Monday, July 9, 2012

Teen Dating Violence Behaviors and Risk Factors Common Among 7th-Grade Students

Experts Believe Prevention in Middle School Matters

A new study of 1,430 7th-grade students released today reveals that many 7th-graders are dating and experiencing physical, psychological and electronic dating violence. More than one in three (37%) students surveyed report being a victim of psychological dating violence and nearly one in six (15%) report being a victim of physical dating violence. The study also found that while some attitudes and behaviors associated with increased risk for teen dating violence are pervasive, nearly three-quarters of students surveyed report talking to their parents about dating and teen dating violence. Parent-child communication is considered a protective factor that reduces the risk for teen dating violence.

The study was conducted by RTI International (RTI) on behalf of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Blue Shield of California Foundation as part of an independent evaluation of their Start Strong: Building Healthy Teen Relationships (Start Strong) initiative. The data released today is the baseline for this larger evaluation to assess the overall impact of the program. Start Strong is one of the largest initiatives ever funded that targets 11- to 14-year-olds to promote healthy relationships in order to prevent teen dating violence and abuse.

The Start Strong evaluation is one of the few studies, and one of the largest, to look in-depth at the dating relationships of middle school students. Although it is not nationally representative, the study sample included 1,430 7th-grade students from diverse geographical locations. The study collected data on teen dating violence behaviors, as well as risk and protective factors linked to dating violence, such as gender stereotypes, sexual harassment, the acceptance of teen dating violence and parent-child communication.

“There is limited information on 7th-graders and these data provide important insights into teen dating violence behaviors and risk factors among middle school students,” said Shari Miller, Ph.D., lead researcher from RTI. “From this study, we are learning that many 7th-graders are already dating and teen dating violence is not happening behind closed doors with so many students in this study witnessing dating violence among their peers. While we need to do much more to understand this young age group, our data point to the need for teen dating violence prevention programs in middle school.”

Among the key findings:

- 75% of students surveyed report ever having a boyfriend or girlfriend.
- More than 1 in 3 (37%) students surveyed report being a victim of psychological dating violence in the last 6 months.
- Nearly 1 in 6 (15%) students surveyed report being a victim of physical dating violence in the last 6 months.
- Nearly 1 in 3 (31%) students surveyed report being a victim of electronic dating aggression in the last 6 months.
- More than 1 in 3 (37%) of students surveyed report having witnessed boys or girls being physically violent to persons they were dating in the last 6 months.
- Nearly 2 out of 3 students surveyed (63%) strongly agree with a harmful gender stereotype, such as “girls are always trying to get boys to do what they want them to do,” or “with boyfriends and girlfriends, the boy should be smarter than the girl.”
- Nearly half of students surveyed (49%) report having been a victim of sexual harassment in the past 6 months, such as being “touched, grabbed, or pinched in a sexual way,” or that someone ”made sexual jokes” about them.
- Nearly three-quarters of 7th-grade students surveyed report that, in the last 6 months, they “sometimes or often” talk with their parents about dating topics such as, “how to tell if someone might like you as a boyfriend or girlfriend.”

Prevention in Middle School Matters

“Dating violence is a pressing public health challenge and these new data are important and powerful. We know that middle school provides this critical window of opportunity to teach young adolescents about healthy relationships and prevent teen dating violence,” said James Marks, M.D., M.P.H., senior vice president and director, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Group. “Through Start Strong, we are identifying and spreading effective ways for parents, teachers and communities to help young people develop healthy relationships throughout their life.”

The Start Strong program utilizes a multi-faceted approach to rally entire communities to promote healthy relationship behaviors among middle school students. The Start Strong model utilizes innovative program components to: i) educate and engage youth in schools and out of school settings; ii) educate and engage teen influencers, such as parents, older teens, teachers and other mentors; iii) change policy and environmental factors in schools and communities; and iv) implement effective communications/ social marketing strategies to change social norms. “By combining the findings of this new study with the lessons learned in Start Strong communities, we are developing the essential tools needed to promote healthier relationships for young people,” said Peter Long, Ph.D., president and CEO of Blue Shield of California Foundation.

