Reading experts have effective strategies to help many of the youngest children who struggle to read, but that work has been less effective with older students. Those whose first language isn’t English are especially difficult to teach.
The Texas Center for Learning Disabilities, a multidisciplinary research center led by the University of Houston (UH) that includes The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk (MCPER), will tackle the issue with an $8.4 million grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
The competitively awarded federal grant is the third for the center since it was established in 2006 to address learning disabilities from a variety of disciplines. Jack Fletcher, chair of the UH Psychology Department and principal investigator for the grant, and some of his collaborators have spent the past 25 years addressing learning disabilities involving reading and math.
The center, which includes researchers from The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and MCPER at The University of Texas at Austin, is overseen by the UH Department of Psychology and the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation, and Statistics, led by UH psychology professor David Francis.
Francis has long worked on issues involving minority-language speakers, known as English learners. He will work on this project along with professors Elena Grigorenko and Arturo Hernandez, associate professor Paul Cirino, and research assistant professors Jeremy Miciak and Pat Taylor, all with the UH Department of Psychology; associate professor Jenifer Juranek of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston; and Executive Director Sharon Vaughn, Assistant Director Greg Roberts, and assistant professor of psychology Jessica Church-Lang, all with MCPER.
The center has led some of the key breakthroughs in understanding learning disabilities, including the following:
The work is the result of “team science,” Fletcher said, an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the classification, early intervention, and remediation of learning disabilities. It includes the use of brain imaging, in addition to work in public school classrooms in Houston and Austin.
Grigorenko’s work spans both developmental psychology and molecular genetics. Her arrival at UH in 2015 added a genetic component to the center’s work, allowing it to delve more deeply into the epigenetic response to intervention and to address the central question the center seeks to answer: Why do some children pick up reading easily and others struggle? And when children struggle, what can help them succeed?
Working with older students is a natural evolution, Fletcher said, because researchers have established effective interventions for the early grades, although not all schools use them. Middle schoolers who are English learners often have trouble reading even when their spoken command of English is good, he said.
But it’s unclear how a variety of factors—economic disadvantage, language proficiency, and learning disabilities—interact to cause the problem.
Students in the project—English learners who meet school benchmarks for English proficiency—will receive intervention to improve reading skills, and researchers will collect information through brain imaging and genetic and cognitive testing.
“This is real team science,” Fletcher said. “Lots of people from different disciplines are working together to bring science to education.”
The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk (MCPER) has received a $1.4 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences to develop a professional development model specifically for middle schools.
The model will be developed over two years in collaboration with educators at all three middle schools in San Angelo Independent School District (ISD). Following development, a pilot study will be conducted to test the model’s potential effectiveness on students’ reading performance.
“We are honored to receive this funding from the Institute of Education Sciences,” said Christy Murray, principal investigator of the project. “Our goal is to develop a set of materials and professional development resources that help middle school educators implement powerful, research-based practices and, concurrently, build the capacity of on-campus leaders to sustain those practices over time.”
The grant will extend the work of MCPER’s Middle School Matters project, which was initially funded through The Meadows Foundation, Sid W. Richardson Foundation, The Brown Foundation, and others.
“Thanks to the amazing support of our initial funders, Middle School Matters has developed many wonderful resources, and we’re looking forward to enhancing those resources with the help of some talented educators in San Angelo ISD,” Murray said.
During the 2017–2018 and 2018–2019 school years, San Angelo ISD educators will serve as the experts by partnering with researchers to improve middle school instructional materials and professional development efforts.
Sharon Vaughn, executive director of The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk, highlighted the importance of this collaboration. “The teacher perspective is very important in the development of instructional materials so that we can ensure they are usable and feasible in the classroom,” she said. “Incorporating their ideas will truly connect research to practice.”
Farrah Gomez, San Angelo ISD executive director of schools and school improvement, agrees. “The partnership with Middle School Matters has been invaluable,” Gomez said. “We are excited to continue our work together where the research can be put to practice in our classrooms. The communication and feedback loop between teachers and researchers is a vital part of the process.”
Middle School Matters was founded in 2010 by the George W. Bush Institute, which partnered with MCPER in 2012. Since that time, Middle School Matters has supported more than 100 schools, hosted four conferences, and developed dozens of resources and instructional toolkits.
To learn more about Middle School Matters and download free instructional resources, visit the Middle School Matters website.
