Episode 44 - The ABCs of Early Literacy Learning and Teacher Knowledge with Shayne Piasta, PhD
Dr. Piasta is a Professor of Reading and Literacy in Early and Middle Childhood in the Department of Teaching and Learning at The Ohio State University. She also is a faculty associate for the Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy.
Her research focuses on early literacy development and how it is best supported during preschool and elementary years. Her work emphasizes the use of rigorous empirical methods to identify and validate educational programs and practices, such as experimental evaluation of specific curricula and professional development opportunities. She also identifies teacher, classroom, and other factors associated with children’s literacy gains.
[00:00:00] Dr. Danielle Scorrano: Welcome to READ, the Research Education and ADvocacy podcast, where we connect you with researchers, educators, and thought leaders about key topics in reading, education, and child development. I'm your host, Danielle Scorrano, and I am welcoming an expert in early childhood literacy development and teacher knowledge, Dr. Shayne Piasta. Dr. Piasta, welcome to the READ Podcast.
[00:00:27] Dr. Shayne Piasta: Thanks so much for having me.
[00:00:29] Dr. Danielle Scorrano: Thank you for being here. I mean, I call you now a new READ friend, and before we start, can you set the scene? Where are you in the world?
[00:00:37] Dr. Shayne Piasta: Of course. I am a professor at The Ohio State University. So I'm here in Columbus, Ohio. And I'm also a faculty associate at the Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy.
[00:00:51] Danielle Scorrano: Very interesting. I'm so excited to dive into your work. I have to say before we start, you are such a source of inspiration for me [00:01:00] personally. Like it's such a dream to sit with you and to learn more about your work and what inspired you, as I was reading a lot of your papers throughout my work. I'll give you another quick story, just this is the Dr. Piasta show and I'm so excited. In the last year, I've been talking to a lot of researchers on READ and meeting with them, and so many researchers would cite your work, Dr. Piasta’ survey or the way that we look at early childhood literacy.And so thank you so much for being here and for those of you who haven’t devoured or consumed Dr. Piasta’s work, I want to provide some context. You said Dr. Piasta, where you are now, and I'd like to read your formal bio.
Dr. Piasta is a professor of reading and literacy in early and middle childhood in the Department of Teaching and Learning at The Ohio State University. She's also a faculty associate, as you said, for the Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and policy. Her work focuses on early literacy development and how it is best supported during [00:02:00] preschool and elementary years. Her work emphasizes the use of rigorous empirical methods to identify and validate educational programs and practices such as experimental evaluation of specific curricula and professional development opportunities. She also identifies teacher classroom and other factors associated with children's literacy gains.
Okay, so let’s dive deeper. I just read your formal bio, Dr. Piasta, can you tell us your story? What has been your journey to studying early childhood literacy and truly contributing to the world of reading and teacher education?
[00:02:36] Dr. Shayne Piasta: I'm happy to. I'll try to give the brief version of this, but really my career, I think, had been a long time coming. My mom was a teacher. She started off as a high school English teacher and realized that that was not necessarily her passion. She [00:03:00] moved down to preschool where she thought she might have a greater impact. So I've always spent lots and lots of time in my mom's classroom. I also spent after supper was always the time that my brother and I would do homework and my mom would be prepping for her next day. So I was always kind of interested in what she was working on and how she was integrating objectives into these fun activities she was doing.
And I was also a very nerdy kid and would go with my mom to a lot of her professional development opportunities because I just wanted to also learn more. So when it came to my undergraduate education, I was a psychology major. But I also kind of got to design a bit of my own program. And although at the time there wasn't a formal education minor, I basically did an education minor. And I have these strong [00:04:00] memories of sitting at one particular professional development workshop with my mom and them talking about, I think they were talking about children with autism and how to best meet their needs, but how they were defining that and how they were describing these kiddos was in direct contrast to what we had just read and had a unit on this in my coursework, like the day before or the week before.
And so it just struck me like, why is there this disconnect between what my mom as a teacher is learning and what we've been learning in through psychology, through education, and through research. And then the other piece of it is I also watched my mom swing with the pendulum. There'd be some new practice [00:05:00] that would come out and everybody would get on board with that. And then there'd be a glossy publisher brochure that would come out and then everyone would get on board with that practice or curriculum or strategy. And there just seemed to be a lot of change and not a lot of stability.
And so really all through undergrad and through my career, I've been dedicated to trying to both generate evidence that we can use to identify best practices to not have the pendulum switching or curricula switching every year also how to empower educators to be able to select curricular intervention to be able to implement high quality literacy instruction in their classrooms, which is why there's also that focus on professional development and teacher knowledge.
