SOUNDING IT OUT
Rollanda O’Connor’s intervention programs have helped schoolchildren learn to read — and understand the U.S. Constitution.
By Sarah Nightingale
aking an exam called the “Mother of All Constitution Tests” would be understandably intimidating if you struggle to read words like “constitution,” “legislative,” and “revolutionary,” yet that’s what some Southern California eighth graders are faced with.
“We were working with children who are in middle school but reading at a fourth-grade level or below,” said Rollanda O’Connor, a professor of the graduate division in UC Riverside’s Graduate School of Education, or GSOE. “About half of them had formal identification as needing special education, but the other half didn’t have any formal identification.”
In collaboration with GSOE colleagues, graduate students, and Southern California school districts, O’Connor developed the BRIDGES program, which stands for Building Reading Interventions Designed for General Education Subjects. The program helps eighth-grade students break apart multisyllabic words, read them accurately, and understand their meaning.
“If you learn to read well and on time, that assists you with virtually everything you do in school,” O’Connor said. “For children who don’t read well, it becomes a hurdle for all academic subjects.”
The program is one of three developed by O’Connor, who held the Eady/Hendrick Endowed Chair in Learning Disabilities between 2011 and 2019. All were designed to help students with reading difficulties — including English language learners and those with learning disabilities — and all have benefited students and teachers in public schools. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, or IES, O’Connor’s research is published in journal articles, books, and as online resources accessible to teachers nationwide. O’Connor came to UCR in 2004 from the University of Pittsburgh, drawn by GSOE’s academic community and the opportunity to help a diverse student population in Southern California. She began her work in the same place children start their academic journey — kindergarten — by developing a program called Ladders to Literacy for K-4 students who were struggling to grasp the basics of reading.
“Up until this time, children have worked with language as meaningful communication, but to learn to read they have to take a step back from words as being meaningful and think of them as collections of sounds. That’s a huge leap for many children,” O’Connor said.
Take the word “fast,” for example, a one-beat word that trips off the tongue. But slow it down, and you realize it’s composed of four distinct sounds: /f/-/a/-/s/-/t/. By learning to tease apart sounds in words, children start to recognize them on paper.
“If they can’t understand this, it makes learning to read very difficult,” O’Connor said.
While about half of kindergartners intuitively grasp how reading and writing works, others need to be shown more directly, she added.
“We designed small group interventions for children who weren’t keeping up and followed them over time,” she said. “Some children caught up quickly, some needed longer-term help, and some were eventually identified with a learning disability.”
The technical term for this learning process is phonemic awareness — the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds, called phonemes, in spoken words. Now a well-known indicator of reading success, phonemic awareness was a new concept when O’Connor first introduced it as a tool to help young children.
“Much of what I was doing 20 years ago was a little shocking because I was talking about sound play, not reading, but now it has become basic knowledge and something we emphasize in the teacher education program at UCR,” she said.
With the importance of teaching phonemic awareness becoming more mainstream, O’Connor turned her attention to middle school students who had not had access to early intervention programs. In 2012, she received IES funding to develop the BRIDGES program, which serves the dual purpose of improving reading and supporting academic success in a U.S. history class. Eighth graders admitted into the BRIDGES program had to have both failed seventh-grade history and been assessed as reading at a fourth-grade level or below. O’Connor knew middle school students couldn’t be coaxed into decoding single syllable words because it would seem childlike. Instead, she based her lessons on age-appropriate words that had become roadblocks in their understanding of history and government.
“To grasp the concepts of U.S. history requires reading multisyllabic words, learning new vocabulary, and analyzing historical documents, which are difficult for poor readers,” O’Connor said. “Because the program centered around a topic students had to learn anyway, students benefited in two ways.”
Rollanda O’Connor, professor of the graduate division. (UCR/Carrie Rosema)