Reading Research Program Benefits Fairfax County Middle School Students

Posted: March 11, 2003 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Robin Herron

A George Mason research study at a Fairfax County middle school stands to help underachieving sixth graders improve their reading skills while providing insights on how students’ brains respond to different learning strategies.

Barbara Given, associate professor in the Graduate School of Education and director of the Adolescent Learning Research Center in the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, leads the research, which also has cooperation from teachers and administrators at Glasgow Middle School. The school, whose principal is G.J. Tarazi, serves a diverse population in the Fairfax County section of Alexandria. It was recently named an “Accelerative Learning Model School” by the International Alliance for Learning, largely for its commitment to Given’s innovative research program.

Funded by U.S. Department of Education grants and congressional earmarks totaling more than $400,000, the George Mason team began setting up the program last spring and started working with students in fall 2002. All the research is done at the school with students who have volunteered to participate.

The project involves administering baseline behavioral and reading tests, conducting different types of reading approaches with the students, and using electroencephalograms (EEGs) to observe changes in brain waves as the students respond to the learning strategies. The EEG and psychometric analysis is expected to identify the students’ instructional needs in phonemic awareness, word recognition, and reading comprehension. “As far as we know, this is the only school in the country where there is an EEG lab right in the school,” Given says.

The research includes 112 sixth graders: 88 are below-average readers and 24 are above average. The below-average readers are separated into groups, and each group is taught by Glasgow teachers being trained in the use of different reading interventions–either a commercial product, Spell Read P.A.T. or a combination of approaches called Sound Bytes to Reading, or a traditional classroom approach.

In addition to Given and her administrative assistant Yoanna Ganeva, the George Mason research team includes Sharmila Chari, assistant research professor at Krasnow; Rajesh Adivi, doctoral student in computational sciences; Linda Kirby and Elisabeth Liptak, doctoral students in psychology; Tracy Cappiccille, Robin Lawhorn, and Gabriela Isnardi, psychology graduate research assistants; Orang Firoozi, a George Mason alumnus with a background in management information systems; and others engaged for the conduct of the research. These include Paul Rapp of Drexel University, who supervises the EEG procedures and data analysis; Gary Kay of Georgetown University Medical Center, who has a leadership role in development of a computer-driven abilities assessment tool; John Wasserman, acting chair of Psychology, who serves as a test-development consultant; and Julie Ennis, who coordinates psychometric data collection with school personnel. Also, the team is using an EEG design developed by John Connolly of Dalhousie University and his researchers; the teams plan to compare data and write a joint article after the project is completed.

The reading intervention will last through mid-April and will be followed by posttesting in the spring and follow-up testing during the 2003-04 academic year. A companion project with adults will be instituted next year, Given says.

Given is certain that no matter what results from the research side of the project, “the kids who participate will make gains” in their reading skills. Teachers at the middle school will also benefit from exposure to different reading approaches that will help them address a range of learning needs, Given points out.

This latest phase of research follows Given’s earlier work with adolescents, beginning in 1999, using a computer-driven phonemic awareness program called Fast ForWord. Preliminary results from that study prompted the collaborative project with Glasgow Middle School. “This is the most exciting research I’ve been involved in,” Given says. “The teachers are so cooperative, and the kids are really engaged, too.”

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