[00:05:57] Dr. Danielle Scorrano: I love that you took us on that journey, [00:06:00] and so much of what you were talking about is the reason why I started READ: Research, education and ADvocacy, and they're not operating on their different silos. They're all integrated and together and a large piece of your research in doing the work is advocating for the greater connection between research and psychology and education, and decades of neuroscientific research has also informed a lot of our work, but there's a large connection to that and I'm glad that we're talking about this and this is going to lead us to how we set up the conversation.
And so I'm going to take our READers, and you, Dr. Piasta, on a little bit of a journey to set the stage for the next part of the interview. And for our READers, when Dr. Piasta and I had met prior to this conversation, I had asked a very popular Tim Ferriss podcasting question, which was, what's a home run for you in this interview?
And Dr. Piasta, you talked about two things. Do you want say what those [00:07:00] two things were? Do you remember?
[00:07:02] Dr. Shayne Piasta: I think I remember. Well, why don't you go ahead and remind me.
[00:07:09] Dr. Danielle Scorrano: Okay. So. I wrote them down, thank God. And, I was also dreaming about it over the last few days. So you said you don't want to overstate the empirical evidence that's available. So I think that was really important to clarify empirical evidence on what's available. And I liked that because as a teacher, I think it's so important to think about how we are consumers of research. Also, I’m recording in New York City and there was a honking of a horn, if you all heard that. They're excited about teachers being co consumers of research, and to think about what it means to be an informed teacher and educator.
And then you said you want to also provide this holistic, integrated lens of the science of reading. That it's not just focused on the code or decoding that it's also language. So I say that because I want to tinker with the format of our conversation. We're actually going to [00:08:00] do this in two parts.
We're going to dive into the research education link. So what can educators and teachers and caregivers do in their settings with their children tomorrow? How does your work directly inform them? And then we'll talk about the research advocacy link, in which we'll get into the empirical evidence and what you said also about the changing tides of education, what's needed in systems to sustain those changes and evaluate whether changes are even needed to begin with. And so long-winded way of setting the scene, I'm excited for you to take this journey for me and I thank you for your patience me to getting to that. So my next question for you in terms of this research education link is on alphabet instruction.So you contributed to a chapter of a book, which by the time this releases, I think it will be out. Do you remember what the publication date is for that book?
[00:08:51] Dr. Shayne Piasta: I think it was actually just released potentially last week.
[00:08:55] Dr. Danielle Scorrano: Oh, great. For for those of you who don't know what I’m talking about, I didn't say the title. It's the [00:09:00] Handbook on the Science of Early Literacy, which was edited by Dr. Sonya Cabell, Dr. Susan Neuman, and Dr. Nicole Patton Terry. And I'm excited to read the chapter that you wrote in this book about alphabet instructions. So what do[DS1] we know about the evidence of alphabet instruction?
[00:09:18] Dr. Shayne Piasta: So in terms of, I'm going to take this from the lens of evidence-based practice, given that we're looking at this kind of research to practice connection. So one of my big takeaways from writing this chapter and reviewing the research, is that we know some things, but our expectation of how much we know about best supporting alphabet knowledge is really that it might be less advanced than we might think. So there's certain converging evidence about, in the U.S., at least, pairing [00:10:00] letter names with sounds and teaching those simultaneously as opposed to doing it sequentially or, um, kind of getting through all the letter names first, and then going to all the letter sounds.
There's some converging evidence suggesting that a faster pacing of alphabet instruction might be beneficial for children. I do want to caution here that there's one experimental study that has tapped that and then another very large correlational study that kind of made use of a natural experiment, but it would not have the same level of evidence as for true experimental studies. But both are basically suggesting that we should be teaching multiple letters a week to children, not necessarily using a letter of the week approach, and that children are very capable of learning at a faster [00:11:00] pace than one letter a week. We also have converging evidence concerning the use of embedded pneumonic.
So a lot of this is Linnea Ehri's work and with her students, where if you are teaching a letter and you have that letter shape actually like embedded into a line drawing or a photograph of something that represents its sound, so maybe you can visualize making an F but making that into a flower with the F part still prominent, they have actually found that that is beneficial for children's alphabet learning, so something we might want to consider. And then I think that the fourth area where we have strong and converging evidence is the idea of explicit instruction for teaching kids letter names and letter sounds. So that's probably not a big [00:12:00] surprise to folks who listen to your podcast, but again, it's nice to have evidence showing that instruction that deliberately pairs a letter name with a letter sound while seeing the letter form and then gradually releasing that to the students. Providing that explicit instruction, modeling, giving the child lots of opportunities to say the name and say the sound and associate with the letter, that is an effective way of teaching young children alphabet skills.
