IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Meeting the Literacy Needs of Students with Autism: What Do We Know and Where Do We Need to Go?

April is Autism Awareness Month, which celebrates the importance of people with autism, the contributions they make every day to our world, and what we are learning about improving outcomes for the growing number of people with autism. IES supports research in this area, primarily through grants funded by the National Center for Special Education Research. Dr. Emily Solari at the University of Virginia (UVA) was awarded an IES grant in 2018 to lead an autism-focused postdoctoral training program. This program provides postdoctoral fellows with extensive research training in the academic, behavioral, and social development of students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) from pre-K through their transition out of secondary school. Currently, their research focuses on literacy development, including reading comprehension and writing, in children with ASD.

Below we share a recent conversation with Dr. Solari about the importance of this work and what she and researchers at UVA are learning about literacy development.

What do we know about the needs of students with ASD in the area of literacy?

Children with ASD have a unique constellation of strengths and weaknesses that impacts their academic development. Several studies by our research group and others have shown that children and adolescents with ASD are at risk for difficulties in the area of literacy. Some individuals with ASD show a particular strength in alphabet knowledge, including letter names and sounds, as well as reading words. A strength in word reading ability does not always translate into adequate reading comprehension. Many adolescents with ASD who can successfully read words still demonstrate difficulties with reading comprehension, especially comprehension that requires inferencing. Difficulties may be due, in part, to the highly social content that is embedded in stories. Children with ASD often struggle in the area of social communication and theory of mind (understanding others’ mental states), which may inhibit their ability to comprehend narrative texts. Additionally, we know that vocabulary and oral language are both important for reading comprehension; therefore, difficulties in these areas – often seen in individuals with ASD – may impact reading comprehension as well.

Similarly, the existing data show that children with ASD have a more difficult time with writing-related tasks, such as composition. Our work in this area suggests that these writing difficulties may be due to broader difficulties related to language development and social communication skills. 

What research is being done to address the needs of students at different ages?

While we are beginning to understand developmental trajectories of reading for this population, very little research has been conducted on specific interventions for reading and writing. Our research group has begun to look at early elementary (K-3rd grade) language and reading comprehension interventions for students with ASD. Our initial studies have shown that when we implement highly interactive language and listening comprehension instruction, these students show gains in oral language and listening comprehension. We have found that instructional strategies that use shared book reading, where the teacher reads aloud from a book and asks children targeted questions about the characters in the story, are effective. Our instruction also provides students practice with vocabulary words and opportunities to respond to texts both orally and through writing.

There are also other research groups investigating emergent literacy (prekindergarten years) with this population of students. For example, Jaclyn Dynia at The Ohio State University has engaged in work investigating strengths and weaknesses in emergent literacy skills such as phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, and print awareness.  Also, in the early childhood years, Dr. Veronica Fleury at Florida State University is engaged in some work in this area, including an IES-funded study aimed at developing and testing the feasibility of an adaptive shared book reading intervention for preschoolers with ASD. 

To address difficulties in reading comprehension with older students, Michael Solis and his team at the University of California, Riverside are using IES funding to develop and test explicit instructional routines and curricular materials for a reading comprehension and behavior intervention for students with ASD in upper elementary and middle school.

In collaboration with our colleagues at the University of California, Davis, we continue to analyze and publish developmental studies examining literacy skills. Additionally, we have become increasingly interested in understanding the transition from prekindergarten to kindergarten and early elementary school and how literacy is developing during this time. At UVA, we have started a longitudinal data collection project to investigate the relations among early reading, oral language, social attention, and cognition variables in young children with higher functioning ASD.

Our group is also starting to think about how we can design interventions that specifically target early reading skills and language development as well as social communication skills. Children’s books often provide very rich opportunities to engage around events and feelings that could be used to teach children with ASD social communication skills. Our next school-based intervention study will combine our previously successful language and listening instruction with targeted social communication instruction.

What recommendations or resources do you have for parents who are supporting children with ASD as they learn from home during the pandemic?

Here are some tips for reading at home with children. Additional resources are below.

  • Friends on the Block was developed through an IES grant as an early literacy curriculum for children with disabilities.  They have provided some free content online for use at home by caregivers.
  • Self-regulated strategy development (SRSD) is an approach that emphasizes direct instruction of writing strategies, knowledge, and self-regulation skills via flexible, recursive instructional stages. SRSD approaches have been shown to be effective for some elementary and middle school children with autism.
  • Book Share Time provides read aloud texts and allows caregivers to filter the books based on specific speech or language goals.

