IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Better Reading Comprehension When You Know That You Don’t Know

The more you already know about a topic, the easier it may be to comprehend and learn from texts about that topic. But knowledge has to start somewhere. So how can we help students learn from texts when they may have low background knowledge?

In their exploratory study, researchers from ETS found that lack of knowledge is not necessarily a barrier to comprehension. Rather, they suggest that students who can identify their lack of background knowledge are more likely to comprehend and learn new information than students who do not acknowledge they lack background knowledge. In other words, knowing that you might not know may lead to better outcomes.

To determine the role of background knowledge, the researchers pretested middle and high school students’ background knowledge through questions related to topics the students may have some but not complete knowledge of, such as ecology, immigration, and wind power. The pretest included an “I don’t know” option, along with correct and incorrect responses.

Students then took a scenario-based assessment in which they read multiple sources about each of the topics. This type of assessment mirrors real-world learning by encouraging readers to build their own interpretations of a topic, which helps researchers determine whether students comprehend what they read.

They found that students who selected “I don’t know” when answering background knowledge questions had better understanding of the content than those who provided wrong answers on these questions. In fact, students who selected “I don’t know” rather than answering incorrectly were nearly three times as likely to learn from sources that provided the correct information than students who had answered the pretest incorrectly. Students who selected “I don’t know” may also learn more than students who had a comparable level of weak background knowledge. The researchers suggest that the “I don’t know” readers may have set different reading goals prior to engaging with the sources than those who guessed incorrectly.

 

Possible Implications for Teaching and Learning

The results from this work support the idea that having and building background knowledge is key. Thus, teachers may want to assess existing knowledge and address knowledge gaps prior to instruction.

Teachers may also want to provide an “I don’t know” option or options that allow students to rate their level of certainty. Doing so may help teachers distinguish between students who recognize their own gaps in knowledge from those who may not be aware that they are wrong or that they simply do not know. This latter group of students may need more help in determining the accuracy of their judgments or may have incorrect knowledge that could interfere with learning.

The researchers further suggest that teachers may want to go beyond the role of background knowledge by teaching students how to set appropriate reading goals and use strategic reading approaches to learn new facts or correct existing misunderstandings.

 


The research reported here was conducted under NCER grant R305A150176: What Types of Knowledge Matters for What Types of Comprehension? Exploring the Role of Background Knowledge on Students' Ability to Learn from Multiple Texts.

This blog was written by Dr. Meredith Larson. Contact her for more information about this project.

The Importance of Partnering with Practitioners in English Learner Research

IES values and encourage collaborations between researchers and practitioners to ensure that research findings are relevant, accessible, feasible, and useful. In FY 2014, Dr. Karen Thompson was awarded a grant for The Oregon English Learner Alliance: A Partnership to Explore Factors Associated with Variation in Outcomes for Current and Former English Learners in Oregon to determine best practices to support academic achievement among current and former English learners. Dr. Thompson and her colleagues wrote a guest blog post describing the work that the partnership undertook to better understand and improve the performance of English learners in Oregon. In this blog, we interviewed Dr. Thompson—three years after the end of the grant—to get her perspectives on the partnership, outcomes of their work, and where things currently stand.

 

What was the purpose of your research and what led you to do this work?

When I came to Oregon from California in 2012, there was growing momentum in the state to better understand and meet the needs of the state’s multilingual student population, particularly students classified as English learners (ELs). The state had developed an ambitious EL strategic plan, which included a variety of goals and action steps, such as identifying model programs and sharing best practices. I noticed that Oregon did not have publicly available information about the state’s former EL students. In prior work, other researchers and I had demonstrated that analyzing data only about students currently classified as English learners without also analyzing data about former EL students can provide incomplete and misleading information. Therefore, for Oregon to realize its goals and truly understand which programs and practices were most effectively educating its multilingual students, the state needed to make changes to its data systems. This was the seed that led to the Oregon Department of Education/Oregon State University English Language Learner Partnership. Our first goal was to simply determine how many former EL students there were in the state. Then, once the state had created a flag to identify former EL students, we were able to conduct a wide range of analyses to better understand opportunities and outcomes for both current and former EL students in ways that have informed state reporting practices and policy decisions.

