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Decreasing reading differences in children from disadvantaged backgrounds: the effects of an early literacy intervention.

While 45% of fourth graders not eligible to receive free and reduced price lunch scored at or above proficient in reading, only 17% of eligible fourth graders scored at or above proficient in reading (NAEP, 2009). These data are especially disheartening given that 21% of America's children live below the federal poverty level, and 42% live in low-income homes (White, Chau, Aratani, 2010). Being raised in poverty puts children at increased risk not only in reading, but for a wide range of problems, such as lower achievement, repeating a grade, eligibility for special education, and dropping out of high school (Herring, McGrath, & Buckley, 2007; Oh & Reynolds, 2008). Although family income and education, per se, do not directly shape children's achievement, there is a significant and positive association between family SES and a number of home and school ecological processes predictive of children's later language and reading abilities. Furthermore, children who experience reading difficulties early in their school career continue to struggle as they advance in grade (Catts et al., 2008; Young et al., 2002) resulting in an increasing gap in skills between successful and struggling readers (Francis et al., 1996; Juel, 1988; Torgeson &Burgess, 1998). Hence, children from low income homes are disproportionately at-risk for developing persistent learning problems that have long-term detrimental outcomes.

A number of reasons have been provided to explain the poor academic performance of children from low SES backgrounds. For instance, the results of a large body of research indicate that children from low SES backgrounds do not have the same opportunities to engage in literacy-related activities as children from higher SES backgrounds (Bradley et al., 2001; Pianta et al., 2002). The quality and number of shared reading activities is lower, as well as trips to the library and exposure to varied vocabulary and syntax (Baker, Serpell, & Sonnenschein, 1995; Goldenberg, 2001; Roberts, Jurgens, & Burchinal, 2005; Hart & Risley, 1995). Preschool programs serving children from low SES backgrounds provide varied access to print, and fewer opportunities to engage in literacy-related activities (McGill-Franzen, Lanford, & Adams; 2002). Last, researchers investigating preschool teachers' beliefs regarding the importance of teaching specific skills found that teachers serving children from low SES backgrounds rated social-emotional skills significantly higher than language, literacy, and early math skills (Kowalski, Pretti-Fonczak, & Johnson, 2001). Outcomes for children from low SES backgrounds do not appear to be much better when they enter grade school as they are more likely to attend larger schools with a higher student-to-teacher ratio, high teacher turn-over, and be taught by a teacher who is not certified in the subject taught and has less than three years teaching experience (Goldhaber, 2002; Lupton, 2005; Nye, Konstantopoulos, Hedges, 2004; Rowan, Correnti, & Miller, 2002; Tajalli & Opheim, 2005).

Given the differential resources and complexity of home and neighborhood environments in low SES communities, it is not surprising that these children frequently have low phonological awareness skills (Dickenson & Snow, 1987; Smith & Dixon, 1995). Phonological awareness, an important precursor to reading, is the understanding that words are composed of individual sounds that can be manipulated (Simmons & Kame'enui, 1998). Results from a large body of independent research indicate that skills in phonological awareness directly affect the ease of reading acquisition and subsequent reading achievement (National Reading Panel, 2000; Whitehurst & Lonigan, 2000). Moreover, phonological awareness can be systematically and effectively taught to young children (Nancollis, Lawrie, & Dodd, 2005), with instruction being the most effective when taught to children in the early grades, such as preschool, kindergarten, and first grade (Schuele & Boudreau, 2008). Effective instructional strategies include rhyme detection (e.g., asking children which of three verbally presented words rhyme; Majsterek, Shorr, & Erion, 2000); blending (e.g., teaching children to blend three sounds together to make a word; O'Connor, Jenkins, Leicester, & Slocum, 1993); and segmenting (e.g., identifying individual sounds in words, such as /m/ /a/ /t/ in "mat"; O'Connor, Jenkins, Leicester, & Slocum, 1993). Still, the relation between SES, phonological awareness, and subsequent reading achievement has been the focus of only a few studies. Bowey (1995) examined differences in phonological sensitivity and reading achievement in children from high and low SES backgrounds. Measures of phonological awareness, and verbal and performance ability were administered to children in preschool, and later at the end of first grade. Strong differences were evident between SES groups on preschool verbal and performance ability, first grade phonological awareness, and first grade reading achievement. Differences between SES groups continued to be significant even when verbal and performance ability were statistically controlled. However, when measures of phonological awareness were entered as covariates, SES differences in first grade reading skills were no longer significant suggesting that differences in phonological awareness skills may account for the reading achievement gap between low and high SES groups. Similarly, Raz and Bryant (1990) investigated the role of SES in children's development of phonological awareness and reading skills. Again, significant differences were reported on phonological awareness measures between SES groups. When performance on phonological awareness tasks was controlled, however, no differences were found between the groups on reading tests one year later. These results illustrate that differences in reading achievement between children from low and high SES backgrounds may be explained by differences in phonological awareness skills in preschool and kindergarten.

