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March 27, 2006

UCSC, San Jose State team up on $1.4 million effort to boost reading and writing among fourth graders

By Jennifer McNulty

Nearly 1,000 fourth graders in Santa Cruz and Santa Clara Counties will participate in a three-year, federally funded educational research project that aims to improve student performance in reading, writing, and language development.

UCSC's Judith A. Scott, left, will codirect the collaboration with Katharine Davies Samway of San Jose State University.

Judith A. Scott, an associate professor of education and chair of the doctoral program in language and literacy at UCSC, will codirect the collaboration with Katharine Davies Samway, an education professor at San Jose State University.

They received a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to develop vocabulary-based techniques to enhance the writing, reading, and overall academic performance of students.

"Vocabulary knowledge is highly correlated with reading achievement and overall academic achievement," said Scott. "But research shows that old 'skill and drill' methods of teaching vocabulary are not very effective. This grant gives us the opportunity to work with local teachers to develop, implement, and assess new strategies."

"This type of research is extremely important in improving student performance. We need to help students acquire the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in California classrooms," Scott said.

Local fourth-grade students who are native English speakers, as well as those learning English, will participate in the study. Scott and Samway, an expert in the needs of English-language learners and in writing instruction, will work with teachers on a "word consciousness" approach that emphasizes vocabulary and language in all subjects, including social studies, mathematics, science, and language arts. "Our goal is to infuse vocabulary development in a seamless manner that helps teachers and students cope with the language demands of schooling," said Scott.

"Word consciousness" fosters an awareness and understanding of how language works, as opposed to having children memorize lists of particular words. The project will emphasize the development of "word consciousness" in a student-centered approach to teaching writing.

"Academic success after third grade increasingly depends on students' ability to use academic language--as opposed to conversational language--in their writing," said Samway. "This is particularly important for English-language learners, who typically have less exposure to English at home.”

This project builds on Scott's previous research, which indicated that students with teachers who focused on word consciousness were nearly twice as likely to use sophisticated words in writing samples as were students in the control groups. 

Samway's research has focused on the literacy development of English-language learners. "Most teachers in California teach English-language learners, and it’s essential that we help them identify practices that enhance their students’ literacy and academic development," she said.

Anthony Villar, a research specialist at the UCSC New Teacher Center, will assess the effectiveness of the project's methods by analyzing student achievement in rigorous field tests in both counties. 

"The state of California spent $30.3 billion on K-12 education last year," said Scott. "That's 40 percent of the entire state budget. It makes sense to do research in schools to identify and develop educational practices that improve student learning."

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