July 25, 2009

Mount Allison Graduate Nonie Lesaux (’99) Honoured by President Obama

If you've been to Mount Allison University's website you may have noticed this little news item:
Allisonian honoured by President Obama
2009-07-14 11:39:12
Congratulations to Nonie Lesaux (’99) who has been named a recipient
of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers,
the highest honour bestowed by the United States government on young
professionals in the early stages of their independent research
careers. Nonie, a Mount Allison psychology graduate, is currently a
researcher at Harvard University and was one of only two educators to
be recognized at this year’s awards. Read more from the White House at
www.whitehouse.gov (July 13, 2009).

Although Mount Allison University graduates have received more Rhodes Scholarships than any other liberal arts university in North America among other accolades Mount Allison isn't well known outside of well... Atlantic Canada and New England. So while it isn't really breaking news that Mount Allison graduates are successful to those who are in the know it may be useful to highlight this example for those who don't see Mount Allison as academically rigorous or who think they'll only be successful if they go to UofT or McGill.

Here's a Harvard Gazette article about her earlier work:


Nonie Lesaux's ESL study looked at a group of Vancouver children who
together spoke over 30 languages. (Staff photo Justin Ide/Harvard News
Research on ESL children has surprising results
GSE's Nonie Lesaux says non-native speaking kindergartners may read better
By Beth Potier
Harvard News Office

For an increasing number of children whose first language is not
English, learning to read - arguably one of school's most important
and most difficult lessons - can be an especially high hurdle.

New research from Harvard Graduate School of Education (GSE) Assistant
Professor Nonie Lesaux, however, finds that with proper intervention,
children who speak English as a second language can learn to read
English as well as or even better than their English-speaking peers.

Lesaux's study, published in the journal "Developmental Psychology"
this month, tracked 1,000 children speaking native English and English
as a second language (ESL) in mainstream English classrooms from
kindergarten through second grade. With participants from across an
entire school district in North Vancouver, Canada, the research is the
first-ever longitudinal study to look at a population-based sample
that took in a citywide sweep of social classes, immigrant
populations, and native languages - 33 of them.

"The ESL group as a whole did better in grade two on a number of
reading and language measures ... than their native-speaking
counterparts," says Lesaux, adding that the achievement of the ESL
students "stunned" some of her professional colleagues. The
implications on the expectations of ESL students could be
far-reaching, she says.

The success of the young readers - ESL students as well as native
English speakers - turned on an intensive literacy curriculum that the
school district developed in partnership with Lesaux and her
co-author, University of British Columbia professor Linda Siegel, who
lent their research-based expertise to the process. "It was a very
bottom-up approach, an amazing collaboration, " says Lesaux of the
research-to-practice development. Dubbed "Firm Foundations," the
curriculum draws from a number of proven literacy techniques and adds
constant monitoring, assessment, and intervention.

"It's a combination of everything we know works well," says Lesaux,
"but everything happens in a really systematic way." So while many of
the literacy activities - storybook reading, work with vocabulary and
the alphabet - may be at home in a kindergarten classroom, what's
unique to this program is that all students, including those who spoke
no English when they entered kindergarten, are held to particular

"It's a very preventive model," says Lesaux. "For years we've been
pulling these kids out in grade two, grade three, when they're having
difficulties. Instead, the idea was, kindergarteners love to learn,
they love to play around their learning, so let's do it in the
classroom and target those kids who might have difficulties down the

In addition to the Firm Foundations curriculum, which guides the
entire class, Lesaux and Siegel applied a more focused intervention to
the children (including but not exclusively the ESL students) who
demonstrated difficulties. In small groups, students received
intensive training in phonological awareness, the understanding of the
sound system of a language. Progressing systematically through oral
language processing, they would play with how words sound: If they see
a picture of a cat, and pictures of a sun, a fish, and a hat, can they
identify which rhymes with cat? Do they know that the sounds in "cat"
are "k" and "at"? That when you take the "b" sound off "bus," it
becomes "us"?

Lack of English proficiency an advantage

The study found that such intensive phonological awareness in
kindergarten gave students a solid foundation on which to build
reading skills in first grade. But why, by second grade, were some
students who spoke no English in kindergarten achieving higher reading
skills than their native English-speaking peers?

Lesaux credits what she calls a metalinguistic awareness of the
bilingual kids that exists precisely because they are learning English
as a second language. "They're much more tuned into language than the
other kids," she says. "In many ways, they were doing a lot more work
around language than the monolinguals, for whom language is much more

While Lesaux, who started teaching at the GSE just this fall, and her
colleagues have trained other school districts in Canada on this
prevention/intervention model, she doesn't know of any U.S. school
districts that have adopted it. Despite its proven success in
Vancouver, she's not sure it will catch on without a mandate.

"It's not a quick fix," she cautions. "It was short-term pain for
long-term gain." The program owes its success in no small part, she
says, to extraordinary district-wide buy-in. Early literacy was a top
priority that required extensive teacher training and professional
development. "This isn't a program you can just purchase and use," she

Yet the model shouldn't demand significant extra resources from
budget-strapped school districts. Lesaux and her colleagues worked
flexibility into the curriculum, tapping parent volunteers as well as
classroom teachers and reading specialists. With this intervention
providing such a solid reading foundation in kindergarten, the
Vancouver schools were able to shift their reading resources to
younger grades rather than invest in additional resources.

"What decreased over time was the number of kids who had to go down to
the resource center in the later years," says Lesaux. "It's pay now or
pay later."