This blog was co-authored by Sarah Brasiel (Sarah.Brasiel@ed.gov), Amy Sussman (Amy.Sussman@ed.gov), Katie Taylor (Katherine.Taylor@ed.gov) at IES and Emily Solari (ejs9ea@virginia.edu), and her IES funded postdoctoral fellows (Alyssa Henry & Matthew Zajic) at UVA.  IES hopes to encourage more research on students with ASD in the coming years in order to increase the evidence base and guide program and policy decisions.

Closing the Opportunity Gap Through Instructional Alternatives to Exclusionary Discipline

According to the most recent GAO analysis of the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection, Black students, boys, and students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended or expelled in K-12 public schools. The reasons for these disparities may not always be clear, but the consequences are stark—suspended or expelled students miss out on opportunities to learn. What can be done to minimize this opportunity gap?

In 2018, researchers at the University of Oregon received a grant to develop an alternative to exclusionary discipline for middle schools. The Inclusive Skill Building Learning Approach (ISLA) will function as a Tier I universal intervention in middle schools that use Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). ISLA systems and practices will give teachers other options for dealing with misbehaving students along with strategies to support students when they return to the classroom following a trip to the principal’s office. I recently spoke with Dr. Rhonda Nese, the principal investigator for Project ISLA, about how she became interested in this work and how she and her colleagues are tackling this challenge of narrowing the opportunity gap in middle school classrooms.

How did you become interested in the issue of disproportionate discipline?

I had been deeply interested in the school-to-prison pipeline research for many years, but the light switch went on for me when I was spending time in a middle school through my work on another project. I started noticing a pattern of students, mostly boys and students of color, sitting in the office every time I walked into this school. And I’m talking about lots of students! This office would be flooded with kids; not learning, not speaking with anyone, just sitting and looking downcast. And it was disturbing.

When I asked the assistant principal what the students were doing in the office, she shared that, for whatever reason, the students were sent out of class and needed to meet with an administrator. So, I became curious. On average how much class time were they missing? I was floored to learn that the average was three days of missed instruction, which is the equivalent of over 1200 minutes of learning. And the deeper I dug the more I realized how pervasive the problem was. In addition to the racial disparities I saw in the kids being excluded, it was also clear that the students who were missing instruction were those who needed to be in class the most: students living in poverty, students struggling academically, and students receiving special education services. And the process of sitting and waiting was doing the students a tremendous disservice academically, behaviorally, and emotionally. I saw firsthand the issues I needed to begin addressing immediately, and I knew I found my passion.

How does Project ISLA extend or build on your earlier research?

I started developing ISLA during my postdoc years when I was deep in the PBIS literature, examining predictors of sustained implementation of evidence-based practices, and beginning to explore interventions to address implicit biases in discipline disproportionality. So, I was able to combine what I was learning from practitioners and from scientific findings to craft an intervention that was rooted in behavioral theory, embedded in preventative practices, and incorporated teacher and student voice.

I also became clearer with myself and others that ISLA is not about “fixing” kids: it is about changing adult behavior to improve student outcomes and relationships. Now through our iterative development process, our team is learning so much about what it takes to support school staff with making this work their own, how we get buy-in from the school community, and how we braid the ISLA work with other preventative practices they already have in place.

What are the core components of the ISLA intervention? What are its essential practices? What have you learned so far about what it takes to implement ISLA in middle schools?

One of our greatest goals is to help educators make this philosophical shift where they view sending a student out of class as a really big deal, and thus, should be reserved for situations in which the teachers and students need support with problem solving, skill building, and making amends. In order to accomplish this, we begin with spending a lot of time with our educators developing and revisiting preventative practices to improve the classroom environment, and in turn, reduce the need for exclusion. This includes working with educators to develop and implement universal relationship-building strategies, graduated discipline practices within the classroom, neutralizing routines to reduce the impact of implicit biases on their decision making, and mechanisms for supporting students in effective and respectful ways. We then layer on a systematized process for students and teachers to request breaks, and then on top of this we have our processes that are provided to students in the event that they are sent out to help them get back to class faster and with the skills to make amends with their teacher. This includes a debrief, skills coaching, and reconnection supports with a front office staff member and a process for their teacher to listen reflectively and agree on how they will problem solve with the student if there’s an issue in the future.  

