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$1.4 million grant funds exploration of writing instruction in content-area classrooms for students with disabilities

$1.4 million grant funds exploration of writing instruction in content-area classrooms for students with disabilities

Emma Carberry | December 3, 2019


Last summer, Dr. Alyson Collins and Dr. Stephen Ciullo announced their $1.4 million award from the Institution of Education Sciences (IES) to study and improve writing instruction for elementary school students with disabilities. After wrapping up the first year of data collection on that project, Collins and Ciullo are embarking on their second IES-funded project this fall in partnership with George Mason University.

The new project, Project Explore – Writing in Middle School Science and Social Studies: Exploring Instruction and Support for Students with Disabilities was also awarded $1.4 million between the two funded universities, with a $539,000 sub-award for the Texas State team. This study takes the question from the elementary school study – what instructional practices do teachers use in writing instruction for children with disabilities? - and applies it to a new context.

Dr. Collins (center left) and Dr. Ciullo (center right) will be assisted by their graduate student research team Shade' Smith (far left) and Marcela Rodriguez (far right)
Dr. Collins (center left) and Dr. Ciullo (center right) will be assisted by their graduate student research team Shade' Smith (far left) and Marcela Rodriguez (far right)

Over four years, Collins and Ciullo will observe social studies teachers’ inclusion classrooms in local middle schools to gain a deeper understanding of the instruction students with disabilities are receiving. The choice to study middle schools offers the research team a wider field of knowledge. For instance, in elementary schools, the researchers looked at Special Education and General Education teachers in fourth grade classrooms, while in this study, they will observe teachers who are content specialists and who teach varying ratios of students with and without disabilities.

Another distinction between the elementary school study and this new study is that Collins and Ciullo will take a more longitudinal approach this time around, observing the same cohort of about 30 teachers over two full years to document how their teaching practices grow and evolve before recruiting a new, similarly-sized cohort for the subsequent two years of the project. Their peers at George Mason will use the same approach, but will observe science classrooms instead. Ciullo says they chose to focus on social studies and science because “nationally, writing is embedded within those two subject areas to support content learning, and to promote critical thinking.” Collins adds that as students move into middle school grades, the writing in those content areas increases from what it may have been at an elementary level.

The first cohort in the study has 30 teacher participants from 7 local schools. The goal is to recruit around 100 teacher participants between the Texas State and George Mason sites by the end of the four-year project. Each cohort of teachers will be observed in their classrooms four times a year, totaling eight observations per teacher. During those observations, the researchers are looking for evidence-based responsive practices, or teaching practices that research has shown to be effective for students with disabilities. One such practice is modeling, which Ciullo described when discussing their first study as demonstrating a writing project start to finish for students, while also narrating the cognitive processes that occur while writing (e.g. “Hm, I could put this detail here, but I think I want to expand on this a little bit). Classroom observations will be supplemented with surveys, focus groups, and semi-structured surveys to further contextualize teachers’ instruction. Finally, the team will look at student writing outcomes to gauge the effectiveness of each teacher’s practices.

   

"...we'll get a well-rounded understanding of what teachers are currently doing in order to make informed suggestions in the future. Or, we may uncover gaps in teachers' preparation or expertise for teaching writing to students with disabilities that could be filled in the future."

-Dr. Stephen Ciullo

It is important to Collins and Ciullo that they have a wide variety of data collection tools because, while the field of writing instruction has emphasized a greater need for information about writing instruction in content-area classrooms, survey data is the most common source of information currently available on the subject. So, the researchers aim to collect as many forms of data as possible in order to gain the clearest understanding. “By conducting interviews, the focus groups and the surveys, we’ll get a well-rounded understanding of what teachers are currently doing in order to make informed suggestions in the future,” says Ciullo, “or, we may uncover gaps in teachers’ preparation or expertise for teaching writing to students with disabilities that could be filled in the future.”

And they do intend to fill those gaps. Like their last study, Collins and Ciullo will provide their data and findings to the districts and guide future professional development opportunities for districts based on the instructional strengths and weaknesses they observe in their teacher participants. They also see the observation process itself as being beneficial for classroom teachers who will get an opportunity for reflection and feedback from outside observers, rather than district administration.

Collins and Ciullo have just completed the recruitment process for their first cohort and are currently conducting classroom observations.