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FSU research looks at boosting early reading

  • Mar 26, 2016
  • Shannon Nickinson
Teacher talking to students in classroom Teacher talking to students in classroom

Sandy Lyons reads to VPK students at Trinity Learning Center. Trinity was among local childcare centers that participated in research that Florida State University is doing on how to help young children become better readers. Photo credit: Michael Spooneybarger.

Building better readers begins long before kindergarten.

Researchers at Florida State University have spent six years studying how young children learn to recognize letters, read words and then put them in context to learn to read. It is research that has included children — and teachers — in the Pensacola metro area.

FSU has a $26 million share of a $100 million-plus grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, to study why some kids struggle to understand what they read.

Understanding — or reading comprehension — is different from decoding the letters of a word to sound it out and say it aloud.

More than 130 researchers representing linguistics, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, reading, speech and language pathology, assessment and evaluation have been involved.

Back in 2014, Dr. Elizabeth Crowe was one of the researchers working with children in the Pensacola metro area on the Reading for Understanding research project.

“We know a lot about how to teach kids to decode, but what we struggle with is comprehension,” Crowe said then. “If they lack comprehension skills, they can sound out the words, but they can’t analyze text.”

Jeanine L. Clancy is a senior research associate at the Florida Center for Reading Research at FSU and also is part of the team.

“When children are in school and reading, if they don’t have any background knowledge on a topic, they don’t have anything to connect their new learning to. It just hangs there,” Clancy says. “If they’ve never been to a zoo or heard about a zoo, reading about animals in a zoo isn’t as meaningful.”

When the team started out, they narrowed in on 19 strategies in classrooms to help children who struggled to improve their reading comprehension. Most effective was small group instruction where the children discussed a story they just read to see how much of it they retained and how well they link what they heard with what they already knew.

They followed pre-kindergarten, first- and third-graders for three years to get a sense of whether children held on to the progress they made as they moved through early elementary school.

They have recently finished collecting the last data on those children. The analysis will continue through the summer, Clancy says.

In this sixth year of the project, Clancy says they added a new layer.

In previous years, FSU-hired interventionists did the work with children.

“We wanted be able to have the classroom teacher implement the intervention,” Clancy said, “to see if the results could be attained by the typical classroom teacher. We want to see how much professional development does the teacher need to implement that same intervention (and get similar results).”

They are testing two levels of professional development. All the teachers got a half-day, face-to-face training session on the interventions, which are to take place four times a week over an eight-week period.

Teachers then were randomly assigned into two groups. One group gets feedback weekly from a coach who either observes the teacher in person or watches a recording of lesson and gives feedback by email.

The other group doesn’t have the weekly coaching.

“We have to wait until the end of the semester to see if it makes a difference,” Clancy says.

So far, Clancy says, the research has shown that the intervention works.

“(But) it’s really, really hard to close the gap,” Clancy said. “It takes more than just one year of intervention. It takes good instruction year after year, but if you pinpoint what the child needs, you find interventions to help.”

“Each year of schooling, there is a cumulative effect,” Clancy says. “If you have strong teachers year after year, all that has an effect on what the child retains. That’s something that needs to be examined more carefully.”

Sometimes, even that is not enough.

“Every year of school, in every school no matter what side of town you’re on, has to be doing the right thing with the best teachers and the best curriculum and the best environment, and even that can be an uphill battle if they come from a family without the resources to build those early vocabulary skills, to take them to the zoo or to have these experiences that are so important to learning vocabulary” and how those words give children more hooks upon which to hang new concepts and words.

So, what can parents do?

They need to have regular daily conversations with their children, Clancy believes.

“Label things, give them the vocabulary; read to them. And have it be more than reading the book and closing it,” she says. “Talk about the story and things happening in the book. It’s very important to take your children out on errands … talk about what you are doing and why you are

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