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Changing Readers, Changing Texts: Ed School Hosts Fifth Annual Jeanne Chall Lecture

In the past 50 years, instructional texts for first grade students have undergone massive changes and become much more difficult, which inevitably leaves some children who struggle with learning to read on the sidelines. Elfrieda Hiebert, professor at the University of California at Berkeley, spoke about these changes at the Ed School's fifth annual Jeanne S. Chall Lecture held on Wednesday, February 10. "I can state without a doubt, unless you have a moderate level of reading ability, you are not going to be able to read those books," she said in her talk, "Changing Readers, Changing Texts: 1960 to 2010."

Many things have changed, especially the demographics of the first grade classroom, since the late Jeanne Chall produced her landmark study, Learning to Read: The Great Debate in 1967. Chall, a longtime Ed School professor, showed how differences in first grade textbooks influence children's reading acquisition. As Hiebert pointed out, in 1960, America's first-grade classroom was quite homogenous, only to become more diverse in the decades that followed. The increase in immigrant population throughout the 1980s dramatically changed the first grade cohort as more English Language Learners entered the classroom. At the same time, Hiebert said, the increase in exposure to media--by the 1980s, most children grew up with TVs in their homes -- affected children's attitudes about literacy.

As a result of these vast shifts in children's culture, the instructional texts most often used in the first grade classroom of 1960, like Dick and Jane, would undergo enormous modifications and experimentations. In states like Texas and California, policymakers began to regulate these instructional books, sometimes requiring use of certain types of texts, such as decodable text which proponents argue boosts literacy. Many of these efforts failed, Hiebert remarked, but left a lasting imprint on instructional books and children's ability to read.

You can easily see the change by comparing the number of unique or unfamiliar words used in instructional texts, Hiebert said. "Texts of 2007 have nearly six times more unique words as the text of 1983," she said. Further, Hiebert said that the unique words introduced at the beginning of grade one in 2007 are equivalent to the type of words children were introduced to in their last units of the school year in 1962. It is clear that the instructional texts for beginning readers of today are much more complex than yesterday. "We definitely have a problem," Hiebert said. "We are giving very difficult text to the very students who depend on schools to become literate and the first mandates are requiring schools to use these textbooks."

In order to overcome this issue, Hiebert has developed a new model called Text Elements by Task (TExT), which uses more accessible texts for beginning and struggling readers. This model evaluates text difficulty based on linguistic content (the percentage of phonetically regular and high-frequency words) and cognitive load (the number of times new words are introduced and repeated throughout the passage). In Hiebert's studies, TExT had a tremendous benefit not only for first-graders struggling to learn how to read, but also for those students with adequate reading proficiency.

"Texts can be redesigned to offer engaging content, as well as critical information without overloading the cognitive capacities of those young children who acquire literacy in school," Hiebert said. "When first-graders read from text with at least a moderate amount of consistent linguistic information, more reach the end-of-the-year benchmark than students who read text with less consistent information but more of it."

Following Hiebert's lecture, Lecturer Pamela Mason announced Shaher Banu Vagh, Ed.M.'01, Ed.D.'09, as the recipient of the Jeanne S. Chall Doctoral Student Research Award. Banu Vagh conducted a longitudinal study of 160 low-income children over their final year of kindergarten for her doctoral dissertation, "Learning at Home and at School: A Longitudinal Study of Hindi Language and Emergent Literacy Skills of Young Children from Low-income Families in India."

In addition, this year Mason also recognized the recipient of the Jeanne S. Chall Visiting Researcher Award, Peggy Semingson, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. Semingson is currently working on a paper, "Change Across the Three Editions of Jeanne Chall's Learning to Read: The Great Debate and its Impact on Policy and Instruction."