UH Research Focused on Reading Education of English Language Learners

$5M Grant from Institute of Education Sciences to Assist Study on Effective Reading Interventions

Learning to read in English poses challenges for many students in the United States. The challenge becomes even greater and often overwhelming when English isn't a child's first language.

David Francis, director of the University of Houston's Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation and Statistics (TIMES), and colleague Coleen Carlson, associate director of TIMES, have worked to develop effective methods of identifying and assisting young English language learners who have difficulty reading. Thanks to a $5 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Francis, Carlson and colleagues will focus new research on whether research-tested reading interventions can be successfully implemented in school settings. Sharon Vaughn at the University of Texas at Austin and Alison Gould Boardman at the University of Colorado are collaborators in this study.

"We are trying to determine whether an intervention that has been proven effective when delivered by researchers will be as successful when delivered by school personnel," said Francis, UH Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Distinguished Professor. "It's important to know that these interventions work for the teachers who deliver them. We're also trying to determine the efficacy of interventions in different school environments. Are they effective with only certain students or in certain schools? Or, do certain factors have to be in place for the intervention to work?"

The IES grant will support two studies focused on effective delivery and successful outcomes of reading interventions in public schools. Both studies will examine reading interventions delivered in English and in Spanish.  School personnel will decide the language in which a child receives their reading instruction and intervention. Each study consists of two cohorts of 10 disparate schools. Student participants are bilingual Spanish-speaking first graders. Both English and Spanish interventions will be administered by the schools' teachers.

"Depending on the school setting and the student's language skills, English language learners may be taught in their primary language, or they may be taught exclusively in English," Francis said. "What we have done is develop two interventions. Either one can be used depending on the language that is used for instruction."

The interventions (developed during a previous study) are Proactive Reading (English) and Lectura Proactiva (Spanish). Both interventions focus on the instruction of synthetic phonics and integrate decoding, fluency and comprehension strategies. Introduction of new information is controlled to allow students time to assimilate content.  Also, the interventions' learning activities are taught so that students can completely master their concepts.

The English and Spanish interventions also have differences. Among their dissimilarities is the focus on multisyllabic and monosyllabic words. The English intervention introduces monosyllabic consonant-vowel-consonant words before introducing words with multiple syllables. The Spanish intervention immediately introduces children to multisyllabic words. Another difference is the attention to phonemes (smallest units of sounds used to form language or sounds made by pronouncing consonants and vowels). The English intervention focuses on phonemic awareness, which assists students identifying and manipulating phonemes to form words. The Spanish intervention's attention to phonemes is focused on syllables rather than consonants and vowels.

English language learners are considered to be among the most academically at-risk groups in U.S. schools and on average score lower on standardized reading and mathematics tests than other students. The number of students entering U.S. public schools as English language learners has continued to increase annually.

"English language learners are a fast growing subgroup in America's public schools. It's estimated that by 2015, they may represent as much as 30 percent of the student population," Francis said. "It's important to have interventions for these children, so they can learn to read effectively early on and be successful in school."

The IES is the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. Its mission is to provide evidence regarding effective education practices and policies. Through its sponsored research efforts, the IES aims to improve educational outcomes for all students, particularly those at risk of failure. To learn more about the IES, visit http://ies.ed.gov/.

This $5 million grant adds to the list of research grants awarded by IES to UH's psychology department and TIMES to observe and enhance learning outcomes for students.

Recently, UH psychology professor Paul Cirino and TIMES research associate Tammy Tolar were among the recipients of a $1.5 million IES grant to be applied to a study on the knowledge and skills necessary to learn algebra. Also this year, IES awarded $1.6 million to psychology Research Professor Teresa McIntyre and several other TIMES/Psychology faculty to study stress in middle school teachers and its impact on teaching and learning. In 2005, IES awarded TIMES with more than $11 million to create the National Research and Development Center for English Language Learners and to continue its earlier work on the development of the Diagnostic Assessment of Reading Comprehension for English Language Learners. In 2003, IES awarded TIMES with $8 million to develop, implement and evaluate two models of instruction for Spanish-speaking English language learners in elementary school.

TIMES was founded in 2001 by Francis and colleagues as a multi-disciplinary research center to consolidate the methodological and statistical expertise on the UH campus. It is a university-wide institute that conducts independent research while offering UH researchers a variety of statistical support services.