NCSER is excited to share the work of our three new Early Career Development and Mentoring Grants Program principal investigators (PI). The aim of this grant program is to support early career scholars in their academic career trajectories as they pursue research in special education. Through a series of interview blogs, each PI will share their research interests, advice for other early career scholars, and desired impact within the field of special education.
The first scholar we are spotlighting is Kelly Williams, assistant professor in communication sciences and special education at the University of Georgia (formerly at Indiana University). Dr. Williams received a grant to develop an intervention to support reading and spelling outcomes for adolescents with word-level reading disabilities (WLRD).
How did you become interested in this area of research?
I originally became interested in research on WLRD through my experience as a high school special education teacher in rural Georgia where I taught English literature and composition to students with mild to moderate disabilities. Most of my students had difficulty reading and spelling words accurately and automatically, which significantly impacted their performance both in and out of school. In school, my students struggled to complete grade-level coursework, which, in turn, affected their ability to graduate with a regular high school diploma. Outside of school, my students had difficulty with tasks such as completing job applications that required extensive amounts of reading. Although I was well prepared to provide classroom accommodations and modifications for my students, I found that I lacked the knowledge and skills to provide intensive interventions that would help improve basic reading and spelling skills. These experiences ultimately led me to pursue my doctorate in special education with an emphasis on learning disabilities.
What advice do you have for other early career researchers?
I think it is important for early career researchers to collaborate with various stakeholders throughout the entire research process. Although many of my ideas stem from my own experiences as a teacher, I have found that listening to various perspectives has helped me identify problems, brainstorm potential solutions, and design practical interventions that will improve outcomes for students with disabilities. Sustaining effective interventions requires us to think about how we can involve students, teachers, administrators, parents/caregivers, schools, and other community members in research.
What broader impact are you hoping to achieve with your research?
We know low reading achievement is associated with numerous negative outcomes across domains (social, emotional, behavioral, academic, economic). My hope is that this project will provide secondary teachers with a feasible and practical intervention to improve reading outcomes for older students with WLRD, which, in turn, may help prevent or ameliorate the effects of these negative consequences. Ultimately, I envision that this intervention could be used independently or as part of a multi-component reading intervention for secondary students with WLRD.
How will this intervention be distinct from other reading and spelling interventions?
There are two ways that this intervention is distinct from other word reading and spelling interventions. First, this intervention will embed spelling instruction within word reading, which is not currently happening in research or practice for secondary students with WLRD. Many existing programs teach spelling in isolation or through rote memorization, despite a large body of research demonstrating a connection between spelling and word reading. Second, the proposed intervention will emphasize a flexible approach to multisyllabic word reading instead of teaching formal syllable division rules. The goal of this approach is to reduce cognitive load, thereby improving the ability to accurately and automatically read and spell words.
Thank you, Kelly Williams, for your thoughtful insights and commitment to improving reading and spelling among students with word-level reading disabilities. NCSER looks forward to following your work as you progress in developing this intervention.
This blog was produced by Emilia Wenzel, NCSER intern and graduate student at University of Chicago. Katie Taylor (Katherine.Taylor@ed.gov) is the program officer for NCSER’s Early Career Development and Mentoring program.