 

How does this research differ from other work in the field? Why do you think partnerships with practitioners were necessary to carry out the work?

When we began our partnership, collecting and analyzing information about both current and former EL students was not common. Happily, more and more researchers and education agencies have now adopted these approaches, and we think our partnership has helped play a role in this important and illuminating shift.  

It was crucial to conduct this work via partnerships between researchers and practitioners. Practitioner partners had deep knowledge of the state’s current data systems, along with knowledge about which reporting and analysis practices could shift to incorporate new information about current and former EL students. Research partners had the bandwidth to conduct additional analyses and to lead external dissemination efforts. Our regular partnership meetings enabled our work to evolve in response to new needs. 

 

What do you think was the most important outcome of your work and why?

I think the most important outcome of our work is that educators across Oregon now have information about both their current and former English learner students and can use this data to inform policy and practice decisions. Other analyses we conducted have also informed state actions. For example, our analysis of how long it takes Oregon EL students to develop English proficiency and exit EL services informed the state’s EL progress indicator under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

 

What are the future directions for this work?

Our IES-funded partnership led to funding from the Spencer Foundation to do further research about EL students with disabilities in Oregon, which has impacted practices in the state. In addition, I am excited to be one of the collaborators in the new IES-funded National Research and Development Center to Improve Education for Secondary English Learners (PI: Aída Walquí, WestEd). As part of the Center’s research, I am working with colleagues at the University of Oregon and the University of California, Los Angeles to analyze malleable factors impacting content-course access and achievement for secondary EL students. We are collaborating with four states in this work, and as in our ODE/OSU partnership, we will be analyzing data for both current and former EL students. At a policy level, colleagues and I are involved in conversations about how data collection and reporting at the federal level could also incorporate analysis of data for both current and former EL students, including ways this might inform future reauthorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

 

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Dr. Karen Thompson is an Associate Professor at the College of Education at Oregon State University. Her research focuses on how curriculum and instruction, teacher education and policy interact to share the classroom experiences of K-12 multilingual students.

 

Written by Helyn Kim (Helyn.Kim@ed.gov), Program Officer for English Learner Program, National Center for Education Research.

National Mentoring Month: Celebrating Mentors in Special Education Research

January marks the 20th annual National Mentoring Month, a campaign that was formally established by former President George W. Bush in 2002. National Mentoring Month recognizes mentorship opportunities for young individuals across the United States, with the goal of improving academic, social, and economic opportunities to strengthen communities. In honor of National Mentoring Month, we are showcasing two programs from the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) that promote mentorship in special education research – the Early Career Development and Mentoring program and the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) Network from the Research Networks Focused on Critical Problems of Policy and Practice in Special Education program.

Early Career Development and Mentoring

The Early Career Development and Mentoring (Early Career) program, part of NCSER’s Research Training in Special Education, supports projects that prepare early career researchers to conduct independent, rigorous, and relevant early intervention and special education research. NCSER established this training program to support investigators in the early stages of their faculty or research scientist positions at academic institutions. This program prepares early career researchers to develop and evaluate instructional approaches, design and validate assessments, and address applied research problems using advanced methods and statistical analyses. As part of an integrated research and career development plan, investigators with Early Career grants identify one or more mentors with relevant expertise with whom they meet regularly in order to accomplish their grant goals. They receive feedback and guidance on research methods, data analysis and interpretation, dissemination, and grant writing. The ultimate goal of this program is to help launch the independent research careers for scientists interested in focusing on children with or at risk for disabilities, leading to an increased capacity of the field to conduct rigorous research.