Getting folks to move away from exclusionary discipline practices takes a lot of time and a lot of patience, because suspensions and other forms of exclusion are deeply tied to systems of oppression that have been prevalent in the United States. And especially in middle school, there’s this pervasive myth that students should know how to behave by this point, and so anything to the contrary is seen as willful defiance as opposed to a skill gap. Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix, and ISLA is certainly not a silver bullet. In fact, we call ISLA Tier I+ because it starts with universal preventative practices and then adds supports for students and teachers who need more. Because of all the myth busting and support layering we’re doing, working with a team of educators in each school has been critical for buy-in and implementation. They help guide our iterative changes, give us strategies to consider, and are the voice to their colleagues. They are invested in the work because they are helping to develop it for their schools. And our work is so much more meaningful because of them.

 

Dr. Nese and her team are mid-way through their project. Now that they have completed the iterative development process they are testing the usability and feasibility of ISLA in new middle schools this year. In their pilot study of promise next year, they will see if ISLA increases instructional time for students and improves student-teacher relationships and school climate. In addition to creating ISLA user guides and materials, the team plans to develop technical reports, video tutorials, trainings, and webinars that will be available through the Office for Special Education Programs (OSEP) Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports website.


Written by Emily Doolittle, National Center for Education Research Team Lead for Social Behavioral Research. This is the third in a series of blog posts that stems from the 2020 Annual Principal Investigators Meeting. The theme of the meeting was Closing the Gaps for All Learners and focused on IES’s objective to support research that improves equity in access to education and education outcomes. Other posts in this series include Why I Want to Become an Education Researcher and Diversify Education Sciences? Yes, We Can!

 

An Evidence-Based Response to COVID-19: What We’re Learning

Several weeks ago, I announced the What Works Clearinghouse’s™ first ever rapid evidence synthesis project: a quick look at “what works” in distance education. I asked families and educators to send us their questions about how to adapt to learning at home, from early childhood to adult basic education. I posed a different challenge to researchers and technologists, asking them to nominate high-quality studies of distance and on-line learning that could begin to answer those questions.

Between public nominations and our own databases, we’ve now surfaced more than 900 studies. I was happy to see the full-text of about 300 studies were already available in ERIC, our own bibliographic database—and that many submitters whose work isn’t yet found there pledged to submit to ERIC, making sure it will be freely available to the public in the future. I was a little less happy to learn that only a few dozen of those 900 had already been reviewed by the WWC. This could mean either that (1) there is not a lot of rigorous research on distance learning, or (2) rigorous research exists, but we are systematically missing it. The truth is probably “both-and,” not “either-or.” Rigorous research exists, but more is needed … and the WWC needs to be more planful in capturing it.

The next step for the WWC team is to screen nominated studies to see which are likely to meet our evidence standards. As I’ve said elsewhere, we’ll be lucky if a small fraction—maybe 50—do. Full WWC reviews of the most actionable studies among them will be posted to the WWC website by June 1st, and at that time it is my hope that meta-analysts and technical assistance providers from across the country pitch in to create the products teachers and families desperately need. (Are you a researcher or content producer who wants to join that effort? If so, email me at matthew.soldner@ed.gov.)

Whether this approach actually works is an open question. Will it reduce the time it takes to create products that are both useful and used? All told, our time on the effort will amount to about two months. I had begun this process hoping for something even quicker. My early thinking was that IES would only put out a call for studies, leaving study reviews and product development to individual research teams. My team was convinced, however, that the value of a full WWC review for studies outweighed the potential benefit of quicker products. They were, of course, correct: IES’ comparative advantage stems from our commitment to quality and rigor.

I am willing to stipulate that these are unusual times: the WWC’s evidence synthesis infrastructure hasn’t typically needed to turn on a dime, and I hope that continues to be the case. That said, there may be lessons to be learned from this moment, about both how the WWC does its own work and how it supports the work of the field. To that end, I’d offer a few thoughts.

The WWC could support partners in research and content creation who can act nimbly, maintaining pressure for rigorous work.