Parent engagement is a key component of Start Strong. As the study shows, many 7th-graders are talking to their parents about dating topics, including teen dating violence. This highlights the important role parents can play in prevention efforts. Start Strong educates parents of middle school students about these issues so they can help their children navigate new relationships (both online and offline), including teaching parents the warning signs of abuse and how to start conversations about healthy relationships at an early age.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

US Students Need New Way of Learning Science

American students need a dramatically new approach to improve how they learn science, says a noted group of scientists and educators led by Michigan State University professor William Schmidt.

After six years of work, the group has proposed a solution. The 8+1 Science concept calls for a radical overhaul in K-12 schools that moves away from memorizing scientific facts and focuses on helping students understand eight fundamental science concepts. The "plus one" is the importance of inquiry, the practice of asking why things happen around us -- and a fundamental part of science.

"Now is the time to rethink how we teach science," said Schmidt, University Distinguished Professor of statistics and education. "What we are proposing through 8+1 Science is a new way of thinking about and teaching science, not a new set of science standards. It supports basic concepts included in most sets of state standards currently in use and complements standards-based education reform efforts."

The group of scientists has met with Schmidt in an effort to rethink how science should be taught since 2006, when it was originally part of the PROM/SE research project (Promoting Rigorous Outcomes in Mathematics and Science Education) funded by the National Science Foundation.

The 8+1 concepts were derived from two basic questions: What are things made of and how do systems interact and change? The eight concepts are: atoms, cells, radiation, systems change, forces, energy, conservation of mass and energy, and variation.

Traditionally, science in the United States has been taught in isolated disciplines such as chemistry, biology and physics without clear connections being made between the subjects. The 8+1 effort encourages K-12 teachers to use the eight science concepts to build understanding within and between their courses as students advance through the grades.

"The natural world seems to operate through these laws and concepts, but when it comes to schooling we don't teach children these laws and then show how these apply in different situations," Schmidt said.

Simon Billinge, an 8+1 committee member and professor of applied physics and mathematics at Columbia University, said the aim is for students to see, for example, the physics within biology and the chemistry within physics, so they can gain an understanding of science that transcends disciplinary lines.

Today's frontiers in science often occur at these disciplinary edges. Aided by the explosion in technology and scientific discoveries, new fields are arising that were hardly imagined a generation ago such as synthetic biology, digital organisms and genomics.

Most states are participating in a process to develop new K-12 science standards that are more relevant, coherent and based on international benchmarks.

Stephen Pruitt, vice president of Achieve, a nonprofit organization managing the state-led effort, said 8+1 Science can work hand-in-hand with his organization's effort -- called Next Generation Science Standards -- "to change the way we think about science education."

"The emphasis is about helping students learn key concepts in science, rather than just facts," Pruitt said.

Results from the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress show only 34 percent of fourth-graders and 21 percent of 12th-graders were proficient in their science knowledge. Internationally, U.S. students ranked a mediocre 23rd in their science knowledge among countries studied by the Program for International Student Assessment.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Cyberbullying and bullying are not the same

University of British Columbia research comparing traditional bullying with cyberbullying finds that the dynamics of online bullying are different, suggesting that anti-bullying programs need specific interventions to target online aggression.

"There are currently many programs aimed at reducing bullying in schools and I think there is an assumption that these programs deal with cyberbullying as well," says Jennifer Shapka, an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at UBC who is presenting this research at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meeting in Vancouver.

"What we're seeing is that kids don't equate cyberbullying with traditional forms of schoolyard bullying. As such, we shouldn't assume that existing interventions will be relevant to aggression that is happening online."

Shapka is presenting a study that involved 17,000 Vancouver, B.C. students in Grades 8 to 12 and a follow-up study involving 733 Vancouver, B.C. youth aged 10-18.

