Virtual learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic has presented immense challenges for students, especially those from low-income families who may not have access to the necessary technology. Some children stopped going to school altogether and others struggled mightily due to learning problems or poor literacy skills.
Now, help is on the way for hundreds of Texas students who experienced pandemic-related losses in reading skills. A $1 million gift from an anonymous donor to the Texas Center for Learning Disabilities, a multidisciplinary research center led by the University of Houston, will expand a reading intervention and health literacy research project at six middle schools in Houston, Austin and San Antonio. The research project is funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Beginning this fall, as many as 800 students – about double the number originally planned – will be recruited for the project. The cohort will include adolescents who experienced a significant lack of access to schooling throughout the pandemic, or whom teachers or test scores indicate reading is a problem. Half of the eligible students will receive a one year reading intervention with an emphasis on word reading, fluency and comprehension. To test the effectiveness of the intervention, the other half will be identified as at-risk for the schools and can receive what represents standard practice in the schools.
Researchers also will collect information through brain imaging and genetic and cognitive testing to better understand why some students improve their reading skills while others do not.
“This important research project will help many children who, by no fault of their own, have struggled to keep up with their academics during the pandemic. If the intervention is successful, and we are optimistic it will be, then many more young students across our state can get the help they need,” said Renu Khator, University of Houston president. “We are incredibly grateful to the generous donor for seeing value in research that will truly touch lives during this challenging time.”
Unfortunately, there is no shortage of poor readers at these high-risk schools. Average reading scores for most students fall below the 25th percentile nationwide and most have not passed the STAAR test, the Texas assessment of reading skills. For a majority of the students, English isn’t their first language which poses special challenges for intervention.
Recognizing that communities of color have experienced significantly higher rates of COVID-19 infection and death, a health literacy curriculum will be embedded as part of the reading intervention that addresses COVID-19 knowledge and vaccination. Despite the disparities, vaccine hesitancy remains high in these communities, partly because adults may not have access to accurate information. Jack Fletcher, associate chair of the UH Department of Psychology and principal investigator of the project, is concerned these problems are likely to persist as schools reopen this fall.
“The curriculum includes home-based family activities that the students can do with their parents to expand their knowledge about pandemics and vaccines and support overall family health literacy,” said Fletcher, the Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished University Chair. “We’ve found that schools are typically institutions that parents trust, so we’re hopeful they’ll absorb accurate information with their children and make informed choices about their health.”
The Texas Center for Learning Disabilities, which includes researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and UT-Austin, is overseen by the UH Department of Psychology and the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation and Statistics (TIMES). Following the intervention, the researchers look forward to allowing more schools and community groups access to the curriculum and results, expanding the impact.
“The work being done to address these timely issues is important and we are proud that this donor has chosen UH to help solve significant issues for Houston and beyond. We are thankful to this generous supporter for amplifying the impact of this intervention,” said Eloise Brice, vice president for university advancement.