Research Networks Focused on Critical Problems of Policy and Practice in Special Education: MTSS Network

The Research Networks Focused on Critical Problems of Policy and Practice in Special Education program establishes a structure for researchers working on high-priority issues in special education to share ideas, build new knowledge, and strengthen research and dissemination capacity. An important part of this network structure is the cross-team training of early career researchers. The MTSS Network was established as the first network under this program, conducting research examining integrated academic and behavioral MTSS in elementary schools. The MTSS Network, which consists of four research teams and one network lead, has established an Early Career Scholars program. Brandi Simonsen (Co-Principal Investigator on both the network lead and a research team) recently shared some information about this program. “The IES Research Network on Integrated Multi-Tiered Systems of Support engages two cohorts of Early Career Scholars in a range of mentoring activities to develop competency in conducting rigorous and relevant research on MTSS.” For example, mentorship activities for Early Career Scholars have included large group meetings to discuss Integrated Multi-Tiered Systems of Support: Blending RTI and PBIS by McIntosh and Goodman (Goodman is a member of the MTSS Network), which have provided opportunities for scholars to review and learn about integrated MTSS while engaging in discussion of ideas with network members. Scholars also meet in small groups with MTSS Network investigators to discuss specific research projects. For example, the early career scholars on the University of Connecticut research team meet with the investigators weekly to discuss on-going supports for participating schools, refine plans for research studies, and continue other grant-related activities.

For more information about NCSER’s programs of research, please see here.

This blog was authored by Alice Bravo (University of Washington), IES intern through the Virtual Student Federal Service. For more information about the Early Career Development and Mentoring program, contact Dr. Katie Taylor. For more information on the Research Networks program, contact Dr. Amy Sussman.

Catching Up with Former NCSER Fellows: Experiences and Advice for Early Career Researchers

Since 2008, the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) has supported postdoctoral training programs to prepare fellows in conducting early intervention and special education research that addresses issues that are important to infants, toddlers, children, and youth with or at risk for disabilities, their families, practitioners, and policymakers. As part of our Spotlight on IES Training Programs series, we reached out to a few former NCSER fellows who are now principal investigators (PIs) on IES grants to ask about their current research projects, how the NCSER fellowship prepared them for those projects, roadblocks they faced in applying for research funding, and advice for early career researchers interested in applying for IES funding. Below is what they had to say.

Angel Fettig, University of Washington

My NCSER postdoctoral position at Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill provided the opportunities and resources to prepare me to be the researcher I am today. Through my postdoctoral position, I had the opportunity to work on multiple NCSER-funded projects and got a solid understanding of the day-to-day activities of large research grants. I also received resources and supports to attend trainings and hone my research skills. Most importantly, I was surrounded by a community of researchers and mentors who are committed to promoting the use of rigorous research methodologies to build on evidence-based practices. Since the completion of my postdoctoral position, I have engaged in continuous learning around innovative research methodologies and apply them in my research grant applications. My current research, including the NCSER project I lead, focuses on equipping educators and parents with evidence-based practices to support young children’s social and emotional development and reduce challenging behaviors. I strongly believe that social emotional development is critical in ensuring the success of young children with and at risk for disabilities as they enter schools, and adults who interact with them play a crucial role in fostering this development. My advice for early career researchers is to find good mentors and colleagues who are interested in similar topics, craft an idea that addresses the current needs, design a study with rigorous and innovative research methodologies, and then just apply for funding! You can’t score a goal if you don’t take a shot!

Paulo Graziano, Florida International University

My NCSER postdoctoral position at Florida International University provided me with specialized training in evidence-based assessments and interventions for children with disruptive behavior disorders. In combination with my background in developmental psychopathology, this training allowed me to find gaps in the research on how to best prepare preschoolers with disruptive behavior disorders for school entry, which led me to apply for additional IES grants. The NCSER project that I was awarded in 2012 entailed iteratively developing and testing a summer treatment program targeting pre-kindergarteners with disruptive behavior. As part of the project, we learned which curriculum, length, and level of parental involvement was needed to optimize children's academic, behavioral, and social-emotional growth during kindergarten. I was fortunate enough to get this award while still finishing up my postdoctoral fellowship, which was tremendously helpful in obtaining a faculty position and continuing my work at the same institution. One roadblock I faced applying for funding was obtaining permission from my university to apply for a grant as the PI while still a postdoc and responding to reviewers who thought that a postdoc should not be a PI. However, I overcame both roadblocks with the support of my postdoc mentor. This initial IES grant and my NCSER postdoc training were essential for launching my career and establishing a translational line of research that integrates developmental and neuroscience research to inform the treatment of disruptive behavior disorders. This integrated line of research has also allowed me to successfully receive funding from other agencies including the National Institutes of Health. I would highly encourage early career researchers to develop solid relationships with their community's school system. Forming a partnership is critical towards submitting a project for funding that will not only be implemented with high fidelity but that will be well received and maintained/adopted by stakeholders once the grant ends.

