Effects of web-based training on Spanish pre-service and in-service teacher knowledge and implicit beliefs on learning to read

Results from numerous international assessments have sug- gested that there are a substantial number of children who are unable to read on grade level. Nowadays, reading literacy levels across countries are assessed by two large scale international sur- veys, namely PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), the most recent PIRLS (Progress International Reading Literacy Study, Martin & Mullis, 2013; Martin, Mullis, & Kennedy, 2007; Mullis, Martin, Foy, & Drucker, 2012; Mullis, Martin, Kennedy, & Foy, 2007), the PISA reports (OECD, 2006, 2009, 2013), and the Third Regional Comparative and Explanatory Study (TERCE) that coordinates the United Nations for Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO, 2015), which involves a total of fifteen Latin-American countries; all point to the importance of assuring that all children become skilled readers.

The European Union (EU) average score in reading for 15 years- olds and the proportion of struggling readers in this age group remained stable in PISA surveys carried out between 2000 and 2009 (EACEA/Eurydice, 2011). In 2009, approximately one in five 15-year olds in the EU-27 countries had difficulties using reading for learning. In many Spanish-speaking countries, it has also been found that average reading skill levels are lower than those of other OECD countries (see, for example, the OECD's PISA report from 2012). In addition, there are also reports on PIRLS-TIMSS focusing extensively on reading performance of 4th graders in Spain (Corral, Zurbano, Blanco, García, & Ramos, 2012). These authors report that language training before entering primary school and the student's reading habits are two of the variables with significant impact on the results. This cumulative effect is particularly relevant in families with low socio-economic status.

Reading is a basic skill for survival and those who have reading difficulties in the early grades continue to struggle in school and in life (Joshi, Binks, Hougen, Dean, et al., 2009). This issue is of critical importance for students with specific learning disabilities because it is estimated that approximately 80% of this population have difficulties in learning to read (Lyon, 1995). Longitudinal studies have found that these reading problems often persist and children who struggle with reading during the early grades of primary school are most likely to continue to have reading difficulties throughout their education (Juel, 1988; Vaughn, Linan-Thompson, Kouzehanami, Bryant, et al., 2003).

Some of the reasons why children fail to learn to read have been described by Vellutino, Scanlon, and Jaccard (2003). These authors mention environmental and instructional factors which may contribute to poor reading outcomes. Environmental factors include poor development of oral language, the number of books available at home, parent attitudes and parental models. As for instructional factors, these include an absence of an appropriate environment for reading and writing in the schools, ineffective instructional methods, and a lack of teacher knowledge regarding language.

Teachers play a key role in helping children to learn to read, particularly for those children who are at-risk for failing to learn to read (Brady & Moats, 1997). In their meta-analysis, Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock (2001) concluded that teacher effective- ness is one of the most important factors when it comes to explaining learner progress, not only in reading, but also in math- ematics and other school areas.

Some scientific reports such as the National Reading Panel (NRP) (2000) have determined the components necessary in order for children to become solid readers and those needed by teachers in order to more effectively teach reading skills. These reports high- light five essential components that are necessary for reading in- struction: (i.e., phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension strategies) (Lyon & Weiser, 2009). Never- theless, Goldenberg et al. (2014) suggest caution in applying psy- cholinguistic and instructional principles across languages without taking into account potentially relevant differences in linguistic and orthographic characteristics, as well as differences in the socio- cultural and socio-linguistic contexts in which learning is taking place.