Results of the studies show that about 25-30 per cent of youth report that they have experienced or taken part in cyberbullying, compared to 12 per cent of youth who say they've experienced or taken part in schoolyard bullying. However, "Youth say that 95 per cent of what happens online was intended as a joke and only 5 per cent was intended to harm," says Shapka. "It is clear that youth are underestimating the level of harm associated with cyberbullying."

According to Shapka, the findings suggest that in cyberbullying adolescents play multiple roles - as bullies, victims, and witnesses - and "downplay the impact of it, which means that existing education and prevention programs are not going to get through to them."

"Students need to be educated that this 'just joking' behaviour has serious implications."

Being victimized online can have consequences for a person's mental health, developmental wellbeing, and academic achievement, according to Shapka. In extreme cases, there have been reports of suicide.

Traditional bullying, or schoolyard bullying, is often associated with three main characteristics: a power differential between bully and victim, a proactive targeting of a victim, and ongoing aggression.

Shapka says, research is beginning to show that cyberbullying does not necessarily involve these three characteristics. Traditional power differentials - size and popularity - do not necessarily apply online. There also seems to be more fluid delineation between the roles youth play; it is not unusual for an individual to act in all capacities - bullies, victims, and witnesses - online.

Previous work by Shapka and her colleagues has shown that in contrast to traditional bullying, cyberbullying is rarely associated with planned targeting of a victim.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Measuring Risk Intelligence

Tests exist for evaluating personality, intelligence and memory. However, up to now, it was not easily possible to find out how good someone is at making decisions in risky situations. "Yet this is an important skill that has an enormous influence on many of our decisions," says psychologist Edward Cokely, who came up with the idea of developing a quick test for this skill at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in 2007. In the intervening five years, he has carried out 21 sub-studies in 15 countries with colleagues from Max Planck Director Gerd Gigerenzer's group at the Institute in Berlin and the Michigan Technological University.

One of the results of the studies is the first quick test for establishing an individual's risk intelligence.

The "Berlin Numeracy Test" is available at the website.

The test works twice as well as previous methods and only takes three minutes. Traditional tests, which tend to determine general cognitive capacities, like intelligence or attention control, provide little information about a person's risk competency. A high level of intelligence does not necessarily mean that the person is equally skilled in all areas. "My doctor may be very intelligent, but that does not mean that she can repair my car particularly well or can fill out my tax return," explains Cokely.

To develop their tests, the psychologist and his colleagues carried out experiments with several thousand subjects in North America, Europe and Asia. The test participants had to complete tasks from different areas. For example, 300 participants in a sub-study in Berlin were faced with psychological tasks that were intended to establish, among other things, their personal emotional stability, general life-satisfaction and exam anxiety. They also had to interpret information about risks. "We wanted to find out how well they understand weather forecasts, for example," says Cokely.

It emerged from these tests that highly-educated individuals often also have difficulty interpreting information on risk probabilities. "However, if we want to have educated citizens who make decisions based on information, we need people who understand information about risks," explains the scientist. Seen in this way, risk intelligence is just as important a skill as reading and writing. "Fortunately," he adds, "it can also be learned." In fact, as the researchers discovered over the five years of testing various tasks, risk intelligence is closely linked with mathematical skills. They designed their test accordingly: all three tasks are based on the field of percentage calculation.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Heart healthy lessons plus better food offerings lower heart disease risk factors in sixth-graders

Portable program could help middle schools across the country keep kids heart healthy

Sixth-graders taking part in a 10-week program that included interactive lessons to get heart smart coupled with healthier food and beverage options in the cafeteria and vending machines had marked reductions across all cardiovascular risk factors, according to research presented today at the American College of Cardiology's 61st Annual Scientific Session. The Scientific Session, the premier cardiovascular medical meeting, brings cardiovascular professionals together to further advances in the field.

