Lisa Didion, special education assistant professor, at Lindquist in outdoor photo

Lisa Didion, special education assistant professor, is the principal investigator of a new Carver Trust grant to help elementary students with or at risk for reading disabilities improve their fluency. Photo by Mei-Ling Shaw.

| June 1, 2021

Elementary students with or at risk for reading disabilities will improve their fluency thanks to a new $85,000 Carver Trust grant.

Lisa Didion, University of Iowa College of Education special education assistant professor, is the grant principal investigator.

The grant will fund a study to investigate the effects of an extended version of the Data Mountain program on the oral reading fluency (ORF) of elementary students with or at risk for reading disabilities. This can include dyslexia, a student with reading goals listed on their Individualized Education Program (IEP), or students nominated by their teachers as having persistent reading difficulties.

Oral reading fluency, or reading out loud, is a critical life skill that greatly impacts future success, Didion says. Oral reading fluency includes both accuracy and fluency with text, the ability to effortlessly translate letters to sounds, and sounds to words. This capacity then enables readers to focus their attention on the comprehension and meaning of text.

“This study is important because it  reinforces students’ motivations to read,” Didion says. “Students with or at risk for reading disabilities experience more failure in reading, which affects their overall persistence and willingness to read.”

Didion adds that there is an absence of embedding self-determination and motivation processes in current evidence-based reading practices.

“Data Mountain is a program that teaches students these important skills and holds promise of improving their reading rate and accuracy,” Didion says “Data Mountain simultaneously addresses both of these weaknesses, saving teachers and students valuable instruction time.”

Data Mountain teaches three skills related to self-determination: self-monitoring, goal setting, and positive attributions, which is the ability to attribute success to the use of reading strategies.

The program compares progress to a mountain, Data Mountain, such that sometimes data increase, and sometimes data decrease, like the peaks and valleys on a mountain, Didion says. Students learn that despite the variability of the data, it is important to track progress so they can reach their goals at the top of the mountain. Each session, students set daily personal best goals and select reading strategies to reach their goals.

Didion created Data Mountain after she had an epiphany of how her own exercise performance improved when she collected data, improving her motivation to become a faster runner. She then paired her teaching of data and its relevance to a science unit her class was doing on landforms.

“The intervention taught students about their own data, visualized through a line graph, and explained like climbing a mountain,” she says.

She created a bulletin board with construction paper and painters’ tape. Her students’ faces on cartoon hikers then started their ascent of Data Mountain, climbing a peak each time they reached a goal. Once a week, she met individually with students to share their academic and behavioral data.

“They connected that their behavior while completing a task influenced their performance, illustrated through their data. They began to improve more quickly on weekly progress monitoring assessments.  Every year after, for a range of data types, most students showed progress when I used Data Mountain.”

Didion developed the Data Mountain program as a doctoral student, and initial efficacy tests focused on ORF outcomes after 15 sessions.

In the initial randomized controlled trial, there were two treatment groups, Data Mountain delivered individually (DM-I) or in a small group format (DM-G) compared to a comparison condition (reading practice only). Results indicated that Data Mountain students read an average of 31 more words per minute by the end of the program with a growth rate twice that of comparison students.

The program has shown promise in enhancing students’ ORF performance, Didion says. This grant funded study will develop and test the effects of the second half of the program.

This project will extend Didion’s line of study as an early career researcher and the current research of Data Mountain. Specifically, this will include a randomized controlled trial that examines the effects of 30 sessions of Data Mountain on the ORF performance of approximately 90 students with or at risk for reading disabilities in second through fifth grade.

The program currently includes one training lesson and 15 instructional sessions on self-monitoring, goal setting, and positive attributions. The study will develop 15 additional sessions.

“This study will provide information related to the full extent the program may impact fluency performance across an entire school year, “ Didion says.

Didion says it will also answer questions about the delivery format. After 15 sessions, there were no statistically significant differences in the reading rate of children receiving the program in a small group verse individually.

“However, students receiving Data Mountain individually did have a slightly higher growth rate, which left me wondering if given more time would these students outperform students in the small group format,” Didion says. “If so, this will provide support to deliver the program individually to our most vulnerable learners for optimal growth.”