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National Center for Education Research

The National Center for Education Research (NCER) supports rigorous research that addresses the nation’s most pressing education needs, from early childhood to adult education.
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National Center for Education Research NCER Grantee Marcia Invernizzi wins Innovator of the Year Award

NCER grantee Marcia Invernizzi received the 2013 Innovator of the Year Award from the University of Virginia. The award honors her development of the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS). PALS identifies K-3 students in need of additional reading instruction and provides teachers with explicit information about their students' knowledge of literacy fundamentals. PALS is the state-provided screening tool for Virginia's Early Intervention Reading Initiative, which provides incentive funds to support research-based, small-group reading interventions for struggling readers. Although the initiative is voluntary, 99% of Virginia's elementary school divisions participate.

Dr. Invernizzi received a grant from NCER in 2009 to develop PALS-español, a Spanish version of the same assessment. She will extend PALS to assess Pre-K children in a new grant from NCER that began in July of this year. You can hear Marcia talk about PALS in a recent interview on NPR. NCER Reporter Dr. Vinita Chhabra had a chance to talk with Dr. Invernizzi about her research.

How did you first become interested in the reading field?

Teaching high school English in inner city Baltimore in the seventies. I was totally unprepared to deal with the literacy challenges my students were dealing with. They could not read their text books and their writing was painfully constrained by poor spelling. After first moving backwards in the grades (middle then elementary), I finally went back to grad school to figure out what to do about it.

What led you to create the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS)?

I had co-founded an early intervention reading tutorial called Book Buddies that was very successful. As it spread, so did the use of the assessments we used to screen and diagnose the children we served. When officials from Virginia's Department of Education came to ask about implementing a statewide early intervention reading initiative, it was natural to rely on the research and development we had already done. The opportunity to expand that work to a statewide universal literacy screening and early intervention initiative was a dream come true. I believe Virginia was the first state to initiate universal literacy screening in the primary grades back in the late nineties.

The NCER grant extended your work to Spanish-speaking students. What similarities and differences have you found in assessing basic phonological skills in English and Spanish?

We've certainly confirmed what previous research has shown: Phonological awareness is a powerful predictor of early literacy in Spanish, just as it is in English. One surprising nuance is that rhyming tasks seem to be even more predictive for Spanish-speaking children than for English-speaking students. Spanish has very few one-syllable words, and those that do exist are largely function words like prepositions. For that reason, early literacy tasks such as rhyming tasks are made up primarily of polysyllabic words. In identifying words that rhyme, children must attend across syllables in words that sometimes have one rhyming syllable (e.g. papel/mantel) and sometimes have two or more (e.g., oreja/abeja). So rhyming tasks in Spanish tap more of the suprasegmental aspects of spoken words than do English rhyming tasks, which for Kindergarten students generally consist of one-syllable words.

What are your plans and research interests for the future?

One of things we are exploring now is the developmental aspects of learning to spell in Spanish. Many people think that the Spanish written language is so transparent that once the phoneme-grapheme correspondences are learned that's all there is to it. What we're seeing in our data though are definite developmental trends in the acquisition of specific orthographic features, suggesting a hierarchy of features that appear to be learned in a developmental progression.

Another research interest pertains to the different characteristics of text cohesion and text complexity that might affect the ease of oral reading in Spanish. This is work that is already being done in English but has yet to be done with Spanish-speaking students reading Spanish texts—particularly Spanish expository texts. Our data show a leveling off of accuracy scores once children reach a certain level of reading proficiency, but their reading rates continue to decline across increments of difficulty. This is something we are beginning to explore right now.

Finally, we're excited to receive further NCER support for the development of an instructionally transparent early literacy assessment in Spanish for use in preschool settings. We know the importance of an early start, so putting instructionally useful information about early literacy development into the hands of early child care givers is critical. We look forward to exploring the predictive validity of some of usual suspects like phonological awareness and alphabetic knowledge, but also of some of the more unusual suspects like writing.

As the first educator to receive this award, what significance do you think this holds for future educational research?

I am very proud to be the first to represent innovation in education, especially innovation from UVA's Curry School of Education where we have LOTS of innovation going on. This award follows a long line of impressive award winners for innovations in the realm of public health . . . needle stick safety, magnetic resonance imaging, medical automation etc., so I think this bodes very well for the future of educational research. Education provides the foundation for a successful life and a well-functioning democratic society. Education is essential to our economic productivity. If nothing else, this award has served to move education into the public health arena and adds to a growing awareness of the importance of education solutions.