Children’s Learning Institute researchers at McGovern Medical School recently were awarded federal funding for research covering a variety of education topics ranging from reading comprehension to English-language learners to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) assessments.

A total of $9.8 million in grants among six research projects were given to the Children’s Learning Institute by two sources: the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), a part of the U.S. Department of Education, and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, one of the National Institutes of Health.

The grants aim to address issues in education affecting students from a variety of backgrounds across Texas, said Dr. Susan Landry, founder and director of the Children’s Learning Institute.

“For a variety of reasons, many students in Texas are at risk for falling behind where they need to be in order to succeed,” said Landry, who holds the Albert and Margaret Alkek Chair in Early Childhood Development and Michael Matthew Knight Memorial Professorship in Pediatrics at UTHealth Medical School. “However, there is a growing consensus that high quality educational experiences can lay a strong foundation for school success for children of all backgrounds. We will test which instructional approaches best create this foundation.”

Dr. Carolyn Denton, professor of pediatrics at the Children’s Learning Institute and Chair in Childhood Reading and Learning at UTHealth Medical School, is a researcher on two projects that received approximately $5 million in funding from the IES. She is the principal investigator on a three-year study that looks to develop an intensive reading intervention for students in grades 2 and 3 at risk for, or identified as, having serious reading difficulties or disabilities. The project, of which Dr. Tricia Zucker, associate professor of pediatrics at Children’s Learning Institute is a co-principal investigator, also includes the development of an online library of video clips that can be viewed by teachers to help them understand how to implement the intervention. The project, which will be conducted in schools in the Houston Independent School District, will provide instruction in both word reading and reading comprehension, building sequentially from easier to more complex skills in increasingly complex text.

Denton is also a co-principal investigator of a four-year project that will evaluate the effects of a program called Reading RULES, which was developed at the Children’s Learning Institute for first-grade students who are at risk for reading difficulties. Reading RULES provides carefully sequenced instruction in word reading, fluency, vocabulary, listening comprehension and reading comprehension. The study, which is led by principal investigator Dr. Emily Solari, of the University of California at Davis, will include 960 first-grade children in Houston and Davis, Calif., who are at risk for reading difficulties.

Although there is a growing interest in supporting and promoting science STEM instruction and learning during the preschool years, there are few standardized assessments of children’s knowledge and understanding of STEM concepts.

Dr. Jason Anthony, professor of pediatrics at the Children’s Learning Institute, is a principal investigator of a four-year, $1.6 million project that will add STEM assessments to the School Readiness Curriculum Based Measurement System, which was recently developed to assess young children’s language and literacy skills in Spanish and English. Teachers and researchers will be able to use the expanded this system to assess 3- to 5-year-olds’ language, literacy, math and science skills in both English and Spanish.

The study, which is funded by the IES and includes co-principal investigators Zucker and Drs. Michael Assel, Maria Carlo, Matt Foster, and Jeffrey Williams, of the Children’s Learning Institute, will take place in Head Start programs, public school-based preschool programs and private child care centers across Texas. It will include a socioeconomically and linguistically diverse sample of children who speak English, Spanish or both.

English Language Learners (ELLs) are more likely than their native English-speaking peers to encounter unfamiliar words when reading, and vocabulary knowledge is a key contributor to reading comprehension. In a four-year, $1.55 million project funded by the IES, Carlo, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Children’s Learning Institute, will conduct a series of studies to inform instructional strategies intended to help ELLs learn the meaning of new words. Findings will inform the development of future academic models to help ELLs build the vocabulary knowledge they need to benefit from the full academic curriculum. The study will test the benefits of providing definitions in English versus Spanish for 1,000 Spanish-speaking ELLs in the fourth grade in urban Florida.

Existing academic models have primarily focused on developing and implementing universal, core curricula to improve preschoolers’ language and literacy skills, but some of these models are not effective for students who begin preschool with low literacy skills. Zucker is the principal investigator on a three-year, $1.5 million project funded by IES that will develop Teaching Together!, a curriculum that will provide targeted language and literacy instruction to preschoolers who are not responding to universal instruction. Landry and Carlo are co-principal investigators on the project, which will include teachers and parents of preschool children in Texas and Virginia who are at risk for low literacy skills, along with Drs. Sonia Cabell, and Jamie DeCoster, of the University of Virginia.

The Children’s Learning Institute also received a $231,000 grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute for a study that will help combat the child obesity epidemic in Texas. This two-year project, led by principal investigators Landry and Dr. Shreela Sharma, of the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at the UTHealth School of Public Health, will conduct a pilot test a home-based program targeting a diverse population to improve parenting skills for obesity prevention and control among toddlers 2 to 3 years old. The co-investigators on the project are Drs. Ursula Johnson, of the Children’s Learning Institute, and Deanna Hoelscher, and Courtney Byrd-Williams, of the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living. The program, which is called ENRICH (Encouraging Nurturing Responsiveness to Improve Child Health), will integrate strategies from two research-proven programs — Play and Learn Strategies (PALS) and the Coordinated Approach to Child Health (CATCH). This study will teach parents how to be responsive and sensitive to their child’s cues, provide opportunities and assure consistency in children’s schedules for mealtime, activity, and sleep.

About the Children’s Learning Institute:

The Children’s Learning Institute at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) was founded in 2003 and currently impacts children, families and teachers across Texas and the country through research, clinical programs, statewide early childhood initiatives, parenting programs and teacher mentoring programs. For more information about the Children’s Learning Institute, visit www.childrenslearninginstitute.org.