"To see this kind of an impact in such a short period of time is pretty encouraging, and something that distinguishes it from other childhood obesity programs," said Taylor Eagle, pre-medical student, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Mich., and the study's lead investigator. "Teaching these kids heart-healthy lessons clearly makes a real difference, and it could affect their lives forever. It's also important for controlling health care costs down the road because children who are obese in childhood are much more likely to be obese in their adulthood."

In addition to favorable physiologic changes in systolic and diastolic blood pressure, total cholesterol, LDL or "bad" cholesterol, triglycerides and random glucose (p≤0.001), pre-/post- analyses showed the program also supported better dietary and exercise habits. Students reportedly consumed more fruits and vegetables and became more physically active, spent less time in front of the TV and/or computer and more time playing intramural sports.

The messages and activities promoted throughout the 10-week intervention centered around five goals: eat more fruits and vegetables; make better beverage choices; perform at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week; eat less fats and fatty food, and spend less mindless time in front of the TV and computer. Volunteers and program staff were trained to implement the program consistently in the 20-plus participating schools. The intervention included 10 interactive lessons that reinforced the five goals, related to changes to nutritional offerings and other activities to promote healthy eating and exercise.

"We are not just teaching lessons to the students, but we are also altering the environments to make it easier to make healthier food choices," Eagle said.

Researchers used standardized questionnaires to collect information about health behaviors from 2,048 sixth-graders in middle schools in four Southeast Michigan communities participating in Project Healthy Schools (PHS). Baseline physiological markers were also assessed; these and health behaviors were compared before and after students were exposed to the program. Participating schools also have the freedom to adopt other activities to boost healthy behaviors; for example, walking programs after school, buses to YMCAs to exercise in a safe environment, and starting farms to be grow their own vegetables.

"We are not going to solve childhood obesity epidemic without raising awareness and engaging communities," said Elizabeth Jackson, MD, MPH, assistant professor of medicine, Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, University of Michigan Systems, Ann Arbor, Mich. "This program could be implemented in any middle school in the U.S. – at the very least it gives every child basic skills which can be used to make improvements in key health behaviors, and may result in long-term healthier lifestyles."

Researchers say further studies are needed to understand which aspects of middle-school based interventions are most successful in improving students' health. PHS is supported by a broad community partnership.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

'Coaching Boys into Men' an effective tool for stopping teen dating violence

Male high school athletes' ability to recognize and intervene to stop dating violence -- the physical, sexual and emotional aggression prevalent in adolescent romantic relationships -- is improved with the intervention of some of the most important role models in young men's lives: their coaches.

A new study conducted in Sacramento, Calif., led by UC Davis researchers has found that a structured program delivered by coaches, called "Coaching Boys into Men," is effective for discouraging adolescent dating violence. The research is published online today in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

"The high school male athletes whose coaches delivered this easy-to-implement program reported more positive bystander behaviors, meaning that these boys were more likely to say or do something to stop disrespectful and harmful behaviors towards girls which they witnessed among their male peers," said Elizabeth Miller, a member of the faculty of the UC Davis School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics.

"Previous violence-prevention efforts have not generally included coaches as partners, yet coaches can be such important role models for their athletes," said Miller, who is now chief of the division of adolesent medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. "With the right training and support, coaches can encourage their athletes to be positive leaders in their communities and to be part of the solution."

In the United States, one in three adolescent girls experiences physical, emotional or verbal abuse by a dating partner. Promoting non-violent attitudes among teen boys toward girls is recognized as a critical step to reduce the incidence of violence in these relationships.

"Coaching Boys into Men" (CBIM) is a high school athletics-based program that seeks to reduce dating violence by engaging athletic coaches as positive role models to deliver violence-prevention messages to young male athletes. It is a national program created by Futures Without Violence, formerly Family Violence Prevention Fund, in 2000. For the program, the coaches are trained in the use of the "Coaches Kit," a series of training cards that offers strategies for opening conversations about dating violence and appropriate attitudes toward women with young athletes.

