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Preventing Reading Problems in Disadvantaged Children

Donna Scanlon

Frank Vellutino, Lynn Gelzheiser, Christopher Schatschneider


Background: Our project involves scaling up an approach to preventing early reading difficulties which was found, in earlier research, to be effective in reducing the number of children who demonstrate severe reading difficulties at the end of first grade. The major rationale for conducting this scale up project is that far too many children are identified as reading disabled when in fact for many such children, their difficulties can be ameliorated if appropriate instructional interventions are provided.

Purpose: In scaling up our intervention approach, our intention is to make the instructional approach (the Interactive Strategies Approach) accessible to kindergarten and first grade teachers (through professional development activities) and to evaluate whether teachers who participate in the professional development program are able to reduce the proportion of children in their classes who experience serious reading difficulties. Ultimately the goal is to refine the professional development program, develop a variety of materials to support the program, and to prepare a cadre of people prepared to provide professional development for teachers serving kindergarten and first grade teachers on a broader scale.

Intervention: The Interactive Strategies Approach to preventing reading difficulties has been developed and tested over a number of years. It is a goal oriented approach with the primary goal being to help children become active readers who use code-based and meaning-based reading strategies in an interactive and mutually supportive way. In the current project, the ISA was implemented in either intervention settings or in classroom settings or in both intervention and classroom settings.

Setting: The project is being conducted in 14 public schools all of which serve high proportions of low income children. All schools are located in the Albany, NY area.

Research Design: Three cohorts of entering kindergartners (approximately 650 per cohort) are being studied longitudinally (until second or third grade). Children identified as at risk for reading difficulties and those who are not identified as at risk are being followed. The first cohort is a baseline group. Cohort 2 is the implementation group the various treatments are implemented for these children as they pass through kindergarten and first grade. Cohort 3 serves as a Maintenance group and allows us to determine whether changes in instruction initiated during the Implementation year are maintained. Kindergarten (n=43) and first grade (n = 55) classroom teachers are also serving as subjects.

The baseline cohort is serving as the historical control. Teacher data are being gathered over a 3 year period. The first year of data serves as a baseline for the effects of the professional development program on teachers practices.

Student outcomes are being measured at least annually by a variety of standardized tests including subtests from the Woodcock-Johnson III, the WIAT, the PPVT, and the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS). Teacher outcomes are being measured over a three year period via questionnaires (end of year), interviews (end of year), and observations (five times throughout the year). The teacher instruments were developed in the context of this project. We intend to revise and extend the classroom observation tool (Classroom Language Arts Systematic Sampling and Instruction Coding, (CLASSIC)) and make it publicly available. Data analyses include hierarchical linear modeling and growth curve analyses.

Findings: At the kindergarten level, it appears that professional development for classroom teachers is as effective as small group intervention (twice per week) in reducing the incidence of serious reading difficulties at the end of kindergarten and at the beginning of first grade. In the professional development conditions, observable changes in instruction were documented in comparison of Baseline and Maintenance years. These changes were consistent with the focus of the professional development program and consistent with the reduction in reading difficulties that was observed during Implementation and Maintenance years. It is important to note that the changes were evident a full year after the professional development program was concluded.

We have yet to fully analyze the results for first grade as first grade data collection is still underway. However, preliminary results at the end of the first grade Implementation year reveal improvements in at risk student performance levels in all three implementation conditions. Anecdotally, second grade teachers who received the Implementation cohort children in the Fall of 2005 reported being favorably impressed with the students capabilities.

The scope of the study has also allowed us to study naturally occurring variation in early literacy instruction. We are currently preparing a report using an extreme groups design that contrasts more vs. less effective kindergarten teachers (as indexed by changes in at risk students performance from the beginning to the end of the kindergarten year). These groups differed on observation, questionnaire and interview measures. The most salient outcomes indicated that the more effective teachers tended devote more time to: instructing small ability groups, teaching about the alphabetic code, teaching word identification and comprehension strategies, and actively engaging the children in instruction.

Articles Describing the Interactive Strategies Approach and Its Effectiveness in Small Group and One to One Intervention Settings:

Scanlon, D.M., Vellutino, F.R., Small, S.G., Fanuele, D.P. & Sweeney, J.M. (2005). Severe reading difficulties - Can they be prevented? A comparison of prevention and intervention approaches. Exceptionality, 13:4, 209-227.

Vellutino, F.R. & Scanlon, D.M. (2002). The interactive strategies approach to reading intervention. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 27, 573-635.

Vellutino, F. R., Scanlon, D. M., Sipay, E. R., Small, S. G., Pratt, A., Chen, R., & Denckla, M. B. (1996). Cognitive profiles of difficult-to-remediate and readily remediated poor readers: Early intervention as a vehicle for distinguishing between cognitive and experiential deficits as basic causes of specific reading disability. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88, 601-638.

Handbook for Observation System:

Scanlon, D. M., Gelzheiser, L., Fanuele, D., Sweeney, J. & Newcomer, L. (2003). Classroom Language Arts Systematic Sampling and Instructional Coding (CLASSIC). Unpublished manuscript, Child Research and Study Center, The University at Albany.

Handbook for Professional Development Program:

Scanlon, D. M. & Sweeney, J. M. (2004). Supporting Children's Literacy Development in the Primary Grades. Submitted for publication.

More information about this project can be found at