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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI expert launches program to help 120 teachers teach reading in Connecticut schools this fall

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KINGSTON, R.I. -- September 14, 2004 -- As the school bell rings in a new year, our country’s report card on reading proficiency continues to get a poor grade.

Sixty-nine percent of America’s fourth grade students are either at the basic level of proficiency -- meaning they have a partial mastery of skills-- or they fall below it. Despite numerous attempts to improve reading achievement levels, scores have remained fairly flat for the past decade.

Susan Brady, a professor of school psychology at the University of Rhode Island, has researched reading acquisition and its hurdles for the past three decades. This fall, she is launching a study to help elevate those proficiency scores. “Reading is a language task, not an intelligence marker,” says the URI professor whose efforts to improve state and national policy on the teaching of reading includes speaking before a U.S. Senate committee and numerous discussions with public officials.

“After all these years of research, we know a great deal about reading acquisition. Now the challenge is to bring those best practices into the classroom.”

Brady is doing just that this fall as a principal investigator on a $2.9 million, four-year U.S. Department of Education Teacher Quality grant designed to help 120 first grade teachers understand and apply those best practices in 38 schools throughout Connecticut, including East Haven, Hamden, Hartford, Manchester, New Britain, Norwalk, Norwich, Stamford, and Waterbury. The study is among the first of its kind to link teacher knowledge, teacher practice, and student achievement.

The grant was awarded to Haskins Laboratories, where in addition to her role at URI, Brady is a senior scientist. Haskins is an independent research institute focused on language factors in learning to read and on the causes of reading successes and failures. It is located in New Haven, Conn.

All schools in the initiative have students who are socio-economically disadvantaged. “Research tells us these children have a particularly high incidence of difficulty reading, “ says Brady. “For example, one in-depth study reported that by the time a child in a welfare family reaches 4, he or she has heard 6.1 million words. In contrast, a child in a professional family has heard 45 million words by that age,” says Brady. “This creates a huge disadvantage. If a child is not familiar with a large set of words, it impedes the child’s comprehension, particularly as reading topics begin to expand in the middle elementary grades.”

Sixty-five of the 120 teachers in the project have been randomly assigned a full-time mentor with expertise in reading and education in their classrooms. The mentors will serve as coaches, helping the teachers apply results within their classrooms.

To master reading instruction, Brady says that teachers must know where their students are in the five elements critical to reading development:

1) Phonemic awareness (how letters sound)

2) Decoding concepts (recognizing patterns of the 5 vowel sounds and 18 vowel combinations)

3) Fluency

4) Vocabulary

5) Comprehension

“Whole class reading instruction is over the heads of some of the students, and wastes the time of the others,” says Brady. “Reading instruction should be tailored. For example, one student may be strong in the first and second elements, but weak in the other three. Her classmate may have a strong vocabulary, but isn’t fluent.”

Although teachers often report difficulties managing a classroom where students are at various levels, Brady says there are activities and strategies available known to produce results. There are also ways that teachers can interpret a child’s reading error to understand what the error is signaling. “There is solid evidence that tells us that informed instruction and tailored instruction work,” says the reading expert.