The results of these studies and their proposed implications illustrate a "Mediating Factor Model," suggesting that SES may indirectly affect reading achievement by its impact on the acquisition, or lack thereof, of phonological awareness (Noble, Farah, & McCandliss, 2006). That is, knowledge of phonological awareness may decrease SES-related differences in reading for young children. The correlational nature of these studies, however, does not permit causal statements regarding phonological awareness, or lack thereof, as an explanation for differences in reading achievement between children from different SES groups. Thus, it is unclear whether phonological awareness, and not some other variable(s), may explain some of the differences in reading performance between children from low and high SES backgrounds.

This study expands upon a previous study investigating the intervention validity of the Phoneme Segmentation Fluency task (PSF) of the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS; Hagans, 2008). Results from the previous study indicate that instruction informed by frequent monitoring of students' phonological awareness skills, as measured by the PSF task, leads to improved phonological awareness skills to the extent that the phonological awareness skills of children from low SES backgrounds were comparable to children from middle-high SES backgrounds after 10 weeks of instruction. Although phonological awareness is an important precursor to learning to read, it is not a critical reading skill in isolation, and little evidence exists on whether gains in phonological awareness made by children from low SES backgrounds in response to phonological awareness instruction translate to increased oral reading fluency skills comparable to children from higher SES backgrounds. This is especially relevant in light of the research conducted by Good and colleagues (2002) on the predictive validity of the DIBELS measures as indicators of risk in achieving subsequent literacy outcomes.

The focus of this study was to examine whether differences in the oral reading fluency skills of children from low and high SES backgrounds decrease as a result of participating in an early literacy intervention primarily centered on explicit phonological awareness instruction. If differences in reading skills between children from low and high SES backgrounds decrease due to preexisting group differences in phonological awareness skills, instruction in phonological awareness should decrease reading differences between the two groups. Furthermore, the reading performance of children from lower SES backgrounds would increase and "catch up" to children from higher SES backgrounds as a function of receiving instruction in phonological awareness. As a function of receiving the phonological awareness intervention, quantitative indicators of risk related to later literacy outcomes were examined.



Seventy-five first-grade students from three elementary schools in a small city in the Pacific Northwest participated in the study. Selection of participants was predominantly based on participants attending a school with at least 50% or more students receiving free or reduced-price lunch. School 1 served as the low SES intervention and control site where all three first grade classrooms participated in the study. Students within each classroom from whom parent consent was obtained were randomly assigned to either an intervention group receiving the phonological awareness instruction (n=26) or a control group (n=24). Approximately 58% of students in School 1 received free or reduced-price lunch; 88% were considered White or Caucasian; 5% Hispanic; 4% Native American; 2% African American; and 1% Asian American. Fifteen children from two different classrooms at School 2 and 10 children from three different classrooms at School 3 served as a high SES comparison group, with approximately 3% (School 2) and 28% (School 3) of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch. Ethnicity for School 1 and 2 was as follows: 93% White or Caucasian; 4% Asian American; 1% Hispanic; 1% Native American; and 1% African American (School 2); 92% White or Caucasian; 5% Hispanic; 1% African American; 1% Native American; and 1% Asian American (School 3). One participating student in School 1 was identified as a student with an intellectual disability and received full-inclusion special education services. Although the student participated in an intervention group, her data were not included in the analysis. No other participating first graders were identified as having a disability and/or requiring supplemental instructional services.

The existing language arts curriculum used in the district was Scott Foresman's Celebrate Reading (1997) basal reading program and was taught by assigned classroom teachers. Stein, Johnson, and Gutlohn (1999) describe the first grade Celebrate Reading program as emphasizing an implicit phonics approach to teaching reading such that context (e.g., whole words, pictures) is used to teach letter-sound correspondence. Participants were not provided supplemental reading curricula or instruction aside from books selected by students from the school library.

Dependent Measures

Three dependent measures were used to calculate phonological awareness and beginning reading skills: (a) DIBELS PSF and (b) Nonsense Word Fluency (NWF) tasks, and (c) Oral Reading Fluency (ORF). Repeated measures with the PSF task were used to estimate the slope of learning of phonological awareness skills. Each participating student was administered one PSF probe weekly throughout the duration of the study. Administration of the PSF task entails asking the student to say the sounds in a series of three- or four-phoneme words presented verbally. For example, a student is asked to identify the sounds in the word "shop," with the correct response being /sh/ /o/ /p/. After the student responds, another three- or four-phoneme word is verbally presented. The number of correct phonemes produced in one minute is the final score. Twelve alternate forms of the PSF measure were used in the study. The alternate-form reliability of a single PSF probe is .88, with multiple probe (e.g., three probes) reliability of .96 (Good, Gruba, & Kaminski, 2002). The concurrent criterion-related validity with the Woodcock-Johnson Psycho-Educational Battery Total Reading cluster score is .54, and .65 with the Metropolitan Readiness Test. The predictive criterion-related validity is .62 with the Metropolitan Readiness Test, and .68 with the Stanford Diagnostic Reading Test.

