Leaps and Bounds: From Reading Words to Understanding Texts

Hélène Deacon, Leadership Team - DAL

23 January 2022


Children’s oral language skills are widely believed to support their early reading development. What is less clear is which skills support reading development and when. The primary purpose of this six-year longitudinal research project is to gain a deeper understanding of how children’s oral language skills support their reading development across the elementary grades. This project is led by Dr. Hélène Deacon, Ensuring Full Literacy Co-Lead and Director of the Language and Literacy Lab at Dalhousie University, along with Lab Manager Stef Hartlin, Postdoctoral Fellow Klaudia Krenca, Graduate Students Alex Ryken, Mariam Elgendi, and Savannah Heintzman, and Undergraduate Students Emily Taylor and Daneesha Williams.

In the first year of this project, we recruited over 300 elementary school-aged children. Students were initially tested in Grade 1 (in winter of 2019), and we were able to work with 25% of those students again in Grade 2 prior to Covid-19 school shut-downs. We found that the awareness of (1) individual sounds, (2) roots and affixes, (3) sentence structure, and (4) the rhythm of language are all important to early reading. After controlling for vocabulary, nonverbal ability, and socioeconomic status, we found that, of these four, awareness of individual sounds was most important to Grade 1 word reading and reading comprehension. Awareness of sentence structure was most important to Grade 2 word reading and reading comprehension. 

Along with George Frempong, Director of Research at Community Partner Delmore ‘Buddy’ Daye Learning Institute, and financial support from IURN (Inter-University Research Network), we also aim to address the achievement gap in Nova Scotia and employ intersectional analysis to explore the extent to which learners’ racial and socioeconomic identity impact their language skills and opportunity to learn. Thus far, our research shows that students of African descent and African Nova Scotian students have lower scores on Grade 1 word reading and awareness of individual sounds, roots and affixes, and sentence structure compared to a sample of all other Nova Scotian students, suggesting unique learning challenges for this group. 

Our research also acknowledges that the medium in which reading is occurring is shifting; children are increasingly reading in a digital format. One of the main distinctions between paper-based and digital reading is the presence of digital features. These features may distract children from reading in a deep and focused manner. We intend to work with the same children who are currently in Grade 4 (Spring, 2022). Children will read standardized passages from the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Tests on a computer screen, which have been adapted to include two digital features (i.e., scrolling and hyperlinks), and answer multiple-choice comprehension questions. An alternative form will be administered on paper. The objectives of this project are: (1) to examine which predictors (e.g., word reading, attention) contribute to digital versus paper reading comprehension, and (2) to investigate the stability and overlap of different sub-groups of readers (e.g., poor comprehenders, poor decoders) in paper versus digital environments. The results from this study will offer new insights as to how digital features impact children’s reading comprehension in a generation that is increasingly learning to read in a digital environment.