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Dynamic Assessment of the Alphabetic Principle

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

PrincipalKate Saunders, Ph.D. Investigator: Kate Saunders, Ph.D.
LSI Co-Investigators: Lesa Hoffman, Ph.D., Kandace Fleming, Ph.D., Mindy Bridges, Ph.D.
External Co-Investigator: Mike Barker, Ph.D., University of South Florida
Project Coordinator: Carol Cummings, M.A.

This ongoing research program has been funded by a Strategic Initiative Grant from the KU Provost Office, along with “matching funds” from LSI’s Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center. Strategic Initiative Grants provide seed money to support the development of promising grant proposals that are aimed at benefitting the university via addressing topics that advance KU’s strategic-initiative themes. The strategy is to build on “key strengths already present at KU” to enhance the likelihood that an important project obtains funding from federal agencies such as NIH.

The current project continues the development of an instrument to assess children’s readiness to learn the connections between spoken and printed words. The assessment evolved from a larger program of research, previously funded by NIH, on developing instructional programming for the alphabetic principle. The alphabetic principle is the concept that letters represent phonemes, the smallest units of sound within spoken words. Because understanding the alphabetic principle requires the child to detect phonemes, the task also measures phonemic awareness--the knowledge that spoken syllables can be broken into smaller elements. Given the interrelationship between the assessment, and the instruction that inspired it, the continued development of the instructional programming is strengthened by the further development of the assessment.

The assessment has many innovative features. Among the most important is that it was designed especially for children with severe speech impairments. Because these children often have difficulties learning to read, it is particularly critical to assess early reading skills. But because most current measures require spoken responses, they cannot be used with children who have speech impairments. Thus, our computer-based instrument was designed to eliminate the need for spoken responses.

The instrument is also specifically designed to be easy for children to understand, with simple instructions, and feedback on every trial. Stimulus presentation, response recording, and scoring are computerized, so it can be presented with high fidelity with minimal examiner training. Finally, it assesses a hierarchy of three skills, such that if the child does not demonstrate the alphabetic principle, s/he is given the opportunity to demonstrate “earlier” skills that are required to learn the alphabetic principle.

One precursor skill is letter discrimination. A second, and especially innovative feature, is measurement of the child’s response to a brief opportunity to learn connections between spoken words and print. This aspect of the assessment, which is made feasible by computerization, gets right to the “heart of the matter.” That is, although a major purpose of prereading assessments is to predict learning difficulties, assessments rarely measure learning!

How the assessment works. Each test item begins with 6 opportunities to listen to a spoken word, and select a highlighted target letter. Scoring 5 of 6 correct provides evidence that the child understands the alphabetic principle (given similar results with other words).

If fewer than 5 test trials are correct, we present a teaching component. Teaching involves prompting via showing the correct printed word (see schematic below). Responding correctly with prompts does two things: it shows that the child discriminates the printed letters and it provides an opportunity to learn the sound-print relations. We test learning by removing the prompts, and presenting another six trials.

The current study. The study we are conducting currently has included 60 children aged 3.5 to 5.5 years to date. We have several goals, all related to further developing the assessment so that it can be used in schools (and obtaining funding to accomplish these goals). One goal is to determine the validity of the measure by seeing how it relates to established measures of phonemic awareness and reading skills. A second is to determine whether our assessment may be more sensitive to early skills than typical measures. Sensitivity is a key issue—experts have noted that the tasks, and related instructions, that are often used to assess phonemic awareness are sometimes so complex that they mask children’s skills, rather than detect them. A third goal is to use current data to decide how to make the assessment shorter (e.g., by reducing the number of trials or subtests).

Data collection is ongoing--we still are adding participants—but results to date are quite promising. Especially noteworthy is that, given the opportunity to demonstrate what they know in our receptive task, some children who do not read nonetheless demonstrate knowledge of the alphabetic principle. In other words, our assessment detects critical decoding-related skills before the child can decode. For the children who do not demonstrate the alphabetic principle, nearly all show at least one of the precursor skills--letter discrimination. Many who demonstrate letter discrimination also show that they can learn new sound-letter relations in a small number of trials. Thus, instead of measuring skills in an “all-or-nothing” fashion, the assessment provides meaningful information for children who would simply fail other measures.

To read this article complete with schematics, please go to the January 2017 issue of The Insider newsletter.

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