Cognition and Student Learning
Alphabet Instruction Details
Purpose: The purpose of this project was to develop and pilot test guidelines for alphabet instruction in the context of preschool classrooms. Alphabet knowledge is important for students' success with word reading and spelling development. Although learning letter names and sounds may appear to be a simple task, research suggests that many children from low socioeconomic status families, including many with limited English proficiency, enter and exit preschool with limited alphabet knowledge. In addition, to date, evaluations of widely used curricula designed to support these skills show inconsistent and modest effects, and there is limited information on the components of alphabet instruction that are effective. In this project, the research team developed guidelines for alphabet instruction through a sequence of studies that examined the content of alphabet instruction, the activation of underlying cognitive processes embedded in instruction, and the contextualized nature of instruction in relation to preschool literacy skills.
Project Activities: In Year 1, the research team developed the initial alphabet instruction lessons and conducted a study implementing different variations in alphabet instructional content. In Year 2, the research team revised the lessons based on the Year 1 study then conducted a study to address how the activation of different underlying cognitive processes through variations in instruction affects alphabet knowledge and early literacy learning. In Year 3, the research team revised the lessons based on the Year 2 study and conducted a pilot study to demonstrate the alphabet instructions guidelines' evidence of promise for improving preschool students' literacy skills as well as to determine whether or not these guidelines should be contextualized in storybook reading, choral reading, and name writing tasks.
Key Outcomes: The main findings of this development study are:
Setting: This project took place in preschools in an urban area in California.
Sample: Study participants included approximately 320 four- and five-year-old children (96 students drawn from 6 classrooms in Year 1, 96 students drawn from 8 classrooms in Year 2, 128 students drawn from 8 classrooms in Year 3). Students were drawn from classrooms that served a large, language diverse population of low-income children.
Intervention: The research team developed guidelines for alphabet instruction intended for use in preschool classrooms. These guidelines were developed as lessons, intended for use in small groups for 15 minutes a day, four days a week, for 10 instructional weeks.
Research Design and Methods: In Year 1, the research team developed the initial alphabet instruction lessons and conducted a study to implement variations in alphabet instructional content. Students within each classroom were randomly assigned to one of four instructional conditions. In all conditions, instruction occurred in small groups for 15 minutes a day, four days a week, for 10 instructional weeks. All students completed pre-tests of early literacy prior to any instruction, mid-tests halfway through the 10 instructional weeks, and post-tests immediately after instruction was completed. In addition, over the course of the 10 instructional weeks, the research team videotaped sample lessons, gathered fidelity of implementation observations, and obtained weekly feedback from implementers.
In Year 2, the research team revised the lessons based on findings from the Year 1 study and feedback from teachers. Then they conducted a study to address how the activation of different underlying cognitive processes through variations in instruction affects alphabet knowledge and early literacy learning. Students within each classroom were randomly assigned to one of three instructional conditions intended to activate different underlying cognitive processes (paired associate learning, articulation referencing learning, and orthographic learning). Procedures will be the same as those for the Year 1 study.
In Year 3, the research team revised the lessons based on the Year 2 study and feedback from teachers. They then conducted a pilot study to demonstrate the alphabet instructions guidelines' evidence of promise for improving preschool students' literacy skills. In addition, researchers determined whether or not these guidelines should be contextualized (alphabet instruction embedded in storybook reading, choral reading, and name writing tasks) or decontextualized (alphabet instruction not embedded in other tasks). Students within each classroom were randomly assigned to one of four small groups. Small groups were randomly assigned to one of two instructional conditions (contextualized or decontextualized alphabet instruction). Procedures were the same as those from the other studies, except that mid-tests were not administered to students.
Control Condition: Across the three studies, the comparison conditions differed depending on the research question. In all cases, variations on instruction were compared to each other to identify the optimal combination of instructional guidelines for improving children's early literacy skills.
Key Measures: Primary measures of children's early language and literacy skills included both norm-referenced assessments (e.g., the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-IIIA, the Pre-Idea Oral English Language Proficiency Test, the Phonological Awareness Test), and experimenter developed tests (e.g., tests of paired associate learning, orthographic learning). General cognitive ability was measured using Raven's Coloured Progressive Matrices. Engagement and motivation were measured with researcher developed tasks. Researchers measured fidelity of implementation through observations and weekly feedback from implementers.
Data Analytic Strategy: The research team conducted analyses of variance, planned contrasts, and multiple regressions to test for main effects and interactions (analyses adapted for multilevel modeling as needed), with specific attention on whether child English Learner status and pretest skills moderate treatment effects.
Publications and Products
Journal article, monograph, or newsletter
Roberts, T. A., Vadasy, P. F., & Sanders, E. A. (2019). Preschool Instruction in Letter Names and Sounds: Does Contextualized or Decontextualized Instruction Matter? Reading Research Quarterly, 55, 573–600.
Roberts, T. A., Vadasy, P. F., & Sanders, E. A. (2018a). Preschoolers' alphabet learning: Letter name and sound instruction, cognitive processes, and English proficiency. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 44, 257–274.
Roberts, T. A., Vadasy, P. F., & Sanders, E. A. (2018b). Preschoolers' alphabet learning: Cognitive, teaching sequence, and English proficiency influences. Reading Research Quarterly, 54, 413–437.