The study was conducted among over 2,000 young male athletes in 16 high schools in four urban school districts in Sacramento County, Calif., between winter 2009 and fall 2010. Eight of the schools were randomly selected to receive the program, while the other eight schools served as comparisons. Of the coaches approached, 87 percent agreed to participate in the study. The ninth- through twelfth-grade student athletes who agreed to participate were administered a 15-minute baseline survey at the beginning of their sports season, which assessed their attitudes about dating violence and behaviors toward adolescent girls. A similar survey was administered at the end of the sports season (the study included fall, winter and spring sports).

For example, questions sought to assess teens' perceptions of abusive behaviors such as "telling girls which friends they can or cannot see or talk to" and "telling them they're ugly or stupid." Responses were assessed using a five-point scale that ranked answers from "not abusive" to "extremely abusive." Additional survey items assessed the athletes' level of agreement with statements such as "If a girl is raped it is often because she did not say no clearly enough" or "A boy/man will lose respect if he talks about his problems." Youth were also asked about how likely they would be to intervene when witnessing various abusive behaviors, such as hearing a peer make derogatory comments about a girl's appearance.

The surveys also asked whether the athletes had witnessed any abusive behavior and actually intervened. The young men who had ever dated were asked whether they themselves had participated in any of 10 abusive behaviors including physical, sexual and emotional abuse toward a female partner in the past three months. Eighteen percent of the male athletes who had ever dated reported perpetrating any abusive behavior toward a female partner in the past three months, with verbal and emotional abuse being most common.

The study found that the young males who were exposed to the Coaching Boys into Men program said that they were more likely to intervene when observing abusive behavior toward a peer when compared with the control group of teens, while the likelihood that control athletes would intervene diminished overall during the course of the sports season. And the youth who were exposed to Coaching Boys into Men were significantly more likely to report actually doing something to stop disrespectful and harmful behaviors among their male peers, when compared with controls.

"There are too few dating violence prevention programs that have demonstrated effectiveness using a rigorous research design. This study offers important evidence on the violence-reducing potential of a practical program that can be integrated into school and community-based dating violence prevention efforts," said Daniel Tancredi, assistant professor in pediatrics at UC Davis and co-investigator for the study.

"This study reminds us that in order to prevent violence before it happens, we need to take advantage of the positive influence that coaches have in shaping young athletes' attitudes towards women and girls." said Esta Soler, president of Futures Without Violence. "We hope these findings will spotlight the importance of dating violence and sexual assault prevention and encourage other schools to implement similar programs."

The Coaching Boys into Men program is available for free download through Futures Without Violence. In Sacramento, WEAVE (a partner in this research study) is continuing to provide training and support to coaches in area high schools. The study was funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Getting in rhythm helps children grasp fractions

Tapping out a beat may help children learn difficult fraction concepts, according to new findings due to be published in the journal Educational Studies in Mathematics. An innovative curriculum uses rhythm to teach fractions at a California school where students in a music-based program scored significantly higher on math tests than their peers who received regular instruction.

"Academic Music" is a hands-on curriculum that uses music notation, clapping, drumming and chanting to introduce third-grade students to fractions. The program, co-designed by San Francisco State University researchers, addresses one of the most difficult -- and important -- topics in the elementary mathematics curriculum.

"If students don't understand fractjavascript:void(0)ions early on, they often struggle with algebra and mathematical reasoning later in their schooling," said Susan Courey, assistant professor of special education at San Francisco State University. "We have designed a method that uses gestures and symbols to help children understand parts of a whole and learn the academic language of math."

The program has shown tangible results at Hoover Elementary School in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Courey's study included 67 students. Half the group participated in a six-week Academic Music curriculum and the rest received the school's regular math instruction.

Students in the music-based program scored 50 percent higher on a fraction test, taken at the end of the study, compared to students in the regular math class.

Significant gains were made by students who struggle with academics. The researchers compared the test scores of lower-performing students in both groups and found that those who were taught the experimental music curriculum scored 40 percent higher on the final fractions test compared to their lower performing peers in the regular math class.

