Research News

Peabody faculty awarded special education research grants totaling $4.5M

Two faculty from Peabody College of education and human development have been awarded grants from the National Center for Special Education Research. Jeanne Wanzek, Currey-Ingram Chair in Special Education, will receive $3.8 million to examine the effectiveness of targeted literacy interventions for students with reading disabilities. Elizabeth Biggs, assistant professor of special education, will receive $699,996 through an Early Career Development and Mentoring award to develop and test the impact of peer network intervention for minimally verbal students with autism. Both research projects will begin in fall 2021.

Effectiveness of Leveled Literacy Intervention Intermediate for third- and fourth-grade students with reading difficulties or disabilities

Jeanne Wanzek (Vanderbilt University)
Jeanne Wanzek (Vanderbilt University)

Wanzek, along with co-researcher Sharon Vaughn, Manuel J. Justiz Endowed Chair in Education at the University of Texas–Austin, will test the efficacy of the Leveled Literacy Intervention Intermediate on word recognition and reading comprehension. The LLI is designed to serve as an intensive, short-term intervention administered in a small group setting.

The researchers will examine whether the LLI Intermediate is an effective intervention for students with reading disabilities in comparison with a control group of students. “We will study short- and long-term outcomes for the program to determine whether the effects are educationally meaningful to students,” Wanzek said.

Organized into groups of four, students will receive daily randomized LLI Intermediate or “business as usual” comparison during 45-minute sessions over the course of 24 weeks. Following intervention, student outcomes will be measured. Third-grade students participating in the intervention will continue in their randomly assigned condition (LLI Intermediate or comparison) for a second year in fourth grade. Following the two years of intervention implementation (end of fourth grade), student outcomes will be measured. The study will include successive cohorts of 200 third-grade students with reading difficulties or disabilities, totaling 400 students over two years.

Wanzek explains that this study is novel in examining the interventions needed for students with or at-risk for reading disabilities at the upper elementary level. “The findings of the study will add to the limited research base on intensive interventions for intermediate grade students with significant reading difficulties or disabilities,” Wanzek said.

Enhancing peer network interventions to improve social communication, play and peer relationships for minimally verbal students with autism

Elizabeth Biggs (Vanderbilt University)
Elizabeth Biggs (Vanderbilt University)

Through the NCSER grant, Biggs will conduct a program of research focused on improving social, communication and developmental outcomes for minimally verbal students with autism (ages 5–9). Specifically, Biggs will iteratively develop and subsequently evaluate an enhanced peer network intervention, while also completing an integrated career development plan that aims to deepen her expertise in measurement, mixed method research and implementation science.

“There really aren’t established interventions for educators to use in schools focused on supporting minimally verbal students with autism to establish social and communication skills, particularly with their peers,” Biggs said. “It is my hope that the development of this new intervention will serve as a catalyst for students with autism not only to develop these skills, but also to support friendships and more frequent social interactions among students with and without disabilities. This intervention has the potential to help educators improve students’ membership and belonging in their schools and with their peers.”

The intervention will encourage peers without disabilities to model the use of a speech-generating device, teaching them simple ways to be more comfortable and effective communication partners by modeling language and interaction strategies during play. Moreover, educators will be trained to embed naturalistic developmental-behavioral teaching strategies during play sessions with peers and throughout the school day, aimed at strengthening the social communication and play skills of students with autism.

Biggs will partner with three Nashville-area school districts to administer the study—Metro Nashville Public Schools, Williamson County Schools and Sumner County Schools. “Although the three districts are close in proximity, they have unique student demographics and unique aspects of school and district structure and culture,” Biggs explained. “It is my hope that the study can build understanding of not only how to improve social outcomes for minimally verbal students with autism regardless of background and demographic, but also how to move effective practices into everyday schools in ways that educators can really sustain their use successfully. There are aspects of implementation support that are going to need to look different across different schools and districts, and this project will help us understand what those are.”

Both grants were supported by the National Center for Special Education Research. NCSER supports rigorous research on infants, toddlers, children and youth with and at risk for disabilities through advancing the understanding of and practices for teaching, learning and organizing education systems.