[00:12:39] Dr. Danielle Scorrano: It's funny that you talked about the first three components first, because in my head I kept wondering, is she talking about explicit instruction?
And then you said it and that was this aha moment. And you're right. It's not surprising necessarily to listeners who were on this podcast. I will say though, that the [00:13:00] converging evidence that you talk about continues to be promising even as we hear seemingly disparate sense of discourse, I would say ideological discourse that exists in reading education and continuously again, the science of reading in this area that you're talking about shows these pieces having strong evidence, including explicit instruction.
The questions that I had for you, and I have my fancy little research notebook here slash my READ notebook and it's not that fancy READ listeners, I promise, is you talk about experimental verse correlation. And then you talked about converging evidence. So for that teacher, what does that mean? Why is that so important as you're looking through those lenses?
[00:13:44] Dr. Shayne Piasta: So starting off with the correlational versus experimental. Teaching and learning is super complex, right? There are so many components, it's really difficult to be able to [00:14:00] discern what constitutes a causal relationship. If I do A, I will get result A? So for one, we're always doing that on kind of the average level. We know that not everything is going to work exactly the same with every child. But also we have a lot of practices that are based on correlational evidence, which is an important starting point. So what correlational evidence will tell you is, as A increases does B increase. So if we use more of this strategy, do children's literacy outcomes increase? But it doesn't necessarily isolate the effect of whatever that a practice is. There are other confounding factors that might be there, and a lot of these have to do with things called selection biases. So for example, [00:15:00] if we go out and we observe lots of classrooms and we see this practice happening, and then we are able to analyze and find a correlation that tells us that they're associated. But perhaps it is because teachers who have most recently had professional development in this area are actually choosing to implement this strategy. And so you're not sure whether it's actually the strategy or the teacher's investment in trying out new practices, engaging in professional development and things of that nature.
Educational work is not in a vacuum, so you can also have these confounding factors. For example, perhaps you think that practice A is associated with outcome B, but it's really actually that in conjunction with practice A, teachers who do that more [00:16:00] are also doing practice C more. So now you've kind of confounded A and C and you don't know which one is really actually directly contributing to the outcome that you want to see.
So correlational evidence is really interesting. A lot of the neuroscience evidence is correlational in nature. We're not going to randomly assign children to have different areas of their brain work in different ways or things like that, right? So it's certainly important. When we get to experimental work, we're actually better able to isolate the practice or the curriculum or the intervention, and be very confident that it is that practice, that it's that strategy that is actually causing the outcome that you're interested in. And so that's why I tend to focus in my work on causal evidence. I definitely do correlational work.
Another example of that would [00:17:00] be teacher's knowledge. We're not going to assign teachers with, you only get this knowledge or you only get this knowledge. But we're going to take advantage of the natural variation in teacher's knowledge to see what is associated with children's literacy outcomes. So correlational research is important, but it's really that causal piece that I'm after in most of my work because I don't want to tell a teacher like my mom, do this, if I'm not actually confident that that will lead to a desired change for kids.
[00:17:36] Dr. Danielle Scorrano: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I love how you broke that down. That was really helpful in operationalizing those terms. Now let's look in the classroom. So we'll turn our lens from the research settings and looking at different types of research studies, and instead to elementary classrooms. Almost all of your work focuses on early childhood, early [00:18:00] elementary school teachers. So if I'm that teacher in that group listening to this, what are the implications then for, let's say alphabet instruction on what they should do in their classroom tomorrow?
[00:18:11] Dr. Shayne Piasta: So taking just a step back to begin with, alphabet instruction is really foundational for learning to read in any alphabet languages such as English. We do have evidence though that not all children are arriving to first grade having mastered the basics of the alphabet. And of course, there are more complex grapheme-phoneme correspondences and orthographic patterns to learn after that.
So I think the first thing that teachers should take away from this work is that one, it is important to build children's alphabet knowledge, although some kids are going to get this through home experiences and less [00:19:00] explicit instruction in reading alphabet books and things like that. Many kids are not necessarily going to master it through those means, so it's definitely something we need to be focusing on in early childhood and early elementary. And then the second, it is something that's malleable, right? Changing how we teach the alphabet can lead to better outcomes. And so it's worth thinking about what do we actually know for sure, and how can I integrate that into my practice. And again, this is not just preschool, not just kindergarten. We're seeing a need for this in first grade and for children who have language-based learning difficulties and others. We're seeing it continue through the early elementary years.