Timely and controversial

With bilingual education in the political crosshairs and states,
including Massachusetts, legislating its demise, Lesaux's research has
a timely and controversial edge. Yet she insists that rather than
advocating for or against bilingual education, her study provides a
model for effectively teaching the growing number of ESL students that
are a reality for schools.

"It's saying that if you are going to move to an English-only
immersion model, then it has to be guided by really systematic
instruction with an understanding that this is another risk factor for
these kids," she says. Providing enough support, intervening early,
and monitoring development and achievement are key to helping ESL
students - as well as English speakers with reading difficulties -
learn to read.

Lesaux is currently analyzing the fourth-grade data from this
continuing study, and then she will turn the rest of the study to the
Canada-based researchers while she digs into collaborations with some
of her GSE colleagues. She also plies her expertise as a research
associate on the U.S. Department of Education-funded National Panel on
the Development of Literacy in Language Minority Children and Youth.

While Lesaux is quick to note that this model does not create
biliteracy - it only teaches students to read in English, leaving
literacy in their native language to instruction outside the schools -
it makes a strong statement about the capacity for ESL children, whose
lack of English fluency puts them at risk throughout school, to learn
to read and achieve.

"It certainly does say that their English language-learner status
doesn't have to be a negative thing," she says, "nor does it
presuppose poor reading."


Snippets from her CV. I find it interesting that the Mount Allison Gold A Award and Student Life Committee Contributions are still listed a decade later despite the much more well-known accomplishments.

Nonie K. Lesaux
1999 B.A. (Hons). Mount Allison University. Sackville, N.B.
Department of Psychology
Thesis: Persistence of phonological processing deficits in university
dyslexics with age-appropriate reading skills.
Mount Allison Gold A Award. Annual award for contribution to Mount
Allison University. 1999.
Student Life Committee, Board of Regents, Mount Allison University.
The White House Press Release (minus the 99 other recipients of the award):

Office of the Press Secretary
July 9, 2009


President Obama today named 100 beginning researchers as recipients of
the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, the
highest honor bestowed by the United States government on young
professionals in the early stages of their independent research
careers. The recipient scientists and engineers will receive their
awards in the Fall at a White House ceremony.

The Presidential Early Career Awards embody the high priority the
Administration places on producing outstanding scientists and
engineers to advance the nation’s goals and contribute to all sectors
of the economy. Nine Federal departments and agencies join together
annually to nominate the most meritorious young scientists and
engineers—researchers whose early accomplishments show the greatest
promise for strengthening America’s leadership in science and
technology and contributing to the awarding agencies' missions.

"These extraordinarily gifted young scientists and engineers represent
the best in our country," President Obama said. "With their talent,
creativity, and dedication, I am confident that they will lead their
fields in new breakthroughs and discoveries and help us use science
and technology to lift up our nation and our world."

The awards, established by President Clinton in February 1996, are
coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the
Executive Office of the President. Awardees are selected on the basis
of two criteria: Pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of
science and technology and a commitment to community service as
demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or
community outreach. Winning scientists and engineers receive up to a
five-year research grant to further their study in support of critical
government missions.

This year’s recipients are:

Department of Education
Nonie K. Lesaux, Harvard University

...and what Harvard had to say about their award recipients:

Four from Harvard win Presidential Early Career Awards in Science and

Highest such honor bestowed by U. S. government
July 9, 2009

Four Harvard researchers have been named among the winners nationwide
of this year’s Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and
Engineers (PECASE). They are Roland G. Fryer Jr., Patrick J. Wolfe,
Robert J. Wood, and Nonie K. Lesaux.

The announcement came today from the White House.

The PECASE program recognizes outstanding scientists and engineers
who, early in their careers, show exceptional potential for leadership
at the frontiers of knowledge. This presidential award is the highest
honor bestowed by the U.S. government on scientists and engineers
beginning their independent careers.


Nonie K. Lesaux, Max and Marie Kargman Associate Professor of Human
Development and Urban Education Advancement at the Harvard Graduate
School of Education:

Lesaux received a B.A. from Mount Allison University in 1999, and an
M.A. (2001) and Ph.D. (2003) from the University of British Columbia.
Her areas of expertise include bilingual education, child development,
learning disorders, psychology, and reading development.

She leads a research program that focuses on the reading development
and difficulties of children from linguistically diverse backgrounds;
her developmental and instructional research has implications for
practitioners, researchers, and policymakers. Her research has focused
on the reading development and the health and well-being of children
who are at risk for learning difficulties, including children from
language-minority and low socioeconomic backgrounds, and children with
language impairments. Lesaux’s program of research is supported by
research grants from several organizations, including the National
Institute for Child Health and Human Development, William T. Grant
Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Spencer

From 2004 to 2006, Lesaux was senior research associate of the
National Literacy Panel on Language Minority Youth and contributing
author to three chapters in that national report. In the spring of
2007, Lesaux was named one of five WT Grant scholars, earning a
$350,000 five-year award from the WT Grant Foundation in support of
her research on English-language learners in urban public schools.
Lesaux is a member of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading,
International Academy for Research in Learning Disabilities, and
Society for Research in Child Development. She is also a member of the
Reading First Advisory Committee for the Secretary of Education, U.S.
Department of Education.

Her award was sponsored by the Department of Education.


  1. Congrats Nonie Lesaux to be honored by obama, it should be she has made proud the coutry as well her college . . we also be . .
    Sprachreise England

  2. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.