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Miss. Study of 'Writing To Read' Finds 'Significant' Gains in Students' Skills

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A new study of 1st graders who have used the computer-based "Writing to Read" literacy program concludes that it "significantly" improves students' reading and writing skills.

"We found out we could make a difference in literacy skills with this group of kids," said James R. Chambless, one of three co-authors of the study of the popular program.

Mr. Chambless, an associate dean and professor of educational leadership at the University of Mississippi, led a three-person team that studied the program, marketed by the International Business Machines Corporation, in 54 Mississippi schools during the 1988-89 school year.

An executive summary of the study, which was conducted under the auspices of Gov. Ray Mabus's office, was released last month at a press conference in the state capital.

Under an agreement between the state and two private foundations, Mr. Mabus plans to make Writing to Read laboratories available to every elementary school in the state within three years. The University of Mississippi study was designed to test the efficacy of the instructional strategy in improving literacy.

Cal Morell, a spokesman for the Los Angeles-based Riordan Foundation, which helped finance the Mississippi project and similar ventures elsewhere, said the foundation paid to have the executive summary printed and will help distribute copies of it.

The foundation also will fund a longitudinal study of the Mississippi students, he said.

While numerous evaluations of the "multi-sensory" program for students in grades K and 1 tend to indicate that it improves literacy, the Mississippi study appears to be the first ma4jor one to do so since a spate of papers last year questioned the validity of many of the previous findings.

In several published and unpublished papers, researchers argued variously that the improvements produced were negligible when compared with those achieved using adequate "paper-and-pencil programs"; that many of the alleged educational benefits could be traced to the additional attention children in pilot schools received; and that the program is too costly to justify its relatively small benefits. (See Education Week, Aug. 1, 1990.)

The Mississippi study, while not designed to test those critical assertions, does support previous findings of the program's effectiveness, Mr. Chambless said.

A more detailed analysis of the findings is now being prepared for publication, he added.

The research team divided the study population of 2,175 1st graders from 27 schools across the state into eight groups on the basis of sex, race, and high or low socioeconomic status. Their performance was compared with that of an equal number of students at control schools in the same districts. The study's findings are based on a 20 percent random sample of test and control students.

On the basis of their writing samples, students in the Writing to Read groups wrote "significantly better" than did students in the control groups, according to the summary.

In addition:

Seven study groups had a "significantly more positive attitude toward reading" as measured by the San Diego Reading Attitude Inventory.

Six groups had significantly better reading achievement as measured by the Stanford Achievement Test.

Five groups performed better on language achievement on the Stanford test.

Six groups performed better on the Stanford spelling test.

While Mr. Chambless said he was impressed with the results, he did not endorse any particular method of computer-assisted instruction.

"There may be other programs that can do a better job," he said. "But what you have to ask yourself is 'How teacher-intensive are those programs?"'

In a related development, a five-year study concluded that kindergartners exposed to the Writing to Read program in the Volusia County, Fla., schools showed improvements.

James Surratt, the district's superintendent, said that kindergartners who used the program scored 10 percent to 20 percent better on standardized tests than did their peers who were not part of the program.

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