An estimated one in five adults in the United States is considered illiterate. Such a statistic is sad in light of a recent study by Patricia G. Mathes, the TI Endowed Chair in Reading Research and director of SMU’s Institute for Reading Research. She found that reading failure can be eliminated if struggling readers are identified early and given intensive intervention.
Mathes’ study of 300 Houston students demonstrated that two vastly different approaches to reading intervention are equally successful as long as both incorporate the same critical content proven effective in scientific studies, she says. Students who received the interventions scored overwhelmingly better than those in the control group who were provided only enhanced classroom instruction.
Her research may help end the battle among educators over the “best” way to help struggling readers, and, more importantly, it may keep some of those students out of special education classes in later years. “Interventions built on science are effective. There doesn’t have to be one best approach, but there are better approaches,” Mathes says.
The study found that nearly all the first-graders who met in groups of three each school day for 40 minutes of intense work on the core components scored in the average range for reading by the end of the year. When the results are extrapolated to the entire student population, the use of reading interventions would have resulted in less than 2 percent of students struggling at the end of first grade, Mathes says.
The Texas Education Agency reported last year that 6.4 percent of first-graders were held back in the 2003-04 school year. Based on Mathes’ research, that number could have been cut by at least two-thirds if programs similar to interventions used in the Houston study could be expanded statewide. That level of improvement would save schools millions
SMU researchers and investigators at the University of Texas at Austin have developed an ambitious research project that looks at implementation of those successful interventions on a grander scale. Project Scale-Up, a five-year, $6 million study funded by the U.S. Department of Education, is being conducted in 57 schools – from urban to rural, affluent to impoverished – in the Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin areas. The study tests the effectiveness of three kinds of teacher support: on-site, on-demand, and on the computer, an option called the “Virtual Coach.”
Each school chooses one of two approaches to use: Proactive or Responsive Reading. Both methods incorporate the same critical content that has been proven to work in earlier research studies. That content includes phonemic awareness, teaching a sensitivity to the sounds in words; the print-speech connection, connecting the sounds to the letters students see; practice reading individual words and connected text that uses those words; focus on fluency, automatically recognizing words and reading faster; and reading for meaning, the ultimate goal of all reading.
Each method is highly structured, although Proactive scripts every moment of the fast-paced lessons. The less overtly structured Responsive gives teachers more leeway by guiding their choices from a list. The students are equally busy, but use more manipulatives such as magnetic letters that they push together to form words.
Both methods also require frequent assessments to track student achievement. Responsive teachers must assess each student at least once a week. This is done by choosing one child as “star student” each day. The teacher assesses that child and gives a private lesson on a needed skill while the other children read to one another. Then, the whole group receives instruction on the skill taught to the previous day’s star student in a continuous pattern of teaching and reteaching.
All teachers receive several days of initial training with two additional days scheduled throughout the year. In addition, Project Scale-Up teachers receive coaching and mentoring from SMU or UT staff. The actual type of coaching a teacher receives is randomly assigned. Project Scale-Up asks: How much support do teachers need to implement new interventions well? And, can the support be provided using technology?
Teachers receive support from three coaching models – on-site, on-demand, and Virtual Coach, says Melinda McGrath, who participated in the Houston study and now serves as a Project Scale-Up coach. As an on-site coach, McGrath visits the schools assigned to her at least once a week to observe and provide instructional support. For on-demand coaching, the teachers contact her with any concerns. As a virtual coach, McGrath answers e-mailed queries and helps run a message board where teachers can discuss their concerns and successes.
All teachers receive a CD called the “teacher’s tutor,” which allows them to view video of various teaching techniques being delivered and hear each sound pronounced correctly. [To read correctly, students must hear correctly. That means some teachers must learn to drop their drawls, changing their own “puh” pronunciation as in “puh-ig” to “p” in “pig.”]
The Proactive method is used at Dan D. Rogers Elementary, a Dallas Independent School District campus where nearly 95 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and more than half of the first-graders are identified as “at risk,” Mathes says.
