Associate Professor Dennis Davis and Assistant Professor Jackie Reylea Will Help English Language Learners with Reading Comprehension Difficulties Through $1.4M Department of Education Grant

Associate Professor Dennis Davis, Ph.D., and Assistant Professor Jackie Reylea, Ph.D.

Young English language learners can often struggle with some of the more complex aspects of written language, leading to difficulties in reading comprehension. To address this issue, Dennis Davis, Ph.D., an associate professor of literacy education at the NC State College of Education, and Jackie Reylea, Ph.D., an assistant professor of literacy education, are developing a new intervention for upper elementary English language learners.

The intervention will be developed through the four-year, $1.4 million “Supporting Reading Comprehension for English Learners Through Inquiry-Based, Language Focused Instruction” project, funded by the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences program. Davis, the project’s principal investigator, and Reylea, the co-principal investigator, will partner with the University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of Cincinnati to develop a new small-group intervention for English learners in grades 3 through 5 who have reading comprehension difficulties.

“Over time, most emergent bilingual learners do just fine in reading, and in fact, knowing multiple languages is a real asset,” Davis said. “However, some emergent bilingual learners need additional support with the more complex aspects of the language that require experience with words and sentence structures that are often found in written texts but aren’t easily learned just from oral language experience.”

Davis noted that reading involves a composite of several different language skills, including knowledge of the sounds within a language, knowledge of how the writing system represents sounds on paper and knowledge about vocabulary and the way words and sentences appear in print. To support English language learners with these aspects of language development, Davis and Reylea will implement their Building Knowledge and Language through Inquiry (KLI) Framework, which aims to help readers strengthen language and literacy skills while building knowledge about interesting topics in disciplines like science and social studies.

Relyea said the shift from narrative stories in early elementary school to nonfiction texts in upper grades can often cause reading comprehension challenges even for native speakers. This challenge is magnified among students who are attempting to learn the language alongside the necessary content and comprehension skills.

“Our intervention is not designed to focus on a single facet of knowledge or skill development for English learners, but it is to build a framework to provide them with equitable and meaningful access to comprehensive, multifaceted literacy intervention to become more proficient and engaged readers,” she said.

The KLI Framework is based on the concept that learning to read and reading to learn are practices that are inherently interconnected. Davis and Relyea believe that connecting texts used in reading interventions to content that might appear elsewhere in the curriculum will provide students with further opportunities to develop background knowledge, particularly as they discuss content rich, nonfiction books with reading intervention teachers.

While many schools have access to a wide variety of curricula and resources for intervening with students who need help with phonics and word reading, Davis said fewer options are available for educators who must help older students with difficulties in reading comprehension related to higher-level aspects of language. The goal of the KLI Framework is to target these areas of language in a more comprehensive and systematic way while also being fast-paced and engaging for kids.

Students who participate in the intervention will read a selection of high-quality books about a common topic and will ponder questions related to the text in small groups. For example, one of the proposed topics centers on space pollution and students will discuss questions related to how the pollution got there and why it matters.

Through these small groups, students will learn a research-based discussion routine that will help to monitor their comprehension and learn to explain the inferences they make as they read. Intervention activities will help students learn to read and write complex sentences, learn to read multiple-syllable words through exploration of word parts and learn about how prefixes and suffixes change the meaning and function of words.

“They will do this using words that are related to their content topics. As they work, the teacher will help them collect new ideas that they are learning, which they will synthesize in a presentation they will give to other students and teachers to show off their new expertise,” Davis explained. “Not only will they build their reading skills, but they will also get to stand out as experts on a topic.”

The KLI Framework will be implemented and tested in schools in North Carolina and Texas through a school-randomized control trial that will determine its impact on student outcomes. In addition to measuring student success, the project team will also examine the cost of implementing the intervention and disseminate their findings through peer-reviewed publications, presentations and briefs for practitioners and policymakers in education.

“We hope that our proposed literacy intervention program can provide English learners with rich and authentic learning experiences in reading and writing in an inquiry-based content area learning context,” Relyea said. “Our instructional principle and approaches are not just teaching English language and literacy, but we aim to expand English learners’ linguistic repertoire utilizing their assets being bilinguals and to support their conceptual knowledge development in content areas through the use of linguistic scaffolds and inquiry-based approaches.”