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'An amazing finding': Edmonton prof dramatically reduces reading difficulties in young students

George Georgiou at the University of Alberta is following students at 11 Edmonton schools for three years.

University of Alberta Education Professor George Georgiou.


University of Alberta Education Professor George Georgiou.

An Edmonton professor says he has found a cost-effective way to dramatically reduce reading difficulties among young children.

George Georgiou, a professor in the University of Alberta's department of educational psychology, teamed up with Rauno Parrila and Robert Savage to work with 290 students at 11 Edmonton Public Schools who struggled with reading over three years, starting in Grade 1.

By the end of Grade 2 last school year, just seven of those students were still identified as having reading difficulties.

That’s 2.4 per cent of the original group, which is lower than the rate of dyslexia found in the general population.

“They exceeded our expectations. Clearly I didn’t expect after two years we would pretty much get everybody out of that risk zone,” Georgiou said, adding he hopes to bring that number to zero by the end of this school year.

“Two per cent of poor readers in the general population of children, it is an amazing finding. And I can tell you when we looked at the individual children’s improvement after they received the intervention, sometimes they are making 20 standard points improvement, which is phenomenal.”

Georgiou trained teachers in best practices, putting together a package they could follow with explicit instructions, including a focus on phonics through books that contain numerous instances of specific words and phrasings that kids struggle with.

For example, one book will highlight the words with “sh” sounds to give students practice.

He said it’s crucial to give teachers specific skills needed to help the bottom 20 per cent of students, who will need more than standard classroom teaching to get out of their reading rut.

It’s also crucial to start as early as possible, he said, as most poor readers will never catch up if intervention starts after Grade 3.

The most promising part is the program is inexpensive.

“The total cost to reproduce the materials is about $10,” Georgiou said.

“And if you consider how much money schools are spending on commercial programs, the message is that we already give you the best practice – the teachers can do this with their own students if they are struggling. They don’t really need any fancy programs.”

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