University of Iowa study: Variation in words may help early learners read better

16 Jan

Moi discussed the importance of reading in Reading is a key component of learning:

The goal of parents, teachers, students, and society should be that all children succeed in obtaining a good basic education. In order to achieve this goal, children must come to school ready to learn. See, Illiteracy in America

The University of Michigan Health Center explains why reading is important in the article, Reading, Literacy and Your Child:

What is literacy?

Literacymeans being able to read and write.

Why is reading important?

A child’s reading skills are important to their success in school and work. In addition, reading can be a fun and imaginative activity for children, which opens doors to all kinds of new worlds for them.  Reading and writing are important ways we use language to communicate.

How do reading and language skills develop?

For an answer to this question, check out the following link:

Research has identified five early reading skills that are all essential.  They are [1]:

  • Phonemic awarenessBeing able to hear, identify, and play with individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words.

  • PhonicsBeing able to connect the letters of written language with the sounds of spoken language.

  • VocabularyThe words kids need to know to communicate effectively.

  • Reading comprehensionBeing able to understand and get meaning from what has been read.

  • Fluency (oral reading)Being able to read text accurately and quickly.

How can we make reading part of our family’s lifestyle?
Parents play a critical role in helping their children develop not only the ability to read, but also an enjoyment of reading.

  • Turn off the tube.  Start by limiting your family’s television viewing time. 

  • Teach by example.  If you have books, newspapers and magazines around your house, and your child sees you reading, then your child will learn that you value reading.  You can’t over-estimate the value of modeling. 

  • Read together.  Reading with your child is a great activity.  It not only teaches your child that reading is important to you, but it also offers a chance to talk about the book, and often other issues will come up.  Books can really open the lines of communication between parent and child. 

  • Hit the library.  Try finding library books about current issues or interests in your family’s or child’s life, and then reading them together.  For example, read a book about going to the dentist prior to your child’s next dental exam, or get some books about seashore life after a trip to the coast.  If your child is obsessed with dragons, ask your librarian to recommend a good dragon novel for your child.

There are many ways to include reading in your child’s life, starting in babyhood, and continuing through the teen years.  Focus on literacy activities that your child enjoys, so that reading is a treat, not a chore.

Reading skills are particularly important in academic success because of “Common Core Standards Initiative.” The “Common Core State Standards Initiative” is a state-led effort coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).

Dian Schaffhauser reports in The Journal article, Word Variety Helps Early Learners:

Exposure to word variation for early readers may boost their abilities, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Iowa to be published in the January issue of Developmental Psychology. To test out the hypothesis, the researchers used Access Code, an online application from Foundations in Learning that applies the “Varied Practice Model” in helping students with word recognition. With varied practice, tasks are changed so that the student is continually exposed to new things to learn. Access Code attempts to help “struggling” readers improve fluency and comprehension of the material.

Although Access Code is intended for students in grade two and above, in this study, U Iowa doctoral student Keith Apfelbaum and Associate Professors Bob McMurray and Eliot Hazeltine of the Department of Psychology worked with 224 first-grade students in the West Des Moines Community Schools system. Some students learned words organized by traditional phonics instruction, which uses similar word sets to help illustrate the rules, the idea being to simplify the school work for learners. A second group of students used curriculum in Access Code, which pulls together sets of words with variation, appearing to make the lesson more difficult.

After a few days of phonics instruction through Access Code, including spelling and matching letters, all of the students were tested to see if they could read words they’d never seen before, read made-up words, and apply their new skills to work they hadn’t done before.

Here is the press release from the University of Iowa Magazine:

Rethinking reading

UI study breaks new ground in reading development research


Kelli Andresen | 2012.11.01 | 10:29 AM

A recent University of Iowa study indicates that variation in words may help early readers learn better.

Many educators have long believed that when words differ on only one sound, early readers can learn the rules of phonics by focusing on what is different between the words. This is thought to be a critical gateway to reading words and sentences.

But scientists at the University of Iowa are turning that thinking on its head. A recent study published in Developmental Psychology shows certain kinds of variation in words may help early readers learn better. When children see the same phonics regularities, embedded in words with more variation, they may learn these crucial early reading skills better. What might appear to make learning a more difficult task—learning about letter-sound relationships from words with more variation—actually leads to better learning.

Doctoral student Keith Apfelbaum and associate professors Bob McMurray and Eliot Hazeltine of the Department of Psychology in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) studied 224 first-grade students in the West Des Moines, Iowa school system over a period of three months. The group used a version of an online supplementary curriculum called Access Code.

