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Expanding the science of reading, fostering equity in literacy

Courtney Hattan, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the science of reading, joined the UNC School of Education in July 2023. With a background as a teacher who has taught in both rural and urban school settings, instructing upper elementary and middle school students in language arts and social studies, Hattan brings a broad perspective to her role.

As a teacher, Hattan observed a common challenge: the frequent task to activate students’ prior knowledge to enhance their comprehension of texts, coupled with insufficient instructional strategies for accomplishing this.  

This experience inspired her to pursue graduate studies in educational psychology at the University of Maryland, where she focused on researching techniques to activate students’ prior knowledge before, during, and after they engaged with unfamiliar texts.

Hattan’s doctoral dissertation investigated instructional methods for knowledge activation with fifth and sixth graders. She compared a conventional approach of asking “what do you know” to strategies like annotating texts and a novel method called relational reasoning. The results revealed that relational reasoning questions proved to be the most effective approach in improving students’ comprehension. Relational reasoning encourages students to not only consider how their knowledge and experiences are similar to the text they are reading, but also how what they already know is unusual, opposite, or different from the information presented in the text. 

Before coming to Carolina, Hattan was an assistant professor at Illinois State University. Now as a faculty member in the Culture, Curriculum, and Teacher Education (CCTE) and Learning Sciences and Psychological Studies (LSPS) concentrations of the School’s doctoral program, Hattan continues to explore systematic ways to build students’ literacy while drawing upon their knowledge, with a particular focus on rural and underserved student populations.

Hattan shares her expertise and insights on literacy, enhancing reading comprehension, and the importance of equitable instruction in this Q&A.

Can you provide a broad overview of your research interests in literacy and reading comprehension? 

My work primarily centers around the role of knowledge in reading comprehension. I take a comprehensive view of knowledge, encompassing content knowledge across various subjects such as social studies, science, mathematics, the arts, and language arts. This breadth of knowledge serves as a fundamental element that students must both activate and build upon to enhance their reading comprehension. 

Additionally, I consider topic-specific knowledge, which pertains to information relevant to a particular text. This extends to understanding students’ diverse experiences, their cultural awareness, linguistic proficiency, and recognizing the potential ass

ets that multilingual students bring to the reading process. Background knowledge also includes strategic knowledge, which involves understanding reading strategies and their application, as well as awareness of different text structures.

In my research, I maintain an equity lens, focusing on students’ strengths rather than their deficits. I believe that mixed methods research is particularly powerful in this regard, as it doesn’t solely rely on numerical data but also considers the perspectives of students and other stakeholders. In one of my recent studies, we conducted both pre- and post-interviews with teachers, further expanding our understanding by including multiple viewpoints. This approach allows us to explore the convergence and divergence between quantitative and qualitative data, providing a more comprehensive perspective. 

I adopt a broad perspective as well. The science of reading encompasses a body of empirical research that investigates various aspects of reading. This research includes quantitative, qualitative, and mixed-method studies and covers foundational reading skills, comprehension, reading strategies, motivation, and assessment. In essence, the science of reading is a multidisciplinary field that examines all facets of reading, making it a comprehensive body of knowledge. 

How does your research contribute to enhancing reading comprehension, especially for rural and underserved communities?  

My approach aims to provide knowledge-building opportunities in ways that are equitable and help traditionally underserved students succeed.  

In my recent work, I’ve used books and intentionally curated text sets that build students’ knowledge while also exposing them to diverse perspectives. For example, in a rural Illinois district, I began working with teachers in Fall 2020 to observe lower elementary language arts instruction, which served as the cornerstone for the professional development we provided to the teachers. Fast forward to the academic year 2021-2022, where I collaborated with first-grade teachers to create a curriculum unit centered on social studies concepts related to the community. This initiative not only addressed the first-grade social studies curriculum’s emphasis on the community but also intertwined literacy seamlessly. In the subsequent academic year, 2022-2023, I continued this collaborative effort, this time working with second-grade teachers and integrating social studies standards about economics. 

We were intentional about including engaging texts, informational texts, multimodal texts, and more complex text, based on the quad text set framework, published by Lupo et al, so students could make connections and see their knowledge developing across sources. This work has solidified the importance for students to see themselves reflected in texts, while also gaining windows into new perspectives. 

Could you share some strategies or interventions you’ve studied that promote equitable literacy outcomes?  

When I consider the concept of equity in education, I am reminded of the importance of evidence-based practices. These practices draw on work conducted across fields, ranging from cognitive and educational psychology, neuroscience, and curriculum and instruction. They guide us in areas like assisting students in decoding words, improving spelling, helping students select appropriate reading strategies, and considering the importance of motivation in reading. 

It is critical to think about the choice of texts we use to impart these evidence-based practices. This selection process is an integral part of the science of reading. We, all researchers and educators and policymakers, should evaluate whether our instructional materials and decoable and complex reading materials feature content that might be perceived as culturally relevant. When examining texts that are provided in a curriculum, I recommend that teachers ask questions such as: Do the authors of the texts used in my classes share similar experiences and backgrounds as my students? Do the texts feature characters with similar experiences or aspirations as the students in my classroom? Can I ensure that every student in my classroom is reflected in the texts in my curriculum? My hope would be for teachers to consider substituting new or complementary texts to the curriculum that build upon their students’ experiences and existing knowledge. 

However, diverse text selection is not enough. Teachers also need to consider the instructional supports that are used during reading. For example, are teachers asking students to simply retell what happened in a story or are they also providing historical context and encouraging students to critique and go beyond the surface of the text.  

What have been some of your favorite personal experiences or anecdotes that highlight the impact of your work?  

I love seeing those “lightbulb” moments where an student suddenly connects with a concept. For example, in a recent study I did with second graders building economics knowledge, one boy who had resisted writing at first got so excited sharing a piece he wrote using the new vocabulary words. It was powerful to see how systematically developing knowledge through authentic texts motivated his literacy growth. I’ve also had profoundly moving conversations with teachers I’ve collaborated with, who feel like they’ve gained new tools to provide effective and equitable instruction. Those individual connections keep me going even when the higher-level challenges seem overwhelming. 

What future directions do you see for research in the field of literacy, reading comprehension, and equitable instruction?  

I’m interested in leveraging my available data from the study in rural Illinois and moving forward within the analysis process. One of my primary aspirations is to collaborate with elementary school teachers, particularly those who are mandated to implement a knowledge-building curriculum. I want to sit down with these teachers and engage in a dialogue about their experiences with the curriculum. I’m interested in knowing what aspects they appreciate, what they find challenging, and what remains unclear to them. Additionally, I’d like to take one or two units of the curriculum and explore potential modifications based on students’ unique contexts, while retaining elements that work effectively.