Monday, March 19, 2018

Increased letter-spacing could help improve children's reading

Increased letter spacing helps individuals read faster, but not due to visual processing, according to new research from Binghamton University, State University of New York.

"Generally speaking, our lab is interested in learning about how kids learn to read. More specifically, we want to know how the brain activity of kids that have difficulty learning to read differs from those who are not." said Elizabeth Sacchi, a doctoral candidate at Binghamton University. "Through some of my studies, I came across this effect called the letter-spacing effect, which is this finding that both kids and adults with or without specific reading impairment read faster and more fluidly when you increase the spaces between letters in words."

Sacchi's research on letter spacing is part of the National Science Foundation-funded Reading Brain Project, directed by Sarah Laszlo, adjunct associate professor of psychology. The Reading Brain Project studies how children read, measuring their brain activity as they play a computerized reading game. The goal of the project is to help children become more successful readers. According to Sacchi, this is the first letter-spacing research to look at what is happening inside the brain when reading occurs.

"Everybody seemed pretty certain up until this point that it was about decluttering your visual scene, which may make identifying letters easier," said Sacchi. "What my results show is that it doesn't look like the effect is happening early enough to be related to visual processing."

Sacchi measured the electrical activity in subjects' brains when they were shown pictures of words, letters that spell out pronounceable pseudo-words, strings of consonants, and a font that is visually similar to real words but has no meaning. She said if the letter-spacing effect was due to visual processing, it would be easier to respond to all of these characters.

"We saw very late effects of spacing, and we saw it the most with real words," said Sacchi. "Increased spacing was very helpful for the words, and less helpful for the pseudo-words and the consonant strings. The fact that more "word-like" stimuli benefited more than less "word-like" stimuli suggests that the benefit is occurring during a reading-specific process, rather than during a purely visual stage.

We don't know exactly yet where it's coming into play, but if we can identify exactly where it is helping individuals during reading, then the idea is that we can employ it more effectively."
Sacchi said she plans to focus her future research on what part of the reading process letter-spacing affects.

"The idea is to go down the line," said Sacchi. "We looked at early visual processing and saw that it doesn't affect early visual processing, so now the next step is to see how spacing affects the processing of sound information during reading. It's this nice progression of going through the different stages of reading to try to find exactly where exactly spacing comes into play."

According to Sacchi, this could also have an impact on who benefits from letter-spacing.

"The general implication of my work is that the letter-spacing effect may not be equally as helpful for everyone. Since spacing letters apart does not help with the very first visual stages of reading, we would expect it to be a better aid to someone having trouble with other aspects of reading. This finding may facilitate the eventual development of more targeted interventions for struggling readers." said Sacchi.
The article, "An Event-Related Potential study of letter spacing during visual word recognition," was published in Brain Research.

Pre-school numeracy play is a predictor of children’s attitudes towards mathematics at age 10

Numeracy activities in early childhood have been linked to children’s mathematical performance in subsequent years. However, few studies have examined associations between early numeracy play and children’s subsequent attitudes towards mathematics.

This study draws on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2011 assessment to provide a retrospective snapshot of pre-school numeracy play reported by the parents of 10-year-old children (N = 4560). Most children were found to have engaged frequently in some form of early numeracy activity. However, children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds had less regular engagement with numeracy play, while spatial play (e.g. building blocks) was less common among girls.

The extent to which children engaged in pre-school numeracy play was significantly associated with greater confidence and (for children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds) liking of mathematics at age 10, controlling for other factors.

The results highlight socioeconomic and gendered differences in children’s early activities about which policy-makers, educators and parents should be aware. They also suggest the potential role of numeracy play in fostering positive attitudes towards mathematics, which should be considered amid efforts to increase participation in science, technology, engineering and maths domains.

Standardized test scores vary most among public school district in states with high levels of both White-Black and economic segregation

This paper provides the first population-based evidence on how much standardized test scores vary among public school districts within each state and how segregation explains that variation.

Using estimates based on roughly 300 million test score records in math and English Language Arts (ELA) for Grades 3 through 8 from every U.S. public school district during the 2008–09 to 2014–15 school years, the authors estimate intraclass correlations (ICCs) as a measure of between-district variatio; characterize the variation in the ICCs across states as well as the patterns in the ICCs over subjects, grades, and cohorts  and investigate the relationship between the ICCs and measures of racial and socioeconomic segregation.

They find that between-district variation is greatest, on average, in states with high levels of both White-Black and economic segregation.

Kansas: $2 billion increase for significant academic improvement in public schools

Improving Kansas’ public schools could cost the state as much as $2 billion more a year according to a new report.

The broad conclusions about the state’s overall spending on schools are in line with arguments from four school districts that sued the state over education funding in 2010. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in October that the more than $4 billion a year the state spends on aid to its public schools isn’t sufficient under the Kansas Constitution.

The report outlined three scenarios for improving student performance, and the least expensive would cost $451 million more a year, an increase of about 10 percent. The most ambitious option – boosting the graduation rate and vastly improving student scores on standardized tests – would result in the $2 billion increase.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Students who are old for their grade more likely to enroll in college

Teens who are old for their grade appear to feel more confident about their academic abilities and are more likely to enroll in college than their younger peers, according to research published by the American Psychological Association. 