Despite the transparency of the Spanish language (i.e., the process of translating print to sound is never ambiguous because each letter of the alphabet has a unique pronunciation, except the letters c, g, and r where the pronunciation is different according to the vowel following the consonant), many of the studies with Spanish-speaking children (either monolinguals or SpanisheEng- lish bilinguals) have revealed that phonemic awareness (PA) is a strong predictor of word reading in Spanish (Carrillo, 1994; Manrique & Signorini, 1994; Signorini, 1997). PA is the ability to hear and manipulate the individual sounds within words. In addi- tion, the ability to use the grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPC) to translate printed text into oral language appears to be a key component to improving word reading and reading compre- hensioninSpanish.Castejon,Gonzalez-Pumariega,andCuetos (2015) examined the development of word recognition in Span- ish, considering accuracy and speed, from a longitudinal perspective. Results showed that initial gains in reading accuracy occurred very rapidly. However, the growth of reading speed was found to be more difficult and complex, and automatic word recognition remains low at the end of the sixth grade. Students with reading disabilities (RD) in Spanish tend to have a malfunc- tioning of sublexical processes (i.e., the mechanism that recognizes the relation between graphemes and phonemes). This malfunc- tioning is expressed in turn by the student's difficulty reading multi-syllabic words automatically (Suarez & Cuetos, 2008). Vo- cabulary plays also a critical role in reading comprehension because understanding a text requires knowing the meaning of the words. Kim and Pallante (2012) investigated predictors of word reading and reading comprehension skills using longitudinal data from Spanish-speaking kindergartners and first grade students in Chile. For first graders' reading comprehension, word reading, nonsense word fluency, and vocabulary were positively and uniquely related. In addition, Cena, Baker, Kame’enui, Baker, et al. (2013) provided evidence of the relevance of explicit and systematic vocabulary instruction in Spanish. Reading comprehension problems in chil- dren are related to a lack in the development of a good fluency. Alvarez-Can~izo,Suarez-Coalla,andCuetos(2015)carriedouta study to determine which aspects of reading fluency are related to reading comprehension in a sample of Spanish primary school children (third and sixth grade). The results demonstrated that children with less reading comprehension made more inappro- priate pauses and also intersentential pauses before comma than good comprehenders and made more mistakes in content words. Nevertheless, sometimes Spanish poor comprehenders are able to decode words fluently but they have a deficit in syntactic and se- mantic processes. Thus, not all reading comprehension difficulties can be attributed to poor decoding or oral reading fluency but poor comprehension also can derive from processes that are necessary to make sense of sentences within passages.

On the other hand, what does research tell us about teaching reading? Teaching approaches that are appropriate for a language that has an opaque orthographic system are not always appropriate for other languages that are more transparent. For instance, in English language many words have an orthographic pattern that correspond to linguistic units larger than the phoneme, such as in the case of rhyme (e.g., right, sight, flight, etc.). Thus for children who learn how to read in English, an approach based on analogies would be more appropriate. Studies conducted into Spanish, however, have shown that children do not rely on this type of linguistic unit in visual word recognition (Jimenez, Alvarez, Estevez, & Hernandez-Valle, 2000). Also, most studies have highlighted the beneficial effects a phonological focus in teaching can have to all students during initial education, given the transparency of Spanish (Alegría, Carrillo, & Sanchez, 2005).

1.1. Teacher knowledge

It is important to properly train teachers who are responsible for the prevention and correction of reading disabilities. However, it has been found across different languages that many teachers lack sufficient knowledge regarding language as well as the good teaching practices needed in order to effectively help their students acquire basic reading skills (Bos, Mather, Dickson, Podhajski, & Chard, 2001; Guzman, Delia, Nuria, & Abreu, 2015; Joshi, Binks, Hougen, Dahlgren et al., 2009; Lewis, Cuadrado, & Cuadros, 2005). This lack of knowledge often goes hand in hand with incorrect teacher beliefs regarding what they need to know and do in order to help their students learn.

Bos et al. (2001) administered the Teacher Knowledge Assess- ment: Structure of Language to 252 pre-service teachers and 286 in-service teachers. This questionnaire is a 20-item multiple-choice assessment that examined knowledge of the structure of the En- glish language at both the word and sound levels. Results revealed that 53% of the former and 60% of the latter were incapable of correctly answering half of the questions regarding “language knowledge”. Among teachers who believed that a lack of phonemic awareness contributes to reading difficulties, two thirds of the participants believed that PA was a method of reading instruction to be taught to children when learning the individual letters and their sounds.

Joshi, Binks, Hougen, Dahlgren, et al. (2009c) also administered a survey of language concepts related to literacy acquisition to 78 teacher educators. They developed a survey of language constructs of 68 items which included questions regarding how well univer- sity instructors felt prepared to teach typical readers as well as struggling readers the skills of reading. Other items in the test asked for definitions of terms such as phoneme (i.e., speech sounds that distinguish words in a language) and morpheme (i.e., the smallest linguistic unit with meaning), as well as identification of the number of speech sounds in words such as box and moon and of the number of morphemes in words such as observer and heaven. Results revealed that although the teacher educators were familiar with some of the language concepts (e.g., syllable awareness); their performance was poor in regard to morphemes and phonemes. In a second study, 40 teacher educators were interviewed regarding best practices for the teaching of the primary components of reading. The majority did not mention the phonological method as a method to be used in the early instruction of reading, and spe- cifically, for at-risk students (in regard to reading).

