Project Intensity increases literacy in struggling youth

By Nicholas Petrucelli

Richardson Independent School District and two area private schools are benefitting from a reading curriculum designed by researchers at SMU’s Simmons School of Education.

Project Intensity supports reading education for students with intellectual disabilities. The project, which started in 2012, is funded through a federal grant from The Institute of Education Sciences. The end goal is to publish the curriculum, officials say, so that schools around the country can use it.

Dr. Stephanie Al Otaiba, chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at Simmons and a co-investigator for Project Intensity, said researchers worked closely with teachers and students to develop the curriculum. They also receive feedback from teachers using the curriculum, which allows them to make changes along the way.

“Researchers are very hands on,” she said.

Dr. Paul Yovanoff, a Simmons professor and director of the Ph.D. in Education program, is the head methodologist for the project. He noted that many of the students who participate in Project Intensity experience “severe challenges of learning and comprehending.”

The curriculum includes picture books that students and teachers read together. There are 11 levels of books, and as students progress, the less reading the teacher does and the more reading the student does.

“There is research on how to teach struggling readers in general education, but we need more research that covers comprehensive reading instruction,” said Miriam Ortiz, an SMU doctoral student in Education at Simmons who specializes in intensive intervention.

“The progress of the students is looking great,” she said.

“We teach students who people didn’t think could learn to read,” she said. “This study proves that they can.”

Ortiz said the program is unique because it allows the students to practice old words while learning new words.

Students who have been in the program experienced word growth throughout each level, which researchers say provide proof that the curriculum is successful.

Dr. Jill Allor is the principal investigator for Project Intensity and also a Simmons professor. The program was supposed to end in 2017, she said, but the researchers just submitted a proposal for another grant that would allow research to continue.

Pretesting in the participating schools, which places students in the correct reading level, just took place. After pretesting, there will be weekly tests to track the progress of each student.

The Simmons School of Education is one of seven universities nationally that is a member of a National Center for Leadership in Intervention.

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