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Children’s Learning Institute at UTHealth awarded $3.3 million to expand popular literacy program

Photo of UTHealth’s Tricia Zucker, PhD.
UTHealth’s Tricia Zucker, PhD, is expanding her vocabulary building program. (Photo by Maricruz Kwon/UTHealth)

The Developing Talkers literacy program has been so successful that the U.S. Department of Education has awarded $3.3 million to The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) to expand it.

Tricia Zucker, PhD, associate professor with the Children’s Learning Institute (CLI) at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, originally developed the 14-week program to help prekindergarten students build their vocabularies.

Because the program was so effective, Zucker, holder of the Harriet and Joe Foster Distinguished Professorship at UTHealth, was asked to adapt the program so that it can also be used by kindergarten teachers.

Having a strong vocabulary is critical to reading success, according to Zucker, because it improves comprehension. Reading the passages aloud also teaches the children how to pronounce the words. In response to requests, Zucker created a Spanish version called Hablemos Juntos.

In Texas, almost 6,000 teachers now use these programs in their classrooms.

Teachers participating in these programs receive reading materials along with instructions on engaging the students and promote high quality classroom conversations.

This new grant will allow Zucker to develop and test a more advanced version of Developing Talkers with 200 kindergarten teachers and 800 of their students in the Greater Houston Area.

Teachers will be randomly assigned to one of three groups. One will receive scripted lesson plans; the second test group will have teacher-inspired lesson plans; and the third will conduct business as usual to serve as a control group.

Zucker’s team will compare the teachers using scripted lessons to those using the teacher-inspired plans to identify which group was the most effective in implementing the program.

In addition to evaluating the teachers, the investigators will test the student’s vocabulary knowledge, listening comprehension, and related language and literacy skills.

Zucker’s project is titled “Developing Talkers: Building Effective Teachers of Academic Language Skills” and her grant (R305A190065) runs through June 30, 2024.

Her CLI co-investigators are Susan Landry, PhD; Michael Assel, PhD; Janelle Montroy, PhD; and Keith Millner, MA, EDM. Landry is the Albert and Margaret Alkek Distinguished Chair in Early Childhood Development, the Michael Matthew Knight Memorial Professor in Pediatrics, and director of CLI.

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