18:00 PM

Ohio State leads $20 million project to improve children’s reading

Ohio State University will lead a new national initiative to help millions of American children who struggle with learning to read.

The university’s College of Education and Human Ecology will direct the five-year, $20 million project funded by the federal Institute of Education Sciences. The aim is to find the best ways to improve reading skills in children from prekindergarten to grade three.

The project, part of a larger effort called the Reading for Understanding Research Initiative, will involve 14 top researchers at five universities in the United States and the United Kingdom.

The researchers will develop intervention programs within five years that can be immediately implemented in schools around the country, said Laura Justice, leader of the project and professor of teaching and learning at Ohio State.

The award is one of the five largest federal grants ever received by Ohio State.

It aims to stem a reading crisis in the United States, Justice said. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, one of three fourth-graders and one of four eighth-graders could not read at the basic level in 2009 – not significantly better than the 38 percent of fourth graders and 31 percent of eighth-graders who were below the basic level in 1992.

“We in the United States have spent billions of dollars teaching children to read, but many students still struggle,” Justice said.

“Despite programs like No Child Left Behind, the number of children who are proficient at reading never seems to get significantly better. So the federal government is providing massive funding to some of the best researchers in the country to tackle the problem.”

The Ohio State-led team also includes researchers from the University of Kansas, Arizona State University, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Lancaster University in the United Kingdom.

“We are honored to play a key role in this prestigious network of social scientists on a mission to accelerate the pace of reading comprehension research,” said Cheryl Achterberg, dean of the College of Education and Human Ecology at Ohio State. “Dr. Justice and her team represent Ohio State’s excellence and our profound commitment to helping children who struggle to understand what they read.”

The primary focus of the project will be to teach children to read for understanding – to take what they read in books and understand the meaning and be able to use that information.

“We know a lot about how kids ‘crack the code’ – how they learn about letters and sounds and their relation to words,” Justice said.

“But we know surprisingly little about how children take that knowledge and use it to read for meaning, and understand what they read. That’s where a lot of children seem to fail.”

The project will involve three major studies that will all be completed within five years, Justice said.

Study 1 will be a basic study that will follow 1,200 children in prekindergarten to grade 3 for five years to learn how children’s individual language skills contribute to how well they master reading for understanding.

Studies 2 and 3 will involve applied research done in classrooms of school districts that are partnering in the project.

Specifically, study 2 will be a three-year effort to develop and test two language-based intervention programs for each of grades pre-kindergarten through grade 3. These programs will be designed to increase the language skills underpinning listening and reading comprehension in students. About 500 students and their teachers will be involved.

Study 3 involves testing the effectiveness of the two programs developed in study 2. Study 3 will start after the completion of study 2, will last two years, and include 990 students and their teachers.

Along with the three main studies, the researchers at Arizona State will conduct complementary studies among Spanish-speaking English language learners.

Justice said a grant as large as $20 million is rare for social science or education research. But the federal government is trying to develop programs as quickly as possible to stem the reading crisis in the United States.

“Usually, grants go to basic research first and then, years later, applied research begins. But in this case, the government has said we can’t wait another 20 years to improve reading in our children. They are trying to accelerate the process.”

Justice said researchers from the participating universities are in the process of finding local school districts in their areas to partner with for this study. As of now, no central Ohio school districts are involved.

In addition to Justice, other Ohio State researchers involved in the project include: Stephen Petrill, professor of human development and family science; Ann O’Connell, associate professor and Richard Lomax, professor, both in quantitative research, evaluation, and measurement; and Shayne Piasta, visiting assistant professor of teaching and learning and research scientist in the Preschool Language and Literacy Lab at Ohio State.