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Arnold School of Public Health

COMD's Lesly Wade-Woolley leads international conference for the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading

September 23, 2015 | Erin Bluvas, 

Lesly Wade-Woolley is an expert on reading. But even though reading came early and easily to her as a child, it took several wrong turns and a few lucky breaks before she realized she could pursue it as a career. “We didn’t have a television until I was 10 years old so I learned to love reading as entertainment,” she says. “I also knew that I was interested in languages so I tried to make a major out of it during my undergraduate program at the University of Tennessee.”

During college, Wade-Woolley bounced from French to Spanish to Italian, even dabbling in Russian and Arabic—always fascinated by the basic elements of each language but losing interest once her studies progressed further into the literature. “I didn’t really understand that what I was interested in was the idea of language generally and not one language specifically,” she says. She needed to graduate so she decided to focus on a degree in French. “That’s when I took some linguistics classes,” says Wade-Woolley. “It was a huge ‘light bulb’ moment for me, and I switched my major to linguistics, which ticked all of the boxes I’d been trying to fill.”

Excited by the prospect of finally finding her path, she followed her newly identified passion to Canada where she earned a Masters in Linguistics at McGill University in Montreal—and stayed for the next three decades. When she decided to pursue a Doctor of Philosophy in Education at the University of Toronto a few years later, she wanted her topic to be applied, but she still hadn’t realized that reading was an option as a focus of study.

Wade-Woolley began her PhD by focusing on second language pedagogy, but things changed when she took an elective class on reading. “I had never thought of it as a topic on its own, but it was fascinating and built on everything I had studied so far,” she says.

Fast forward 30 years and Wade-Woolley is now an internationally recognized authority on the topic who joined the Arnold School’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders in January. Her expertise centers around two main areas of research: 1) children learning a second language, including what facilitates/inhibits their ability to switch among different writing systems and 2) prosody, which is also known as speech rhythm, and how that plays into reading and spelling development.  

“Some languages use accents or other markers on words to demonstrate where to put the stress, but English lacks these,” Wade-Woolley explains. “Words like 'record' mean two different things if you stress the first or second syllable, and it turns out that children’s ability to think about and manipulate speech rhythm is related to their ability to read and spell long words.” Enter Wade-Woolley’s prosody research, which looks at speech rhythm not only at the individual word level but also within the context of how connected text influences reading comprehension.

These research areas represent just a few of the reading topics discussed at the annual conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading that Wade-Woolley led in Hawaii over the summer. With meetings in locales such as Hong Kong, Montreal, Amsterdam and Berlin, the international meeting brings together nearly 500 reading specialists from all over the world, including psychologists, educators, geneticists, speech-language pathologists, and neuroscientists. “Everyone is a reading specialist but with different angles,” Wade-Woolley says. “In the end, we all have the same goal: understanding how children learn to read and how we can best support them when they struggle with this momentous task.”

This is the second conference she has coordinated for the Society in her two-year stint as president-elect. Prior to this role, she served as vice president for two years. Next, she’ll serve as president and then past president to complete an eight-year total commitment in the highest ranks of the organization’s leadership. However, Wade-Woolley’s dedication to the group began when she attended the Society’s very first meeting as a graduate student back in 1994. She hasn’t missed a meeting since. “I could tell it was a society that was dedicated to using the best scientific methods and tools, and I wanted to be a part of this important organization,” she says.

The Society is devoted to Wade-Woolley’s lifelong passion that she discovered as a child and worked so hard to recognize as a career—a career that has led her to the field of public health. “Literacy is one of the social determinants of health,” she says. “The ability to read has a major impact on other aspects of your life, including positive effects on health.”

The relationship between reading and health makes Wade-Woolley an excellent fit for her new role at the Arnold School. “The department is very fortunate to have recruited such a well-known and well-respected researcher and colleague,” says Chair Kenn Apel. “Dr. Wade-Woolley brings a unique perspective on literacy research that compliments the other faculty in our department who also conduct research in the area of reading and spelling.” Indeed, the Arnold School provides the perfect setting for Wade-Woolley’s next chapter.  

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