The NWF measure was used to measure children's alphabetic principle skills at the start and conclusion of the study, and at follow-up. Administration of the NWF measure consists of presenting an 8.5" x 11" sheet of paper with randomly ordered vowel-consonant and consonant-vowel-consonant nonsense words (e.g., tob, siv, ov) and asking the student to produce the sounds of each letter in the word, or read the whole word. For example, for the stimulus word "sup", the correct response would be /s/ /u/ /p/ or "sup." The total number of correct letter-sounds produced in one minute is calculated. Three alternate forms of the NWF task were used in the study. The alternate-form reliability of a single NWF probe is .92, and .98 for multiple probes (e.g., three probes; Good, Gruba, & Kaminski, 2002). The concurrent criterion-related validity is .59 with the PSF task; predictive criterion-related validity is .66 with the Woodcock-Johnson Psycho-Educational Battery Total Reading cluster score; and .82 with Oral Reading Fluency (Good, Gruba, & Kaminski, 2002).

ORF measures were used to calculate beginning reading skills at the end of the study and at follow-up. Pre-test ORF data were not collected due to the September start of the study when most first graders are beginning to read connected text. The Test of Reading Fluency (TORF; Children's Educational Services, 1987), a version of ORF, was used in the study. Students are asked to read aloud a first-grade reading passage for one minute. The total number of words read correctly in one minute is recorded. Test-retest reliability of ORF tasks range from .92 to .97, and alternate-form reliability of different reading passages from the same level range from .89 to .94 (Tindal, Marston, & Deno, 1983). The criterion-related validity of ORF passages with common tests of reading achievement such as the Stanford Diagnostic Reading Test, Woodcock Reading Mastery Test, and the Reading Comprehension subtest from the Peabody Individual Achievement Test range from .73 to .91 (Children's Educational Services, 1987).

Independent Variables

Two independent variables were examined in this study: (a) SES, and (b) instructional group. Two covariates also were examined: (a) initial phonological awareness skills as measured by the PSF task, and (b) initial alphabetic principle skills as measured by the NWF task.

Socioeconomic status. Parents of participating students completed a brief family survey regarding family income, education, and occupation to describe and verify group differences in SES. Survey responses are summarized in Table 1. Based on poverty guidelines by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2009), incomes below $22,050 for a family of four are considered below the poverty line. The Nam-Powers Socioeconomic Index (Nam & Terrie, 1993), which ranks primary occupation on a scale of 0 to 100 based on the median level of education and median income associated with that occupation, was used to form an SES composite based on survey information. Mean SES scores for each group were calculated and used to compare between-group differences in SES.

Instructional Group. Children were provided instruction in either phonological awareness (PAI) or math (M) for 10 consecutive weeks as a supplement to the general reading and math instruction provided in the classroom. In the PAI group, six groups of 3-7 children received explicit phonological awareness instruction four days a week for 20-25 minutes a day based on the Phonemic Awareness in Young Children curriculum (PAEYC; Adams, Foorman, Lundberg, & Beeler, 1997). PAEYC is an empirically validated program (Foorman, Francis, Beeler, Winikates, & Fletcher, 1997) designed to develop the early literacy skills of children in kindergarten and first grade. A variety of early literacy skills are introduced, practiced, and extended utilizing activities that are engaging to young children, and promote active participation (Adams et al., 1997). Skills targeted in daily lessons included (a) identifying initial and final phonemes; (b) segmenting and blending phonemes; (c) counting and adding phonemes; (d) subtracting initial and final phonemes; and (e) letter-sound correspondence.

Daily intervention scripts were developed by the researcher based on principles of effective instructional design (e.g., Kame'enui & Simmons, 1990), including signaling, precorrection, using manipulatives to represent concepts, reviewing previously taught skills, testing procedures at the group-and individual-level, using a range of examples, and introducing a limited number of phonetically similar phonemes and letter-sounds in a lesson. For example, an instructional lesson implemented during the second week of the study included displaying an 8 1/2" x 11" piece of paper to students that included 5-6 color pictures beginning with different initial sounds, such as "pencil," "bird," "dog," and "chair." Correction procedures were included on intervention scripts, as well as suggestions on varying activities using simpler or more complex words depending on children's progress. For example, intervention scripts included a list of words beginning with a target sound without accompanying pictures, or teacher wording on expanding the activity by asking the children to look around the classroom for items that begin with a target sound.

Instructional groupings and skill emphases were modified based on weekly individual progress monitoring data. Informal observations of instruction were conducted daily by the first author to gauge children's engagement in instructional activities and teachers' adherence to intervention scripts. Approximately 80% of instructional activities were spent on onset recognition, phoneme segmentation, and blending skills. Letter-sound correspondence accounted for approximately 20% of instructional effort.

