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May 24, 2001 Literacy project gets $3-million grant





by Janice Hamilton

Concordia’s Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance, based in the Department of Education, will be part of a $9-million research project with the Baltimore-based Success For All Foundation (SFA).

The project involves developing new technological tools to enhance a literacy program now used in some 2,000 schools, mostly in high-poverty areas in the United States. Concordia will receive one-third of the U.S. federal government research grant, or about $3 million over five years.

“This is a huge award, and we are honoured, flattered and excited to be recognized,” said Centre director and Education professor Philip Abrami. “It will bring us an opportunity to do research we couldn’t have imagined before.”

The school dropout rate is a serious problem in Canada and the U.S., Abrami said. “Research indicates that developing early skills in literacy is the key to school success. This project may have an impact on a very large number of children.”

Enhancing literacy in Montreal

The Success For All program, developed by a researcher from Johns Hopkins University, was first implemented in Baltimore in 1987, says Bette Chambers, director of the SFA’s early learning program. At the time, she was an associate professor of Early Childhood Education at Concordia. The SFA had a high success rate in teaching children to read, so in 1992, Abrami arranged to bring a pilot project to Montreal.

The program is currently being used at two English Montreal School Board elementary schools: Hampstead School, where many students have learning problems, and Parkdale.

Chambers, who is still an adjunct professor at Concordia, attributes the program’s success to “its philosophy of relentlessness and high expectations. We don’t give up.”

Integrating a phonics-based approach and a whole language approach to learning to read, it includes a detailed curriculum and more than 100 books. There are extensive manuals and professional development workshops for teachers, and a facilitator at each school to help teachers implement the program.

Each child’s progress is assessed every eight weeks, and as soon as a child falls behind, he or she is assigned a one-on-one tutor. This makes the program very expensive, but in the U.S., Title I funding—federal government funding for schools in high-poverty areas—makes it possible.

In Montreal, however, Chambers says, “we were on a tight budget and couldn’t afford certified teacher tutors, so we started working on a computer program to help para-professional and volunteer tutors.”

The goal of this new research project is to use DVD, video, Web and computer technologies to improve four components of the SFA program: the beginning reading curriculum, support for children learning English as a second language, one-on-one tutoring, and professional development for teachers and tutors.

About a dozen Concordia faculty members and an equal number of graduate students and staff will develop the technology and evaluate it in pilot schools in Montreal and across the border.

For example, the technological component will include animated segments on DVD that children can use to hear correct pronunciations of sounds or words, or to demonstrate the meanings of words. DVDs can be used with ordinary TV sets, and, unlike videos, are searchable. There will also be a computer-assisted tutoring program, called Reading CAT, that students can use to practice skills.

“This material will be integrated with the curriculum the child is using in the classroom,” Chambers said. “It’s not just bells and whistles and games. It is focused on the skills the child needs at that time.”

The Concordia team will also develop professional development support materials for the teachers and tutors. For example, short videos will demonstrate the most effective techniques of helping children overcome specific problems.

“We call this just-in-time support so the teacher doesn’t have to wait for a workshop for help,” Chambers said.

The project will be officially launched at a wine and cheese reception on Friday, June 1, from 4 to 5:30, in the atrium and the J.A. De Sève Theatre, LB-125, J.W. McConnell Building, 1400 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W.