Learning to read is more than ABCs and Schoolhouse Rock.
Researchers from Florida State University have been, since 2010, studying how young children learn to recognize letters, read words and comprehend what that they see on the page.
And some of that research includes children in the Escambia and Santa Rosa area.
The project is being done through the Florida Center for Reading Research at FSU. It is funded through the Institute of Education Sciences (the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education) through a five-year, $100 million-plus grant that began in 2010. Six research teams are participating in the new Reading for Understanding Research Network. FSU’s share of the pie is $26 million to study why some children struggle to comprehend what they read.
More than 130 researchers representing linguistics, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, reading, speech and language pathology, assessment and evaluation are involved.
Christopher Lonigan, associate director of the center said at the time the grant was awarded that much of the research in the field in the last 30 years has focused on how children decode letters into words. This project will focus on how to help children turn being able to say those words into understanding what they mean using strategies that teachers can implement in classrooms in fairly short order.
Dr. Elizabeth Crowe is one of the researchers working with children in this area. She works out of the Panama City campus of FSU and is a former elementary teacher who taught regular ed and gifted students.
Crowe says the center was originally put in place when Just Read, Florida! kicked off under Gov. Jeb Bush with the aim of helping failing schools in the state. The mission has expanded to include research like the Reading For Understanding network.
“Usually when we approach a district about doing research, we let them pick which schools to do the work in,” Crowe says. “We try to work predominantly in high-poverty schools (where at least 50 percent of the students or more are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch or greater), because we want the research to be very applicable across demographic groups.”
QUESTION: What is the Reading For Understanding Research Network?
ANSWER: It is a network of grants (to study how) 4-year-olds (learn to read). One was awarded to Florida State and it aims to find ways to improve reading comprehension. We know a lot about about how to teach kids to decode, but what we struggle with is comprehension. If they lack comprehension skills, they can sound out the words, but they don’t understand, they can’t analyze text (which is something Common Core curriculum asks them to do). That starts really with a lack of language skills in preschoolers. Our goal is to address that.
Q: How did the study start?
A: We started in 2010-2011 not assuming that we understood all of the components that explain why kids struggle with reading comprehension. So we took a large effort to test all of the skills of language and comprehension and by that figured out the underlying components of comprehension. If you can’t read words, you may not be a good comprehender.
Q: What has the research shown so far?
A: Some interesting things. For example, language, grammar and syntax all are lacking in kids who have poor comprehension skills. That wasn’t the first thing that would have come to my mind, but it makes sense. We know weak comprehenders lack vocabulary, background or academic knowledge. For example, they don’t call ice cream by the flavor name, they call it “the brown ice cream” or “the white ice cream.”
Q: How do you apply the lessons from the data?
A: We created interventions based on those skills. We started testing them on a small scale (100 or 200 kids) and once we knew it worked and it was improving kids skills, we applied it to more kids. Last year, we were testing multiple interventions in each grade. Preschoolers were randomly assigned four or five interventions at a time, and that gave us some interesting results.
Q: Is there a common thread?
A: It does all seem to boil down to language skills. This year we are giving them 18 weeks of intervention instead of 12 weeks. We want to see them do even better. One (intervention) is called Language in Motion, which focuses on spoken language and listening comprehension. It helps teach kids about narrative text structure, plot, character, setting. The other is dialogic reading where we teach vocabulary and reading comp by reading aloud, and it ends up being very natural because a lot of preschool teachers are reading to kids already.
Q: How big is the study pool?
A: There are almost 6,000 kids (including 700 identified as struggling readers) in the study this year across multiple counties in more than 100 schools and centers. Because we are looking for struggling readers, you have to cast a really wide net.
Q: Would funding VPK for a full day instead of the current half-day help?
A: A gut check about that would be more would be better than less. The parents and families who need this the most are the parents and families who can’t pick up their kids at 12 o’clock. They may be missing out because of childcare.
Q: What advice do you have for parents?
A: Keep books in the house. Take the time to read with your children and talk about what you are reading while you are reading. Do not just close the book at the end and have that be the end of it. The number of words kids hear in a day matters and taking the time to talk with your kids about what happens in their day. When you drive down the road, point out things and call things by the right name.
Q: What about the question of is it just what you hear or is it the response that parents have that is important to language building.
A: The response you have when your child first starts making utterances is really important. The kids who are getting immediate feedback, whose parents respond right back, or touch the child and say good job! reinforces that it is a good thing. Being interactive and making the effort to respond to their verbalizing to encourage them to do it more. Life is busy but every opportunity is good.