FPG Profile: Heather Aiken
Heather Aiken, PhD, NBCT, serves as the intervention director for Targeted Reading Instruction (TRI; formerly called Targeted Reading Intervention) at UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG.) Before beginning this role, she worked for three years as a TRI literacy coach while earning her doctorate in teacher education and curriculum at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Teaching has always been central in her life, starting with earning a B.A. in history and elementary education from The College of William and Mary. After graduation, she served in the Peace Corps as a language arts resource teacher in Grenada. She went on to teach for more than 17 years in kindergarten through third grade classrooms in Chatham, Durham, and Wake counties.
Tell us about your path to FPG.
While I was getting my PhD at UNC, I took a class with Lynne Vernon-Feagans (co-developer of TRI and William C. Friday Distinguished Professor, Emeritus UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education, and formerly a senior scientist at FPG) in which we learned how to implement Targeted Reading Instruction. Lynne reached out the following summer to see if I would take the job of a coach who unexpectedly left the position. I’ve been working for TRI ever since.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, I worked in two different primary schools on Grenada, leading professional development sessions in reading and writing, modeling lessons, developing curriculum materials, and building classroom libraries. While there, I realized just how much I needed to learn about teaching reading so I got my master’s degree in literacy before I started teaching in the U.S. I planned to teach for five years and then get my PhD but I ended up waiting until my youngest child was in kindergarten before I returned to grad school in 2015. I graduated in 2020.
What is your typical workday like?
As TRI’s intervention director, I typically spend some of my time coaching and working with other TRI literacy coaches, focusing on developing materials to support teachers. We're currently working on creating a TRI app so I’m spending time planning the adjustments needed to transition TRI to a digital environment. I also manage the Institutional Review Board process for our TRI replication grant so I’m responsible for reporting, documenting, and reviewing protocols and basically making sure that everybody is doing what they should be. Every day I try to spend some time writing.
What do you enjoy about your work?
I love the opportunity to work with teachers and to build that connection between research and practice. I feel like a lot of people in education are either researchers or they are practitioners. Having lived in practitioner world for almost 20 years before I crossed back into academia, I feel that, while I can talk to researchers and have conversations on that level, I still “speak teacher” and I’m still a teacher at heart. I love bringing research to teachers to help them see how some of their practices could become more efficient and more effective for kids, which is what every teacher wants.
What brings you joy in your work?
I feel good when I work with a teacher and we see a child make a breakthrough. We've always remote-coached at TRI, even before COVID. We do a Zoom call while the teacher works with a student so we can watch and interact as needed. The teacher and I then talk through what happened and what the next steps are. We do that for a period of six to 10 weeks with each student. Just seeing the changes in the student’s growth is rewarding, as is making sure the teacher sees that growth because sometimes, when you're that close to a student, you don't necessarily see the change. Helping teachers realize their impact and being a positive force in their lives brings me joy.
How does the work you do tie into FPG’s mission?
Broadly, it's improving the lives of children. Reading is an essential skill and we know what opportunities come from being able to read. We're building that foundation. Our focus is on putting research into practice and supporting teachers, students, and parents.
FPG has a strong focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. How does that manifest in your work?
One of the things we've spent a lot of time as a team working on is thinking about our language and how we talk (and think) about kids and teachers. If you look back at any of our TRI articles from probably even five or 10 years ago, we talked about “struggling readers.” Now we use the terms “students not yet reading on grade level” or “beginning readers.”
We are collaborating with El Centro Hispano to develop a series of parent workshops designed to build kindergarten readiness for bilingual/bicultural students. We’re thinking more broadly about issues, such as what does it mean to be biliterate and how do you develop basic reading skills in English while you're still learning how to speak the language.
Do you have any advice for parents of those who are learning to read?
I think one of the most important things you can do is to talk with your child. It doesn’t matter what you talk about, just talk. Reading, singing, sharing family stories, and nursery rhymes can all help build oral language skills. It is valuable in whatever language a parent is most comfortable; it doesn't have to be in English. We know that building those skills in one language can transfer over to the other. Playing with words and sounds helps too—rhyming, finding words that start with the same sound, or substituting sounds in words can all help children develop a sense of how sounds combine to make words. These are all important skills to develop before a child starts reading.
For children beginning to read, remember to keep a focus on sounds and keep reading fun! Look for books to read about topics of interest. Spending too much time doing phonics worksheets or memorizing random words can make children forget the purpose of the work—making meaning of text.