Educators have questions that span every facet of their work, every subject, and every age band. And there’s a lot of education research out there, from complex, multi-site RCTs to small, qualitative case studies. The WWC doesn’t have the capacity to either answer every question that deserves answering or synthesize every study we’re interested in synthesizing. (Not to mention the many types of studies we don’t have good methods for synthesizing today.)

This suggests to me there is a potential market for researchers and technical assistance providers who can quickly identify high-quality evidence, accurately synthesize it, and create educator-facing materials that can make a difference in classroom practice. Some folks have begun to fill the gap, including both familiar faces and not-so-familiar ones. Opportunities for collaboration abound, and partners like these can be sources of inspiration and innovation for one another and for the WWC. Where there are gaps in our understanding of how to do this work well that can be filled through systematic inquiry, IES can offer financial support via our Statistical and Research Methodology in Education grant program.   

The WWC could consider adding new products to its mix, including rigorous rapid evidence syntheses.

Anyone who has visited us at whatworks.ed.gov recently knows the WWC offers two types of syntheses: Intervention Reports and Practice Guides. Neither are meant to be quick-turnaround products.

As their name implies, Intervention Reports are systematic reviews of a single, typically brand-name, intervention. They are fairly short, no longer than 15 pages. And they don’t take too long to produce, since they’re focused on a single product. Despite having done nearly 600 of them, we often hear we haven’t reviewed the specific product a stakeholder reports needing information on. Similarly, we often hear from stakeholders that they aren’t in a position to buy a product. Instead, they’re looking for the “secret sauce” they could use in their state, district, building, or classroom.

Practice Guides are our effort to identify generalizable practices across programs and products that can make a difference in student outcomes. Educators download our most popular Guides tens of thousands of times a year, and they are easily the best thing we create. But it is fair to say they are labors of love. Each Guide is the product of the hard work of researchers, practitioners, and other subject matter experts over about 18 months.  

Something seems to be missing from our product mix. What could the WWC produce that is as useful as a Practice Guide but as lean as an Intervention Report? 

Our very wise colleagues at the UK’s Education Endowment Foundation have a model that is potentially promising: Rapid Evidence Assessments based on pre-existing meta-analyses. I am particularly excited about their work because—despite not coordinating our efforts—they are also focusing on Distance Learning and released a rapid assessment on the topic on April 22nd. There are plusses and minuses to their approach, and they do not share our requirement for rigorous peer review. But there is certainly something to be learned from how they do their work.

The WWC could expand its “what works” remit to include “what’s innovative,” adding forward-looking horizon scanning to here-and-now (and sometimes yesterday) meta-analysis.

Meta-analyses play a critical role in efforts to bring evidence to persistent problems of practice, helping to sort through multiple, sometimes conflicting studies to yield a robust estimate of whether an intervention works. The inputs to any meta-analysis are what is already known—or at least what has already been published—about programs, practices, and policies. They are therefore backward-looking by design. Given how slowly most things change in education, that is typically fine.

But what help is meta-analysis when a problem is novel, or when the best solution isn’t a well-studied intervention but instead a new innovation? In these cases, practitioners are craving evidence before it has been synthesized and, sometimes, before it has even been generated. Present experience demonstrates that any of us can be made to grasp for anything that even smacks of evidence, if the circumstances are precarious enough. The challenge to an organization like the WWC, which relies on traditional conceptions of rigorous evidence of efficacy and effectiveness, is a serious one.

How might the WWC become aware of potentially promising solutions to today’s problems before much if anything is known about their efficacy, and how might we surface those problems that are nascent today but could explode across the landscape tomorrow? 

One model I’m intensely interested in is the Health Care Horizon Scanning System at PCORI. In their words, it “provides a systematic process to identify healthcare interventions that have a high potential to alter the standard of care.” Adapted to the WWC use case, this sort of system would alert us to novel solutions: practices that merited monitoring and might cause us to build and/or share early evidence broadly to relevant stakeholders. This same approach could surface innovations designed to solve novel problems that weren’t already the subject of multiple research efforts and well-represented in the literature. We’d be ahead of—or at least tracking alongside—the curve, not behind.  

Wrapping Up

The WWC’s current Rapid Evidence Synthesis focused on distance learning is an experiment of sorts. It represents a new way of interacting with our key stakeholders, a new way to gather evidence, and a new way to see our reviews synthesized into products that can improve practice. To the extent that it has pushed us to try new models and has identified hundreds of “new” (or “new to us”) studies, it is already a success. Of course, we still hope for more.