“The teachers in that building face huge challenges because they have such a large number of students who are coming to first grade without the required skills,” she says. The principal is very supportive of their research, she adds, and has assigned three teachers to conduct reading interventions.
Nancy Freeman has taught at Rogers for 14 years, first as a kindergarten teacher and now as a full-time reading and math enrichment tutor for grades one through six. Her four students file into the classroom quietly and sit around a horseshoe-shaped table across from their teacher. McGrath, who arrived early to discuss the class and work with Freeman, sits behind the students, observing their teacher.
Freeman is concerned that one boy’s speech problem and lack of attention are causing him to mispronounce and misread words. She is concerned about another child who seems to swap the beginning and ending sounds in words. Her greatest anxiety, however, is caused by the difficulty of the previous day’s lesson on the three sounds made by the “-ed” ending: “ed,” “d” or “t.”
McGrath whips out graphs showing the results of each child’s most recent assessments. All slope upward. This immediate feedback seems to reassure Freeman as she plunges into the lesson. She holds up a spiral-bound version of the Proactive curriculum, written by Mathes and Joseph Torgesen of Florida State University and recently published by SRA-McGraw-Hill as SRA’s Early Interventions in Reading.
The students, in an astonishing display of attention and effort, stay busy for the next 40 minutes. Freeman guides them through about six activities that include reading, listening to the number of sounds in words, spelling those words, and back to reading the words. During the spelling activity Freeman slowly says a word and each student taps a different finger against his or her forehead for each sound heard. When the students are sure of the number of sounds they hear, they write down the word. At the end of each activity, the teacher puts either a purple sticker or a check mark in her assessment book.
Mathes describes the Proactive approach as being “like baby steps.” Ideally, little new information is added each day so the students gain a continuous sense of mastery and seldom encounter the kind of failure that might cause them to stop trying.
The minutes whirl by, ending with Freeman congratulating the students on their hard work. The students leave looking tired but confident. McGrath and Freeman go over the day’s lesson. Freeman has discovered the difficulty of correctly reading words with “-ed” endings when saying them as slowly as the technique requires. McGrath promises to provide a phonetic “key” for that lesson.
Mathes says that research shows pretty clearly that every dime spent in the early grades pulling struggling readers up to par is money saved on extra services later, because entrenched failure is harder to overcome.
“Children who leave first grade behind their peers almost never catch up,” she says.“If we don’t intervene in kindergarten and first grade, it just gets harder and harder.”
For more information: http://www.smu.edu/teacher_education/faculty/mathespatricia.asp
Reading Institute Attracts National Recognition
In 2003 SMU responded to the national literacy crisis by creating the Institute for Reading Research. The Institute’s mission is to provide teachers and schools with cutting-edge information about how to prevent reading failure and how to handle reading failure once it has occurred.
Funding for research projects, which totals more than $10 million, comes from the U.S. Department of Education, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the Texas Instruments Foundation. Projects include developing interventions for children at-risk for reading failure in public schools; teaching children with mild to moderate mental retardation how to read; determining best practices for ensuring that Spanish-speaking children develop high levels of English literacy; preparing preschool children raised in poverty for the academic rigors of elementary school; examining how to increase reading fluency among children in upper elementary grades; and creating a computer-administered reading assessment to provide continuous progress feedback to teachers.
Institute fellows primarily teach in the School of Education and Human Development’s undergraduate teacher certification and Master of Education programs, which include the Master Reading Teacher program. Plans for a doctoral program are under way.
The Institute has gained national recognition as faculty members report their findings at conferences and in journals. Further, teachers are using curriculum developed from various projects. In addition, the Institute’s work has expanded into collaborations with the Florida Center for Reading Research, the Vaughn Gross Center for Reading and Language Arts at the University of Texas, and the Bilingual Education Program at Texas A&M University.
For more information: http://www.smu.edu/teacher_education/irr/index.asp