MCPER's Brandy Maynard, a fellow in Dropout Prevention Institute, and Veronica Miller, a researcher with the Middle School Matters Institute, received the Leonard E. Gibbs Award for a recent review on mindfulness along with coauthors Michael R. Solis and Kristen E. Brendel.
In the review, Mindfulness-Based Interventions for Improving Cognition, Academic Achievement, Behavior and Socioemotional Functioning of Primary and Secondary Students, the authors found that mindfulness-based interventions have a statistically significant positive effect on cognitive and socioemotional processes for students, but that they do not improve behavior or academic performance.
Read more about it on the Campbell Collaboration website.
Dr. Diane Pedrotty Bryant at MCPER has received a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education for doctoral leadership preparation in intensive interventions for students with learning disabilities and emotional/behavioral disorders.
The aim of this 5-year grant is to recruit and prepare a cohort of highly qualified doctoral graduates for leadership positions in special education.
The focus of the grant is on intensive interventions as a critical dimension of doctoral preparation. A research-to-practice leadership model will be employed to provide in-depth analysis of intensive interventions, particularly as they pertain to academic and behavioral interventions.
Doctoral leaders will be prepared to (a) participate on research teams to contribute to the growing database on intensive interventions, (b) understand and implement intensive interventions for individuals with disabilities, (c) understand and implement a data-based individualization process to customize intensive interventions to maximize student growth, (d) understand the cultural and linguistic issues related to using intensive interventions with culturally and linguistically diverse students, and (e) understand and contribute to policy issues related to intensive interventions.
Doctoral leaders and scholars will assume positions in institutions of higher education, professional development, state education agencies, and local education agencies to serve as catalysts to effect change.
Bryant will serve a principal investigator of the program with MCPER's Sharon Vaughn and Nathan Clemens as co-principal investigators. The program will begin on January 1, 2018.
For more information, see the Doctoral Leadership: Multitiered Systems of Support website.
In a new article, Middle School Matters Institute Principal Investigator Christy Murray, Assistant Director David Barrett, and School Support Coach Veronica Miller provide guidance for middle school educators seeking innovative solutions to systemic problems.
"Planting the Seeds of Innovation: Four Steps to Build Capacity for Long-Term Innovation" appears in the August issue of AMLE Magazine, published by the Association for Middle Level Education. In the article, the authors convey the importance of grounding innovations in solid research, thus providing a strong foundation and increasing the confidence for an effective impact on student outcomes. Additionally, the authors emphasize the need for long-term planning and strategic implementation.
The article also points readers to MSM’s field guide, a collection of research-based principles and practices deemed essential for middle school success.
For more information on MSMI’s work, visit the Middle School Matters website.
MCPER has been awarded a $2.5 million, 4-year federal grant to launch the Scientific Explorers project, which will design and test a science program for the full range of second-grade learners, including those with or at risk for learning disabilities in mathematics, reading, and science.
The goal of the Scientific Explorers program, funded by the National Science Foundation Discovery Research PreK–12 program, is to lay an early foundation for science learning, drawing upon the disciplinary core ideas and cross-cutting concepts related to Earth’s Systems in the Next Generation Science Standards. The project also will develop and test an accompanying science assessment. In year 4, the project will conduct a pilot study of the program and assessment in 40 second-grade classrooms in Texas and Virginia.
MCPER's Christian Doabler is the project's principal investigator. Sarah Powell of MCPER, Victor Sampson of the UT Austin College of Education, and Bill Therrien of the University of Virginia are the co-principal investigators. MCPER's Greg Roberts and Anna-Mari Fall are the project’s methodologists.
"A robust understanding of disciplinary core ideas and practices in science is necessary for obtaining jobs in the STEM fields," Doabler said. "Yet, few effective instructional tools exist for the science classroom."
For more information, visit the Scientific Explorers project webpage.
MCPER researchers Sarah Powell and Sharon Vaughn have received a $1 million grant from the T.L.L. Temple Foundation to develop and use math and reading read-alouds with young children.
The 5-year project, Interactive Read-Alouds for Prekindergarten and Kindergarten to Improve Literacy and Numeracy Skills, will aim to improve the read-aloud practices of caregivers and teachers of children ages 3 to 6. A read-aloud is when an adult reads aloud to a child and engages the child in discussion and exploration as the reading occurs.
“Many parents and teachers read story books aloud to young children, but books about early math concepts are used infrequently,” Powell said. “With this project, we aim to improve typical routines with read-alouds so that teachers and parents not only focus on reading but also discuss math vocabulary and math content with young children.”
