Literacy professor returns to teaching in the high school classroom to support and assess the reading comprehension of multilingual students

Associate Professor Dianna Townsend took a sabbatical from the College of Education to conduct research and improve her approach to preparing university students for their future careers in education.

Group of students in a library reading books and interacting with each other.

Literacy professor returns to teaching in the high school classroom to support and assess the reading comprehension of multilingual students

Associate Professor Dianna Townsend took a sabbatical from the College of Education to conduct research and improve her approach to preparing university students for their future careers in education.

Group of students in a library reading books and interacting with each other.

In 2018, Associate Professor Dianna Townsend set out to explore different approaches to reading comprehension of informational texts for adolescent, multilingual students who were designated as long-term English learners. 

While there are evidence-based guidelines for support reading comprehension in general, adolescent English learners are an understudied population. And, time is of the essence: high school English learners will soon be beyond the reach of the literacy support that public schools can provide.

The purpose of Townsend’s research was to conduct a study in the classroom to compare two instructional approaches to supporting reading comprehension and identify which would be most effective.

This research was no small feat, as Townsend had to take a sabbatical from her position and return to high school teaching to conduct this study. The study was supported by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

Diana Townsend photo
Dianna Townsend

“In my study, I asked my students, all of whom were multilingual English language learners, to read nine articles over several months,” Townsend said.

The first three articles were read with no instruction so that Townsend could assess what her students could do on their own. The second three articles were read after lessons designed to build background knowledge on the topic of the articles. The last three articles were read after instruction on building background information and academic language knowledge (e.g., learning about how to break down long sentences and understand connective words that show relationships between ideas).

The third condition, academic language instruction, was the crux of the project. Research shows that background knowledge is important for comprehension. And, researchers and teachers generally agree that academic language instruction is important. But, there has not been any research demonstrating that academic language instruction has an impact on adolescent English learners’ reading comprehension. 

“We found that including opportunities to obtain background knowledge and build academic language proficiency was the most effective condition,” said Townsend. “And, this was after we reduced the amount of background knowledge building in our lessons to make room for the academic language instruction. The main takeaway is this: if teachers have an hour to support students’ comprehension of an article, dividing that time between building background knowledge and academic language instruction is likely the best recipe for supporting comprehension.”

Impact in the Field

The findings from this research not only contributes to the research literature and impact teaching practices, it has rejuvenated Townsend’s approach to undergraduate teaching as well. 

The research findings from this study are being disseminated at various academic conferences for the Literacy Research Association in Tampa, Florida (December, 2019), American Educational Research Association in San Francisco, California (April, 2020), and the Society for Scientific Study of Reading in Newport Beach, California (July, 2020). 

Teachers have limited instructional time. Research like this can help inform educators on best practices for classroom instruction. Townsend’s study will help teachers implement effective reading comprehension strategies within their curriculum to support multilingual learners in the classroom. 

Impact and Importance of Applied Research

Townsend’s study is applied, which is a unique approach to conducting research in real settings like the classroom, while seeking to solve important problems, such as improving reading comprehension.

Applied research is extremely important in education as it helps to create immediate initiatives to improve learning, has a real-world impact in the classroom and can strengthen teaching strategies. However, applied work is often not undertaken as it can be incredibly difficult and time-consuming. Townsend, however, knew the importance of this research and pressed on. 

While reflecting on her experience, Townsend said, “I really enjoyed this experience as it allowed me to go back into the classroom. I not only conducted my study, but I was able to reconnect with teenagers and live the day-to-day life of a teacher again.”

Returning to the classroom to conduct research and teach high school students was a very valuable experience for Townsend, who left high school teaching over a decade ago. She works now as a college professor at the university’s College of Education, where she teaches and prepares future educators. 

“Teaching in the high school setting again was so powerful,” Townsend said. “I gained so much experience that is relevant for my undergraduate classroom. I am rethinking and revitalizing how I instruct future teachers in my classroom, thanks to all that my high school students taught me last year. I’m glad I was able to support their reading, but I’m even more grateful for what they taught me about what is important to them. They showed me the important work teenagers are doing around identity, culture, relationships, racism, and generally finding their way to adulthood.”