Dwight Irvin, University of Kansas

My NCSER postdoctoral fellowship at Juniper Gardens Children’s Project at the University of Kansas focused on response to intervention in early childhood. With support and guidance from my mentors, Charles Greenwood and Judith Carta, I was afforded an opportunity to assist on multiple IES projects that allowed me to engage in planning, problem-solving, technology design/development, and statistical analysis. Importantly, I learned how an idea becomes a proposal, a funded grant, and is implemented to meet the proposed deliverables. During my postdoc, I formulated my own line of research and collected pilot data for future proposal development. It’s these experiences that I feel were most beneficial in preparing me for my current work and research. In our current NCSER project, we aim to validate a tool, the Classroom Code for Interactive Recording of Children's Learning Environments (CIRCLE) (Version 2.0), to assist preschool teachers in adjusting their instruction for young children at risk of not being ready for kindergarten. CIRCLE is a digital, live classroom observation system that assesses teacher and child behavior within multiple learning contexts. Our goal is to learn under what conditions and for whom intentional instruction is effectively promoting children’s literacy engagement and school readiness outcomes. Applying for research funding is always a formidable task. A big challenge is just being an early career investigator and lacking a reputation that convinces reviewers the work is feasible and worth funding. Another is learning how to write a proposal that is absent of fatal flaws and not viewed as too “ambitious.” My advice for early career researchers is to surround yourself with colleagues who value mentoring and have a history of funding. Find a way to involve yourself in developing a proposal even if it is not your own work and find a role on it even if it is not as an investigator. It is best not to expect success on an initial proposal submission, rather look at getting a panel review as a win. And lastly, find ways to collect and include meaningful pilot data to incorporate into a proposal as evidence that it is worth the investment.

This blog was written by Alice Bravo, virtual intern for IES and doctoral candidate in special education at the University of Washington, and Katie Taylor, program officer for NCSER’s postdoctoral training program.

National Research & Development Center Launches Website to Provide Research Evidence and Actionable Information for Improving Education Outcomes for Secondary English Learners

Many English Learners (ELs) in secondary school settings are identified as long-term ELs—students who have been enrolled in U.S. schools for six or more years who have not made significant progress in English—and are at risk for dropping out of high school. These students face unique challenges and barriers in accessing education opportunities, which has resulted in persistent differences in academic outcomes between ELs and non-ELs, as well as negative consequences that reach far beyond school.  

 

About the Center

The IES-funded National Research & Development Center to Improve Education for Secondary English Learners has identified two specific challenges that ELs in secondary school face as they simultaneously develop English proficiency and subject-matter knowledge: 1) barriers to enrollment in challenging courses, and 2) scarcity of quality learning opportunities. The Center is taking a multi-pronged research approach to improve outcomes for ELs in secondary school settings by:

  • Identifying and describing the systemic barriers that prevent secondary ELs from successfully accessing the general curriculum
  • Developing and testing innovative curricular materials that strengthen the learning opportunities and experiences of both teachers and ELs as they engage in disciplinary practices

 

New Website Launched

The Center has launched a new website that provides information about their work and resources for researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and other education stakeholders to address current challenges and needs facing ELs in secondary school settings. Visit https://www.elrdcenter.wested.org/ for information ranging from how teachers and school and district leaders can support adolescent ELs in distance learning to modules that can be used for teacher preparation or professional development sessions to develop expertise in working with adolescent ELs.

For more information about IES’s investment in improving opportunities and achievement for English learners in secondary school settings, please see here.


Written by Helyn Kim (Helyn.Kim@ed.gov), Program Officer for English Learners Program, National Center for Education Research.