep satisfaction in her current work providing state and local education agencies with practical research and technical assistance aimed at improving student outcomes in all subject areas.

“We’re working directly with SEAs and LEAs on projects they want to do. If you are working with SEAs and LEAs on projects they want, it’s really rewarding.” In Florida, for example, the REL led a randomized trial involving 55 schools to determine what type of instruction best improves reading proficiency for the lowest performing students in grades K-2. REL researchers and staff were given a great deal of autonomy in implementing their project, even to the point of taking over school bell schedules.

The effort provided a 13-25 percentile improvement in reading and an array of insights into what works. Instruction based on materials purchased outside the core reading program worked best for many measured components of reading instruction, but in some instances instruction embedded in the core reading materials was more effective - particularly with English learners, who made up about a third of the study. (See the roadmap to reading success at for more.)

Long before the Florida project, Foorman had learned that early intervention is key to mastery of reading skills. North Carolina’s Read to Achieve law requires students to attain reading proficiency by the end of third grade. Foorman’s research says reaching that milestone by grade three is not overly ambitious, but it requires a focus on early learning. “We as educators are under-identifying kids who are struggling earlier than that,” says Foorman. “We think of kindergarten as a time to learn to read,” says Foorman. “Kids who thrive are kids who have had pre-K and have had their language skills built.”

Foorman knows of what she speaks. With more than 150 publications on the foundational skills of reading, she is widely considered an expert in the field. She was named to the University of Texas at Houston Medical Center pediatrics faculty despite having no medical training. There, she helped pediatrics residents recognize early language and literacy skills in children. She also launched a nine-year cohort study that resulted in phenomenal literacy gains for some of Houston’s lowest performing students. That project later was implemented in Washington, DC, when Congress and the Mayor’s Office took over the city’s struggling schools. Ultimately, Foorman was named the first Commissioner of the National Center for Education Research at the US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.

State Superintendent Mark Johson

Thus it should come as no surprise that Foorman favors efforts such as State Superintendent Mark Johnson’s focus on early literacy and continued efforts to put more books in the hands of children through projects such as NC Reads (See for more). Foundational skills such as letters and letter sounds can be learned through informal reading at home, Foorman says. “You don’t want to force reading on kids but kids are curious,” Foorman says. Early rhyming and alliteration shows children can segment sounds in speech and soon link letters to those sound segments. “Be aware of their readiness and soon they will be reading and loving it.”

For more resources from REL Southeast, click here.