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Bertha Kennedy teacher wins national award

Dyslexia Canada honours Van Hoof for literacy work
SOUNDING IT OUT — Bertha Kennedy Catholic teacher Andrea Van Hoof was awarded a Educational Excellence Award by Dyslexia Canada on April 23, 2024. She is shown here with some of the resources she uses to teach her students how to read. KEVIN MA/St. Albert Gazette

A Bertha Kennedy teacher has won national recognition for using science to teach kids how to read.

Dyslexia Canada announced the 12 winners of its inaugural Educational Excellence Awards on April 23. It posted an interview with St. Albert winner Andrea Van Hoof on its website April 30.

Dyslexia is a neurobiological learning disability characterized by spelling and reading difficulties, said Alicia Smith, executive director of Dyslexia Canada. Roughly 15 per cent of Canadians have it.

“Kids with dyslexia are really struggling within the education system,” Smith said, but can learn to read if their struggles are spotted early.

Smith said Dyslexia Canada launched this education award (which consists of a small trophy) to highlight recent successes in treating dyslexia in schools.

Van Hoof, who teaches at Bertha Kennedy Catholic in St. Albert, was nominated by about half a dozen people for her efforts to use evidence-based practices to help students learn to read, Smith said.

“She’s really seen as a leader of teachers.”

Hooked on phonics

A teacher since 2020, Van Hoof said she got interested in evidence-based literacy practice as a student researcher for University of Alberta educational psychology professor George Georgiou, who has been working with Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools since about 2021 to address reading deficits in early learners. Her research helped Georgiou and postdoctoral fellow Kristy Dunn create The Phonics Companion, which is a phonics-based guide for reading instruction.

“I struggled a lot when I was a kid with reading comprehension as well as mathematics,” Van Hoof said, so she sympathized with students who struggle to read.

Research shows that literacy instruction must be intensive and explicit if it is to work, Van Hoof said. Educators have to make sure students understand how words sound (phonological awareness), how letters correspond to sounds (phonics), how to translate sounds into words at a decent pace (fluency), what words mean (vocabulary), and what words mean in a sentence (comprehension).

Instead of having students memorize how to spell words, for example, Van Hoof shows them how to break words into individual sounds. Charts in her classroom show students how to make an “errr” sound with their throat and tongue, and how that sound corresponds to different letter combinations (“er,” “ir,” and “ur”). Whenever she teaches kids a new sound, she has them read passages with words full of those sounds as practice. She and other teachers at her school also test students three times a year to track their literacy development.

Van Hoof said she has given talks to staff about best practices for literacy education, and hoped to give a similar talk at teachers’ conventions next year. She also hoped to start a school book club that focused on best literacy instruction practices.

Van Hoof said one of the most rewarding parts of her job was seeing how students improved their reading skills over the course of the school year. She encouraged parents to help this process by reading with their kids every day.

Van Hoof said this national award served as a reminder of why she became an educator.

“I want to ensure all students are given evidence-based practices and that no one is left behind.”

Profiles of this year’s award winners can be found at

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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