Improving Early Literacy Skills For At-Risk Kindergarten Students

kindergartners reading

Researchers at Texas A&M are monitoring the reading development of kindergarten students at-risk for reading disabilities. (Photo:

The National Institute for Literacy research indicates that early childhood development and learning is a pivotal time in a child’s life to build the proper foundation for good reading and writing skills. To provide educators with practical methods to help improve literacy skills, Nathan Clemens, assistant professor of school psychology and principal research investigator at Texas A&M University, is working with a team of professors in the College of Education and Human Development to monitor assessments for kindergarten students at risk for reading disabilities.

The four-year research project, Early Literacy Measurement Project (ELM) is funded in part by a recent $1.6 million dollar grant awarded in July by the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Services. The project will monitor about 600 kindergarten students in Texas. The project is also a collaboration with Southern Methodist University (SMU). Approximately half of the data will be collected from the SMU site.

The overall goal of the research project is to investigate assessments that are currently used to monitor reading development of kindergarten students at risk for reading difficulties and to identify assessments that are most efficient and practical. They will also examine other factors such as a student’s ability to understand instructions and language proficiency. Additional outcomes of the project are expected to identify practices that are the most reliable, practical and sensitive to growth patterns for monitoring the reading progress of kindergarten students at risk for reading disabilities.

“We expect this project to provide detailed information on kindergarten reading development that may help us as educators to understand the course of reading disabilities and, most importantly, ways to intervene reading difficulties,” said Clemens.

Nathan Clemens

Nathan Clemens

Identifying good indicators of progress is important as reading intervention is far more effective when it is started earlier rather than later. Prior research has found that a student’s progress with kindergarten assessments helps to better identify students who may have reading difficulties later on. Students with reading difficulties are typically identified as those who have one or more complications with reading comprehension, accuracy and fluency.

The team of professors and researchers at Texas A&M working with Clemens include Shana Hagan-Burke, associate professor of special education, and Deborah Simmons, professor of special education. Hagan-Burke’s work in the intersection of behavior and academic skills will be used to rate students skills and ability to stay on task while reading. Simmons will serve as a faculty advisor to provide guidance for the team. Stephanie Al Otaiba, professor of special education at Southern Methodist University will lead the SMU team. Other team members from Texas A&M include project coordinator Leslie Simmons and a host of graduate and teaching assistants who will be working in classrooms to administer the assessments.

The Project ELM team will also work throughout the school year with teachers to assess students’ overall reading skills. Monitored twice a month, updates and progress reports will be provided to teachers in areas such as letter naming fluency, letter sound fluency, phoneme segmentation fluency, nonsense word fluency and decoding fluency.

“One assessment that is commonly used is a letter sound fluency test, where a student is asked to look at a page of letters and then say aloud the sounds each letter makes. Other assessments may have the student read short words or sentences,” said Clemens. “While these are widely used assessments, we don’t have a lot of information regarding how those measures function for students with reading difficulties.  In part, that is what inspired this project.”

To continue to monitor progress, the team of researchers will conduct brief assessments with the students in the first and second grade school years. These follow-up evaluations will provide information on the ability of kindergarten assessments to predict long-term reading outcomes.

“We are very excited about the project and the rich data set that can tell us how to best measure the progress of students at risk and provide teachers feedback on a frequent basis. It will also show us what early literacy looks like for students with reading difficulties throughout kindergarten and beyond,” said Clemens.


About 12 Impacts of the 12th Man:  12 Impacts of the 12th Man  is an ongoing series throughout the year highlighting the significant contributions of Texas A&M University students, faculty, staff and former students on their community, state, nation and world. To learn more about the series and see additional impacts, visit

About Research at Texas A&M University: As one of the world’s leading research institutions, Texas A&M is in the vanguard in making significant contributions to the storehouse of knowledge, including that of science and technology. Research conducted at Texas A&M represents total annual expenditures of more than $776 million. That research creates new knowledge that provides basic, fundamental and applied contributions resulting in many cases in economic benefits to the state, nation and world.

Media contacts: Nathan Clemens, College of Education & Human Development at Texas A&M;, 979.845.0880 or Chauncey Cox, Communications Specialist,, 979.845.1823.


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