The study analyzed data from more than 10,000 Australian students who were tracked over a decade and found that the relative age of students in their grade had significant effects. The issue should be considered by government agencies, schools, teachers and parents, especially in enforcing strict regulations about school starting age for students, said lead author Philip D. Parker, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Australian Catholic University.

"Being young for your grade really does lead to lower academic self-confidence, especially in math, even accounting for student's actual performance in those subjects," Parker said. "Further, being young for your grade appears to slightly lower a student's chances of entering college, and the most likely reason for this is a lower level of academic self-confidence."

The findings from the study were modest in size, with 58 percent of students who were almost a year older for their grade enrolling in college, compared with 52 percent of students who were almost a year younger for their grade. The study was published in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

In Australia, the United States and other countries, many parents start their children in school late for their grade to gain a future advantage in academics or sports. Those decisions are understandable but ultimately may hurt other students, Parker said. Parents of children who are young for their grade shouldn't worry about it because the research findings were modest in size, but there are greater implications for school systems and policymakers to create a level playing field for all students, he said.

"It is critical that school systems have a clear and strictly enforced school starting-age policy," Parker said. "While there may be joy or shame for students who are advanced or held back a grade, educators also need to consider the implications that those decisions will have on other students in their classes."

The study used data from the Longitudinal Study of Australia Youth, which included 10,370 15-year-old Australians who were surveyed over a decade. The participants, who were born between May 1987 and April 1988, were evenly divided between males and females and consisted of 78 percent native-born Australians, with smaller numbers of first-generation or second-generation immigrants. Three percent of the students identified as being of indigenous descent.

Childhood aggression linked to deficits in executive function

A new study finds that deficits in executive function -- a measure of cognitive skills that allow a person to achieve goals by controlling their behavior - predicts later aggressive behavior. The study, published in open-access journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, shows that primary school children with lower executive function were more likely to show physical, relational and reactive aggression in later years, but not proactive aggression. The increased aggression - which was observed in both boys and girls - may be partly due to an increased tendency for anger in these children. The findings suggest that helping children to increase their executive function could reduce their aggression.

Aggression during childhood can create a variety of challenges for children and their parents, siblings and classmates. Understanding the basis for aggression -- and how it develops over childhood -- could help researchers to identify ways to reduce aggressive behavior.

Executive function includes skills for adapting to complex situations and planning, including exerting self-control in challenging situations. Previous studies have shown that antisocial behavior is related to lower executive function, and it is unsurprising that improving executive function could help to reduce aggression. However, few studies have examined the link between childhood executive function and aggression over time. Similarly, researchers do not yet understand the relationships between executive function, specific types of aggression and other contributing factors, such as how easily someone becomes angry.

In this new study, researchers at the University of Potsdam in Germany investigated the relationship between childhood executive function and different types of aggression, to see if deficits in executive function could predict aggressive behavior in later years.

The research team assessed German primary school children aged between 6 and 11 years old at three time points: the start of the study, around 1 year later and around 3 years later. The children completed behavioral tasks to reveal different aspects of their executive function, including memory, planning abilities and self-restraint.

The researchers also asked the children's teachers to record their tendency for different types of aggression. These included physical aggression, relational aggression (where a child might socially exclude someone or threaten to end a friendship), reactive aggression (where a child reacts aggressively to provocation) and proactive aggression (where a child is aggressive in "cold blood" without being provoked). Finally, the children's parents completed a survey detailing how easily the children tended to get angry.

"We found that deficits in executive function affected later physical and relational aggression," said Helena Rohlf, the lead author on the study. "The more deficits children showed at the start of the study, the higher their aggression one and three years later."

Rohlf and her colleagues also found that an increased tendency for anger in children with reduced executive function may partly explain their increased aggression in later years.

Furthermore, deficits in executive function were related to increased reactive aggression over time, but not proactive aggression. "This ties in with the idea of proactive aggression as 'cold-blooded', planned aggression," says Rohlf. "Executive function allows children to behave in a planned and deliberate fashion, which is characteristic of proactive aggression."

The research team also found that executive function had similar effects on aggression in girls and boys. "We found that although aggressive behavior was more common among boys, the links between executive function, anger, and aggression seem to be similar for girls and boys," said Rohlf.
The results suggest that training programs that help children to increase their executive function, and manage their anger, could reduce their aggression. The researchers plan to conduct further work to see if their results also apply to children with serious levels of aggression.

Trends in Bullying

Three new Data Points released today look at trends in reports of bullying, repetition and power imbalance as components of the uniform definition of bullying, and the relationship between students' feelings of safety in school and their perceptions about the level of crime in their home neighborhoods and school neighborhoods. The reports from the National Center for Education Statistics, in the Institute of Education Sciences, use data collected in the School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey.

Changes in Bullying Victimization and Hate-Related Words at School Since 2007 shows the percentage of students being bullied at school declined from 2007 to 2015. Additionally, fewer students reported being called a hate-related word at school in 2015 as compared to 2007, 2009, and 2011.

Students' Relationships in School and Feelings About Personal Safety at School shows that regardless of their perceptions of the level of crime in their home and school neighborhoods, at least 95% of students agreed they felt safe at school for all school locales.

Repetition and Power Imbalance in Bullying Victimization at School shows students who reported repetition and power imbalance were components of the bullying they experienced were also more likely to agree the bullying had an impact on various aspects of their lives, such as their school work, relationships with family and friends, feelings about themselves, and their physical health.