Novice teachers who graduated from teacher-preparation programs with a strong focus on reading instruction tend to provide richer literacy experiences for their students than those who attended institutions without such an emphasis, an update of an ongoing research project suggests.
The findings were presented here April 28 at the International Reading Association’s annual conference.
The project, the largest ever undertaken by the Newark, Del.-based association, is among the first to track teachers from their undergraduate programs through their initial years in the classroom. The effort is intended to gauge the effectiveness of various factors in teacher preparation, their effect on students’ classroom experiences, and, ultimately, the impact on children’s achievement in reading.
“We wanted to see what difference [high-quality reading preparation] makes in the classroom,” said James V. Hoffman, a professor of education at the University of Texas at Austin and the chairman of the IRA’s National Commission on Excellence in Elementary Teacher Preparation for Reading Instruction. The commission oversees the project.
“In the effort to address the teaching of reading, many universities or states just add another course that deals with basic content,” Mr. Hoffman said. “That perpetuates the mentality that the delivery of content knowledge leads to good teaching.” But good preservice programs do much more than that, he said.
Quality of Texts
The commission identified a diverse group of universities as excellent. Their teacher-preparation programs each had a strong mission toward preparing candidates to teach reading, and they featured intensive apprenticeship programs that gave the aspiring teachers classroom experience from early in their undergraduate studies. Moreover, the programs’ faculty members were active in research on teacher preparation, and their graduates had a record of teaching success.
The programs identified as excellent were: Florida International University in Miami; Hunter College in New York City; Indiana University Bloomington; Norfolk State University in Virginia; the University of Nevada-Reno; the University of Texas at Austin; the University of Texas at San Antonio; and the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota.
Heading into its third year, the project is following 100 new teachers, 73 of whom graduated from the programs identified by the commission, and a comparison group of 27 teachers from other programs.
Trained observers visited the teachers’ classrooms on several occasions throughout the school year to inventory the various forms of texts they used.
The observers looked for texts in 17 categories, including informational text; posters; “decodable” books, or those with key words that can be sounded out; trade books; student work samples; games and puzzles; and computer-based text. They used detailed guidelines to identify the quality of the materials for teaching children to read, and any inherent connections between them.
Next, the observers conducted detailed interviews with teachers to determine how much thought and planning went into their selection and placement of materials. They then asked students to measure how they used and how well they understood the various text forms. Those interviews were intended to allow researchers to get beyond the visual impact of classroom displays.
“Sometimes, we were overwhelmed by the colorful displays in classrooms, but if you looked closer at the materials, you’d get a better sense of whether they are meaningful for students,” said Joyce C. Fine, an associate professor of elementary education at Florida International University, who is also on the IRA commission.
The study is not focusing on instructional methods or the formal curriculum. Next year, researchers will examine test data and conduct informal assessments to try to gauge the impact the classroom texts have on students’ proficiency in various reading tasks.
While the project is investigating a necessary part of good literacy programs, some observers predict it could draw criticism for its lack of emphasis on pedagogy.
“It’s a very good thing that people are paying attention to dimensions of quality in teacher education,” said Catherine A. Snow, a professor of education at Harvard University. “There is likely to be a correlation, perhaps a moderate correlation [between the quality of the classroom texts and the quality of instruction], but this kind of study is not addressing the real instructional issues.” Ms. Snow chaired the National Research Council reading panel that produced an influential 1998 report, “Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children.”
The tendency to underemphasize pedagogy has perpetuated complaints in the past that the reading association and some researchers and educators are not attuned to the importance of teaching basic skills to young readers, suggested John T. Guthrie, a professor of human development at the University of Maryland College Park.
That perception has helped fuel the “reading wars” of the past few decades between advocates of skills-based instruction in the early grades and those who promote a more holistic view of literacy acquisition.
Mr. Hoffman said the IRA project scrutinized the content of the teacher-preparation programs, and only those that provided students with extensive knowledge in the reading process and effective instructional methods were deemed suitable for the study.
The association has committed more than $350,000 to the project, and participating school districts have pitched in up to $200,000 each.
A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2001 edition of Education Week as Study Links Teacher Preparation To Reading Instruction