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University of Iowa News Release


Sept. 25, 2006

UI Researchers Receive Grant To Support Reading Program Study

The Institute of Education Services, part of the U.S. Department of Education, has awarded a two-year, $267,570 grant to University of Iowa researchers to support their progress in a large-scale reading curriculum analysis.

The UI team will use the funding to apply a coding system that will track the growth of children's writing in the Breakthrough to Literacy program. The researchers originally were awarded a five-year, $5.7 million grant for the overall project in June 2004.

"We hope to find the developmental trends in children's early writing skills and how they relate to trends in their early reading skills," said Richard Hurtig, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the team's principal investigator.

The team also aims to identify the kind of professional development teachers need to help more children read successfully. The Breakthrough to Literacy program, developed by Carolyn J. Brown and Jerry Zimmermann, former UI research scientists, connects reading-related activities at school using books and computer software. It utilizes both individual and group instruction and provides extensive teacher training and mentoring.

The research compares the use of the Breakthrough to Literacy program in 35 public schools in Chicago to reading development in 35 control schools, where the program is not used. The participating children will be studied from pre-school through the third grade.

"We hope to develop tools for teachers to track their students' performance so they can strategically decide what to do in the classroom as a function of what kids are doing," Hurtig said. "Testing kids and enumerating their deficiencies does not help us know what to do. However, if we focus on what they do know, we can build on their existing abilities."

The team, including Nancy Jackson, Ph.D., professor of psychological and quantitative foundations in the UI College of Education, and Anna Bradburn Wu, master's student in speech pathology and audiology, developed a systematic procedure to analyze children's writing progress. The new grant will allow the team to track the monthly progress of the children's writing skills from the emergence of letters of the alphabet to attempts to produce words.

"Rather than simply looking at a score on a test, we can track the growth of particular components of writing and literacy skills as the child progresses," Hurtig said.

He said that an underlying issue behind the program is that many children do not have the necessary resources to develop their reading skills at an early age.

"Children from more wealthy families with many resources generally begin school with essential preliminary literacy skills," Hurtig said. "However, children coming from less fortunate families are not as prepared. Teachers may assume that the children already have preliminary skills, while many children coming from poverty do not."

Hurtig said reading to children should be a common and beneficial activity because it links literacy with communication. However, he said, especially in the inner city, some schools have no programs for children who come into school without the preliminary literacy and writing skills.

"We have a crisis in American education because literacy skills are not where they should be," Hurtig said. "Understanding literacy development in the kids who are at risk because of poverty is a necessary precursor to developing successful interventions."

To learn more about Breakthrough to Literacy, visit

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Health Science Relations, 5137 Westlawn, Iowa City, Iowa 5224-1178

MEDIA CONTACT: Becky Soglin, 319 335-6660 Writer: Krystal Loewe

PHOTO: (Click on "Hurtig, Richard" in the alphabetized list.)