Program dramatically improves reading of at-risk students at an early age

In only two years, researchers were able to reduce number of Grade 1 children with reading difficulties from 290 to 7.

The tools and techniques necessary to dramatically improve the reading achievement of at-risk students are already available, says an UAlberta education researcher, and he has the research results to prove it.

George Georgiou, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, is entering the third year of a research project that started following 290 Grade 1 students with reading difficulties across 11 Edmonton public schools. In two years, Georgiou and his colleagues have reduced the number of children continuing to struggle in reading to just seven, a mere 2.4 per cent of the number of children they started with.

"It's unprecedented, to cut it down to the point it's even lower than the prevalence of dyslexia in the general population, which is five to 10 per cent," Georgiou said.

"This tells you that with early identification, with training the classroom teachers on evidence-based practices, and with intensive intervention for the kids who continue to struggle, you can make miracles."

Georgiou, who is conducting this research with Rauno Parrila of Macquarie University and Robert Savage of the University College of London, added that none of the interventions were created for this project, but were derived from research literature on reading and included things like intensive phonics and matching of the newly learned correspondences with words in children's storybooks. The research involved sending specially trained interventionists to work with the students, but this extra instruction amounted to 30 minutes, three times a week for 10 weeks.

"We are pioneers in this approach of training the teachers, observing them in their classrooms to support the use of the best practices we've provided, then following up with the kids that continue to perform poorly, and give them this extra gentle push. And we have only a few kids left who continue to experience reading difficulties."

Early identification is key

Early identification is a key part of Georgiou's model in order to head off reading difficulties before they become entrenched, which may ultimately impact a student's decision to stay in school.

"Research says that 75 per cent of kids who aren't treated by the end of Grade 3 fail to catch up regardless of the resources allocated for this purpose. So we tried to identify them early, provide them with interventions so that by Grade 3, ideally, we have everybody out of the risk zone," he said.

"Imagine the resources that schools could save if we manage to get the kids out of the risk zone as early as possible."

Georgiou said that once he completes the research project, he wants to present his findings to school boards and find ways with them to implement the tools and techniques in every classroom.

"The next step is to train teachers to do the interventions instead of us sending interventionists to the schools, and then check to see if they are as effective."

In the meantime, Georgiou said he's very encouraged by what his research has shown so far.

"The take-home message is you don't necessarily need fancy programs-we know what skills we need to train children to make them better readers. But we also need to provide teachers who don't necessarily have the expertise in reaching the kids in the bottom 20 per cent of the reading distribution the training on how to teach these kids. If you catch the children at-risk for reading difficulties early, and provide them with the right intervention, you get these results."