To ensure increases in phonological awareness were due to the implemented phonological awareness intervention and not the additional time, energy, and attention children in the low SES intervention group received, children in the low SES control group were provided small group math instruction. Children whose parents did not consent to participating in the study were provided math and/or language arts worksheets by their teacher to complete independently during the study's instructional and assessment activities. Children in the middle-high SES comparison group did not receive additional or supplemental instruction in reading or math.


The study was conducted over 12 weeks beginning the third week in September and ending the second week of December, with follow-up occurring the second week of May. Data were collected on all participating children at both the intervention/control and comparison school sites. During the first week of the study and prior to beginning instruction, the PSF and NWF tasks were administered to all children. In addition, parents/guardians of participating children completed a family survey regarding education, occupation, and income. The phonological awareness and math instruction was delivered to participants in the low SES intervention and control groups during weeks 2-11. The phonological awareness skills of all participants (e.g., intervention, control, and comparison groups) also were measured weekly during this time using alternate PSF probes. At the conclusion of the study (Week 12), one alternate probe from both the PSF and NWF task, and one ORF first grade reading probe from the TORF (Children's Educational Services, 1987) were administered to all participants. At follow-up, one alternate NWF probe and one alternate ORF first grade reading probe from the TORF were administered.

For children participating in the low SES intervention group, PSF progress monitoring data were used to guide instructional activities and group children according to skill levels. The researcher and PAI interventionists met twice monthly to review progress monitoring data and discuss children's response to instruction. If a child's performance did not increase or remained stable after two data points (e.g., two weeks), the researcher and interventionists brainstormed ideas on how to increase the child's performance. Approximately 25% of children (n=6) in the PAI group were moved to a smaller instructional group (e.g., 3 children per group) where previously taught skills were re-introduced; additional guided practice was provided; and skill mastery was achieved prior to introducing a new skill.

Phonological awareness and math interventionists included six master's and doctoral-level graduate students in education who had experience working with young children and had received training and conducted student teaching in designing and delivering evidence-based literacy instruction. The researcher met with the interventionists for a total of 6 hours prior to the start of the study to review intervention materials and curricula, practice the delivery of instructional activities, and plan behavior management strategies. Data collectors consisted of five additional graduate students in education and one person from the community trained in education and psychology. Training on the administration and scoring of the PSF, NWF, and ORF tasks included two, 2-hour sessions reviewing the measurement tools, watching and discussing a video demonstration, and practicing in pairs. Inter-rater reliability was calculated immediately following data collection training, week 5 of the study, and at follow-up. Agreement was defined as each time a data collector and independent scorer consistently recorded that a sound or word provided was correct or incorrect. Disagreement was scored each time either a data collector or independent scorer recorded that a sound or word provided was correct or incorrect. Inter-observer agreement was calculated by dividing the agreement score by agreement plus disagreement scores and multiplying by 100. Agreement between data collectors was .90 and above across measurement instruments at each reliability check in the study.


Descriptive statistics for independent variables and pre-test PSF and NWF variables, SES, and posttest and adjusted means on PSF, NWF, ORF, and ORF at follow-up by group are provided in Table 2. The low SES intervention and low SES control groups were not significantly different on any of the above variables. Thus, random assignment was effective in creating similar groups. The two low SES groups were significantly different from the middle-high SES comparison group, but not significantly different from each other, on PSF and NWF at pretest, and SES. This finding is consistent with previous research examining literacy achievement differences between children from low and middle-high SES groups.

Analysis of Covariance (ANCOVA) was used to examine the effects of the phonological awareness instruction on children's subsequent reading skills. Participants' initial NWF skills were used as a covariate to adjust ORF post-test scores. An interaction between NWF pretest performance and group was present, F(2, 69)=5.62, p<.05, [[eta].sup.2]=.142, indicating that instructional effects on oral reading fluency skills were dependent on participants' beginning NWF skills. To address the problem of heterogeneity of regression slopes, NWF-pre scores were divided into risk categories, as described by Good, Simmons, Kame'enui, Kaminski, and Wallin (2002), and a two-factor ANOVA was conducted to test the main effect of instruction on ORF for participants classified as "at risk," "some risk," and "low risk" at the beginning of the study based on initial NWF skills. Participants scoring less than 13 letter-sounds per minute on NWF-pre were coded as "at risk" of not achieving goal levels on ORF; those scoring between 14-24 letter-sounds per minute on NWF-pre were coded as at "some risk" of not achieving NWF goal levels; and children scoring 25 or more letter-sounds per minute were coded as "low risk" of not achieving ORF goal levels. No significant interaction effect was present (p=.51) thus, main effects were examined. Although no main effect was found for instruction on ORF, F(2, 72)=2.16, p=.12, [[eta].sup.2]=.061, a significant effect was found for risk status, F(2, 72)=5.73, p<.01, [[eta].sup.2] =.15 indicating that differences between groups may be due to participants' initial performance on NWF. ANOVA results are displayed in Table 3.

