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The Q&A: Stephanie Al Otaiba

In this week’s Q&A, we interview Stephanie Al Otaiba, professor of teaching and learning at Southern Methodist University.

Stephanie Al Otaiba is professor and Patsy and Ray Caldwell Centennial Chair in Teaching and Learning at Harold Simmons School of Education and Human Development at Southern Methodist University.

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

Stephanie Al Otaiba is a professor of teaching and learning at Southern Methodist University. Her work focuses on early language acquisition, literacy interventions, disabilities and diverse learners.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: Tell me more about your research regarding early language acquisition and why it’s important to start early.

Stephanie Al Otaiba: Research shows that once kids are in third and fourth grade it’s a lot more difficult to remediate reading problems, which sometimes go on to be classified as disabilities. But early intervention can help kids before they fall behind. In many cases, if we start very early, we can discern who are the children who have true learning disabilities from children who just haven’t had the right kind of instruction.

Trib+Edu: How common is it for those two categories to get mixed up?

Al Otaiba: It’s common. The statistics show that fewer than 50 percent of children that are in urban high-need schools are reading on grade level by fourth grade. Classrooms are getting more and more diverse, which brings more heterogeneity to the classroom. Teachers need to have an array of strategies that they can use to target the needs of different children.

If we have children that are emerging bilinguals, ideally, they will be taught in both languages but primarily in their native language until they learn how letters and sounds work. Children that are coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, many of them have had less exposure to rich academic language or had fewer opportunities to read at home, and so may come to school with different levels of preparedness.

If you work hard in pre-K and kindergarten to close the language gap, then these students will be better prepared once they get to second and third grade. If we get kids to third grade and they’re two grade levels behind, it’s really hard for them to catch up.

Trip+Edu: How do you deal with students of the same age group who are at different stages in their reading comprehension?

Al Otaiba: What we are able to do is help teachers use assessment data to think about which children might need two doses of small instruction that’s right at their level.

Some schools do a great job of involving paraprofessionals or a bilingual aid. But many schools are so resource-needy that it is really is falling to teachers. They are the front line of defense.

We also have many children with disabilities that spend a large part of their instructional day in general education classrooms. There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s important that children who need extra help and time to practice get that intensive instruction in a small-group format. It's also important that kids coming to school with stronger preparation have opportunities for enrichment.

Schools right now are spending a lot of time assessing children and there’s nothing wrong with assessments, as long as they are being used to tailor instruction to the level of individual children within classrooms. One way we sometimes get it wrong is not targeting the assessments close enough to the curriculum to inform what the instruction needs to be.

Trib+Edu: What does effective early intervention look like?

Al Otaiba: I was in a second-grade classroom recently where a teacher was handing out worksheets related to prefixes and suffixes without explaining the “re” in “review” means we do something again or the “un” in “unflavorful” means it’s not flavorful.

We need to work from an early age to have dialogues with kids about books and ask lots and lots of questions that aren’t just about who is the character in the book but what is the character doing and have you ever done anything like the character? This really builds listening and comprehension skills.

Trib+Edu: Tell me about some of the outcomes you have observed in your research.

Al Otaiba: I’ve been conducting a program now for over a decade that is related to early literacy intervention work. We found the earlier we provide very intensive reading support to struggling students, the percentage of kids that end up being classified as reading disabled is vastly reduced.

Once kids are reading on grade level, a good number of them will continue to stay on grade level, although there may be some need to watch them around fourth grade, when the amount of reading increases and we’re expecting them to read on their own. 

Trib+Edu: Tell me about the role of teachers in early language acquisition.

Al Otaiba: Given how busy teachers are, making sure they have curriculum in their hands that are evidence-based is important. Some schools are using curriculum that might be effective if you have a population of kids that already know how to read. But once kids get past fourth grade, if they don’t know their phonics or prefixes and suffixes, they’re going to be slowed down and that will prevent them from being able to read content area like social studies or science or even math.

We need to help teachers understand they don’t need to have every child on page two at the same time, especially if the next day they’re on page three, whether they’ve mastered it or not. We need to help help administrators understand the need to differentiate pacing for kids to be able to master skills. We need to make sure our teachers are adequately trained, staffed and supported to be able to provide good evidence-based instructions for all kids.

Trib+Edu: What’s the big picture? Why is early language acquisition important?

Al Otaiba: The stakes are just so high for public schools and charter schools, where we really need to provide strong early year support in reading and language skills. We know the rates of employment are related to how well somebody is educated.

The bottom line is to intervene early and pay close attention to whether kids are benefitting from the curriculum. For those that aren’t, we have to provide them extra intervention and support early and relentlessly until they get closer to grade level. There’s always going to be children that have learning disabilities, be it in reading or writing or math. But the percentage of kids that are not reading on grade level is not at all consistent of the prevalence of children with true disabilities.

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