What might a network of 130 expert researchers collaborating with hundreds of expert teachers learn about reading comprehension that could significantly impact students’ engagement with and understanding of complex texts?
In breaking education news on Wednesday, the Department of Education’s research unit, Institute for Education Sciences (IES) announced it has awarded $100 million dollars to six such teams across the country to create a new Reading for Understanding Network.
With this five-year grant, IES announced what amounts to a very bold bet on a new model for education research. Not only does the grant specify that researchers on all six teams work closely with practitioners to field test and refine interventions for supporting students’ high-level literacy, but also that leaders of all six research teams meet quarterly to support rapid sharing and building of knowledge across teams.
Cynthia Greenleaf, co-Director of the Strategic Literacy Initiative project at WestEd, is one of three co-Primary Investigators for the University of Illinois-based team. The announcement of the awards may lead some—like the first person to comment on the Ed Week Research blog announcing this grant—to wonder about the wisdom of spending so much money on research. But this time, the results of this ambitious research and development project may well be more than the sum of its parts. The diversity of expertise both within the University of Illinois-led team and across all six teams—in reading, cognitive science, developmental psychology linguistics, assessment, speech, and culturally responsive pedagogy—are impressive. In addition, the plans for each team to work closely with teachers to develop and field test interventions seem very promising.
In addition to the scope (pre-K to high school) and scale of the grant, the aspects of literacy being explored go far beyond basic comprehension. For example, the University of Illinois team, in which we are a partner, will focus on research and tool development to help 6th through 12th grade students build higher level cognitive skills such as analyzing, interpreting, synthesizing, and evaluating multiple texts in science, literature, and history. The team will build and field test interventions based on study of the interactions between what students’ bring to texts, the challenges of the disciplinary texts at different developmental levels, and—quite importantly—the nature and challenges and students’ interpretations of the tasks they are asked to carry out with texts.
Teachers and other practitioners who have been working with the Reading Apprenticeship approach may be pleased to note that it will be one of the “promising practices” identified for study along with the Cultural Modeling approach developed by Dr. Carol Lee of Northwestern University, who is another Co-Principal Investigator with Cynthia Greenleaf on the University of Illinois team. Both of these models will be studied for insights into new ways to support students’ advanced academic literacy.