According to Good et al (2002), children in the middle of first grade scoring less than eight words per minute on a grade-level ORF passage are considered "at risk" of not meeting goal levels; children performing eight to 20 words per minute are considered at "some risk," and those scoring over 20 words per minute are at "low risk" of not meeting goal levels on ORF. Post-hoc analyses revealed significant differences between the performances of children considered to "at-risk" of not meeting goal level outcomes on ORF and children considered at "low risk" at the end of the intervention (p<.01). In addition, significant differences were found at post-test between children considered at "some risk" and those considered at "low risk" (p<.01). No significant differences in performance were found between children labeled at "some risk" and "at risk" (p=.35). Of children in the low SES group who participated in the phonological awareness instructional group, 46% were classified as "at risk" at the end of the study compared to 58% of children who did not receive the phonological awareness instruction. No children in the low SES control group reached "low risk" status, whereas 12% of children from the low SES group who received the early literacy intervention were classified as 'low risk' by the end of the study.

When examining follow-up ORF scores using ANCOVA, again, a significant interaction effect was present between NWF at pretest and group at follow-up, F(2, 59)=3.40, p<.05, [[eta].sup.2]=.103. A two-factor ANOVA was conducted to test the effects of instruction at follow-up 24 weeks later based on participants' initial NWF risk status. Table 4 displays the results from the ANOVA on ORF follow-up scores. No significant interaction effect was present (p=.55) thus, main effects were examined. Main effects for group were found at follow-up, F(2, 72)=9.10, p< 01, [[eta].sup.2]=.245, with the high SES comparison group performing significantly higher than the two low SES groups. On post-hoc analyses, mean group differences was largest between the low SES control group and middle-high SES comparison group (e.g., -33.60; p<.01) and between the low SES intervention group and middle-high SES comparison group (e.g., -24.34; p<.01. Significant group differences were not found between the low SES intervention group and l Table4 control group at follow-up (e.g., 9.26; p=.28).

Main effects also were present for risk status, F(2, 72)=6.36, p<.01, [[eta].sup.2]=.185. On post-hoc analyses, significant differences were found between the three risk status groups, p<.05. According to Good et al. (2000), children scoring less than 20 words per minute on a grade-level reading passage at the end of first grade are "at risk" of not meeting goal levels on ORF, children scoring between 20-40 words per minute are at "some risk," and those scoring over 40 words per minute are "low risk" (Good et al., 2000). The percentage of children classified as "at risk" at the end of first grade was as follows: 50% of children in the low SES intervention group 55% of children in the low SES control group, and 14% of children in the high SES comparison, group. Of children considered at "some risk," 21% were in the low SES intervention group; 40% were in the low SES control group; and 42% were in the high SES comparison group. The percentage of participants classified as "low risk" was 29% of children in the low SES intervention group, 5% of children in the low SES control group, and 42% in age high SES comparison group. Descriptive statistics for ORF post-test and follow-up for all three groups by risk status are prTable5 in Table 5.


Reading researchers consistently report that young children from lower SES backgrounds typically have lower levels of literacy skill upon school entry than children from middle and higher SES backgrounds. Results of research investigating variables that may account for differences in the reading achievement of children from lower and higher SES backgrounds indicate that this gap in literacy skills may be explained by the presence, or absence, of phonological awareness skills. Indeed, correlational studies show that varying levels of phonological awareness skills in young children may explain differences in reading performance between SES groups (Bowey, 1995; Raz & Bryant, 1990). Evidence from the present study showing that the implementation of systematic phonological awareness instruction decreases SES-related differences in early literacy skills, specifically phonological awareness, is noteworthy. Indeed, the phonological awareness skills of children in the low SES intervention group were significantly higher compared to the phonological awareness skills of children in the low SES control group, and these children were more likely to be categorized as at "low risk" of not meeting goal levels in reading in the future. Similar results were found at follow-up with 29% of children in the low SES intervention group considered at "low risk" compared to 5% of children in the control group, and closer to the 42% of children in the high-SES comparison group.

Based on the results of this study, children from low-income backgrounds who achieved adequate levels of phonological awareness by the middle of first grade did not demonstrate reading skills (i.e., oral reading fluency) comparable to children from the middle-high SES comparison group. These results may lend support to the negligible research on the effectiveness of phonological awareness instruction in increasing the literacy skills of struggling readers beyond the primary grades (Bhat, Griffin, Sindelar, 2003). That is, increased phonological awareness may not consequently result in fluent reading in connected text, especially for children at the end of first grade. Possible hypotheses regarding the results of this study are that the phonological awareness intervention was 1) delivered too late, 2) narrowly focused, and 3) too brief.

