Research led by Dr. Kay Wijekumar helped elementary school students drastically improve their grades.
By Ashley Green, Texas A&M University College of Education and Human Development
When it comes to academic success, reading and comprehending text is vital. A program administered by an expert in literacy at Texas A&M University and her research team has proven that by showing an almost double-digit jump in test scores at an elementary school in Brownsville.
In 2014, Dr. Kay Wijekumar, professor of curriculum and instruction, received funding from the U.S. Department of Education to help teach students in high poverty neighborhoods to recognize underlying text structure, or how information within a written text is organized.
After presenting the proposed two-year research plan to Brownsville ISD, several schools in the district were assigned to participate. One of those schools was Keller Elementary.
At the conclusion of the first academic year of implementation, Keller Elementary moved to a 100 percent pass rate in all subject areas and was awarded six gold stars for performance.
“What we have shown this last year in schools like Keller is that now we’re able to see one whole grade level improvement in reading comprehension on their state standardized tests. That’s what’s really phenomenal for us,” explained Dr. Wijekumar.
The first round of professional development began in January 2015. Javier Garza, principal of Keller, Delma Perez, Dean of Instruction at Keller, and all fourth and fifth grade teachers actively participated in two days of professional development. Throughout the spring semester, the group met regularly with the research team to discuss future implementation.
When the intervention was first introduced, many teachers were doubtful.
“When I first heard about it, I thought ‘well, it’s another thing for us to do,’” explained Claudia Gonzales, a fifth-grade teacher at Keller. “When we got our hands in, it wasn’t easy. It was complicated to understand because this program is embedded in everything instead of the normal programs that tell you to teach this way and that’s it.”
Everything changed once implementation began and the teachers saw how committed the administration was to this program and to teacher and student success.
“[Javier and I] both wanted to learn it just as much as the teachers did. We both attended all the professional development sessions and we both asked for the support. We sat with teachers if they had questions,” Perez explained.
The teachers recognized the administration’s team mentality and quickly began working together to share ideas and collaborate on what worked and what did not.
“Teachers need teachers. In order to be successful, you need to be collaborating with your peers,” said Perez. “If you’re on your own, this is tiring. But, if you’re a team and you’re working it together, there’s no stopping you. In fact, you can just build and build and it’s not going to stop.”
And that teamwork resulted in success.
“We were a middle of the road campus. Within two years, we were able to see a nine percent jump in test scores,” said Perez. “We are one of the few campuses in the district that met all indices with the TEA and we got a six-star distinction. We’re very proud of our teachers and our students.”
“When you empower the students to be able to understand what they’re reading, it becomes a lot easier. I think that’s what happened with our teachers. They started to see that,” added Garza. “The first year we showed increase. But this last year was astronomical. We showed increase to the point where people are noticing what Keller’s done. We’re now one of the top five schools in the district in just two years. It’s really phenomenal.”
Because of the success at the fourth and fifth grade level, teachers in lower levels are wanting to get involved.
“They understand that when kids read systematically, there is a structure to the way that they read and there is comprehension that follows. They get that now and so they’re exposing these students as well,” explained Perez. “In first grade and kindergarten, if you walk the halls, you’ll see the text structures in their work that’s displayed. They want to make sure that they’re ready for the next grade level.”
Aside from the professional development provided for the teachers and administration, Dr. Wijekumar and her team participated in several in-school coaching days where they co-taught with the teachers. The goal was to provide the teacher with an opportunity to see the intervention in action in their content areas.
During the intervention, there were concerns from teachers about how to implement certain aspects of text structures along with teaching the textbook. Based on those questions, Dr. Wijekumar and her research team reviewed the textbook and other materials used in the classroom and developed a supplement for each chapter to show teachers how text structures could be utilized. The team also developed additional lessons for teachers to use as reference materials in their classrooms.
The students also used Dr. Wijekumar’s Intelligent Tutoring for the Structure Strategy (ITSS) software for one class period each week, approximately 45 minutes, for 40 lessons. ITSS was designed to improve reading comprehension for students in fourth through eighth grade – a time when students are expected to read and process information on their own in every area of the curriculum.
ITSS, with a combination of lessons in the classroom, have increased confidence of students at Keller.
“I’ve seen the growth and the understanding and the willingness to participate when we’re
doing this program. Students are not hesitant to go ahead and shout out what they think,” added Sierra Pilar, a fifth-grade teacher at Keller.
The idea of researching text structures was first developed in the 1970s when five text structures were identified. Initial research involved adults and high school students.
In the early 80s and 90s, the research expanded to lower grade levels. Research showed that when children begin facing content-area text, they needed to know text structures in order to fully comprehend what they were reading.
In 2000, Dr. Wijekumar decided to take that research one step farther. She began working on ITSS. The idea was to give instruction to the students one-on-one, leaving the teacher out. Research showed a third of a grade level boost in performance on reading comprehension standardized tests. However, when involving the teacher and providing consistent instruction, the performance doubled.
For Dr. Wijekumar, teaching students about text structure goes beyond academics. She believes what these students learn now will help them throughout their entire lives.
“When you go to a doctor’s office, they’re giving you a piece of paper to read and sign. When you apply for a job, they’re going to give you a job description that you have to read and understand. These are elements of comprehension that are across all aspects of life and what we have done for these children is boost their ability to comprehend at a very advanced level, which then translates into improvements in improved quality of life and professional success.”
The grant Dr. Kay Wijekumar received is one of many received by the college over the last 10 years, totaling $57 million. Stay tuned to transform.tamu.edu for highlights on each of the grants throughout the year.
Media contact: Ashley Green, College of Education and Human Development, firstname.lastname@example.org, 979-458-1334.