$2.7 million grant will support emerging literacy research

A promising curriculum designed to prepare students with intellectual disabilities and autism for beginning reading programs has proven successful in special education classroom settings. But can it be as effective in general education classrooms?

Professor of Special Education and Communicative Disorders Pam Hunt

Professor of Special Education and Communicative Disorders Pam Hunt

The question is a critical one because, according to San Francisco State University Professor of Special Education and Communicative Disorders Pam Hunt, many students with intellectual disabilities spend some or all of their time in general classrooms or are eventually mainstreamed. And it's one that, with the support of a $2.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, she will spend the next three years answering.

"We want to demonstrate that this curriculum can be implemented as effectively in the general education setting as in special education settings," Hunt said. "But even more so, we want to show that the typically developing peers who participate in the reading lessons as 'reading buddies for the day' will increase their positive attitudes toward students with disabilities."

The curriculum is the Early Literacy Skills Builder, developed by a University of North Carolina-Charlotte team led by Diane Browder and designed to help students with intellectual disabilities and autism develop the foundational skills necessary to engage with beginning reading programs in elementary schools. These skills include emergent phonemic awareness and phonics, vocabulary development, listening comprehension and the conventions of reading. The program allows students to demonstrate their learning using "alternative communications systems," for example by allowing them to respond to the lessons by pointing to pictures or using a communication device, rather than orally.

Researchers have found that, when used in special education classrooms, the program significantly improves students' reading skills. Now, Hunt and her colleague at the University of Kansas, Elizabeth Kozleski, will test its efficacy in general education classrooms.

"If the research is only done in segregated settings, it can mislead policymakers, teachers and parents into thinking we have to then implement a program in segregated settings only," Hunt said. "It's important to demonstrate early on that this promising curriculum can be implemented in general education settings."

During the first year of the three-year grant, Hunt and Kozleski will identify a cohort of 80 students plus teachers from the San Francisco Unified School District and other districts, certify the teachers to implement the curriculum and develop the materials. The reading instruction will be implemented during the 2016-17 school year through small groups made up of both special needs students as well as typically developing peers who will participate on a rotating basis. Finally, they will evaluate the program to determine its effectiveness, looking not only at whether reading scores increase but also at whether teachers and parents believe it was successful, practical and worthwhile.

"It's really important to have that piece," Hunt said. "You can have all the data in the world indicating that the intervention made a difference for the kids, but if the teachers don't like the curriculum or found it difficult to implement, then it ultimately will not have the broad effect that we want it to have."

Hunt also hopes that, by having typically developing students participate in the reading groups alongside students with intellectual disabilities or autism, the program will produce positive changes in how typically developing students view their classmates with disabilities.

"We anticipate that by giving these students the opportunity to engage in very supportive, positive interactions with their peers with disabilities, we will see an increase in their positive attitudes toward the students with disabilities," she said. "They will see their classmates as competent, as emergent readers."

-- Jonathan Morales