Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Computerized Preschool Language Assessment Extends to Toddlers

Identifying young children with language delays can improve later outcomes

Language is a core ability that children must master for success both in and out of the classroom. Extensive studies have shown that many tasks, including math, depend on linguistic skill, and that early language skills are predictive of school readiness and academic success. Being able to quickly identify children at early ages with language delays is crucial for targeting effective interventions.

Enter the QUILS.

In 2011, the National Center for Education Research (NCER) at IES funded a 4-year grant to Dr. Roberta Golinkoff (University of Delaware) and Drs. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek (Temple University) and Jill de Villiers (Smith College) to develop a valid and reliable computer-based language assessment for preschoolers aged 3-5 years old. The resulting product was the Quick Interactive Language Screener (QUILS), a computerized tool to measure vocabulary, syntax, and language acquisition skills. The assessment ultimately measures what a child knows about language and how a child learns, and automatically provides results and reports to the teacher.

The preschool version of QUILS is now being used by early childhood educators, administrators, reading specialists, speech-language pathologists, and other early childhood professionals working with young children to identify language delays. The QUILS is also being utilized in other learning domains. For example, a new study relied on the QUILS, among other measures, to examine links between approaches to learning and science readiness in over 300 Head Start students aged 3 to 5 years.

QUILS is now being revised for use with toddlers. In 2016, the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) funded a 3-year study to revise the QUILS for use with children aged 24-36 months. The researchers have been testing the tool in both laboratory and natural (child care centers, homes, and Early Head Start programs) settings to determine which assessment items to use in the toddler version of QUILS. Ultimately, these researchers aim to develop a valid and reliable assessment to identify children with language delays so that appropriate interventions can begin early.

By Amanda M. Dettmer, AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow Sponsored by the American Psychological Association Executive Branch Science Fellowship

Read Across America with IES

Happy Read Across America Day! This year is the 10-year anniversary of this national pep rally for reading, and IES has supported the development of a number of tools to promote reading and literacy.

Did you know that many of the curricula and materials developed by IES researchers are available for free? These materials include reading on topics interesting to students, as well as guidance for teachers on how to engage and motivate students in discussions about what they read. For example, as part of the Reading for Understanding Initiative, IES invested in multiple curricula that are designed to help improve students’ reading comprehension and are available at no charge.

For students in preschool through grade 3, the Let’s Know! curriculum supplement uses easily-accessible books to help teach children about vocabulary, making inferences, and text structures like cause and effect. There’s also a Spanish version of this curriculum (¡Vamos Aprender!). You can gain access to the curriculum through the Language and Reading Research Consortium webpage.

Word Generation is a group of curricula developed for students in grades four through eight with a focus on teaching students to understand multiple perspectives, reason, and learn academic vocabulary, all through high-interest topics in science and social studies.

Example topic questions from units include:

  • When is a crime not a crime?

  • The Legacy of Alexander the Great: Great Leader or Power-Hungry Tyrant? and

  • Thinking About Natural Selection.

You can find more information on WordGen and download materials on their website.

Finally, for high school students, Promoting Adolescents’ Comprehension of Text (PACT) is an intervention aimed at motivating and engaging students to read and understand informational texts in social studies. Students learn vocabulary words and make connections between social studies topics and their own lives. For example, in a unit about the 1920s, students learn about economy and prosperity and complete activities such as listing three items they have purchased and determining whether they are “needs” or “wants,” and how this relates to a consumer economy. Sample materials are available for download on the PACT website.

Have fun celebrating Read Across America Day, and enjoy a book with the students in your lives!

By Becky McGill-Wilkinson, NCER Program Officer

 

IES-supported Technology to be Used in Hundreds of Schools

A technology-based instructional tool—developed and evaluated through IES funding—will now be put it to use in hundreds of schools across the country with the goal of improving students’ literacy outcomes. The United2Read Project was recently awarded a five-year Education Innovation and Research (EIR) expansion grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The EIR grants provide funding to develop, expand, and evaluate innovative, evidence-based programs designed to improve student achievement.

A2i (pictured right) includes a series of assessments to measure component literacy skills of students and provide information that teachers can use to individualize literacy instruction in Kindergarten through Grade 3.  The assessments cover a wide range of literacy skills, including vocabulary, decoding, word reading, spelling, sentence and paragraph writing, comprehension, and inferencing.

A2i assessments are given throughout the school year to monitor student progress, and A2i’s algorithms are updated in real-time to provide teachers with recommendations for instruction for each student and changes to grouping.

This project demonstrates the critical role IES plays in supporting research to develop innovative teaching and learning products and test those products for efficacy.  Over the past 13 years, A2i was developed, evaluated, and scaled with a progression of awards from IES, as well as the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NIH/NICHD).

  • With a 2004 IES research grant, researchers at the University of Michigan and Florida State University conducted basic research to understand how the effects of different types of literacy instruction (e.g., phonics vs. meaning focused) depend on children’s constellation of language, phonological awareness, decoding and encoding, and comprehension skills. The team then used the findings from this initial work to build and test an initial version of A2i with first-grade students. The research demonstrated that instruction tailored to students’ skills and learning needs, and adjusted over time, is more effective than one-size-fits-all approaches.
  • With a 2007 IES research grant, the researchers expanded A2i into second- and third-grade classrooms. They also tested the effects of implementing the system with second-grade students who had received A2i-informed instruction in Grade 1, as well as those who had not.
  • With a 2013 IES research grant and grant support from NIH/NICHD, researchers at Florida State and Arizona State conducted seven randomized controlled studies examining the impact of A2i on student reading. The results suggest that individualizing literacy instruction with A2i recommendations led to stronger literacy gains for K-3 students. On average, students who used A2i across multiple years ended third grade reading at a grade 5 level. The research included students who qualified for the National School Lunch Program and who received special education services.
  • With a 2013 IES research grant to Arizona State University (which was later transferred in 2016 to University of California, Irvine) and a 2014 award from the ED/IES Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program to Learning Ovations, an education technology development firm, the researchers upgraded the underlying data architecture of A2i to enable scale and implementation in classrooms across the nation. Research results demonstrated that the more teachers viewed student test scores, the greater the students’ literacy skill gains.
     