Lewis et al. (2005) found that Colombian teachers had not updated their knowledge about definition, causes, and manifesta- tions and teaching methods of reading-writing. Most recently, Guzman et al. (2015) analyzed preschool and primary school Spanish teacher knowledge of general information, symptoms/di- agnoses and interventions on reading and writing. Results of the survey revealed that many teachers lacked sufficient knowledge regarding language as well as the good teaching practices needed in order to effectively help their students acquire basic reading skills, particularly PA and GPC.

According to Lyon (1997), these shortcomings are often due to the fact that many future teachers, during their teacher training, receive little formal instruction regarding the development of reading and its challenges. Furthermore, teacher educators (college faculty members) who are responsible for training these future teachers are often not familiarized with many of the concepts regarding language that are necessary in order to teach reading. In addition, it was also found that the subject matter taught to pre- service teachers in regards to reading instruction did not include the main components recommended by scientific research for effective reading instruction (Moats, 1994; NRP, 2000). In another study, Joshi, Binks, Graham, Ocker-Dean, et al. (2009a) conducted an analysis of the content of textbooks used in university reading education courses. In this study, the authors examined whether or not the textbooks contained information regarding the five com- ponents recommended by the NRP. Many of these textbooks did not adequately cover these five components or the appropriate pro- cedures for their instruction.

1.2. Teacher beliefs regarding learning to read

In addition to the importance of teacher knowledge of reading development and instruction on their ability to effectively teach reading, teacher beliefs may also create obstacles when it comes to incorporating improvements or good practices into their classroom practices (Brown & Lan, 2015; Cunningham, Zibulsky, Stanovich, & Stanovich, 2009). In the absence of knowledge regarding the essential components of reading instruction, teachers should base their teaching decisions on their own beliefs, which were most likely formed during their educational experiences. Teacher's im- plicit beliefs have been defined as “personal educational theories, re-established based on historical and socially based teaching expertise that is transmitted via training and teaching practice” (Marrero, 1993, p. 245).

In an earlier study, Jimenez, Rodríguez, Suarez, O’Shanahan, et al. (2015) conducted a study to determine the structure of theories utilized by teachers in regards to learning to read and identified seven main factors or components: sociocultural, maturation, corrective, repetition, nativist, constructivist and psycholinguistic. The first extracted component corresponded to a social learning perspective, emphasizing the role of family factors and social interaction in learning to read (e.g., “I believe that when families interact with children regarding reading, reading acquisition is favored and improved”). The second factor represented a “matur- ationist” perspective based on the idea that children need to mature and develop their psychomotor skills before they can begin the formal process of learning to read (e.g., “In my point of view, the ability to learn how to read in children is related to their psycho- motor development”). The items making up the third factor focused on the role of correction in learning to read and it was referred to as “corrective theory” (e.g., “I think that in the early years of schooling it is necessary to correct children when they make mistakes while reading”). The fourth factor presented items referring to the role of repetition in learning to read (e.g., “I think that repetition is a very useful method in order for children to learn how to read and to correctly assimilate”). The fifth factor, referred to as “nativist the- ory”, emphasizes the opposite perspective, as it grants increased importance to the innate predisposition of children to learn how to read. This premise is reflected in those items suggesting that in- struction is not as important and placing a greater emphasis on learning as an innate ability (e.g., “I think that there are children who learn to read on their own at an early age”). The sixth factor, referred to as “constructivist theory” emphasizes the active con- struction of knowledge by the individual (e.g., “I believe that in the early years of schooling, instead of correcting, it is better to allow children to discover their errors by rereading”). This factor attri- butes a more active role to the learner as it assumes that learning occurs when the individual has become capable of integrating new knowledge with the knowledge that they already possess. Finally, the seventh factor, referred to as “psycho-linguistic theory”, pre- sumes that the learner should have attained linguistic development to the degree of understanding oral language prior to tackling the written language (e.g., “I think that it is premature for a child to learn to speak and read at the same time because at this stage children are still very immature”).

Understanding how teachers think about learning to read may make it is easier to modify these beliefs in accordance with scien- tific research recommendations, thereby leading to improved teaching practices (Jimenez & O'Shanahan, 1992). Therefore, anal- ysis and diagnosis of teachers' beliefs on how children learn to read within a specific socio-cultural context should be included in teacher training programs, as it shall most likely increase teacher effectiveness (Sang, Valcke, van Braak, & Tondeur, 2009).

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