"Students who started out with less fraction knowledge achieved final test scores similar to their higher-achieving peers," Courey said. "Lower-performing students might find it hard to grasp the idea of fractions from a diagram or textbook, but when you add music and multiple ways of learning, fractions become second nature to them."

Courey devised Academic Music with music teacher Endre Balogh. They borrowed aspects from the Kodaly method, a Hungarian approach to music education that incudes movement, songs and nicknames for musical notes, such as "ta-ah" for a half note.

The curriculum helps children connect the value of musical notes, such as half notes and eighth notes, to their equivalent fraction size. By clapping and drumming rhythms and chanting each note's Kodaly names, students learn the time value of musical notes. Students learn to add and subtract fractions by completing work sheets, in which they draw musical notes on sheet music, ensuring the notes add up to four beats in each bar or measure.

The program has also proven itself at Allen Elementary School, a San Bruno public school -- not included in the study -- that has been using the Academic Music program since 2007.

"Academic Music brings music into the classroom and gets children to learn math in a different way that's symbolic and not dependent on language," said Kit Cosgriff, principal at Allen Elementary School, who introduced the program to help the schools' diverse student body learn math in ways that are not language-based. The school serves many students from low-income families, and 60 percent of students don't speak English as their first language.

"In every lesson I've observed, the children have been excited and enthusiastic about learning fractions," Cosgriff said. "It's a picture of what you would like every class to look like."

Cosgriff believes the school's recent jump in standardized test scores reflects the impact of Academic Music. Since implementing the program for all third-grade math classes, the percentage of third-graders who scored proficient or above on the California Standards Test for math increased from 63 percent in 2006 to 70 percent in 2007 and 75 percent in 2008. On the California Achievement Test (CAT/6) for mathematics, the percentage of third graders who scored at or above the national average increased from 51 percent in 2006 to 72 percent in 2007 and 75 percent in 2008.

Academic Music is a 12-lesson program that is designed to be taught by regular classroom teachers without the help of a music teacher. Courey's next step is to publish curriculum materials for teachers.

"We're suggesting that teachers put music in their arsenal of tools for teaching math." Courey said.

"It's fun, it doesn't cost a lot, and it keeps music in the classroom."

"Academic Music: Music Instruction to Engage Third Grade Students in Learning Basic Fraction Concepts" has been accepted for press in the journal Educational Studies in Mathematics and will be published online next week

Monday, July 2, 2012

States face challenges to improve writing standards

Far too many K-12 students have inadequate writing skills, and the current efforts to improve instruction in the United States may be more challenging than anticipated, research from Michigan State University shows.

According to an initial sample of seven states, the existing standards for teaching writing vary widely in comparison to a new set of common standards that are in the process of being implemented by most states.

Study co-director Gary Troia of MSU, along with Natalie Olinghouse at the University of Connecticut, said educators and policymakers in many parts of the country will have to make significant changes to bring existing curriculum, materials and teacher training in line with the Common Core State Standards for writing and language.

The new K-12 standards are intended to improve instruction in mathematics and English language arts, including writing, nationwide.

“Everyone needs to know how to write well, and we are not doing a good enough job to prepare students,” said Troia, associate professor of education. “What we are finding is that states are going to be faced with a misalignment between the content standards and curriculum materials they are using and what the Common Core requires them to cover.”

The research team has a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to study writing standards, assessments and student performance in all states except Maryland, Texas and the District of Columbia, which elected not to participate. Their first findings, presented at the American Educational Research Association meeting April 17, reflect an analysis of states representing a range of demographics and writing test results: California, Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Florida, New York and Massachusetts.

The researchers also evaluated the scope and quality of the Common Core writing standards, expected to be implemented in 46 states by 2014. They found the common standards are easy to interpret, succinct and balanced in terms of covering content across grades and topic areas. However, some important aspects of writing, such as student motivation, peer and teacher feedback, and mastery of an expanded range of writing purposes, are not included in the Common Core.

