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September 2012

From the National Center for Education Research (NCER)

Adult Cognition and Basic Literacy Research and Development Center Begins Its Work

CSAL group in MontrealMaureen Lovett, Daphne Greenberg, and Art Graesser

The Center for the Study of Adult Literacy (CSAL) launched its ambitious program of work on September 1, 2012. CSAL is the first IES-sponsored research and development center focused on adult cognition and basic literacy. Housed at Georgia State University, CASL will conduct a range of research projects all centered on improving literacy instruction of low skill adults. Its specific goals are to build a richer understanding of the underlying cognitive and motivational processes that contribute to or impede struggling adult readers' development, to examine the adequacy of measurement instruments and assessments for them, and to develop and evaluate a multiple-component reading intervention for this population.

CSAL links four research sites across two countries (Atlanta, Georgia; Memphis, Tennessee; and Toronto and St. Catharines, Canada) and brings together researchers with expertise in adult and child literacy, education technology, statistics, and psychometrics. Working together, this team will spend the next 5 years conducting research and developing tools that will inform adult education researchers and aid adult education students, practitioners, and policymakers.

Through a series of exploratory studies using a wide array of reading, motivation, and cognition assessments, CSAL will collect data to study the appropriateness of assessments commonly used with the target population. What they discover will help inform the development of a reading intervention for struggling adult readers. This intervention builds from an instructional framework first developed and evaluated with adolescents reading at the 3rd- to 8th-grade level and will be adapted for adult learners. The final product will be a comprehensive, flexible, web-based program with animated tutors designed to engage readers and allow for greater individualization for students. Following this development work, CSAL will conduct a pilot study with approximately 300 adults in adult education settings in Georgia and Toronto to determine the intervention's promise and feasibility.

CSAL is led by Daphne Greenberg of Georgia State University, who has conducted adult literacy research throughout her career. In a recent interview with IES, she and two of her co-principal investigators, Art Graesser of the University of Memphis and Maureen Lovett of the University of Toronto, discussed their backgrounds and their hopes for the center.

How does the research you will be conducting connect with your previous work, and how might it influence your future work?

Daphne Greenberg: My interest in adult literacy was sparked as a graduate student. I worked with a professor who studied adults preparing for health-related careers but were struggling with reading and understanding their textbooks which threatened their goal attainment. At about that time, I tutored an adult who did not have any literacy skills (only knew a few letters and numbers) and became fascinated by the persistence, motivation, and progress the student showed. I took a few reading classes and focused my dissertation on the comparison of children and adults who read between the 3rd and 5th grade levels. After graduating with a doctorate in educational psychology, I focused my career solely on adults with reading difficulties through tutoring, community planning, research, and professional development.

During my previous NICHD/NIFL/OVAE-funded grant, which focused on adults reading between the 3rd- and 5th-grade levels, it became very clear that it is difficult to show large intervention effect sizes. CSAL's research continues in many ways where the previous grant left off—by examining the quality of measurement instruments for this population and understanding the co-occurrence and interdependence of underlying reading difficulties. The research we will be conducting extends my previous work by targeting both lower level basic reading components and higher level deeper comprehension components by focusing more on motivational issues and by combining teacher-led instruction with a web-based instructional adjunct that will include animated conversational agents.

Art Graesser: I have conducted research in discourse processes, cognitive science, and education for over 40 years. This research builds on my previous psychological research, which focused on reading at deeper levels of comprehension, such as generation of inferences, the construction of meaning representations, and differences between text types. It also builds on my previous work on tutorial dialogue, conversations in groups (such as trialogues), and emotions during learning. And it applies to the technologies that my colleagues and I have developed on automated text analysis (Coh-Metrix), tutorial dialogue (Operation ARIES). I have recently explored how learning and motivation are influenced by the moment-to-moment emotions that learners experience during reading and tutoring.

This project will give me the opportunity to build off my previous work to develop learning technologies with conversational agents that cover a comprehensive curriculum for adult learners. We will apply principles of learning, emotion, and conversational interaction to handle a population of learners that have persistent reading problems and high dropout rates, and we will attempt to automate speech recognition in a diverse population of readers.

Maureen Lovett: I became interested in reading research as a graduate student in psychology at McGill University. In the past 30 years, most of my research efforts have been devoted to intervention studies with children and adolescents who have significant reading disabilities. In recent work, I reported positive outcomes from an instructional framework designed to address both the word reading and the text comprehension problems of struggling high school students reading between the 3rd- and 8th-grade levels. Our approaches integrate basic skills and cognitive strategy instruction and have been found to yield moderate-to-large effect sizes in a series of studies with children and teens with severe reading disabilities. This work will serve as a starting point for the instructional framework to be developed for struggling adult learners as part of our center's work.

The instructional interventions to be developed in iterative phases and pilot-tested in our center will merge evidence-based instructional strategies and remedial reading content with Art Graesser's intelligent tutoring technologies. This development work will allow new directions in instruction for adult learners and for struggling readers of different ages by allowing better individualized instructional choices, opportunities to facilitate increased engagement with reading, and the development of fine-tuned questions to foster deeper comprehension in our struggling learners.

How does adult education research compare with your K–12 research?

Maureen Lovett: In the K–12 area, most of our research participants are available in school settings, and we have found that school boards have been eager to partner with our research group to access new programming initiatives for their struggling readers. In the adult literacy area, settings, instructors, and learners bring much more heterogeneity to the table and more real-life constraints. Adult literacy learners have different goals and different reasons for wanting to work on literacy skills, very different life experiences, and less time to spend in classroom settings. We need to find ways for them to continue their literacy learning during times when they are outside the classroom, and we need to develop materials that will be motivating and relevant to them.

