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Building Reading Skills Starts with Practice

  • Kristin Conradi Smith,
    Kristin Conradi Smith,  associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the School of Education is collaborating with other literacy professors from George Mason University and University of Idaho on a national survey charting reading skills among elementary-aged children.  
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The 1200-plus books that line the office walls of reading and literacy specialist Kristin Conradi Smith ’99 are a visible representation of her passion and her mission: to increase reading motivation and ability among struggling readers. Her office is also a sanctuary in a month of disheartening news to kick off the school year – fewer of Virginia’s 3rd graders are passing their reading SOLs than in past years, and the average score has dropped from 84 percent to 72 percent over the last decade. Conradi Smith, a former elementary school teacher and Title I reading specialist, is tackling the problem head-on with a two-tiered multi-site research project geared towards finding out how much time elementary students are spending reading in their classrooms.

The project is titled “t3:  Time & Types of Texts in the Elementary Classroom.” The national survey launches in mid-October to a randomized sample of 25,000 first through fifth grade teachers, Conradi Smith explained.  In January, the team will begin phase 2 of the study, which involves three months of observations focusing specifically on how texts are used in second grade classrooms. Conradi Smith, associate professor of curriculum and instruction, is the lead investigator, along with co-principal investigators Allison Ward Parsons, assistant professor of literacy and reading at George Mason University, and Margaret Vaughn, associate professor of literacy at the University of Idaho. William & Mary School of Education doctoral student Jane Core Yatzeck is also on the team.

“There's a significant amount of research indicating the importance of quality time in text and that also points to the importance of breadth of texts — particularly informational texts — in the primary grades,” said Conradi Smith.  The first two phases of the project are designed to provide a descriptive snapshot of students’ experiences engaging with text, she explained. “What are the contexts of these experiences? Is the teacher reading aloud? Is the student silently reading? And what type of texts are they engaging in? We'll also be able to look for differences based on teacher background, teacher philosophy of reading, type of school, and more.”

Conradi Smith is curious to know whether students are engaged in reading in all subjects through their day, not just how well they perform on reading skills tests or during reading instructional time.

“In reality, a good reader is someone who knows a lot of different things,” she explained. Her research and practitioner pieces addressing the multi-faceted aspects of reading instruction have appeared in Reading Research Quarterly, Reading & Writing Quarterly, Intervention in School and Clinic, The Reading Teacher, Educational Psychology Review, Reading and Writing, and the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, and she serves on the editorial boards of three journals.

Conradi Smith’s heart is never far from the classroom, though, so she actively maintains a focus on supporting teachers. “For every research piece I write, I write a practitioner piece,” she said, adding that she also is seeking opportunities to become more engaged in the Williamsburg community as a resource on reading. Before the school year began, she conducted a professional development in-service for educators in York County Public Schools. This year, she is regularly engaged in professional development with both upper elementary and middle school teachers in York County.

Conradi Smith has published research on strategies that can help struggling readers based on their individual needs. Ultimately, she says, reading skills are enhanced by time spent reading, paired with guided time talking and thinking about the text. Students who struggle with reading may need specialized techniques in order to break down words and understand them, discuss the context of what they are reading, and even share the task of reading with a group or instructor.

“It’s not just reading, but talking about the reading, that helps students,” she emphasized. The challenge for teachers and school systems is implementing this knowledge in a shifting demographic and digital landscape.

“We face a lot of newer pedagogical demands and questions about how to meet the needs of new populations of students … and at the same time we are seeing a lot of use of new media and digital technologies,” she said. “My new research is moving towards how texts are used.”

For parents wondering how to help their struggling reader, she emphasized the importance of reading together. “Read with your child. Encourage reading, and talk about what you’re reading,” she said, adding that because motivation to read is also an important factor, parents should give children and youth permission to select the books that interest and engage them, including graphic novels. And, she says, parents can also model the process of reading.

“Once we start silent reading the process is largely invisible,” she pointed out. “But maybe take a moment to say out loud to your child that you just had to reread a passage to understand it, or that you need to look up a new word you haven’t seen before.”