Image: Dr. Hannah Dostal (left), University of Connecticut, and Dr. Kimberly Wolbers (right), University of Tennessee
September is National Literacy Month and Deaf Awareness Month. To celebrate both occasions, we spoke with two IES-funded principal investigators about their intervention aimed at increasing the writing and language skills of students who are deaf or hard of hearing through teacher professional development targeting writing instruction and use of multilingual strategies. Together with their team, Dr. Kimberly Wolbers (University of Tennessee) and Dr. Hannah Dostal (University of Connecticut) developed Strategic and Interactive Writing Instruction (SIWI) and tested SIWI for efficacy. The team is now analyzing effects of SIWI on both student and teacher outcomes in the D/HH space.
What are some challenges facing deaf and hard of hearing (D/HH) students in the area of literacy? How does your project address these student-related challenges?
Children who are D/HH are highly diverse with respect to language modality (spoken, sign) and proficiency. Understanding this diversity is the foundation to their literacy learning and academic engagement. Working between languages and across modalities when engaged in literacy tasks is a unique challenge for D/HH writers. For example, a student may use American Sign Language (ASL), which does not have a written form, while learning and using English text as they read and write. Strategies used during writing instruction that scaffold bilingual and multilingual development have the potential to leverage student knowledge of languages to support literacy development. During SIWI, teachers engage students in explicitly comparing and contrasting ASL and English with the intention of increasing metalinguistic knowledge and translation abilities.
Another unique challenge is that a number of D/HH students lack consistent exposure to accessible language at home and school. They may not hear sufficient amounts of spoken language to acquire its complexities and may not have sufficient exposure to sign language early in their lives to acquire visual language. Such language deprivation directly impacts literacy development. Based on what we are seeing and learning from our school partners, online learning due to COVID-19 exacerbated delays in academic progress when D/HH students experienced greater language isolation during this time.
Teachers implementing SIWI tackle expressive language delays head on. They use a designated space in the classroom, called the Language Zone, to develop, translate, and revise ideas generated in ASL and English.
What are some challenges facing teachers of D/HH in the area of literacy? How does your project address these teacher-related challenges?
It is becoming increasingly more challenging to find qualified teachers of the deaf. Not only are there shortages in the field, but many current teachers also point to limited preparation and a lack of assessment materials, curriculum, and instructional resources specifically designed for D/HH students with distinct languages histories.
The SIWI professional development (PD) program is designed to address these challenges facing teachers. It is a multi-component PD program that is intensive and sustained over a 3-year period and consists of a summer institute, site visits, and individual biweekly online coaching. Teachers not only learn about effective approaches but also how to flexibly enact the approaches with students who have diverse language histories and literacy skills.
What have you found so far?
SIWI has been implemented across settings with D/HH students and studies so far suggest SIWI results in significant language and literacy growth. Results from IES-funded studies using a variety of methods demonstrate SIWI’s positive impact on student outcomes. For example, we found a relationship between SIWI and positive student gains in the effective use of genre-related writing traits and grammar and conventions, including an increase in the length of writing as well as written language clarity and complexity. Recent analyses, currently in press, demonstrate that in one academic year, students participating in SIWI gained an average of 1.2 grade levels as measured by the Woodcock Johnson IV.
The SIWI PD program has also resulted in notable outcomes for SIWI teachers. The randomized control trial demonstrated significant increases in teachers’ knowledge of writing instruction, efficacy in teaching writing, and use of evidence-based practices compared to teachers in the business-as-usual control group (a manuscript is currently in progress).
What are the next steps for your research?
Analyses of student outcomes in the efficacy trial are currently underway. In addition to analyzing the impact of SIWI on writing and language outcomes, we are also examining the impact on reading comprehension, vocabulary knowledge, handwriting, and motivation to write.
Additionally, we are investigating whether implementation fidelity of SIWI is positively associated with student outcomes. We intend to examine whether teachers with higher implementation fidelity in their second or third year of teaching SIWI demonstrate a significantly greater impact on their students’ writing and language growth.
Dr. Kimberly Wolbers is a Deaf Education Professor and Co-Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Theory & Practice in Teacher Education at the University of Tennessee and Dr. Hannah Dostal is an Associate Professor of Reading Education and an advisory board member of the Aetna Chair of Writing at the University of Connecticut. This interview was produced and edited by Julianne Kasper, Virtual Student Federal Service Intern at IES and graduate student in Education Policy & Leadership at American University.