Professor at the UCR Graduate School of Education Rollanda O’Connor | Courtesy of UCR Newsroom
Professor at the UCR Graduate School of Education Rollanda O’Connor | Courtesy of UCR Newsroom

Professor at the UCR Graduate School of Education Rollanda O’Connor has been awarded a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Educational Sciences to fund her ongoing research on how to improve reading, writing and language development in middle school children with learning disabilities.

The three-year project that O’Connor is currently working on titled, “Vocabulary CHAAOS: Creating Habits that Accelerate Academic language of Students,” focuses on helping students with the acquisition and understanding of academic language. The project will support teachers as they teach key academic concepts to students in special education in both the sixth and eighth grades in school districts in Southern California and North Carolina.

School principals and teachers in those districts volunteered to help pilot this method of teaching middle school students with reading disabilities. “They have agreed to collaborate with the UCR team for the next two to three years to make these strategies feasible and effective,” said O’Connor.

O’Connor believes that children who receive special education often need help with developing vocabulary because they do not read as much as their mainstream peers. The project aims to help teachers decrease this discrepancy before it interferes with their learning in other subjects. O’Connor plans to lead the process of introducing sets of academic words and concepts to students by using adolescent-friendly definitions, partner work and illustrated example contexts in a series of 12-week cycles, then passing off this method of instruction to teachers.

“Over the past 25 years, I have helped young children with the early literacy skills that can make learning to read easier, and in the past 5 years I have worked with adolescents to improve their ability to read long, complicated words, understand what they mean, and use strategies that improve their reading comprehension,” O’Connor said, elaborating on her teaching experiences.

Work in this project continues off of O’Connor’s previous Building Reading Interventions Designed for General Education Subjects (BRIDGES) project, which created lessons for teachers that have been proven to improve performance amongst students with poor reading skills. She hopes that her current project will allow for instructional routines for students with reading disabilities to be made available for teachers across the nation.

O’Connor earned her PhD in education from the University of Washington in 1992. She has taught in public schools for 16 years to students with reading disabilities and currently serves as the Eady and Hendrick leadership chair in learning disabilities at the UCR Graduate School of Education.