Dr. Sharon Vaughn talks to us about how emotional and behavioral aspects of students’ lives can impact academics, students’ background knowledge as a kind of jet fuel for progress in reading, and teaching with evidence-based practices informed by our clinical experiences. Sharon is known for her work in the areas of effective interventions for a diverse group of students with reading difficulties and for students who are English language learners. Dr. Vaughn is the Manuel J. Justiz Endowed Chair in Education, the Executive Director of The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk, and a Professor in the Department of Special Education at The University of Texas, Austin. For more information about our guest, stay tuned to the end of this episode.
To cite this episode:
Persohn, L. (Host). (2021, Dec 7). A conversation with Sharon Vaughn. (Season 2, No. 15) [Audio podcast episode]. In Classroom Caffeine Podcast series. https://www.classroomcaffeine.com/guests. DOI: 10.5240/EC29-BA7A-769E-6B99-282E-U
Connect with Classroom Caffeine at www.classroomcaffeine.com or on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
Education Research has a problem. The work of brilliant education researchers often doesn't reach the practice of brilliant teachers. But the questions and challenges from teachers practice sometimes don't become the work of education researchers. Classroom caffeine is here to help. In a new episode every other week, I talk with an education researcher or a classroom teacher about what they have learned from their work in education, and what questions they still pursue. In this episode, Dr. Sharon Vaughn talks to us about how emotional and behavioral aspects of students lives can impact academics, students background knowledge as a kind of jet fuel for progress in reading and teaching with evidence based practices informed by our clinical experiences. Sharon is known for her work in the areas of effective interventions for a diverse group of students with reading difficulties. And for students who are English language learners. Dr. Vaughn is the Manuel J. Justiz Endowed Chair in education, the executive director of the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk, and a professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Texas, Austin. For more information about our guests, stay tuned to the end of this episode. So pour a cup of your favorite morning drink. And join me your host, Lindsay Persohn. For classroom caffeine research to energize your teaching practice. Sharon, thank you for joining me. Welcome to the show.Sharon Vaughn:
Thank you for inviting me. Great to be here.Lindsay Persohn:
So a few questions for you today, from your own experiences and education. Will you share with us one or two moments that inform your thinking now?Sharon Vaughn:
Well, a big question is, well, you know, perhaps just a little background knowledge might allow me to position my answer. So I'm a first generation college graduate, which means, of course, that neither of my parents graduated from college. And so when I went off to college, the options were to be a nurse, be a teacher, or be a support for someone else, whether you know, that was as an administrative assistant or something like that, but didn't feel like I had like, unlimited options. But interestingly, that never occurred to me to be a problem. And I think the reason is because I grew up in the inner city of St. Louis, and across the street from then, was a state home for individuals with disabilities. And that's not what it was called, it was just called, like, something really crude and horrible, like, the same insane asylum, or I don't even remember, it had a lot of really unfortunate names. But that was across from my house. And so when I needed a really big playground, they had big grounds there. And I could wander around, and you're always really interesting and fascinating people wandering around. And I wondered if there was a school there. And there was a school on the premises. And that school was really for youngsters with disabilities, for whatever reason, were unable to stay in their home. And I just cut kind of interested in at a young age, I wanted to make a difference. And it was something personal. So when I went away to college, I was like, Oh, I wonder what you major in to do that. So I got involved in psychology and special education as an undergraduate, and then taught in Tucson, Arizona, in a home for youngsters with severe emotional disturbance, and other comorbid kinds of issues as well, meaning that it wasn't just behavior problems. And this home Boy, I tell you, you want a fast learning experience. That was it. So I learned a lot about behavior management, and I learned a lot about the ways in which learning and behavior go together. So I think that was a real turning point for me to kind of realize that if I'm going to be a successful teacher, I have to think about more than just like academic learning like reading and math. I have to kind of think about about how to promote attention and executive functioning, the monitoring of your behavior while I was teaching academics, and so I've always been sort of fascinated by that combination in it, I think it goes pretty far back.Lindsay Persohn:
What an interesting story of how you came to the work that you do. And I think it certainly does provide a lot of wonderful context for why you do what you do. But it also makes me think about why I went into education and just how personal those stories are. So I really I appreciate that context. So Sharon, what would you like listeners to know about your work?Sharon Vaughn:
Well, I think one of the things when I was a classroom teacher, that really struck me is that there are definitely evidence based practices. And I worked really hard to figure out what those were, and to integrate those into my teaching. So that path was real to me and I and it's still real to me. So I really feel very strongly that we have an obligation as a field, to develop practices that both make sense are feasible, but actually are associated with impact in the classroom. So I'm on that pathway for teachers. I also realized when I was a classroom teacher, that I'm making decisions all the time. I mean, all day long, I'm making decisions about students needs, what I should do, how I should I do it, who I should respond to who I should ignore, how I should adjust my instruction, for whom, under what conditions, and I'm doing this all day long. And that the day to day on the spot decision making is really grounded in the knowledge of clinical practice. And this knowledge of clinical practice doesn't come from nowhere. And I really am curious about how it is that classroom, teachers figure out how to really embed what they know from research, but also to weave that what they know from practice. It's it's my observation, that teachers that use evidence to inform their instruction, but also use what they know about clinical practice to inform that evidence, our teachers who are really meeting the needs of students. And in many ways, I think we could argue that that's the definition of differentiated instruction. So back to this question that you asked, which is, what am I doing that I think you know, might make a difference or is worth noting. So I'm going to say two things that I think kind of have come together for me, in addition to that statement about the weaving of clinical practice with evidence based or research based practices. The second thing I want to say is that I have probably spent maybe three decades trying to improve literacy outcomes for students with the most intractable problems. And when I say intractable problems. These students are sometimes called students with reading disabilities. Sometimes they're called students with dyslexia. Sometimes they're called students with learning disabilities. But what I notice about these students is by the word intractable, what I mean is that despite these evidence based practices, and research based practices I referred to earlier, these students continue to make what we think of as slow and less than adequate progress, and the why behind that really fascinates me. So we know, for example, that in order for these students or any student to make really robust progress in literacy, they have to be able to read words, word reading. And thus, the foundation skills like communic awareness and phonics, help build up that word reading. But word reading with automaticity. We know that's like boom, important. Secondly, we know that word meaning so from word reading to word, meaning they can't just be able to read the words because I can read the words in Spanish, but doesn't do me much good because I don't know the meaning of words. So my reading comprehension is really compromised. So we know this sort of word reading word meaning combination is really the sort of powerful engine. But what we're also learning and I am learning this firsthand, particularly with students after about third grade, is that background knowledge is really the jet fuel that allows students who have word reading and word meaning to advantage themselves of what they know so that they can understand So unpacking that a little bit, what I really mean is that with young kids like kindergarten or first or second grade, the text that they're reading is reasonably easy for them to understand if they only have two things, word reading and word meaning. And the reason is, because the text doesn't have really super complex syntax, it doesn't have really super complex background knowledge. So all kids, regardless of their background, really are able to access the text with those two powerful indicators of word reading word meaning but, after about second grade, starting third grade, fourth grade, and certainly upper elementary, all the way through middle school and high school the real barrier is background knowledge. And so of course, we will have some students who can't read words, we have to continue to focus on that even if they're 12, or 14, or 18, we will have kids who do not know the meaning of those words, we need to continue to focus on that. In addition, what we need to do is really figure out a way to backfill the background knowledge that these students are missing, that really keeps them from understanding what they read. So that even if they know what the words, say, and maybe even know what the words mean, the complexity of that context is overwhelming to them, such that they can't understand what they're reading. And what happens. This is just kind of this sort of unfortunate irony is that the students with the most intractable problems, as I said earlier, maybe refer to them as dyslexic, or students with learning disabilities, those are the students who spend the least amount of time reading, because reading is so challenging. And so you end up with this sort of Matthew effect of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, meaning those students who are most challenged by reading read less, because they read less, they learn fewer words, because one of the best ways to expand your vocabulary is through reading. And so they know fewer words, and they know less about things. So they have their background knowledge is compromised. So they get sort of this double whammy of being challenged by learning to read. But then their