One aim of the T.L.L. Temple Foundation, based in Lufkin, Texas, is to address low rates of educational attainment in East Texas. With this grant, the researchers will work with caregivers and teachers in East Texas to increase home and school literacy and numeracy discussions and activities.
The project will design a set of research-based practices that will be useful and effective for caregivers and teachers throughout Texas, ensuring that youngsters will be more prepared for kindergarten and beyond.
“We are so proud to be working with the T.L.L. Temple Foundation to better outcomes in early literacy and numeracy,” Vaughn said. “We consider it a huge honor to have received this grant and are very grateful for their support.”
For more information, visit the project webpage.
MCPER Executive Director Sharon Vaughn and Principal Investigator Sarah Powell will share their expertise as featured presenters at the Central Texas Dyslexia Conference this fall in Austin.
Vaughn will be a featured speaker for the event, which will be held October 19 at the Austin Independent School District Performing Arts Center. Her presentation, "Reading Strategies That Work," will explore the features of successful reading interventions in grades 4 to 8 and the importance of explicit and systematic phonics instruction.
Powell will lead a breakout session titled "Math Strategies That Work." She will discuss areas of difficulty, explicit instruction, the concrete-to-abstract continuum, fact fluency, and word problems.
According to the website, the conference "will help teachers and parents by identifying the cognitive strengths common among dyslexic students and will explain how to nurture these gifts in dyslexic students. In addition, dyslexia experts will provide instructional best practices proven to help dyslexic students improve reading fluency, comprehension, and math skills."
For more information on this free event, including registration and a full schedule, visit the conference website.
Researchers at Utah State University (Ron Gillam and Sandra Gillam) and The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk (Sharon Vaughn and Greg Roberts) have been awarded a $3.3 million, 4-year federal grant to test a program for improving the narrative comprehension and composition of first- through fourth-grade students at risk for language and learning difficulties.
The funding from the Institute of Education Sciences will allow the researchers to evaluate the effects of the Supporting Knowledge in Language and Literacy (SKILL) curriculum in a large randomized clinical trial in Utah and Texas over the next 4 years.
This work will build on previous research on the impact of early instruction in narrative language skills, such as story structure, character development, and causation. This research demonstrated the importance of narrative language proficiency to academic success. Students with language and learning difficulties will be the focus of the efficacy studies at the Utah and Texas sites.
Students randomized to receive the language and literacy intervention will participate in approximately 40 half-hour sessions. Instruction will focus on story structure, strategies for constructing situation models, and the integration of new information into long-term memory. The literature-based texts and activities will closely align with the kinds of texts students read and write in general education classrooms. The project team will evaluate the effects of the curriculum by examining student performance on measures of narrative language during oral and written storytelling, reading comprehension, and early written language.
For more information about this project, visit the project webpage.
The National Institutes of Health has awarded researchers at The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk and Boston University a $2.9 million, 5-year grant to investigate practices for improving reading comprehension and reducing reading anxiety of fourth- and fifth-grade students with reading difficulties.
The grant will allow MCPER Executive Director Sharon Vaughn and Amie Grills of Boston University to build on their previous research investigating the relation between reading difficulties and reading anxiety and approaches to improving reading performance and reducing anxiety. Their previous research demonstrates a high prevalence of anxiety among children experiencing reading difficulties. To address this problem, Grills and Vaughn conducted a pilot study examining the effects of a reading intervention program that featured strategies for reducing anxiety. Their research findings provide preliminary evidence that significant reductions in anxiety occur when students receive anxiety-management instruction within a reading intervention.
Over the next 5 years, the researchers will further develop and test an integrated approach in a randomized clinical trial with students in Texas and Massachusetts. Students randomized to receive the intervention will participate for 2 consecutive years beginning in fourth grade. Instructional practices for reducing anxiety will focus on three core areas: (1) recognizing feelings and understanding how thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are related; (2) practicing various relaxation and stress-management skills; and (3) recognizing anxious and unhelpful thoughts and changing them. These practices will be embedded within reading intervention lessons found in previous studies to improve student decoding and reading comprehension outcomes. The project team will evaluate the effects of the reading and anxiety practices by examining student performance on reading and socioemotional measures.
“This is a very exciting opportunity to conduct a relatively unique approach to better understanding whether we can both reduce anxiety and improve reading outcomes for students with significant reading problems," Grills said.
For more information about this project, visit the project webpage.