The University of Iowa

Iowa Reading Research Center Wins Major IES Grant to Study Varied Practice Reading

Girl typing on laptop in class

Varied Practice Reading will be examined for effects on literacy, science, and social studies performance. The method involves students working in pairs reading passages and completing other reading and writing tasks on computers.

July 1, 2021

The Iowa Reading Research Center has been awarded a $2 million grant from the Institute of Educational Sciences (IES) for a four-year study investigating the innovative Varied Practice Reading instructional method as an intervention for middle school students with or at-risk for reading disabilities.

As the principal investigator, Iowa Reading Research Center Director Dr. Deborah K. Reed will lead the study titled “Varied Practice Reading for Middle School Students With or At Risk for Reading Disabilities.” The intent of the study is to further develop and test the effectiveness of Varied Practice Reading, the instructional method she and center colleagues created.  

“The substantial support provided by this grant will allow us to learn more about the instructional possibilities of Varied Practice Reading, which we believe can address the multiple academic challenges faced by adolescents,” Reed said.

When middle school students have or are at-risk for reading disabilities, they need support for their learning in literacy as well as the text-based content areas of science and social studies. But supplemental specialized instruction, referred to in teaching as an intervention, requires extra time during the already packed school day. The Varied Practice Reading approach that IRRC researchers will examine will provide students multiple exposures to critical science and social studies language and information. Simultaneously, it is intended to build students’ reading fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and writing skills. Because of this, researchers hope to see improvements in students’ literacy, science, and social studies performance when Varied Practice Reading is tested in classrooms through partnerships with the Sioux City, Marshalltown, and Iowa City Community School Districts.

Researchers have designed the intervention using technology to allow implementation in both in-person and virtual learning environments, to avoid loss of instructional time during possible school closures for weather or public health emergencies. It also is designed to be cost effective, and an analysis of the cost is part of the project.

“We have designed Varied Practice Reading as a flexible instructional method that does not require schools to choose a single academic area on which to focus,” Reed said. “As a multifaceted intervention, it leverages the limited time that middle schools have for intervention by addressing literacy, science, and social studies in an interconnected way.”

What Makes Varied Practice Reading Unique and Worthy of Further Study?

Varied Practice Reading has already been found to be effective in a 2018 study that looked exclusively at improving reading fluency among fourth-grade students. Among 827 students, those assigned to Varied Practice Reading statistically significantly outperformed students assigned to the traditional fluency intervention, known as Repeated Reading.

That study led to the development of the eLearning Varied Practice Reading module, which is available for Grades 1–5 teachers. Those who complete the module are provided access to Varied Practice Reading passage sets and are able to start using the reading fluency instructional method in their classrooms. To date, more than 1,442 teachers have accessed the module, and Varied Practice Reading is being used for fluency instruction at various schools across the state of Iowa.

When looking at the traditional way that reading fluency (the ability to read text at an appropriate pace/rate and with accuracy and expression to build understanding) is taught, Reed and colleagues saw room for innovation. Instead of students reading the same passage three times in a row, as they do in the traditional gold standard for fluency instruction of Repeated Reading, Varied Practice Reading involves students reading a set with three different passages. Each passage contains 85% or better of the same words, but the words are presented in different ways and contexts. The passage sets are written by University of Iowa undergraduate student writers in a style that is intended to keep students’ interest and gradually progress from easier to more difficult across 30 passage sets.

Students taught by Varied Practice Reading work in pairs two days a week and alternate between reading and coaching each other. Coaches offer readers feedback on their use of reading strategies and guide them in correcting any pronunciation errors. Students utilize screen sharing to enhance the feedback process and to allow for adapting to changes in the learning environment.

When designing Varied Practice Reading for the middle school level, IRRC researchers took what they learned from the elementary school level and added several important components:

  • For each grade, half of the 30 passage sets are about common science topics, and half are on social studies topics. Furthermore, half are written in a purely informational way, and half present factual information through the use of creative fictional narratives.
  • Each passage contains the use of 10 or more domain-specific terms which are directly and seamlessly defined in the flow of the passage text.
  • After reading each passage set with their partners, students work independently to respond to multiple-choice questions to assess their understanding of what they have read. They also write a response to a writing prompt. Both are aligned to English language arts standards.
  • Teachers use students’ performance and their own observations to determine which targeted lessons to assign students to complete independently each week. The lessons are on fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and writing skills.

A beta version of this literacy intervention was tested in Evans Middle School in the Ottumwa Community School District during the fall of 2020. Participating seventh-grade students in three different reading intervention classes statistically significantly improved their science, vocabulary, and social studies scores on the commercial version of the Iowa Assessments. The experience in Ottumwa revealed some technology challenges that led IRRC researchers to move the materials to a new online platform, which they anticipate will provide an enhanced user experience.

During each of the first 3 years of the project funded by IES through the National Center for Special Education, Iowa Reading Research Center staff will develop one grade level of materials. All materials will be vetted by partners from the Grant Wood Area Education Agency. Field tests of each grade will be conducted every spring, and researchers will use what they learn from those tests to improve the development of the materials for the subsequent grade.

In the fourth year of the project, materials for all three grades will be tested during the fall semester. To determine the effectiveness of the approach, Varied Practice Reading will be compared to the business-as-usual intervention the participating schools currently use to teach students with or at-risk for reading disabilities.

“We have already seen a lot of promise in the Varied Practice Reading approach, and that has led to a great deal of interest among educators and literacy specialists,” Reed said. “With this grant funding, we can further develop Varied Practice Reading and hopefully improve middle school educators’ abilities to meet the learning needs of all students.”