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$5.1 Million Grant Will Fund UMSL Literacy Education Research

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Katherine O_Daniels talks with teacher leaders from St. Louis.jpeg

A recently awarded federal pass-through grant could help University of Missouri-St. Louis researchers reshape the way educators teach children to read.

The $5.1 million grant comprises part of $18 million awarded to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in September 2020, to be distributed over five years. UMSL’s sum (two “subawards,” effectively) will go to rethinking traditional reading instruction by emphasizing phonics, cultural context and responsive learning techniques. The goal? To meet student readers where they are, so they can get where they need to be.

“Teaching reading has discrete, isolated skills that, [alone, aren’t] enough for students to become fluent,” says Shea Kerkhoff, assistant professor of literacy and secondary education in UMSL’s College of Education. “It’s one part of it. There are other parts, which include fluency, vocabulary knowledge, background knowledge and metacognitive awareness.”

Thanks to the efforts of the UMSL-led team behind the original proposal to the feds that landed the grant package, Missouri numbered among just 11 states to receive funding. That funding arrived at a pivotal time – alarming statistics recently showed that reading proficiency for Black students is disproportionately lower than that of the overall student body throughout the metro area.

Kerkhoff and her team are using grant money to fund professional development services that train teachers to use different tactics when teaching kids to read. The project includes co-principal investigators Katherine O’Daniels, assistant teaching professor of literacy and director of the Gateway Writing Project, and Nancy Robb Singer, associate professor of English education.

“Our theoretical and research-based framework has the science of reading, but it doesn’t stop there,” Kerkhoff explains. “It also includes culturally responsive instruction, which is very important, as well as multiliteracies, including traditional print-based literacy, critical media literacy and multimedia literacy. Literacy in today’s world is complex.”

Instruction is prioritized for 80 high-need schools and 20 early-childhood centers across the state, 40 of which are in the metro area. The objective is to increase literacy outcomes for approximately 35,000 Missouri children. The program isn’t just for high-need schools – because Kerkhoff and her colleagues believe the lessons to be learned are vital for every young student, by the third year, the team will make information and strategies for teaching and evidence-based literacy available to all teachers in Missouri.

“When a child has a teacher that is responsive to them, they learn what they need to learn, but they also learn that they’re a valuable human being, and that what they need matters and that it’s OK that not everyone learns the same way or at the same speed,” Kerkhoff says. “It’s OK to advocate for yourself and for what you need.” 

University of Missouri-St. Louis, 1 University Blvd., St. Louis, 314-516-5000,

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