Results of research indicate that to make the greatest impact on children's early reading acquisition, first grade reading instruction should be preceded by focused, well-implemented kindergarten instruction (Hiebert, Pearson, Taylor, Richardson, & Paris, 1998; Hiebert & Taylor, 2000). If intense, systematic phonological awareness instruction is delivered in kindergarten or preschool, children may enter first grade with acceptable levels of phonological awareness instead of acquiring phonological awareness and beginning reading skills simultaneously (Magnuson, Ruhm, & Waldfogel, 2007; Scanlon, Vellutino, Small, Fanuele, & Sweeney, 2005; Vellutino & Scanlon, 2001). Considering evidence regarding differences in instructional quality and teacher experience in schools serving children from low and middle-high SES communities (Arnold & Doctoroff, 2003), children in the middle-high SES comparison group may have received high-quality literacy instruction in kindergarten, as well as a higher level of exposure at home, which may account for their stronger literacy skills upon entering first grade, as measured by their pre-and post-test performance on the study's literacy measures. Thus, the continued gap in reading skills between children in the low SES intervention group and middle-high SES comparison group at the end of the study and at follow-up may be another illustration of the "Matthew Effect" (Stanovich, 1986). Thus, it may be imperative to intervene early to make the greatest impact on the reading trajectories of children, especially those at-risk of developing reading problems. These results may also provide further evidence that increased phonological awareness may not lead to increased reading skills as children advance in grade.

A second hypothesis for the study's results is that the implemented intervention was too narrowly focused on phonological awareness instruction. As stated earlier, 80% of instructional effort was devoted to increasing students' phonological awareness instruction, and 20% to alphabetic principle skills. Implementing a more "balanced approach" earlier in the intervention may have more immediately increased children's subsequent oral reading fluency skills, as well as provided a backdrop for later reading instruction (Pressley, Roehrig, Bogner, Raphael, & Dolezal, 2002). Instruction that incorporates a variety of skills and strategies (e.g., word recognition skills, vocabulary development, comprehension strategies), using multiple instructional approaches (e.g., explicit, teacher-directed instruction; guided and independent reading; "process" writing and spelling instruction), with varied materials (e.g., predictable and decodeable texts, trade books, basal readers, Zygouris-Coe, 2000) may more successfully increase children's reading skills. Furthermore, the intervention may not have been implemented long enough to result in a meaningful decrease in reading differences between the low SES intervention and high SES comparison groups. Vaughn, Linan-Thompson, and Hickman (2003) found that struggling second graders who initially received supplemental reading instruction for 10 weeks, and were subsequently provided another 10 weeks of intervention made substantial growth in reading. Thus, a longer intervention period may have been necessary; however, decreasing the size of the instructional groups and/or increasing instructional time may have also been effective (Wanzek & Vaughn, 2008). Varying levels of intervention intensity may be even more important for children from low SES backgrounds who often enter school with fewer literacy-related experiences and lower overall literacy skills (Chatterji, 2006), and who may not respond to implemented interventions as quickly or significantly without considering students' individual instructional needs.

Another explanation for the effects of the phonological awareness instruction on students' reading skills for children in the low SES intervention group is that the long-term effects of the phonological awareness instruction may come into play later. It is possible that the reading trajectories of children who participated in the phonological awareness intervention changed but meaningful differences, comparable to children in the middle-high SES comparison group, will be more evident the following school year or later when these children have acquired the necessary decoding skills to become fluent readers (Lerkkanen, Rasku-Puttonen, & Aunola, & Nurmi, 2004). Thus, a measure of word reading at follow-up may have more adequately differentiated the reading skills of children in all three groups. A study conducted by Speece & Ritchey (2005) indicates that first graders identified as at risk read on average half the number of words in a 1-minute reading passage compared to typically achieving first graders, and experience growth at approximately half the rate. Thus, the ORF measure may not have adequately captured the word reading skills of children in the low SES intervention group compared to the low SES control group at the end of the study and at follow-up. However, these results may lend support to the negligible research regarding the effectiveness of phonological awareness instruction for struggling readers beyond the primary grades (Bhat, Griffin, Sindelar, 2003). That is, increased phonological awareness may not lead to increased reading performance, especially for students after first grade.


The results of this study should be interpreted with consideration to threats of external and internal validity. Participants in this study were predominately white and English-speaking, residing in a small city. Thus, participants may not be representative of and conclusions may not generalize to persons from non-white ethnic and racial backgrounds, whose first language is not English. Although participants in this study were purposely chosen based on their SES and statistical procedures indicated that significant SES differences were evident between the lower and middle-high SES groups, children in the lower SES intervention and control groups may not have adequately represented children from low SES backgrounds. Family questionnaires revealed that some low SES participants lived in homes that may be considered middle SES. According to survey responses,16% of families in both the low SES intervention and control groups included a college graduate, and 7% and 25%, respectively, had incomes of $50,000 or higher per year. Although the lower SES intervention and control groups may not adequately represent children from low SES backgrounds who are of primary concern in narrowing the achievement gap, it should be noted that, based on poverty guidelines set forth by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2009), 60% of participants (n=13) in the low SES intervention group lived in households below the poverty line, as well as 67% of participants (n=16) in the low SES control group. However, only 12% of participants (n=3) in the middle-high SES comparison group lived in households below the poverty threshold. Nonetheless, replication of the study with a more homogenous group of participants may result in differing outcomes.