Dr. Danielle Scorrano: I like how you said that too, because I always think about some of these foundational practices are essential for [00:20:00] that early childhood, early elementary school teacher. And it informs instruction as students do continue to age. Another piece that you talked about and we're focusing on is the alphabetic code, for example. And I've read some of your research, that childhood language and literacy skills are multi-dimensional. And this goes back to when we think about the discourse around the science of reading – that it's not just code-based, it's not just phonics based. Right? That it requires a holistic picture. So how do you conceptualize the science of reading as it relates to child development in that?
Dr. Shayne Piasta: So one of the things I am always mindful of, in particular and with respect to my alphabet work which is very code focused, is that evidence-based practice can help us teach more effectively and more efficiently. So when I think about early childhood [00:21:00] classrooms, in particular, yes, we want to be spending time explicitly teaching the alphabet, potentially doing that at a faster, pacing than the letter of the week and maybe using embedded mnemonics to do so.
There are also lots of other important skills within the language and literacy domain that we need to be thinking about. And then of course, you have the other domains as well. You have math of science, you have social studies, you have social-emotional development. So if we can teach aspects of language and literacy in ways that are more effective and more efficient by relying on the science, that should hopefully open up time to spend instructional time on other aspects of other domains. And a key one of those is really oral language. Folks may be familiar with the simple view of reading or Scarborough's Rope, and I know [00:22:00] Nell Duke has put out a new model. All of these models emphasize both the decoding word reading aspect, as well as the language aspect. And I would add background knowledge into that too.
We're never going to boost reading comprehension if we're not focusing on both of these. So instead of doing a 30 minute circle time where we're learning one letter, maybe we can be doing that more efficiently and spending five to eight minutes on that. And then moving to things that actually let children talk and express ideas. And we can model language for them and expand the types of language that they're using. So that's always on my mind, and particularly with respect to this alphabet work.
[00:22:53] Dr. Danielle Scorrano: That's such a good point. I read some of your work too in other practices, in building some of these language [00:23:00] skills. I spoke to Dr. Margaret McKeown a couple of episodes ago, and we talked about the sequences, the explicit sequences and vocabulary, for example. But she also talked about this element of just intentionality with teachers on using language rich class environments and integrating background knowledge as another way. And not even another way but as an integrated approach to building child literacy. And so I love how you brought that. Do you want to comment on any of those skills? I mean, what are those other skills? I think you've talked about dedicating efficient time to alphabet instruction. What are some other things that teachers could be doing in their classroom to maximize their time?
[00:23:46] Dr. Shayne Piasta: Of course. So when we think about skills we want to be promoting both in early childhood and in early elementary, I like to think of them as kind of the code focus skills versus the meaning focused skills, borrowing [00:24:00] from one of my mentors, Dr. Carol Connor. So for code focus skills, we have things like alphabet knowledge. We have phonological awareness that we need to be targeting. We also have print concepts, which I'm always like, that kind of sits in the middle, right? It's code-focused, but also meaning focused. And then on the meaning focused end, we need to be targeting oral language, providing opportunities for emergent reading. Also targeting emergent writing is gathering more and more attention and we're seeing more and more connections between writing and reading. So that's a really important aspect too. As we think about how this then builds through early elementary, you are going to want to be focusing specifically on phonemic awareness. This where we're going to think about as kids are continuing to [00:25:00] learn, and this isn't even just elementary, that kids continue to learn about orthographic patterns and morphology all through their education. I'm still learning new things about morphology nd, and word derivatives and things like that.
We also then need to explicitly teach how one decodes and provide practice so that we have words make it into kids' sight word vocabularies. And again, we need to continue that focus on writing, not just transcription or being able to make letter forms, but also kind of invented spelling to represent sounds, conventional spelling, as well as composing, which even very young children can do. And then what I'd like to add to that is thinking about that oral language piece. We often talk about oral language like this one bucket and I think it's important to recognize that it [00:26:00] comprises of many things. So in the National Reading Panel report, they focused specifically on vocabulary, for instance.
One way to think about this is based on a paper that Dr. Tiffany Hogan put out and that we've used in subsequent Language and Reading Research Consortium (LARRC) papers where we break oral language down into lower level language skills and higher level language skills. So those lower level skills would be things like vocabulary and grammar or syntax. Those higher level skills are really the language skills that are going to really help with reading comprehension. Not that vocabulary and grammar are unimportant, but some of these higher level language skills are things like being able to make inferences. So we can work on that [00:27:00] with preschoolers, but we need to continue working on that because a lot of text, whether it's being read aloud or being read by a student, there is information the student is expected to understand that isn't directly stated in the text.