(Findings from all publications on the A2i software and related professional development are posted on Learning Ovations website.) 

The new EIR expansion grant was awarded to a consortium of researchers and developers, including researchers at UC Irvine, Learning Ovations, Digital Promise (a non-profit), and MDRC, a national evaluation firm. At least 300 schools and 100,000 students will be served through the grant, which will also support a large-scale effectiveness trial to measure the impact of the project on student reading achievement.

Ed Metz is a Research Scientist at IES, where he leads the SBIR and the Education Technology Research Grants programs.

Erin Higgins is an Education Research Analyst at IES, where she leads the Cognition and Student Learning Research Grants program.

Improving Research on the Forgotten ‘R’

Writing is often labeled as the “forgotten ‘R,’” because the other R’s—reading and ‘rithmetic—seem to garner so much attention from educators, policymakers, and researchers. Yet, we know writing is a critical skill for communication and for success in school and in career. Writing in middle and high school can be especially important, because secondary grades are where students are expected to have mastered foundational skills like handwriting and move on to the application of these skills to more complex compositions.

IES has been funding research on writing since its inception in 2002, but compared to research on reading, not much work has been done in this critical area, especially writing in middle and high schools. In an effort to learn more about the state of the field of writing in secondary schools and the areas of needed research, IES brought together 13 experts on secondary writing for a Technical Working Group (TWG) meeting in September. During the full-day meeting, TWG participants shared their thoughts and expertise on a variety of topics including: argumentative writing, methods of engaging adolescents in writing, how best to help struggling writers including English learners and students with or at risk for disabilities, and assessment and feedback on writing.

Argumentative writing requires students to explore a topic, collect and evaluate evidence, establish a position on a topic, and consider alternative positions. In middle and high schools, argumentative writing often occurs in content area classrooms like science and history. TWG participants discussed the importance of research to understand how argumentative writing develops over time and how teachers contribute to this development.

Teaching writing to students with or at risk for disabilities and English learners can be challenging when the focus of secondary schools is often on content acquisition and not on improving writing skills. English learners are typically grouped together and receive the same instruction, but little is known about how writing instruction may need to be differentiated for students from different language backgrounds. Additionally, the TWG participants discussed the need to investigate the potential for technology to help with instruction of students who struggle with writing, and the importance to addressing the negative experiences these students have with writing that may discourage them from writing in the future.

It is also important to make sure all students are engaged and motivated to write. Some middle and high school students  may not want to participate in writing or may have internalized beliefs that they are not good at it. TWG participants discussed the need to consider teaching students that writing abilities can be changed, and that introducing new audiences or purposes for writing may motivate students to write. Finally, the group talked about the importance of allowing middle and high school students to write about topics of their own choosing.

Assessing the writing quality of middle and high school students is difficult, because what counts as good writing is often subjective. Technology may offer some solutions, but TWG participants emphasized that it is unlikely that computers will be able to do this task well entirely on their own. Regardless, the TWG participants were in agreement that there is a need for the development of quality writing measures for use both by teachers and by researchers.  Teachers may feel pressure to provide detailed feedback on students’ writing, which can be time-consuming. TWG participants argued that self-assessment and peer feedback could relieve some of the pressure on teachers, but research is needed to understand what kind of feedback is best for improving writing and how to teach students to provide useful feedback.

A full summary of the TWG can be found on the IES website. It’s our hope this conversation provides a strong framework for more research on ‘the forgotten R.’

POSTSCRIPT: Our colleagues at the What Works Clearinghouse recently published an Educator’s Practice Guide, “Teaching Secondary Students to Write Effectively.” It includes three research-based recommendations for improving writing for middle and high school students.

Written by Becky McGill-Wilkinson, National Center for Education Research, and Sarah Brasiel, National Center for Special Education Research

An IES-funded “Must Read” on Writing and Reading Disabilities

A paper based on an IES-funded grant has been recognized as a “must read” by the Council for Learning Disabilities.

IES-funded researcher, Stephen Hooper, and his colleagues were recently recognized by the Council for their paper: Writing disabilities and reading disabilities in elementary school students: Rates of co-occurrence and cognitive burden (PDF). The paper was written by Lara-Jeane Costa, Crystal Edwards, and Dr. Hooper and published in Learning Disability Quarterly. Every year, the Council for Learning Disabilities acknowledges outstanding work published in its journals and selected this paper as one of two Must Read pieces for 2016. The authors will present on the paper at the Council's annual conference in San Antonio this week (October 13-14, 2016).

This paper was funded through a grant from the National Center for Education Research (NCER) to examine written language development and writing problems, and the efficacy of an intervention aimed at improving early writing skills. The results of the paper found that the rate of students with both writing and reading disabilities increased from first to fourth grade and these students showed lower ability in language, fine motor skills and memory compared with students with neither disability or only a writing disability.  

The team continues their IES-funded work by looking at the efficacy of the Self-Regulated Strategy Development intervention on struggling middle school writers’ academic outcomes.

Written by Becky McGill-Wilkinson, Education Research Analyst, NCER