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Jan. 4, 2018

MSU leads effort to boost preschoolers’ writing skills

Working with preschool classrooms in Flint, Michigan, and Atlanta, a Michigan State University scholar is leading a federally funded initiative to improve young students’ writing skills.

The $1.5 million initiative, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, comes as a vast majority of older students are performing at only a basic level in writing, according to national test results in grades 8 and 12. And young children who begin school with writing difficulties tend to remain poor writers throughout their academic careers, said Hope Gerde, lead investigator on the project.

Previous research by Gerde and others found that young students are experiencing poor instruction in literacy and writing.

“Because writing skills have their genesis in early childhood, there’s a clear need to improve the quality of writing environments and instructional practices serving young children, particularly those children living in poverty,” said Gerde, associate professor in MSU’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies.

Through the project, called iWRITE, Gerde and her team spent the past two years developing an innovative online literacy training program for preschool teachers. They will now pilot the program in Head Start classrooms in Flint and Atlanta based on established relationships with school districts in those cities. They’ll work with some 50 teachers and 450 students total.

By improving educators’ teaching knowledge and abilities through interactive professional development, the program aims to boost students’ writing skills. Early instruction is often focused on handwriting rather than the more meaningful part of writing – that is, composing or thinking about what to write, Gerde said. A focus on communicating a message, rather than penmanship, allows even the youngest learners to write. It is this focus that the iWRITE program promotes.

With the federal grant, which runs through June 2019, the research team will evaluate success of the pilot program, assessing children on their language, letter and sound knowledge and on their motor, self-regulation and writing skills. If successful, the program eventually could be rolled out on a larger scale.

“We will evaluate whether this project leads to a change in teacher behavior and child outcomes,” Gerde said. “We will use the evidence from the classrooms to see if teachers provide more materials and opportunities for writing, if they use more strategies to support children’s writing and whether children’s writing and literacy skills improve.”

Gerde’s co-investigators are Gary Bingham from Georgia State University and Ryan Bowles from MSU.

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