We also want to focus on exposure to multiple genres and how the text structure of different genres as again, whether read aloud or read on their own, can help us to better understand the content. In a narrative, it's going to have a beginning, middle, and end, and the important things for me to identify are going to be the characters, the conflict, the resolution, et cetera. Similarly, this is going to be a compare and contrast science article that I'm reading, and so that helps me think about where I should find information about different pieces and how those fit together. [00:28:00]
One of the other very important higher level language skills would be comprehension monitoring. So just being able to be aware of when you are listening or reading, and it doesn't make sense so that you can then employ some fix up strategies to make sure that you are comprehending. And then of course, as we're moving through those grade levels, we want to be attending more and more to reading comprehension, either through, focusing on these language skills, focusing on building fluency, or also teaching specific reading comprehension skills for kids. So there's a lot. We're asking teachers to do an awful lot in those years of preschool through elementary and beyond.
[00:28:46] Dr. Danielle Scorrano: Great. Yeah, I love that. There's so many directions to go to this because as you're talking, this is the topic that gets me the most jazzed. I think the reason why is because in my work as an [00:29:00] educator and in my professional development work, the area of language on how fundamental it is to reading and reading comprehension has probably been the most surprising and the most like transformational for me as a teacher. And what I hear you saying is that yes, it's a lot of work and it's so comprehensive. As we're returning to this, that in a language rich environment with enriching texts, you can build background knowledge and provide skill building opportunities and inferences, looking at text structures. Again, none of this is being taught in isolation.
I think that's one myth that we have seen, at least in popular discourse is that, oh, you know, if we're teaching, let's say comprehension monitoring, that it should be an isolated strategy building. No, not at all. And what I hear you saying is, again, this is a comprehensive, integrated [00:30:00] approach. I should say integration again is my favorite word. I should get it tattooed somewhere, like have a poster of it, because it makes so much sense when you think about the science of reading. And where I'm going, where you started going with this and where I'm now leading to is, now that we know about all these aspects of oral language, it then requires teachers to be knowledgeable about this. And you've dedicated a lot of your work to teacher knowledge, a lot that I cited in my dissertation. And the second thing that I got so jazzed about in this last year was reading the paper that Dr. Mindy Bridges had sent it to me. I think it was a validation study on your your teacher content knowledge of oral language survey. I read that paper. I kid you not, like I was so jazzed, I called a colleague, I called a friend who's not even in education and I was like, you need to learn and listen to this. So when you conceptualize teacher knowledge and specifically teacher knowledge on language, how do you characterize this?
[00:30:59] Dr. Shayne Piasta: [00:31:00] So there are lots of ways to characterize this. Lee Schulman, I think really kind of kicked off this idea of focusing on teacher knowledge and that it has different aspects. So under his conceptualization, I would say, and it's in some papers, he brought in this to include other things, but I would say there are five main aspects. The first aspect is content knowledge, which is really about knowing about development, knowing about the skills, knowing that evidence-based practices exist.? So it's really the “what” piece. What are children developing at this point in time? What skills do I need to be targeting, and what practices are out there that are evidence-based that I could use?
Then [00:32:00] there's pedagogical knowledge and this gets a little squishy for me. The way pedagogical knowledge was originally discussed was that it was about kind of these broad principles of good teaching. It wasn't specific to an area or domain. So you can think about things like understanding how to scaffold learning, these big principles of effective teaching. Then there's pedagogical content knowledge, and to me, the pedagogical content knowledge is really the intersection among other knowledges such that a teacher is able to draw on their specialized knowledge for this kid or this group of kids. This is what I know about their development, where they are now, what I know from data, and I'm going to use that [00:33:00] to select pedagogical approaches or practices that are likely going to be beneficial for these kids at this stage of development. It would also take into account things like kids' interests. That's another false dichotomy I think we see, especially in early childhood, this idea of being, child centered versus the idea of being teacher directed or intentional. And those aren't mutually exclusive. I can know that the kids in the classroom are currently super, super interested in airplanes. And so I can use books and embed my learning objectives into activities that involve airplanes. We could look at some magazines that you can get on an airplane. We can read books, both fiction and non-fiction. Anyway, I won't go too far down that path, but that's one [00:34:00] of those false dichotomies that drives me a little nuts.
So there’s content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge, and then there are other aspects of knowledge that have been emphasized, I think, to a greater and lesser extent over time. So curriculum, knowledge involves not only the specific curriculum that the intervention teachers are using, but also knowing those learning objectives as well as broader learning objectives such as state learning standards, for instance.
And then there’s knowledge of learners and their characteristics. So this is where I have a sense of how kids are in my classroom, what interests them, what types of activities get them super engaged and excited that they need a break every five minutes for this group, but this group can work for 10 minutes. And then you're taking that, and that really all converges on that pedagogical content knowledge where it's informing your [00:35:00] instruction for your kids in your classroom.
