Grant will help area students with disabilities

January 03, 2012

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( -- A $1.2 million grant will allow a University of California, Riverside professor in the Graduate School of Education to fund doctoral students to conduct research and prepare teachers for students with disabilities at Riverside and San Bernardino schools.

Rollanda O'Connor, whose research focuses on reading development for children with disabilities, starts work this month on a five-year grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs.

The incoming doctoral students, who will start in Sept. 2012, will develop expertise through courses, training in university-level teaching, and research in low-income public schools.

They will be able to pursue research on K-12 students with a range of disabilities or risk for developing disabilities, including learning disability, intellectual disability, autism and status as an English language learner.

Their training will be multidisciplinary and draw on expertise of special education, educational psychology, methodology, and medical faculty across the University of California system, particularly those from the UC Special Education Collaborative that includes UC San Diego, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

They will also work with other Graduate School of Education faculty whose research focuses on special education, including Lee Swanson, Jan Blacher and Michael Orosco.

The grant almost doubles the typical funding a graduate student researcher receives. It also pays for books, travel to conferences and memberships in professional societies.

O'Connor has had several similar grants in past years. The most recent one, which included $800,000 in funding, expired at the end of August. It has assisted seven students, six of whom have already earned their Ph.D. and are faculty in special education at universities.

"These grants enable the transition from doctoral student to a professional faculty role," O'Connor said. "They provide an additional level of support, mentoring, and hands-on research and teaching opportunities.

"Our goal is for all of our Ph.D. students in special education to work collaboratively with school district personnel on mutually beneficial research -- research that ultimately benefits the students in the Inland Empire public schools.

The just-received grant will allow O'Connor to build on the relationships she has maintained with teachers and administrators eight years at the Riverside, Alvord and San Bernardino City Unified school districts.

She recently wrapped up a four-year grant, for over $1 million that involved three years of field work in the Riverside Unified School District. The research focused on improving the reading rate of slow readers in 2nd and 4th grades.

Two of the findings from this research are important for teaching reading well.

First, when children read much slower than their classmates, their reading comprehension (how well they understand what they read) suffers. By improving their reading rate with 10 to 20 minutes of practice reading aloud, three times per week, children's reading comprehension also improved significantly. This finding was consistent with English language learners, as well as native English speakers.

Second, we sometimes believe that it is more difficult to improve children's reading skills after 3rd grade; however, the 4th grade poor readers also made very strong reading gains in rate and comprehension. The problem is that in most 4th grade classrooms, children have few opportunities to read aloud because the focus is on silent reading. To make these gains, older poor readers need consistent opportunities to read aloud to a listener (a teacher or teacher's assistant) who can help with difficult words.

The research was also valuable to students, teachers and administrators, said John McCombs, the principal at Riverside Unified's Emerson Elementary School when O'Connor did research there. (He is now principal at Madison Elementary School in the same school district.)

McCombs said O'Connor's research helped identify strategies to maximize reading comprehension and fluency. These strategies included how to group students and how much time to devote to reading.

O'Connor's work with second graders at Emerson was particularly important because at the age the students are still "learning to read," McCombs said.

After second grade they are "reading to learn." In other words, subjects such as social studies, science and math require reading to comprehend concepts. "Second grade is very pivotal," McCombs said. "If we don't reach the kids by then they are almost destined not to meet the standards."

In addition to the work in Riverside, a second grant, for five years and nearly $2 million, involves O'Connor monitoring the reading development of about 400 children in the Alvord and San Bernardino Unified school districts as they advance from kindergarten or 1st grade to 3rd or 4th grade. When children lag behind their classmates, O'Connor's team provides small group intervention to improve their reading skills and help them to keep up.

She is tracking how the students, who are low-skilled and about 50 percent English language learners, respond to these interventions in a model of Response to Intervention (RTI), a newly popular model that provides early assistance to children having difficulty learning to read.

The results for the first two years, which have been presented at national conferences, show that this model of 'just in time' intervention reduces the proportion of children classified as poor readers in participating schools.

University of California - Riverside

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