Learning to read doesn’t just happen. Children must be taught the symbols, sounds and meanings of words that open a window to the wonder of print. Teachers serve as the mentors that invest in the reading success of these children, encouraging their growth along the way with the words “Now you try it.”
For many students, the reading instruction they receive in the general classroom is sufficient, but roughly one-fourth of children need something more.
Project Early Reading Intervention (ERI) investigates this “something more.” This four-year study, now in its third year, examines the effects of different early reading intervention programs for kindergartners who are at risk for developing reading difficulties.
“We have a finite amount of time where we can make significant jump starts in children’s reading development,” Deborah Simmons, principal investigator and professor of special education at Texas A&M University, says. “From the study, we’re learning that if schools provide that extra support in kindergarten, we can get the majority of children out of risk for reading difficulties.”
Simmons and her team of researchers, Shanna Hagan-Burke and Oi-Man Kwok, from the Texas A&M Center on Disability and Development, partnered with Michael Coyne of the University of Connecticut and Mary Little of the University of Central Florida. They collaborated with school districts in their respective states to study how children respond to different reading interventions.
The team found that many students identified as at-risk for early reading problems benefited from the supplemental programs typically taught in schools. However, children who were most at risk at the beginning of kindergarten responded best to a reading method that was systematic and clear.
Simmons says that the ERI curriculum is a specialized, organized approach to reading instruction. It emphasizes phonemic awareness—the ability to hear, identify and manipulate sounds in words—and the alphabetic principle—the recognition that letters represent sounds that can be combined to form words.
“Each student came into the program with strengths and weaknesses. These students have been able to make individual gains throughout each lesson, whether it be in naming a letter; making a letter sound; writing a letter; or, most importantly, becoming confident with themselves.”
“The ERI curriculum is based on what we know from educational research and includes the elements that are necessary for children to learn how to read words and sentences,” she adds.
The reading interventions consist of daily 30-minute supplemental sessions of small-group instruction. Paraprofessionals or teachers who have received additional training, such as kindergarten teacher Melissa Neumann from John C. Webb Elementary School in Navasota, Texas, teach the sessions.
“The ERI curriculum has provided balanced, organized activities and assessments to individually meet these students’ needs for becoming successful readers,” Neumann says.
“Each student came into the program with strengths and weaknesses. These students have been able to make individual gains throughout each lesson, whether it be in naming a letter; making a letter sound; writing a letter; or, most importantly, becoming confident with themselves,” she adds. “Of course, the most exciting gains are those students who entered with no knowledge of letter and sound recognition and can now read words and are well on their way to reading text in books.”
To help students make reading gains, timing is everything, Simmons notes. The study reinforces how critical it is for at-risk children to receive reading intervention early and consistently.
“There are optimal windows for children to learn to read. The evidence is clear that if children are not solid readers by the end of first grade, the odds are not in their favor to become successful readers,” she says.
“Children can get out of sync or start to fall behind early,” she adds, “and the curriculum in schools doesn’t slow down.”
This is why Simmons and her team feel that early reading intervention is so important.
And Project ERI is opening up the window of opportunity for at-risk students for whom that window may otherwise have opened a little too late.