[00:35:04] Dr. Danielle Scorrano: Wow. I’m taking a pause to think about how each of these components of knowledge are operationalized in the classroom. And I think it's important. I have to be honest with you, at first I thought to myself, you know, shouldn't it just be under the umbrella of all, teacher knowledge? Right? Why does it matter if I have content knowledge over pedagogical content knowledge? But then as you started to exemplify each of the aspects, it empowered me. And I think as a teacher, it also just helped me to understand how each of these different components are so important and how they do, again, they fall under different categories, but each are all equally important. So I love how you broke that down, and I appreciate it. So when it relates to each of these elements of content knowledge, and specifically on the [00:36:00] survey itself, the oral language survey, what were you measuring in that survey? Was it a specific area of content knowledge there? Or what were you specifically looking for?
[00:36:14] Dr. Shayne Piasta: So on what we call affectionately the TCKOLS measure, because I love that we got to have good acronyms that can be pronounced when you're doing educational research. So for the TCKOLS, we were specifically focused on content knowledge that teachers had about oral language development. It's often easier to measure content knowledge than it is to measure pedagogical or pedagogical content knowledge. In] fact, a lot of the teacher knowledge surveys that focus more on like code focus skills tend to be content knowledge measures like, for example, Louisa Moat’s famous informal survey for teachers. But we also [00:37:00] focused on this because in our thinking, the content knowledge is also going to inform the pedagogical knowledge. So you can't just have content knowledge because if you're not translating that into practice, that's not going to do anything for you. But I would say it's insufficient but necessary to be able to make decisions that inform pedagogy. So we focused on six different aspects of language and language development in our content knowledge measure. So we focused on semantics or vocabulary. We focused on morphology and syntax. We focused on narrative, and then we also focused on contextual factors, like home dialect, that affect children's [00:38:00] language development as well as aspects of multilingual language development, given that those two topics are super important, um, for being able to support children in classrooms. And then the sixth bucket was really what we call general language. So this was something where it really cut across other domains, or was just very general about language. So content knowledge of each of those six dimensions is what we measured, and we actually were measuring it initially as this overall construct of content knowledge about oral language and oral language development in kids.
[00:38:42] Dr. Danielle Scorrano: I appreciate you, again, breaking down those domains because they're all obviously all equally important for any classroom. Like if you were to walk into any effective language rich classroom, you would see all of those in play. And the other piece I think that was important in returning to what you said is you talked [00:39:00] about content knowledge being important for pedagogical knowledge, and I think vice versa, right. I mean, knowing that you have to deliver explicit instruction for certain literacy skills, It's important. But understanding perhaps why you do that in the sense of literacy development is they go hand in hand and then you bring in the curriculum piece too. This makes sense in this curriculum because of all these other areas of content, child development and pedagogical practices that are going to support that in your survey. I'm just curious, I know it was the validation study. I want to know more about where you are in the process of it. What are you finding or can you tell us what you're finding in terms of the teachers? And how that would translate to teacher practices or why that's important in the classroom?
[00:39:51] Dr. Shayne Piasta: Sure. I want to put this in the context of kind of the history and available literature on teachers [00:40:00] knowledge survey to support literacy. So I referenced the Moats, 1994 article in her survey already, which really prompted a lot of folks to attend to, what did teachers know about phonology and orthography that would potentially be important in support children's reading development and that really critical work. We definitely need to be supporting those code focus skills. Subsequent to that, there have been other knowledge measures created, but there's generally been a couple of limitations to those. So one, they haven't always been subjected to like rigorous psychometric analyses. It's not really clear the extent to which we can have confidence in those [00:41:00] findings. I think there are great measures. It's just like, well, we don't know if this necessarily predicts kids' outcomes. We don't necessarily know if this is one construct or multiple constructs, that type of thing. The other limitation is that most of it's been focused on phonology and those code focus skills, or the knowledge needed to support those code focus skills. We did what we think is a very thorough review of the literature before undertaking this project and developing the TCKOLS and found that there were some measures. So for example, Susan Brady had a measure that had some oral language items included in it, but it couldn't hold together as its own scale. It was only the composite across all of the different aspects of knowledge that they were measuring.
We've found some that were designed to specifically align with a particular professional development [00:42:00] opportunity. So that's a good starting point and that helps answer are folks taking away from the PD what you would hope they would, but also it's not necessarily a measure that gets at all of the aspects or can represent all of the aspects of oral language, content, knowledge. And then there actually have been some more measures that came out right around the same time that this came out. So for example, Beth Phillips has a measure that's specific to preschool oral language knowledge and practice. And then there are some others as well. And there's a vocabulary specific measure and then there's some morphology work that's been completed by Washburn [00:43:00] and her colleagues, but nothing that was really focused on trying to get this understanding of what do teachers know about language development and language.
