WT-lead research aims to ‘prevent knowledge gaps in reading for young children’

Local News

Courtesy West Texas A&M University

CANYON, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — A West Texas A&M psychology professor is leading a new study which aims at “preventing gaps in reading skills before children even start kindergarten,” according to a press release by WT’s Communications Dept.

Dr. Ashley Pinkham, associate professor of psychology in WT’s College of Education and Social Sciences, won a four-year, $1.5 million grant from the Institute of Education Education to help fund research into “how taxonomically organized, or systematically classified, books and media could help prevent a knowledge gap between educationally at-risk students. The grant includes $200,000 in funding for WT, the release stated.

“There is a well-documented discrepancy between educationally at-risk children and children from wealthier backgrounds,” Pinkham said. “This achievement gap first emerges in elementary school and gets wider and wider. With a traditional intervention approach, you wait until they start to fail and swoop in to get them caught up. I’m not interested in that. What we‘ve said as a research group is let`s prevent those discrepancies from ever occurring.”

The department said that Pinkham will begin the study with Dr. Susan B. Neuman, professor and chair of the Teaching and Learning Department at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University and Dr. Tanya Kaefer, associate professor of education at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. The focus of the study will be on children in New York schools with the hopes of expanding to rural areas in the Panhandle, the release explained.

“Urban poverty is different than rural poverty. Children who grow up on a farm have a much better foundation for biology and sciences than urban children,” Pinkham said. “Children in rural settings also are at risk of falling behind, but their understanding of the world is different because they`ve had different experiences, so we want to understand what their unique needs are.”

According to the release, taxonomically educational material “teaches children to think in terms of hierarchal organization.

“In a lot of early childhood classrooms, lessons are organized around themes for example, down on the farm. That’s a great way of thinking about these objects, but it doesn‘t allow you to generalize your knowledge. If a child runs across something totally unfamiliar, they may have difficulty recognizing that it may also belong on a farm,” Pinkham said.

But with taxonomical organization, children are taught to think in broader concepts first before narrowing them down

“For instance, a beagle is a type of a dog, and a dog is a type of an animal. To make your memory as efficient as possible, you naturally store information at the highest level. If you are taught that animals need food to survive, you store that at the level of animal, then filter it down to mammal, dog, etc.,” Pinkham said. “If you show me an animal that Ive never seen before, like a platypus, then I can assume, even if Ive never encountered it, that it probably needs food to survive because it`s an animal.

Pinkham added, “It’s a much more powerful way of storing information because you can generalize it to new experiences,” she said.

The release explained that students must be able to decode the sounds of the letters and understand what the word means.

“A lot of traditional approaches focus on the decoding aspect and only the decoding aspect,” Pinkham said. “The problem is, the number of sounds in the English language is finite, so if I encounter the word cat for the first time, I can sound it out but still not be able to fully comprehend what`s in front of me.”

“We believe that if we focus on building children`s knowledge, their understanding of concepts, their understanding of what makes an insect an insect, then if they encounter a new word, they will be able to understand it, not just sound it out,” Pinkham concluded.

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