Arts and Humanities People and Community

Researcher awarded $3.8 million grant for literacy study

Mary Beth Calhoon will use the Institute of Education Sciences grant to study the effects of an intensive reading program for middle school students with or at-risk for reading disabilities.
SEHD Grant
Mary Beth Calhoon, center, associate professor in the School of Human Education and Development, stands with Galit Cohen, left, a Ph.D. student in special education, and Michela Galante, a Ph.D. student in language and literacy learning. Photo: Jenny Hudak/University of Miami

Mary Beth Calhoon, associate professor in the University of Miami School of Human Education and Development, has been awarded a five-year, $3.8 million grant by the Institute of Education Sciences to study the impact and implementation of a middle school reading program for students with and at-risk for reading disabilities.

Since the early 2000s, Calhoon has been the principal investigator or co-investigator on multiple federal and state-funded research grants in literacy for adolescents with and at-risk for reading disabilities. The current multiyear grant will support implementation of an intensive reading program, Adolescent Multi-Component-Intensive Training-Program (AMP-IT-UP), designed specifically for middle school students reading at or below the Grade 4 level. AMP-IT-UP, developed by Calhoon, blends cognitive strategy instruction, sociocultural theory, peer-tutoring strategies, and techniques of direct instruction to address the complex deficits of older struggling readers, she explained. 

The study will collaborate with select Sports Leadership and Management (SLAM!) charter schools across South Florida to implement AMP-IT-UP in intensive reading classrooms. The partnership was made possible by School of Education and Human Development alumna Kelly Pierce, who now serves as the director of innovation and development for the SLAM! foundation. 

Previously, Calhoon was awarded a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to begin examining the effects of the AMP-IT-UP program on improving middle school students’ reading outcomes, followed by a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences to further explore the effects of AMP-IT-UP.

Six prior one-year treatment studies, some of which had post-treatment follow up in 7th and 8th grades, showed that while reading outcomes significantly increased after one year of AMP-IT-UP, middle school students reading achievement began to stagnate or decrease in the following years. Because of the decline in reading levels across middle school, the goals of the current project are to conduct a longitudinal randomized control trial study comparing two years (Grade 6 and 7) of the AMP-IT-UP program to control conditions on reading outcomes, and to examine the extent to which reading outcomes maintain or improve one year after end of treatment.  Over the 5-year period, three cohorts of more than 500 middle school students with or at-risk for reading disabilities will participate.

Improving reading for middle school students with or at-risk for reading disabilities has always been problematic, Calhoon said. Current National Assessment of Educational Progress scores show 63 percent of eighth-graders with disabilities and 22 percent of eighth-graders at-risk for reading below the basic level, demonstrating a significant decline for these students. When combined with recent research, these results have illustrated that it is extremely difficult to remediate reading deficits of middle school students, particularly for those who often have the mostsignificant deficits. 

Calhoon explained that the middle school years are pivotal in the education cycle. If students are non-proficient readers, they begin to develop lower self-esteem and self-efficacy leading them to disengage and/or drop out from school. Low literacy skills also limit college and employment options, trapping people in a cycle of poverty, she added. According to Calhoon, if the trajectory of students reading abilities could be changed in middle school, it is more likely they will stay engaged in their education and feel more competent to complete high school. 

As a previous middle school learning disabilities teacher, Calhoon has firsthand knowledge of the deficits faced by these students. AMP-IT-UP was created to specifically address their unique needs and provide in-depth instruction in phonics, more than any other remedial reading program available to schools. It is this emphasis on phonics that Calhoon attributes to the success of AMP-IT-UP.

Galit Cohen, a Ph.D. student in special education for students with reading disabilities, and Michela Galante, a Ph.D. student in language and literacy learning in multilingual settings, worked closely with Calhoon throughout the grant proposal process. 

“It’s not common to be given so much responsibility through every step of the grant proposal, which is why I am so grateful to work with Dr. Calhoon,” Galante said. 

Cohen added that working on the grant proposal as Ph.D. students gave them the unique, hands-on opportunity to explore their ideal research topics prior to graduation. 

Calhoon stressed the significance of her research, highlighting the importance of literacy in the future of adolescent students. 

“The NIH has designated illiteracy to be a national health issue. Illiteracy impacts every aspect of a person’s life, which is why I am so passionate about this research. I feel it is educational malpractice if students graduate from high school and are not able to read,” she said.