challenge of learning to read really starts to affect all of their reading in the later grades, including like content area learning, and other reading literacy outcomes. So, you know, that has just really been interesting to me, like how I can put all of this together for older readers, and get them to think about how to build the background knowledge. And, you know, one of the things I've done Lindsay, which is kind of, like, contrary to what many people are told about literacy instruction, is I've started using only text that is heavy in information. So it's not that I never use narrative text for interventions. But I lean really heavily on information texts, because I want to fill if you will, that background knowledge gap. The second thing I have doing more of is I'm thinking about syntax and the complexity of syntax, and sort of adjusting that in ways so that students who are having challenges with reading comprehension are exposed to and learn how to read various syntax. And then the third thing I'm doing is I'm thinking a lot more about exposing students to text at the level that they are expected to read based on their grade or the content their study. So I know, you know, the importance of having grade level text. And in fact, the idea of leveled readers has sort of been, you know, so pervasive in our country, as to potentially be a problem. Because if you're a low reader, and you're always kept in level text, you're really never exposed to these complex syntaxes. And this complex comprehension and background knowledge. So in many ways, you're reducing their opportunities. Now, I realize that students have to have access to text they can read, I just want to argue that in addition to that they need to be exposed to text that is more complex, and that we build in some support strategies for students to access that text. And so I've been working on that quite a bit. I kind of refer to it as stretch text because it's sort of stretching our reading to read it really working on mechanisms for improving students access to this stretch text. And so the third thing that I happen really thinking quite a bit about goes all the way back to that first question you asked me when you said, you know, sort of what got you here? And what experiences did you have? And I said to you, you know, even early on my observations as a teacher, but also, you know, living across the street from the state hospital was that emotional, and behavioral factors interweave with academic in ways that can potentially be powerful if we can harness it. And so one of the things my colleague, Amie Grills, who's at Boston University, and I have been doing is we've been working really hard to develop, because she's a clinical psychologist, and to design anxiety management practices, not that are side by side with our literacy intervention, but that are actually an integral part of the intervention. And so students even read stories about children who are anxious, they learn practices about what to do when they're anxious, they learn to help self problems. But it's all done within this construct of teaching reading. So I'm thinking about that with respect to attention as well. So how we can sort of integrate attention management, anxiety management, and some of these executive processes that we know are important levers to improving outcomes, and how we can integrate them better and better into the way in which we teach literacy.Lindsay Persohn:
As you were sharing that, Sharon, it made me think of several things. First, it actually reminded me of a conversation I had recently with early childhood expert, Rene Dinnerstein, and she talked about choice time and play and how important that is for developing the knowledge of young children. And so when you were talking about background knowledge, it made me think about the sequence of how we now do things in American schools, and how the idea ideas like level text, and really teaching those things. So early in life, I'm wondering if using level texts in very early classrooms is actually feeding the Matthew effect, if we are not giving kids time to play and explore and ask questions and learn about what they want to learn. And really, I think develop that mindset of inquiry and curiosity and exploration in order to continue building their background knowledge is sort of the the link that I made there. By doing things like guided reading in very early grades, are we only feeding that because we are giving them you know, texts that are the cat sat on the mat. And now while of course, that's great for phonics and early decoding skills, it doesn't do a whole lot to develop background knowledge. So I really connected that to what you were saying about using informational text, but then also about how do we let kids have some latitude to be kids and to learn in their own ways and in their own right, so that was just some some connections I made and some things that that that made me think about, particularly when it comes to things like grade level texts, I formerly taught kindergarten, and it was during an era when a lot of these practices were really being introduced, um, students were no longer allowed to rest during the day. So we had quiet reading time. For those who really needed a chance to take a break from the academics, developmental play centers were really frowned upon. And, you know, I'm wondering if that is part of what contributes to some of the anxiety kids feel and the slow growth that you talked about earlier? Maybe in all of our attempts to educate kids, perhaps we are actually stifling their, their potential for growth.Sharon Vaughn:
You know, I mean, this pathway, improving academic outcomes at the expense of other growth opportunities is is certainly an interesting one. And I think whenever you put up too many guardrails, you restrict too much the path that kids are on, I think you need to wonder about what the consequences of that are. So in my little niche world, that restriction would be around restricting too much what access students have to print and having students you know, in first and second grade, only be able to read certain books because that's the level they're on. I you know, I think we should one about what the unintended consequences are. So I think that you're asking that in a way that is worth all of our thinking about, you know, whatever we're doing, as well intentioned as we are about it. I think it's valuable to sort of ask, are there some consequences to this? I haven't thought about. And I know that certainly in literacy, there's been a push for younger as better. And I think what we need to really realize, and it's so apparent if you spend time with children, which you clearly is that the reason differentiated instruction rings, so true with so many teachers, is because they see differentiation in learning, differentiation in opportunity, and differentiation, and, and motivation and engagement. And if you have 30 kids, you're going to have some kids who are five years old, and they want books, they want you to teach them to read, they come up to you with them, they point to words, they want you to tell them what they are. And then you have some kids that that's the furthest thing from their mind. And so I think, you know, appreciating fully that differentiation is something we want to both respect and support. And we also want to bring to the learning environment. And I don't know if that sort of aligns Lindsay, with what the, you know, the sort of question comments you made. But that's my sort of thinking about,Lindsay Persohn:
I think that's really helpful. I think that keeping differentiation in focus is always important in education, because we know that students do not come to us in the same sorts of ways. Every child is a bit different. But But children are also very much the same, you know, across cultures, across generations, you know, across different places and spaces. But it is important, I think, to always realign with the child who's right in front of you, what is it that they need? And what is it that they bring to their learning, again, sort of hinting at background knowledge, and how important how important that is. And the word that keeps ringing, in my mind that you mentioned is, is the wondering about unintended consequences, because certainly, no matter where we put our attention in life, there's always a trade off right there. We don't have unlimited time and attention. So wondering about what we're giving up for the sake of what we're doing. I think that's actually a really helpful concept to keep in mind. Because like I said, we're always making choices. As you as you said, we're always making decisions as teachers every day. In fact, I think that might be why teaching is so exhausting. These are days full of you know, and they're not trivial decisions, right? We we never really know how even what we may think of as just a kind of an off the cuff comment how that might reach a student and how it might impact their thinking, or potentially how it might shut down their thinking. So I think wondering about that. And being curious about that ourselves, is such an important point to keep at the forefront that we are always trading off.Sharon Vaughn:
Yeah. And I was also thinking that the times that we're in, have strained children in very obvious and concerning ways. But they've also strained adults. And so the kind of energy that differentiating instruction requires, requires an adult who's real robust, and healthy in all ways, so that they have the energy and cognitive capacity to respond to others. Because we all know that whatever our situation is, if we're in a personal situation, that's a calamity, or we have our own anxieties, or our own concerns, they really interfere with our ability to respond to the learners in front of us. And of course, these are very difficult times, not just for the children, but for the adults. And so teachers are really trying to figure out, you know, how they can get their balance in the classroom again, and sort of get their mojo back about what it means to be a teacher, and what it means to interact with students and to listen and getting close to students because that's not as easy to do. Even touch is kind of gone. Dealing with students who are now coming to school after they've been home, many of them for a year or sometimes more. So I just think, you know, all of the ways in which differentiation requires cognitive and emotional capacity are certainly strained under the the situation we're coping.Lindsay Persohn:
I really appreciate you saying that, because I think it's important to acknowledge that often that these are really challenging times, and I feel like they are also uncharted waters. But that doesn't mean that we know nothing about the practice, right? It doesn't mean that we're starting from scratch even if we are in a position that's unfamiliar, people are still people, kids are still kids, they need our support in the same kinds of ways.Sharon Vaughn:
Well, it also, I mean, this is a, you know, a simple solution here into a complex problem, which means it's probably wrong. But I think it's important to keep in mind, which is that we can't spend all of our time in the rearview mirror talking about what was what happened, how it affected us, if we spent all of our time looking in the rearview mirror, we won't look forward enough and map out a plan. And acknowledging all that happened is important. But also realizing that we got to get up off the mat and get going. Because these students only get one life. And they can't get too far behind, or the penalty for that will be more than we want them to bear. And so we do have to sort of teach with urgency, teach with the responsibility of knowing that these are very delicate times. And we have to dedicate ourselves in ways that maybe we never had to before.Lindsay Persohn:
Yes, yes, I could not agree more when you say students only get one life that reminds me of a philosophy I always carried with me in the classroom is that there should be something really meaningful in every school day for every child. I don't think it's I don't think it's feasible to think that every single thing we do is going to be, you know, the best thing in the world to every every kid. But when I planned my days, I always had in mind that I wanted to be sure when that when that child got home from school, and someone said, how was your day, there was something they could talk about that connected with them that connected with their interests. And that was really powerful for them. So I really appreciate that. I think that teaching with a sense of urgency, really is important. And while I think that could be read as a bit of a stressful message, I actually find it to be really hopeful, and energizing. Because as you said, the students get one one chance at building a life that they want for themselves. And I think that helping kids uncover what they want out of their lives is really one of the the most beautiful and magical things about teaching. So we've kind of touched on this. But given the challenges of today's educational climate, what message do you want teachers to hear?Sharon Vaughn:
The challenge right now is to realize the value you have in your students lives. And to recognize that even though you know, there's rumblings of earthquakes all around you, the value and impact you have is far greater than you imagined. And any reserves that you have, and I choose the word reserves, because I'm respectful that all of us are really running close to empty. But any reserves you have any way you can fill your tank, so that you can bring as many resources as possible to that classroom, as much motivation, engagement, energy, concern, empathy, and ability to differentiate instruction, so that these learners get a chance to have the best third grade, fifth grade, seventh grade, whatever possible. I would ask you to aim for.Lindsay Persohn:
Thank you so much for that. I think that is a really important and powerful message right now. Because I think you're right, I think most people are running on empty. So. So digging, digging, again, digging deep, again, I think is is just so important in order to, as you said, give kids the best possible experience. SoSharon Vaughn:
Lindsay, thank you for keeping this going. Because you're no different than the rest of the people. And it would be easy to just sort of say I don't have time. I don't have the energy. But I'm sure someone is sitting in a car somewhere going. Oh, thank you. That was a fun conversation. I'm so glad I was able to do that. And it's because of you.Lindsay Persohn:
Oh, well. Thank you so much. I really appreciate that. I really appreciate the time you've taken to talk with me today. And I thank you so much for your contributions to the field of education.Sharon Vaughn:
You bet. Thank you.Lindsay Persohn:
Dr. Sharon Vaughn is known for her work in the areas of effective interventions for a diverse group of students with reading difficulties, and for students who are English language learners. She's the author of more than 40 books, and 350 research articles, six of which have met the What Works Clearinghouse criteria for their intervention reports. Dr. Vaughn's work has been funded by the Institute for Educational Sciences and National Institutes of Health and has been published in journals such as Exceptional Children Journal of Educational Psychology, Journal of Educational Effectiveness, Journal of Learning Disabilities Education Psychology Review and Reading Research Quarterly. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the first woman in the history of the University of Texas to receive the Distinguished Faculty and Research Award, the CEC Research Award and the AERA special interest group distinguished researcher Award and the Jeanette E. Fleischner Award for outstanding contributions in the field of learning disabilities from Council for Exceptional Children. She's provided technical assistance and literacy in more than 10 countries and 30 State Department's of education and has worked as a literacy consultant to more than 50 technical assistance projects. Dr. Vaughn is the executive director of the Meadows Center for Preventing EducationalRisk, an organized research unit that she founded with a Make A Wish gift from theMeadows Foundation Family. Dr. Vaughn is also the Manual J Justiz Endowed Chair in education and a professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Texas, Austin. For the good of all students, good research should inform good practice and vice versa. Listeners are invited to respond to an episode learn more about our guests, search past episodes, or request a topic or conversation with a specific person through our website at classroom caffeine.com. If you've learned something today, or just enjoyed listening, please be encouraged to talk about what you heard with your colleagues, and subscribe and review this podcast through your podcast provider. As always, I raise my mug to you teachers. Thanks for joining me.