As I hope you can see from this blog, it has also spurred us to consider other ways we can further strengthen an already strong program. I welcome your thoughts and feedback – just email me at matthew.soldner@ed.gov.

New Remote Learning Resources from the REL Program

In response to COVID-19, the 10 Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs) have collaborated to produce a series of evidence-based resources and guidance about teaching and learning in a remote environment, as well as other considerations related to the pandemic. See below for a roundup of upcoming REL events and recently published resources on this topic.

 

Upcoming Webinars

Friday, April 24: Refining Your Distance Learning Strategies Using a Data-Driven Approach: The Evidence to Insights Coach: REL Mid-Atlantic will discuss a free tool that districts and schools can use to test and identify—in real time—which online learning approaches work best for their own students. The webinar will discuss what you’ll need to make the tool work for you and how you can be strategic about using existing data.
Audience: State leaders, district leaders, school boards, school leaders

Wednesday, April 29: Strategies for Districts to Support Self-Care for Educators During the COVID-19 Pandemic: REL West, the Region 15 Comprehensive Center, and the National Center to Improve Social & Emotional Learning and School Safety, will offer practical information and guidance backed by research to help school staff cope with the stresses of school closures, service provision, and quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Audience: District leaders

New Resources

How can Districts Promote a Safe and Secure Digital Learning Environment?
FAQ | REL West
Audience: District leaders, school leaders, teachers

Research-Based Resources, Considerations, and Strategies for Remote Learning
Webinar recording | REL Midwest
Audience: School leaders, instructional coaches, teachers

Resources for Schools and Districts Responding to the COVID-19 Crisis
Topics covered on this page include providing high-quality instruction to English learners in an online environment, engaging families to support student learning, alternative approaches to graduation ceremonies, and more.
FAQs | REL Northeast & Islands
Audience: District leaders, school leaders, teachers

Strategies to Support Learning Along a Continuum of Internet Access [PDF]
Fact sheet | REL Central
Audience: District leaders, school leaders

Supporting Your Child’s Reading at Home: Kindergarten and First Grade
Videos and activities | REL Southeast
Audience: Families, caregivers

Using Transparency to Create Accountability When School Buildings Are Closed and Tests Are Cancelled
Blog | REL Mid-Atlantic
Audience: District leaders, school leaders

Responding to COVID19 in Education: ED/IES and Government Supported Developers Offer Virtual Resources and Activities for Distance Learning

We recently posted this blog listing more than 80 learning games and technologies that are available at no cost until the end of the school year in response to the closure of schools due to the COVID crisis. The resources were created by education technology developers with support from the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Programs at ED/IES and other agencies, as well as through programs at IES and across government. In recent weeks, more than 100,000 teachers and students around the country have accessed these learning technologies at a distance.

Today, we are sharing more resources and activities that this group of developers is making available to the education community in response to COVID19.

A Series of Day-Long Virtual Unconferences

Over the coming weeks, developers are hosting a series of free virtual “Unconferences” on different topics for educators, parents, and students. The events will feature innovative models and approaches to teaching and learning during this time of distance learning and in-depth looks at the learning games and technologies created by the presenters, available at no cost until the end of the school year. While presenters will describe the delivery of online interventions via computers and devices, sessions will also focus on innovative approaches to implementing the interventions in low-resource settings.

The events are called “Unconferences” because the sessions are informal in nature and attendees can select sessions to join across the day. Attendees can participate by asking the presenters questions through the chat box and by responding to polls that capture reactions and views on topics.

Schedule and Information about the Virtual Unconferences in Education:

National K12 Student Challenge

ED/IES SBIR awardee Future Engineers (@K12FutureE) launched a nation-wide challenge for K12 students to submit entries to “invent a way to make someone smile or feel appreciated during COVID19.” Teachers can sign up a class to participate or students can participate on their own. See this page for more information and to submit an entry.

Stay tuned to the Inside IES Blog for more information and resources about the response to the COVID19 in education.

 


Edward Metz is a research scientist and the program manager for the Small Business Innovation Research Program at the US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. Please contact Edward.Metz@ed.gov with questions or for more information.