California State University, Long Beach
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$2 Million DoE Grant to Aid Reading Skills

Claude Goldenberg, executive director of CSULB’s Center for Language Minority Education and Research (CLMER), recently received a four-year $2 million research grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

Goldenberg explained that “the goal of this project is to work with history and English teachers and students in the seventh and eighth grades who are two or more grades behind in their reading achievement. The target is to increase students' vocabulary and background knowledge. These are not special education kids. Their decoding and word recognition skills are probably OK (although we won't know until we start to work with them and their teachers), but the problem is, they don’t have enough vocabulary and background knowledge to understand fully when they are reading in content areas such as social studies. Although there are many reasons for poor reading performance, our point of attack in this grant is vocabulary and content knowledge.”

His research project, titled “Content-Rich Vocabulary Development to Improve Reading Achievement of Struggling Adolescent Readers,” aims at creating a content-rich vocabulary program for struggling adolescent readers as well as obtaining pilot data on the association between exposure to the program and subsequent vocabulary and reading comprehension. The project will be conducted in urban California school districts with struggling adolescent readers, many of whom speak English as a second language. The project is being undertaken in collaboration with the Consortium on Reading Excellence (CORE) in Berkeley and SRI International in Menlo Park.

Goldenberg, formerly a member of the Department of Teacher Education since 1994, believes one reason for the DOE’s support of his research is the project’s two-phase construction. In the first two years, the project will work with approximately 12 middle school English and history teachers to develop the program. “We will conduct design experiments to determine the relative strength and weakness of various program components and elicit teacher feedback to determine the most effective features to incorporate into the program,” he said. In the second two-year field test phase, a randomized study with eight schools assigned either to experimental or control conditions will establish whether there is evidence of the program’s effect on vocabulary and reading comprehension when compared to a no-treatment control.

“The premise of this project is that limited vocabulary (and the limited background that accompanies it) severely limits the reading comprehension of struggling adolescent readers,” he said. “The problem many youngsters face is that the knowledge demands of comprehending written text increase enormously as they advance in school. By middle school, a student must know tens of thousands of words and word families. The words must be part of their working and productive vocabulary if the student is to have a chance at achieving at grade-level in middle and high school. Yet, astonishingly, there exists no vocabulary-enhancing program for struggling adolescents that has been tested and evaluated to determine its effects on reading achievement. This project will develop and field test such a program, using the most current findings from vocabulary instruction research.”

The crux is comprehension. “The most important idea ─ a concept so straight forward  anyone's grandmother could grasp it immediately ─ is that if you don’t understand the meaning of words, you are not very likely to understand the content of what you’re reading,” he said. “You have to understand words at different levels. For instance, think of the word ‘democracy.’ You need not just a superficial understanding of the word (people vote in order to determine what the group will do, which can be demonstrated fairly easily in the classroom), you also need a deeper understanding, such as what are alternatives to democracy and the forms of democracy from representative to direct. You also need to know the various inflections of democracy, such as democratic and anti-democratic.  You need to know examples and non-examples of democracies.  There are layers of meaning without which the depth of comprehension is compromised.”    

Goldenberg’s goal is to find a practical way for middle school teachers to instruct vocabulary and content when working with students who are having trouble comprehending challenging informational texts. “I want to find a way to help teachers get meaningful and tangible effect on kids’ vocabulary development and reading comprehension,” he said. “The project will be a success to the extent we can do that.”

Goldenberg is the author of Successful School Change: Creating Settings to Improve Teaching and Learning and was a recipient of a Distinguished Faculty Scholarly and Creative Achievement Award in 2004. He was named Executive Director of CLMER in June 2005. He has brought in more than $6.25 million in private and government grants to CSULB and has appeared on the PBS series “Becoming Bilingual,” aired around the country.