UNL teams up on national reading comprehension initiative


UNL education researchers have received a five-year, nearly $4.5 million grant to collaborate on a new national initiative to improve reading comprehension for children.

The U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences funds this multi-university collaboration. The Ohio State University leads the early childhood education team, which includes researchers from UNL, the University of Kansas, Arizona State University and the United Kingdom's Lancaster University. UNL's share of the $20 million project is nearly $4.5 million.

The UNL team is studying what factors affect children's ability to build reading comprehension skills during early childhood, such as literacy in the home, language used at school and innate aptitude for understanding language. Based on those findings, researchers will develop classroom activities designed to boost students' comprehension skills in pre-kindergarten through third grade.

The primary grades are ideal for intervention because children's language skills are malleable and growing rapidly, said Tiffany Hogan, assistant professor of special education and communication disorders, who leads the project at UNL.

"Reading comprehension is cyclical," Hogan said. "If you improve children's reading skills early on, they'll experience success and want to read more -- and if they read more, their comprehension and language skills continue to improve."

The U.S. Department of Education has identified poor reading comprehension as a major crisis. Despite ongoing efforts, many children still struggle to connect the meaning of what they read to their daily activities at home and school. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, one out of three fourth-graders and one out of four eighth-graders cannot read at the basic level.

UNL was selected for its expertise in primary grades and rural education, Hogan said. Researchers will assess 1,200 Nebraska students, including 100 English language learners, to understand how they learn basic and higher-order language skills, including syntax, vocabulary and inference-making. The goal is to identify how students' oral language skills affect their ability to understand what they read.

UNL will collaborate with partners to develop and test lessons and instructional materials that teachers can incorporate into existing curricula.

"It's exciting for Nebraska to contribute to nationwide understanding of reading comprehension," Hogan said.
Other UNL College of Education and Human Sciences researchers involved in the project are James Bovaird, assistant professor of educational psychology, and James Nelson, professor of special education and communication disorders.

Over the next five years, the Institute of Education Sciences is investing $100 million in the Reading for Understanding Network to accelerate research and rapidly develop and test new approaches and interventions for students in preschool through high school. The early childhood research team that UNL is working with is part of a broader network involving more than 130 researchers in linguistics; psychology; reading, speech and language pathology; assessment; and evaluation.

- By Ashley Washburn, Office of Research