By Mindy Ayala-Diaz and Amy Matzke-Fawcett

A collaboration between two colleges at Old Dominion University has been awarded over $2.2 million in grant funds from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) to build literacy skills for English learners in K-12 schools.

Silvana Watson, professor in Communication Disorders and Special Education, Sharon Judge, retired special education faculty of the Darden College of Education and Professional Studies, and Alla Zareva, professor in the Department of English in the College of Arts and Letters, received the grant from DOE's Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA).

​Over the next five years, the researchers will work to provide professional development to teams of graduate pre-service teachers throughout Virginia. The grant project's title is "Creating Teams of Educators to Build the Literacy Skills of English Learners with and without Disabilities."

"The project stands out for several reasons," Watson said. "For one, educators must receive training as a team of at least three participants from the same elementary school, because collaboration among professionals is needed to effectively work with multilingual learners. Secondly, the focus is to build the learners' literacy skills with knowledge of second language acquisition and development. Lastly, the training will provide educators with the knowledge to distinguish language difference from language learning disability."

The team hopes the project will impact teachers, students and the community at large, then in turn, inform future research. By providing professional development to teachers, the researchers will be able to assess their needs and make informed decisions on how to incorporate those needs into future sessions.

This is the second DOE grant the researchers have received related to professional development for in-service and pre-service teachers to address the needs of English learners with and without disabilities. The previous $2 million grant, awarded in 2016, aimed to improve assessment and instruction. The team examined several factors that may influence language and culture acquisition, focusing their research on training for undergraduate pre-service teachers. In the process, they learned about the needs, concerns and difficulties teachers face trying to accommodate a mix of students, both English speakers and English learners, with or without disabilities, in the same classrooms.

In their research, ODU faculty found many general education teachers may not have had previous training in working with diverse populations.

"You can only imagine the amount of effort it takes to learn on the job when, in some cases, more than 50 percent of the students in a class may be English learners with and without disabilities," Zareva said. "In that sense, I believe the grant will allow us to provide much-needed professional development to Virginia teachers which, in turn, will help lift some of the stress off of them in many ways."

Another long-term goal of the project is to redesign the special education master's program at the University to include evidence-based teaching practices for working on literacy skills with English learners who have disabilities. The researchers aim to position ODU as one of the leading universities responding to a pressing market need in the field of education.

"Although the focus of the project is on professional development, we will also conduct research on the effectiveness of professional development and on literacy strategies," Watson said.

"I have worked with Dr. Watson and Dr. Judge on a previous grant for five years now and our seamless collaboration has been one of the highlights of my career at ODU," Zareva said. "For me, it's more than a pleasure to be part of such a dynamic, effective, efficient, productive and successful team. It's a privilege and an awarding experience."

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