So we started there. We developed our measure. We did some initial psychometric work where we were able to show that it had good internal reliability and internal consistency. So the items were hanging together and measuring something that was a broader construct. And we also saw this as an opportunity to try to generate some initial evidence of validity. Were we measuring the construct we thought we'd be measuring? So what we did in that pilot study that you've been referencing is we had a sample of both pre-service early childhood educators, and I should [00:44:00] mention in the states that were involved in this licensed early childhood education. For example, in Ohio we now licensed pre-K through grade five. So we wanted to make sure that this was a measure that could be used with that range of grade level teacher. We had pre-service early childhood educators, and then we also had pre-professional speech language pathologists. And so one of our hypotheses was that with pre-professional SLPs, all of their coursework is really directed at this, so it seems reasonable to expect that they would have higher oral language content knowledge than the pre-service early childhood educators, and we actually did find that to be the case. So the SLPs got an average of 83% of the items correct, whereas the early childhood educators got an average of 69% of items [00:45:00] correct. So that lends some credibility to, yes, we're measuring something about language because we see this difference between folks who have had different levels of training in that. We also looked at some concurrent validity. So we did use the available vocabulary measure that we knew of, and we did use a subset of items on morphology from the Washburn work, and we expected we should see some correlations between those. And we did indeed find that we found moderate to strong correlations between our measure and these measures, and most of them are moderate, which is what we'd expect because, if they were super high, none of them were in like the 0.9 range. If they were super high, then we're just measuring the same thing that these other measures are measuring. We're not measuring anything different. So that was another piece of validity evidence. And then the last thing that we attempted to do was we expected [00:46:00] that for the pre-service early childhood educators, especially, the more of their pre-service program and the more teaching experiences that they'd had, the more they should know about language. We did not find that to be supported in our data. So we looked at this in multiple ways. We looked at the number of semesters they'd completed in the program. We looked at the number of credit hours of student teaching that they had completed, and we also went through the entire university catalog and flagged any course, not only in teaching and learning, but other departments that really was tapping into language. And we did not find that to be related either. So interesting on, on one hand, I think we're onto something with our measure, and I think we have initial evidence of reliability and validity. There's still more work to be done. On the other hand, I'm a little concerned [00:47:00] that more time in an early childhood teacher program is not actually associated with more knowledge about children's language development.
[00:47:09] Dr. Danielle Scorrano: Yeah, I can't remember which studies they were, but I remember reading some studies about, not necessarily the amount of time spent but even just looking at what content was focused on in each class. I'm curious to see if you look at practicum experience too. I'm not sure if that's going to actually increase content knowledge, but would that sometimes maybe shape it?
You looked at pre-service teacher educators and SLPs, which is a fascinating finding and I appreciate you going through the journey of this survey itself. And I mentioned pre-service institutes of higher education and teacher prep programs have been under examination for a reason, for ensuring that these institutions are preparing teachers in the way that they're going to be [00:48:00] effective in their schools. I don't think anyone would disagree that preparing and continuing to develop teachers, especially in reading, is fundamental. It's something we should continue to focus on and we cannot underscore enough how important this intentional teacher prep and PD is for teachers. And as I reflect though, I think there's so many stakeholders in the game, and when we talked on Monday, we talked about. The responsibility of so many stakeholders without necessarily playing the blame game on any one group.
Dr. Emily Solari had come out with a paper in the 74 Million in 2020 about pulling multiple levers in the system. So when you come to preparing teachers or furthering reading education and ensuring that all teachers are supported so that all students are supported, how do you conceptualize what needs to be done on a systems level?
Dr. Shayne Piasta: So I think there are multiple levers there. [00:49:00] I was thinking particularly with respect to kind of teacher preparation, then we have licensure exams and certification processes, especially in the early childhood arena. In-service professional development is really key because not all early childhood educators have a teaching degree. So a lot of times they are learning while they're on the job. So when I think about this, there's so many components we could talk about, but there are some main points. One, I'm going to go back to your integrating and I think it is important that within teacher preparation as well as in service professional development, we are showing teachers how different literacy and language skills are interrelated. We are helping them understand how that can occur actually in practice, and we are giving them opportunities to try that out in practice and get [00:50:00] feedback. So I think it's important to focus on kind of all of those different knowledge pieces within pre-service and in-service education. So we're focusing on content knowledge, on pedagogical knowledge, and on that pedagogical content knowledge where kind of we bring everything together. I also think we really need to make it clear that we should be, emphasizing both code focused skills and meaning focused and language skills. I think we get caught in these traps of these “either or’s” or all of this first and then this, and I don't think that the evidence actually supports that as being what's best for, for supporting children's language and literacy development. So I'd like to see more of an emphasis on that in particular, on the [00:51:00] language piece. And one of the things I wonder about is that we have these traditional domains in education, literacy, math, science, et cetera. Language isn't its own domain of education because it cross cuts all of these different areas, right? And we have early learning and development standards that pertain to language, but I'm just not sure we are conveying how important it is to be intentional about building children's language skills, particularly during the early childhood years. So that's something else I think we need to attend to.
