Tuesday, December 1, 2020

By Grace Barker

As schools began to close in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Iowa Reading Research Center (IRRC) immediately responded to the growing need for home learning resources.

“We committed to creating resources for families to support their children’s home learning because literacy development is too important to be sidelined by social distancing,” said Iowa Reading Research Center Director Dr. Deborah K. Reed. “We recognized the need to redirect our efforts from primarily supporting professional educators to supporting families who were trying to continue children’s learning at home.”

The IRRC is part of the University of Iowa College of Education. It strives to improve the literacy skills of all students through researching literacy practices and assessments, delivering professional learning for educators, providing technical assistance for school districts, and offering resources to help caregivers take an active role in their children’s literacy skill development. In applying its mission to the unusual circumstances surrounding the pandemic, Center staff not only created home learning resources for families to use, but also adapted its innovative Varied Practice Reading intervention for remote use.

Supporting Your Children’s And Teens’ Home Learning Blog Series

The IRRC created the Supporting Your Children’s and Teens’ Home Learning blog series to provide families with evidence-based advice and information on how to help students effectively learn at home. Posts were written for both older and younger children, and the frequency of posts was increased so families had fresh help each week. The series continued into the fall to help families with students learning from home during some part of their school day or week.

Supporting Your Children’s and Teens’ Home Learning Guide

The Supporting Your Children’s and Teens’ Home Learning Guide offers tips on how to create a structured and effective home learning environment, such as choosing a quiet learning space away from most household distractions. It also suggests educational web resources where caregivers of kindergarten through high school students can find free online activities, literacy materials, and more. The resources can be used to supplement lessons being provided by schools. The guide also includes web resources related to assistive technology for children with dyslexia and other reading disabilities. Like the blog post series, the guide continues to be useful for home literacy learning.

Book Study for Teens

To help middle school and high school students continue reading and thinking critically about texts, the IRRC hosted a Book Study for Teens. Each weekday for 24 days, teens could read assigned chapters of the young adult fiction novel Conviction by Kelly Loy Gilbert and answer reflection questions. The IRRC communicated with participants via a Facebook group and email, and exemplary student responses to the reflection questions were shared to highlight the kinds of skills the questions targeted.

Ann Johnson of Dubuque was feeling really out of her element when planning remote learning for her daughter, seventh-grader Madelyn. When Johnson saw a Facebook post about the Book Study for Teens, she decided to incorporate it into Madelyn’s home learning schedule.

“I like how responses were highlighted each day,” Johnson said. “Madelyn worked harder knowing her response could be an example response.”

Due to her positive experience in the study and her enjoyment of reading the book, Madelyn sought out other books by Gilbert, attended the virtual Q&A videoconference that the IRRC hosted with Gilbert, and got to ask a question directly to her new favorite author.

Weekly Writing Prompts

For students in Grades 1–6 to practice literacy skills at home, the IRRC provided weekly writing prompts in English and Spanish for six weeks. The prompts came with one or two short passages to provide a context for the writing prompt. Children could compose responses to practice their narrative, informational, or opinion writing.

“While schools were closed, there were many good opportunities made available online for children to practice their reading; however, there were not as many options for practicing standards-aligned writing,” said Reed. “These weekly writing prompts offered families and their children a way to continue honing these important literacy skills at home.”

Adapting Literacy Research for Remote Use

In order to continue its research of literacy instructional best practices, the Iowa Reading Research Center adapted its innovative Varied Practice Reading intervention for remote use.

The IRRC partnered with its long-time partners in the Council Bluffs Community School District, who had opened its usual summer program to any student who wanted to participate. Middle grades students who signed up for Varied Practice Reading selected strategies for improving their reading in each session, read sets of three unique passages to practice their fluency skills with a remote partner, and completed comprehension questions and written responses about the passages. The goals of the project were to study its effectiveness of the intervention in seventh-grade and to ensure that Varied Practice Reading could be done through remote learning. Students read in pairs through via videoconference while an IRRC staff member observed and completed other independent literacy activities independently through an online platform.

Isabella Hammond is a seventh-grade student who participated in the summer study. While learning remotely, Hammond enjoyed getting to interact in real time with a peer and getting to know that person throughout the project.

“It’s really nice to talk to someone your own age, and it’s fun getting that interaction,” she said.

The IRRC used what it learned during the summer project to make alterations for its next Varied Practice Reading research project with the Ottumwa Community School District for the fall 2020 semester.

These examples highlight the ways in which the IRRC adapted its focus to support families during the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to support schools and families with the unique school structure in the current academic year.

“Families and schools are facing challenges that are outside the scope of available literacy research data,” said Reed. “We wanted to provide immediate assistance to continue students’ literacy learning, regardless of the circumstances, and contribute to the body of scholarship that will help everyone be better equipped to meet students’ needs in the future. There are several reading research centers around the country, but what makes the IRRC special is that we are able to respond to needs quickly, innovatively, and robustly.”

Read more from the Annual Report