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Study shows customized instruction improves reading proficiency

portrait of ASU professor Carol Connor
June 25, 2013

At a time when elementary school reading proficiency is under intense scrutiny, Arizona State University professor Carol Connor is unveiling research to provide new clues on how to improve in this area. Findings from a three-year study of several hundred students published this week in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, indicate that children need customized, sustained reading instruction from first through third grade in order to become capable readers.

Data from the study shows that 94 percent of the students receiving individualized student instruction (ISI) in all three grades were reading proficiently, compared to only 78 percent who did not participate all three years. By the end of third grade, those children who had been in ISI classrooms all three years often achieved reading skills well above grade level. Students in the study came from an economically and ethnically diverse school district that included urban, suburban and rural communities.

In Arizona, new legislation titled Move On When Reading will take effect in the upcoming 2013-2014 school year. According to the Arizona Department of Education, Arizona third grade students who score in the “falls far below” category on the AIMS assessment in April 2014 will be retained in third grade at the end of the year. The law does provide for some exceptions.

This latest longitudinal study culminates six years and eight randomized trials of Floridian students aimed at unlocking ways to boost children’s reading skills. Those skills are closely tied to long-term academic and life success, said Connor, who led the research team. She joined ASU’s Learning Sciences Institute a year ago as a senior learning scientist and is also a professor in the department of psychology. Connor came to ASU from Florida State University.

“At each individual grade we have achieved results, but we never achieved truly educationally important impact,” Connor explained. “So our question for this study was, ‘Would these small effects accumulate over time to make a difference in children’s reading achievement?’ Our research over three years shows that, yes, children need sustained, high-quality individualized instruction; that it’s not enough to just get it in one grade.”

Connor said that by third grade most elementary school students have shifted from learning to read to reading to learn. If children are not reading well by third grade, she warned, as they graduate into higher grades they will be left further and further behind.

“What happens in third grade is that the vast majority of children become fairly competent readers,” Connor said. “In kindergarten, first and second grades, teachers are focusing on that really difficult and complex skill of reading, of looking at symbols and having them make sense. It’s tougher for some children than others.

“By third grade, so many children are reading well enough that teachers simply move on.”

Teachers involved in the latest three-year study used Assessment-to-instruction (A2i) software developed by Connor’s team to make informed decisions about how to tailor reading instruction to individual student needs. Using algorithms, the A2i software recommended specific amounts and types of instruction. These were based on a student’s current reading level with a goal of achieving a year’s worth of growth by the end of the academic year.

“Regular classroom teachers provided the reading instruction,” Connor noted. “So the findings suggest that teachers may be able to intervene more effectively when we provide them with professional development supported by technology.”

As part of the research, baseline measurements were taken at the start of the school year to determine the reading level of each student.

“We tested their vocabulary, their decoding skills and their comprehension skills,” Connor explained. “Then the algorithms would take the data and compute recommended amounts of four types of literacy instruction based on what our research had told us.”

The four types of instruction were: teacher-managed, code-focused; teacher-managed, meaning-focused; child-managed, code-focused; and child-managed, meaning-focused. Using the A2i software, each child received a recommended amount of each type of instruction. To reflect gains in reading proficiency, the amounts and types of instruction were adjusted monthly.

“In code-focused instruction, children learn to crack the code of reading,” Connor said. “What letters and sounds go together and how do you blend these to create a word?

“Then we need them to be able to attach meaning to what this word is. If they sound out caterpillar, there’s a good chance that caterpillar is in their vocabulary. But what if they sound out earthworm? Perhaps they’ve never been introduced to an earthworm here in Arizona.”

The computerized intervention also recommended whether the individual reading instruction should be teacher-managed or child-managed. Teacher-managed means that both teacher and student interact together in a small group of students.

“The other option is child-managed instruction,” Connor said. “That’s where a student works independently on a phonics worksheet, or maybe writes a screenplay with a classmate or reads on his or her own in the library corner.”

Co-authors of this research include Frederick Morrison and Barry Fishman of University of Michigan, Elizabeth Crowe and Christopher Schatschneider of Florida State University and Stephanie Al Otaiba of Southern Methodist University.

The research was supported by the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Connor plans to continue her research under two new $1.6 million four-year grants from the Institute of Education Sciences. The first study will complete the development of A2i software so that it can be used schoolwide and districtwide. Collaborators on the project include Maria Adelaida Restepo of ASU, and Barry Fishman and Frederick Morrison from the University of Michigan.

The other study will attempt to identify aspects of effective reading instruction and contexts that support it in order to improve student comprehension and teacher professional development. Connor’s research team includes ASU’s Restepo, Joanne Carlisle of University of Michigan, Benjamin Kelcey of University of Cincinnati and Yaacov Petcher of Florida State University.