What role do you see technology playing in adult literacy?

Art Graesser: I believe that adult literacy should improve through interventions that are sensitive to the adults' interests and emotions in addition to the cognitive states that are linked to their idiosyncratic world knowledge. An adaptive tutor is needed in a learning environment that is sufficiently adaptive, flexible, and engaging. If we can motivate this adult population of struggling readers, then the adaptive interactive conversational agents are destined for applications in many other areas.

How do you see CSAL's work impacting adult education stakeholders (e.g., researchers, practitioners, policymakers, students)?

Daphne Greenberg: Through this work, I hope that policymakers will gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the need for funding in adult literacy. Practitioners will hopefully benefit from key "take-away messages" on the underlying strengths and weaknesses of adults who read at low levels, as well as ideas for classroom practice. I also hope that researchers will be inspired by this work to conduct their own research so that the research base in adult literacy continues to grow. Finally, but most importantly, I hope that the findings will benefit adult learners who often overcome great obstacles to try to improve their reading, and who deserve evidence-based instructional approaches to help them reach their goals.

What aspect of the Center's work excites you most?

Daphne Greenberg: I am thrilled that IES understands the importance of investing federal funds into this understudied area of research. It is a great honor to be working with the entire team. I look forward to understanding further the needs of adults who read between the 3rd- and 8th-grade levels and sharing those findings with the adult literacy community.

Art Graesser: Aside from working with an excellent group of colleagues on the very challenging problem of helping struggling adult readers, I am excited about advancing our psychological theories of reading comprehension by exploring this population of readers. In particular, what can we learn about learning to read when the reader has years of experience in a culture, comparatively high world knowledge, and motivation to learn. This reader profile is very different from a young child so new discoveries are likely to emerge and thereby advance our theories of reading and comprehension.

Maureen Lovett: I am very excited by the opportunity to work within this new research center; all of the co-PIs bring expertise in quite different areas and a different perspective to the problem of how we can best investigate the strengths, weaknesses, and needs of adult learners and use this knowledge to help them achieve their literacy goals. I hope that this research initiative will yield important and helpful information for adult literacy instructors and for adult learners. I believe that the deeper assessment perspective and the marriage of instructional and intelligent tutoring methods pursued in this research will provide a new perspective on how to conceptualize, operationalize, develop, and evaluate instruction for all those who struggle to become literate.

NCER Researcher Receives PECASE Award

The awards, established by President Clinton in 1996, are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. Sixteen federal departments and agencies join together annually to nominate the most meritorious scientists and engineers whose early accomplishments show the greatest promise for assuring America's preeminence in science and engineering and contributing to the awarding agencies' missions. The White House, following recommendations from participating agencies, confers the awards annually. The U.S. Department of Education has participated in the PECASE program since 2006.

Li Cai, an associate professor and co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing at the University of California, Los Angeles, received the Presidential Early Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) at a White House ceremony in July. Cai was one of only 96 researchers to receive the award and the only one nominated by the U.S. Department of Education to receive the award, which is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding scientists and engineers beginning their independent careers.

Cai is the principal investigator on an IES/NCER-funded grant (R305D100039) focused on statistical modeling. His work on this grant combines both multilevel modeling and latent variable modeling in order to provide a solution for addressing measurement and modeling issues routinely encountered in cluster-based experimental and quasi-experimental studies and studies of schooling based on large-scale longitudinal and cross-sectional data sets.

Cai was nominated by NCER for his "pioneering contributions to measurement and statistical analysis, including the development of the new and transformative Metropolis-Hastings Robbins-Monro algorithim, and for leadership in shaping statistical practice in education, psychology, and health-related research."

During a recent interview with IES research scientist Phill Gagne, Li Cai discussed his background and research goals along with his thoughts on receiving the PECASE award.

Tell us a little about your background. What are your research areas and how did you become interested in them?

My main areas of methodological research include educational statistics, statistical computing, and educational and psychological measurement. I was first introduced to educational measurement when I worked as a graduate research assistant for Professor David Thissen at UNC-Chapel Hill. I saw an area where my statistical training may prove to be useful. During graduate school, working as a researcher in various settings (psychology, public health, child development, and a testing organization) was enlightening in that I was exposed to very different sets of methodological problems driven by different substantive focus, but I was able to see that there were commonalities. And the experience led me to believe that integrating different methodological approaches may lead to more refined understanding than any single line of inquiry.

What questions do you most want to answer in your program of research?

I would particularly like to further integrate the psychometric methods developed for educational measurement with statistical modeling for educational evaluations. I hope to develop and evaluate innovative latent variable and multilevel models that may positively influence the practice of data analysis in educational research. I also hope to better integrate the development of statistical models with the development of tools that may be used in practice.

How has your research been used by you or by others in the conduct of applied education research and education practice?

As a software writer, I have had the privilege to produce latent variable modeling software that other scientists can use to answer their research questions. It is most fulfilling to find out that the new methods or models, embodied in software, may influence other colleagues' analysis and interpretation of data.

How will receipt of this award influence your future work?

I am even more motivated. I wish I had more time.

Personal thoughts on the ceremony to honor you?

The morning award session almost resembled a graduation ceremony—very light-spirited—and I got to meet and hear about the research topics of the other award-winning scientists and engineers. It was uplifting to see IES colleagues that I have had the privilege to work with before the ceremony, and to receive the award from Dr. Easton [IES Director] made my day. The chance to meet and hear from President Obama at the White House in the afternoon was tremendously encouraging. The trip to DC was fun since it was my only trip to DC in years that did not actually involve working all day or attending conferences!