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New teaching approach helps K-1 readers

Photo of Lynne Vernon-Feagans

Lynne Vernon-Feagans

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A funny thing happened when researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill set out to help children who were having trouble learning to read.

Via laptop Webcams, the researchers in Chapel Hill helped teachers in schools during one-on-one tutoring of one struggling reader at a time, 15 minutes a day. After each such session, the researcher and the teacher brainstormed about best next steps for that particular child.

It was no surprise that the tutored kids improved. What nobody expected, though, was that reading skills would increase markedly for the rest of the class as well.

Why? One reason may be that the researchers – from UNC’s School of Education, Center for Developmental Science and Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute – gave the teachers cutting-edge teaching techniques, materials and ideas to use during the tutoring. And the summer before their school began these practices, teachers attended a three-day training institute in Chapel Hill.

Secondly, during the Webcam sessions, researchers helped identify more techniques that might help each individual child. So it wasn’t just the child who learned – so did the teacher, picking up tips that helped them become more effective in teaching the entire class.

“We’re not intervening with the child,” said Lynne Vernon-Feagans, Ph.D., principal investigator on the project and the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Education at UNC. “We’re intervening with the teacher. There’s no substitute for helping that teacher right there in real time.”

The project, called Targeted Reading Intervention, is one element of the National Research Center on Rural Education Support, established at UNC in 2004 with a five-year, $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Subsequent, complementary grants brought total funding to $17. Of that, $5 million went to TRI.

Now in its fifth year, the rural center is applying for new funding to continue its projects and planning to report on its efforts during a conference Nov. 5-6 at UNC.

So far, T-R-I, as the project is called, has helped students in kindergarten and first grade in three North Carolina schools, each for a year, in Chadbourn Elementary in Columbus County, Louisburg Elementary in Franklin County and Northside Elementary in Warren County. Schools in Nebraska, New Mexico and Texas also were part of the project. Researchers began by asking rural schools to join the project, but soon, word of mouth brought more schools to their doorstep.

Currently, for the first time, TRI is being practiced for the second year in the same schools, Northside in Warrenton and two schools in Nebraska. By using TRI with last year’s kindergarteners again this year in first grade, teachers hope that all the children will read at grade level before they move on to second grade.

Researchers chose TRI schools by first pairing two similar schools in the same school district. One of them was then randomly chosen as the school to receive TRI. The other school did not receive the program; it served as a control school with which to compare the TRI school.

In each TRI class, researchers identified five struggling and five non-struggling readers and tested all 10 at the start and end of the school year. Both TRI groups – struggling and non-struggling – improved more than their counterparts in the control school.

In comparing the TRI schools to the control schools, researchers found that struggling readers receiving TRI scored an average of 10 to 13 points higher than struggling readers in the control schools. In addition, struggling and non-struggling readers together in TRI schools scored seven to 10 points higher than similar children in control schools.

Previous theories suggested that if teachers took time out every day to tutor a struggling reader, learning would decline for the other kids. In TRI, that hasn’t happened. The rest of the class is given an activity to complete while the teacher is conducting the 15-minute one-on-one session.

“It seems that the teachers are learning more techniques that can benefit the rest of the class,” said Marnie Ginsberg, Ph.D., one of the researchers who helps teachers with tutoring via Webcam.

Said Vernon-Feagans: “We know from observation that many teachers are not using the most up-to-date teaching practices. Our goal is to get those best practices out there to the children.”

TRI has been implemented solely in rural schools.

“These are low wealth schools that don’t generally have access to the kind of development activities for teachers that you might see in urban schools,” said Vernon-Feagans. “They need so much support out there. Working with high-risk students is hard for any teacher.”

Not every child learns well via teaching methods used for whole classes, she said. Those who don’t often come from poor homes and may not have had preschool experiences that would help them learn to read.

In TRI, teachers design each tutoring session specifically for that individual child. The goal is for the child to experience success in each interaction with the teacher. Teachers encourage and support children’s responses as they progress in reading.

The project also emphasizes sounds rather than letter names. “We never teach the alphabet,” said Vernon-Feagans. “We say, ‘That letter could have more than one sound.’ And we always teach letter sounds in the context of the word and text.”

Words they can write on the teacher’s dry-erase board, and have fun erasing. Words they can make by assembling multicolored tiles with letters on them. Words on cards put in their pockets, so that they can read them later.

Progress is critical. “If a child does not read by second grade, very seldom will that child be successful in school,” Vernon-Feagans said. “Many will drop out.” Beyond the early grades, kids can’t learn other subjects unless they can read.

TRI teachers in each school gather weekly to share results and techniques. And teachers at all TRI schools have access to the project’s Web site, which is partly password-protected. There, teachers can share resources and successful strategies, read more about TRI and watch videos of other one-on-ones.

“Targeted Reading Intervention is precisely the type of program that we know makes a difference for low-income students,” said Bill McDiarmid, dean of the School of Education and Alumni Distinguished Professor of Education. “It is grounded in the research on learning to read and has been validated through randomized clinical trials.  

“For too long, we have put into the hands of teachers programs and practices for which little or no evidence of effectiveness exists. This is an egregious disservice … The consequences of using hyped but not validated practices are gravest for children in poverty.  School of Education faculty members are intent on developing programs in other areas – math, science, and adolescent transitions, in particular – that are grounded in empirical data and thoroughly field-tested. TRI is a proven model for this continuing work.”