And then of course we also have Mal Joshi’s “peter effect. We need to think about with respect to preparation and professional development, because as he shows, one cannot give what one does not have. So if the teacher prep programs or the provider for [00:52:00] professional development don't themselves have these strong understandings in all of the realms of knowledge, of course we might not see that being taken up by pre-service and in-service teachers. The teacher certification piece is the tricky one for me in the sense that I don't know how much evidence we have that those certification exams are linked with higher quality practice, more effective practice, or children's learning. And so that's an area I think I need to look more into and think about how we might push that lever in different manners or fine tune that lever as a way of supporting pre-service and in-service teachers.
Dr. Danielle Scorrano: I love that you left us with those insights, and I could stay on and ask you all of these questions, but you are a busy researcher, a [00:53:00] leader, a professor. So I will just end with, I love learning about your journey. I loved learning more about your work. I am both grounded and just about to take flight with all that I learned from you. So Dr. Shayne Piasta, thank you so much for being on the READ Podcast.
[00:53:13] Dr. Shayne Piasta: This was so much fun. Anytime.
Shayne Piasta, PhD, joins the READ Podcast to share her expertise on the evidence in early literacy education including alphabet instruction and oral language. She cites integrated approaches to the Science of Reading and supporting evidence-based practices that inform both educators and families. Dr. Piasta then discusses the knowledge educators need to effectively deliver reading instruction, with a focus on oral language. Educators will learn more about the research process and how researchers determine the strength of evidence supporting instructional practices in order to inform their instruction and build agency in their classrooms.
Top READ Bookmarks
Each episode, host Danielle Scorrano identifies key takeaways or “READ bookmarks.”
1. The Evidence on Alphabet Instruction for Early Readers
Listen to 9:18 – 12:39 to learn more.
Dr. Piasta focuses on conducting and examining empirical research studies related to reading development and instruction. She cites strong evidence for the following:
Pairing letter names and sounds simultaneously
Pacing of alphabet instruction
Embedded mnemonics (see Dr. Linnea Ehri’s work)
2. Classroom Implications for Early Literacy Learning
Listen to 18:11 – 28:46 to learn more.
“We have evidence that not all children are arriving to first grade having mastered the basics of the alphabet.”
Dr. Piasta offers the following implications for classroom instruction:
It is important to build alphabet knowledge through explicit instruction.
Children’s literacy learning is malleable.
The Science of Reading encompasses code-based and language/meaning-based skills.
Code-based skills include phonological awareness and print concepts.
Meaning-based skills include background knowledge and oral language.
Oral language skills are categorized by lower level and higher level skills (See Hogan et al., 2011, Increasing Higher Level Language Skills to Improve Reading Comprehension).
“In meaning-focused skills, we need to be targeting oral language and providing opportunities for emergent reading and writing.”
3. Measuring teacher knowledge of oral language
Listen to 31:00 – 47:09 to learn more.
Dr. Piasta collaborated with other researchers including past READ guest and WI instructor, Dr. Mindy Bridges, to develop a survey measure assessing teacher knowledge of oral language (read more about the TCKOLS, or the Teachers’ Content Knowledge of Oral Language Survey (Piasta et al., 2022)).
“Language isn't its own domain of education because it crosscuts all of these different areas [in school].”
Dr. Piasta differentiates between specific categories of teacher knowledge:
Pedagogical content knowledge
Knowledge of learners and their characteristics
“It is important that within teacher preparation as well as in service professional development, we are showing teachers how different literacy and language skills are interrelated. We are helping them understand how that can occur in classroom settings, and we are giving them opportunities to try these skills in practice with feedback.”
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About READ: READ, the Research Education ADvocacy Podcast connects you with prominent researchers, thought leaders, and educators who share their work, insights, and expertise about current research and best practices in fields of education and child development.
Note: All information and insights shared demonstrate the expertise and views of our guests and does not constitute an endorsement by The Windward Institute or The Windward School.