“Things that do matter at an early age like spelling and handwriting are not addressed very well,” said Troia. “States have to think about whether they want to add anything to the common standards as opposed to implementing them as is.”

Policy research has shown that content standards affect what is taught and how students perform. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, up to two-thirds of U.S. students are not considered proficient in writing.

“That presents a pretty bleak picture, and yet the expectations for writing in college and the workplace are being ramped up,” Troia said. “The Common Core can provide consistency and a lot of opportunities to enhance instruction, but there are gaps as well and we don’t want those to be ignored.”

The four-year study also is exploring how states’ writing standards and assessments reflect research knowledge about best practices as well as the types of writing skills students are expected to demonstrate after graduation.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Preschoolers' reading skills benefit from 1 modest change by teachers

A small change in how teachers and parents read aloud to preschoolers may provide a big boost to their reading skills later on, a new study found.

That small change involves making specific references to print in books while reading to childen – such as pointing out letters and words on the pages, showing capital letters, and showing how you read from left to right and top to bottom on the page.

Preschool children whose teachers used print references during storybook reading showed more advanced reading skills one and even two years later when compared to children whose teachers did not use such references. This is the first study to show causal links between referencing print and later literacy achievement.

"Using print references during reading was just a slight tweak to what teachers were already doing in the classroom, but it led to a sizeable improvement in reading for kids," said Shayne Piasta, co-author of the study and assistant professor of teaching and learning at Ohio State University.

"This would be a very manageable change for most preschool teachers, who already are doing storybook reading in class."

Piasta conducted the study with lead investigator Laura Justice, professor of teaching and learning at Ohio State, as well as co-investigators Anita McGinty of the University of Virginia and Joan Kaderavek of the University of Toledo. Their results appear in the April 2012 issue of the journal Child Development.

The study is part of Project STAR (Sit Together And Read), a randomized clinical trial based at Ohio State to test the short- and long-term impacts associated with reading regularly to preschool children in the classroom.

The study involved more than 300 children in 85 classrooms who participated in a 30-week shared reading program. As a group, the children came from low-income homes, started with below-average language skills and were at substantial risk for later reading difficulties.

The children were separated into three groups: high-dose STAR (four reading sessions per week), low-dose STAR (two reading sessions per week) and a third comparison group who also had four reading sessions per week. All teachers in the three groups read the same 30 books to their students.

Teachers in the two STAR groups were trained to make specific print references while reading the books. Teachers in the comparison group were told to read as they normally would, and were not prompted to make print references.

Results showed that both one and even two years later, preschoolers in the high-dose STAR classrooms had higher word reading, spelling and comprehension skills than did children in the comparison group. The benefits were not as clear for those in the low-dose STAR classrooms, although they did seem to have slightly better skills than those children in the comparison classrooms.

Piasta said it was particularly notable that students in the high-dose STAR classrooms scored higher on tests of reading comprehension.

"If you're getting kids to pay attention to letters and words, it makes sense that they will do better at word recognition and spelling," she said.

"But the fact that they also did better at understanding the passages they read is really exciting. That suggests this intervention may help them become better readers."

How do print references help preschoolers become better readers? Piasta said research suggests it helps children learn the code of letters and how they relate to words and to meaning.

"By showing them what a letter is and what a letter means, and what a word is and what a word means, we're helping them to crack the code of language and understand how to read," she said.

While this study shows the value of using print references with preschoolers, research suggests very few teachers and parents do this systematically, according to Piasta.

An earlier study by Justice and her colleagues showed that untrained teachers reference print about 8.5 times per reading session – compared to up to 36 times for those who were trained.

Parents are even less likely to make print references while reading to their children. One study suggests that parents use such references only about once during a typical 10-minute reading session.

"One of the best things about the power of print referencing is how easy it would be to implement during shared reading in the classroom," Piasta said.

"Compared to a lot of interventions, this only requires a small adjustment to teachers' typical reading style. But it pays large dividends in reading skills."