While a child's family income may be a marker of academic risk, it does not convey meaningful information regarding the impact of the home environment in promoting achievement. Results of several studies (e.g., Hart & Risley, 1995; McLoyd, 1998; Payne, Whitehurst, & Angell, 1994) were due to the manipulation of educators and known to have a causal impact on student achievement. Thus, the SES measure employed in this study may have excluded important aspects of SES that relate to children's attainment of literacy skills, and may not have adequately delineated high and low SES participants into groups on important SES-achievement indicators. Future studies should include SES measures that assess home processes that directly relate to literacy outcomes, such as quality of shared reading practices, exposure to a rich and varied vocabulary, and experience with an array of print materials.

Two threats to the internal validity of this study are present: 1) data collectors were not blind to subjects' group membership, and 2) quantitative intervention integrity data were not collected. Although data collectors were not knowledgeable of the specific skills taught in the low SES intervention group, data collectors may have observed subjects entering and/or exiting instructional groups for data collection purposes. Thus, data collectors' knowledge of subjects' group membership may have biased the administration and scoring of dependent measures, and is a potential threat to the validity of the study's findings. The second threat to the internal validity of the study is a lack of intervention integrity data collected. Although instructional groups were informally observed by the first researcher, and feedback was provided to interventionists based on observed implementation of scripted lessons, to attribute the study's effects directly to the implemented intervention, quantitative data are needed to validate the assumption of a causal effect between the implemented intervention and the dependent variables (Shadish, Cook, & Campbell, 2002). Thus, a significant limitation to the current study's findings is a lack of collection of systematic intervention integrity data. As a result, causal statements regarding the effects of the phonological awareness intervention on subjects' early literacy skills should be made with caution. That is, it is unknown how much, if any, groups varied in the delivery of the scripted phonological awareness intervention lessons which may further explain children's response, or lack thereof, to the implemented intervention.


Future studies investigating the potential of phonological awareness instruction in decreasing SES differences in reading should consider a number of variables. Specifically, researchers should ensure that participants attending schools considered primarily comprised of children from low SES backgrounds, based on the number of children receiving free or reduced price, are indeed from low SES backgrounds. Thus, measures of family income, education, and occupation as well as home factors related to literacy outcomes should be included. In addition, future studies should include participants from more homogenous low and middle-high SES levels, as well as different ethnic, racial, and native language backgrounds to more adequately reflect all children who may be at-risk for developing reading difficulties. Recent measures of intelligence also should be included to ensure instruments used are based on the most up-to-date research on the assessment of cognitive abilities, reflect demographic changes, and are psychometrically sound.

Also important is the inclusion of quantitative measures of intervention integrity to draw definitive conclusions regarding the efficacy of specific intervention procedures and strategies to child outcomes. Intervention integrity measures such as systematic observations that include a checklist of scripted procedures are recommended. Data collectors blind and unsusceptible to participants' group membership may also be important to ensure intervention effects are directly related to the implemented intervention. Future studies also should consider the inclusion of measures of word identification as an indicator of reading skill, especially if children's subsequent reading skills, based on initial literacy skills, may be more effectively measured with isolated word reading than reading in connected text.


The passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (PL-108-446) and the nation-wide focus on implementing Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) to identify and intervene early with at-risk learners have large and significant implications for the practice of school psychology. Appropriate identification models and systematic use of instructionally relevant data are key to effectively identifying students who are struggling or are at-risk of not meeting goal levels of literacy. For example, state-, district-, and/or school-wide benchmark data (e.g., fall, winter, spring) coupled with specific cut scores may be used to make decisions regarding intervention need, and the use of error analyses and/or Brief Experimental Analyses to pinpoint instructional targets. Much like this study, which used frequent progress monitoring to guide instruction and inform movement of participants between groups based on instructional need, data on the progress of students receiving intervention may be used to gauge the effectiveness of intervention, inform instruction, and make intervention exit and enter decisions so that allocation of resources is commensurate with instructional need.

School psychologists can be key players in contributing to prevention and intervention school reform efforts. However, to meaningfully contribute and provide leadership to school and district implementation teams, the focus of school psychology training at the pre-service and in-service level needs to shift from a classification and eligibility assessment model to one that is idiographic and instructionally relevant. Knowledge of instructional design principles (Kame'enui & Simmons, 1990), important targets of literacy instruction (National Reading Panel, 2000; National Early Literacy Panel, 2008), and fluent application of problem-solving also are necessary. Reinventing the role of the school psychologist is necessary to the continued relevance of school psychology's contribution to school reform.


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Kristi S. Hagans

California State University, Long Beach

Roland H. Good III

University of Oregon

Address correspondence to: Kristi S. Hagans, PhD, California State University, Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, CA 90840-2201. Email:

Kristi Hagans, PhD, is associate professor at California State University, Long Beach and director of the School Psychology program. She teaches courses related to functional assessment and intervention. Prior to her appointment at CSULB, she worked as a school psychologist for five years. Her research and practice interests include the use of general outcome measures to inform the implementation of evidence-based interventions to increase student outcomes within a multi-tiered system of supports. She received her doctorate in School Psychology from the University of Oregon.

