UI researchers help develop online assessment designed to help target interventions for struggling middle school readers.
Thursday, November 6, 2014

Children who still struggle to read by middle school have endured years of testing and interventions. In fact, educators probably know what skills the students are missing.

So why can’t these children read yet?

Researchers at the University of Iowa say it takes more than knowing what reading skills are missing to develop effective intervention plans for struggling middle school readers. Educators also need to know how these students are using the reading skills they already have.

To do that, an innovative online assessment will be used this month to evaluate the reading skills of 60 students at a middle school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The evaluation, which is called the Iowa Assessment of Skills and Knowledge for Automatic Word Recognition and Decoding (iASK), was developed by the Foundations in Learning (FIL) and refined through a collaboration between UI’s Department of Psychology and DeLTA Center and the Florida Center for Reading Research at Florida State University.

If the test with this small group is found to be feasible, researchers will take iASK to the next level, using a larger group of students to compare iASK’s measures against a battery of standardized tests.

Bob McMurray
Bob McMurray

“We’re trying to separate out what kids know about letters and sounds—do they know that EA makes the ‘ee’ sound most of time?—from what they can do with letters and sounds flexibly,” says Bob McMurray, a professor with UI’s Department of Psychology and one of the researchers involved with the study.

The Institute for Education Sciences and the U.S. Department of Education made the development of the assessment possible through a $150,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant, which was awarded in August.

Carolyn Brown and Jerry Zimmermann, co-founders of FIL, say between 40 and 60 percent of middle school students in some districts fall well below grade level in reading comprehension and fluency and lack foundational word recognition or cannot use the foundational skills they have.

Without targeted intervention, these students will never catch up, says Brown and Zimmermann who are adjunct professors in the UI’s Department of Communication Science.

“The hope of the developers and researchers is that the results of iASK will give teachers insights into why students are unable to generalize and apply these foundational skills,” Brown says.

Eliot Hazeltine
Eliot Hazeltine

For more than a decade, Brown and Zimmermann have been using learning principles from cognitive science to develop a learning theoretical approach to reading. With the help of UI cognitive scientists McMurray and Eliot Hazeltine, an associate professor of psychology, and two research grants from the National Science Foundation, they have tested and refined their online curriculum called Access Code.

The approach has been used and tested by McMurray and Hazeltine on more than 200 first-graders in the West Des Moines School District where Access Code is still being used today to help teach reading.

The assessment iASK is based on the research behind the Access Code, which developers say will get to the heart of what too many adolescent readers are struggling with—word-level problems such as decoding, fluency, and automatic word recognition.

The traditional way of teaching children to read is isolating skills and focusing on rules. For example, to teach the short “a” sound, the sound is isolated in a string of similar words such as hat, cat, and bat.

But what about the long “a” sound or when “a” is paired with another vowel, conundrums that are tough for some young readers to sort out? Instead of honing in on the rules and all the vowel exceptions, Access Codes exposes students to a wide variety of words that mix the various sounds a letter can make in order to highlight important contrasts that allow students to learn how vowels work.

“By exposing them to a variety of words and contexts, the children are forced to problem solve and the knowledge is imbedded deeper,” Zimmermann says.

Hazeltine admits the approach might sound counterintuitive, but says it works.

“Over the past decade, research in cognitive science has shown that how information is learned determines whether students can use what they know,” Hazeltine says.