Access Code was developed by Foundations in Learning, a company founded by Carolyn Brown and Jerry Zimmermann. Brown and Zimmermann earned their doctorates from and are now adjunct faculty in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, also in CLAS. Based on the Varied Practice Model, which helps children master early reading skills like phonics, the research team used Access Code to conduct the study directly in the classroom.

During the study, one group of students learned using lists of words with a small, less variable set of consonants, such as maid, mad, paid, and pad. This is close to traditional phonics instruction, which uses similar words to help illustrate the rules and, presumably, simplify the problem for learners. A second group of students learned using a list of words that was more variable, such as bait, sad, hair, and gap, but which embodied the same rules.

After three or four days of training on phonics skills, partaking in activities such as spelling and matching letters, the students from both groups were tested to see if they could read words that they had never seen before, read novel non-words, and apply their newly-learned skills to tasks they hadn’t done before.

We were interested in not just whether they could do exactly what we were teaching, but whether they could learn something more robust that would enable them to apply what they had learned to new tasks and new words,” McMurray says. “Critically, we wanted to know if variability or similarity would impact this ability to learn and generalize.”

Results surprised even the research team.

We were expecting a very subtle effect, maybe similar words would help students learn the words they were trained on but maybe not generalize as well, or maybe similar words would help them learn the more difficult rules but variability might work for the easier ones, but in no case was similarity helpful,” McMurray says. “This suggests a powerful principle of learning. While we’ve known about this in a variety of laboratory tasks for a while, this study shows for the first time that this principle also applies to early reading skills.”

Overall, variation led to much better learning. Students experiencing more variation in words showed better learning when tested on the words and tasks they encountered in training. More importantly, it helped them generalize these new skills to new words, and to new tasks.

Variability was good for the low-performing students, it was good for the high-performing students. It was good for the boys, it was good for the girls. It was good for the words, it was good for the non-words,” Apfelbaum says. “Among the students who struggled the most, the kids who weren’t exposed to variation didn’t show any learning at all, while the kids who were exposed to variation did.”

Robert Davis, an educator for 36 years and principal of Hillside Elementary, which was one of the schools that participated in the study, says he is eager to work with his teachers on ways to apply varied practice to the classroom.

If we really look at what happened with the research, there is a multitude of applications that could go forward with this,” Davis says. “We could certainly look at varied practice as a method for learning new vocabulary, as a new method for learning basic math facts, maybe even something involved with music. As educators, we need to figure out how to take that model and apply it to the umbrella of learning for a variety of things that kids struggle with.”

Brown, whose research has focused on child development, language acquisition, and reading for more than three decades, says she looks forward to continued collaboration with the UI research team.

We hope this collaboration is only the beginning to bringing the science of learning to the art of teaching children to read,” Brown says. “We have missed many children because reading pedagogy has been driven by systems of belief in how reading should be taught rather than by how children learn. The importance of variation in this process will be a surprise to many educators and a help to many children.”


Kelli Andresen, University Communication and Marketing, 319-384-0070

Bob McMurray, Psychology, 319-335-2408

John Sims, Foundations in Learning, 214-497-3231

The program used by the researchers comes from Foundations in Learning.

Foundations for Learning describes the Access Code program:

Access Code: Varied Practice Model

Access Code, driven by the Varied Practice Model, is a web-based, supplementary curriculum for struggling readers in Grades 2 and above to acquire/strengthen, apply, and generalize phonics rules for improved fluency and comprehension.

Who can it help?

As many as 15-20% of elementary and middle school students struggle with reading because of poor word recognition skills. These students:

  • Have difficulty breaking words into syllables
  • Cannot apply/generalize phonics rules to connected text
  • Struggle with comprehension
  • Have a particular challenge with vowels
  • Have not responded to other intervention programs and need remediation year after year

What are the benefits?

  • Varied Practice has been shown to increase a learner’s ability to apply/generalize skills and Access Code is the only program that uses this approach.

  • Access Code helps ensure that students understand how vowels and syllables work in words.

  • Truly individualized instruction for each student.

  • Does not require that a teacher discard other approaches and programs. Rather, Access Code can help ensure that students get maximum benefit from those other programs.

This study shows that there are many things to be learned about how to effectively teach reading skills to those who are struggling.


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7 Responses to “University of Iowa study: Variation in words may help early learners read better”


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