Roland H. Good III, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Oregon. He teaches measurement, statistics, and research design courses at the graduate level and conducts research on assessment of early literacy skills. He is coauthor of Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, Next Edition. He received his undergraduate degree in elementary and special education, and has two years teaching experience in elementary general education and special education classrooms. He earned his doctorate from The Pennsylvania State University in School Psychology.
TABLE 1. Family Questionnaire Responses Regarding Income and Education
by Group

Survey Items                      Low SES        Low SES    High SES
                                  Intervention   Control   Comparison

Number of Respondents                      24        24           25

Family Income Per Year
  50,000+                                  7%       25%          64%
  35,000-49,999                            3%        8%          16%
  25,000-34,999                           26%       12%           8%
  20,000-24,999                           19%        8%           4%
  15,000-19,999                           11%        4%           0%
  10,000-14,999                            3%       33%           0%
  5,000-9,999                              7%        8%           0%
  < 5,000                                 11%        4%           0%

Educational Attainment
  College Graduate                        16%       16%          72%
  Some College                            45%       50%          20%
  High School Graduate Only               20%       20%          12%
  Non-High School Graduate                12%       16%           0%

TABLE 2. Descriptive Statistics for Pretest and Post-Test
Early Literacy and Reading Skills, and SES
By Group

                       Low SES Intervention (a)

Variable            M       SD      Adjusted Means

PSF-pre           17.12    12.69
PSF-post          53.88     8.70    56.31
NWF-pre           15.54    11.20
NWF-post          31.69    13.07    34.80
ORF-post          11.96    11.49    14.22
ORF-follow up     29.71    23.15    33.24
SES               56.78    18.82

                        Low SES Control (b)

Variable            M       SD      Adjusted Means

PSF-pre           21.58    16.02
PSF-post          39.33    17.65    40.59
NWF-pre           14.83    10.52
NWF-post          33.08    13.87    36.78
ORF-post           8.46     4.93    11.88
ORF-follow up     20.45    10.48    24.75
SES               59.29    22.13

                        High SES Comparison [c]

Variable            M       SD       Adjusted Means

PSF-pre           35.68    15.76
PSF-post          50.68    10.45     46.95
NWF-pre           27.56    18.73
NWF-post          35.96    18.25     29.19
ORF-post          21.24    23.95     15.60
ORF-follow up     54.05    25.38     45.92
SES               83.44    10.16

Note: PSF-pre= Phoneme Segmentation Fluency Pretest Scores; PSF-post=
Phoneme Segmentation Fluency Post-Test Scores;
NWF-pre=Nonsense Word Fluency Pretest Scores; NWF-post=Nonsense Word
Fluency Post-Test Scores;
ORF-post=Oral Reading Fluency Post-Test Scores; ORF-follow up=Oral
Reading Fluency Follow-Up Scores;
SES=Socioeconomic Status.

a. n = 26. b. n = 24. c. n = 25.

TABLE 3. Analysis of Variance of Oral Reading Fluency Post-Test Scores

Source             df        SS          MS         F

Group               2       930.6       465.3      2.17
Risk                2      2475.04     1237.52     5.7 **
Group * Risk        4       711.96      177.99      .825
Error              66     14243.83      215.81
Total              75      34337

** p<.01.

TABLE 4. Analysis of Variance of Follow-Up Oral Reading Fluency Scores

Source             f        SS          MS           F

Group               2      7076.84     3538.42     9.1 **
Risk                2      4946.5      2473.25     6.36 **
Group * Risk        4      1202.7       300.67      .773
Error              56     21773.16      388.81
Total              65

** p<.01.

TABLE 5. Descriptive statistics for Oral Reading Fluency at post-test
and follow-up for all three groups by initial Nonsense Word Fluency
risk status

                         ORF-post                      ORF-follow up
                         (n=75)                        (n=65)

Risk Status       M        SD         N         M        SD       N

                         Low SES Intervention

At Risk         6.73      2.76       11       21.22     15.6       9
Some Risk        11       6.5        11       28.36     21.75     11
Low Risk         29      21.02        4       52.5      31.08      4

                         Low SES Control

At Risk         5.57      4.65        7       10.8      3.35       5
Some Risk       9.25      4.62       12       22.1      9.97      10
Low Risk       10.5       5.13        5       26.8     10.61       5

                         High SES Comparison

At Risk          6.67     6.11        3        30       16.37     3
Some Risk       16.18     8.94       11       56.33     19.22     9
Low Risk        30.27    33.28       11       59.79     30.24     9

Note: ORF-post=Oral Reading Fluency Post-Test Scores;
ORF-follow up=Oral Reading Fluency Follow-Up Scores.
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Author:Hagans, Kristi S.; Good, Roland H., III
Publication:Contemporary School Psychology
Article Type:Report
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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