Helping Students ‘Talk the Talk’ for Academic Success

UCR’s Rollanda O’Connor has received a $1.4 million grant to support middle school students with disabilities learn academic language 

An image of Rollanda O'Connor

Rollanda O’Connor, a professor in UCR’s Graduate School of Education.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( — Learning to write academic essays and lab reports can be challenging for any middle schooler, but it’s particularly tough for children with special needs.

Rollanda O’Connor, a professor at the University of California, Riverside’s Graduate School of Education, is working to change that. O’Connor was recently awarded a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) to continue her research on reading, writing and language development in middle school children with learning disabilities.

The focus of the current project is on the acquisition and understanding of academic language, which is becoming increasingly important for students as they advance through the K-12 school system. O’Connor, who is the Eady/Hendrick Chair in Learning Disabilities at UCR, said children who receive special education need extra help with vocabulary development because they don’t read as much as their mainstream peers.

“Much of vocabulary learning occurs incidentally as students engage in wide reading, but poor readers don’t read much, so their vocabulary grows much more slowly than their peers. My aim with this project is to help teachers close the gap in academic language learning before it interferes with students’ success in all subjects,” O’Connor said.

Titled “Vocabulary CHAAOS: Creating Habits that Accelerate Academic language Of Students,” the three-year project will support teachers as they introduce key academic concepts to students in special education classes in the 6th through 8th grades at several school districts in Southern California and North Carolina.

Students will be introduced to academic words and concepts in a series of 12-week cycles, with O’Connor leading the lessons initially and slowly transferring the instructional duties over to teachers. The activities include adolescent-friendly definitions, illustrated example contexts, student practice, partner work, partner writing and independent writing.

“We introduce new words in contexts that are familiar to students,” O’Connor said. “For example, we tell them ‘acquire’ means to get something. Then we might ask them to tell the teacher whether or not they would like to acquire a pet snake. Discussions will follow as the students agree or disagree with each other, which will require them to put the word into action and defend their choices,” O’Connor said.

The Vocabulary CHAAOS project continues O’Connor’s work in creating the “BRIDGES” program, another IES-funded project in which she and her research team developed a new method for teaching U.S. history to 8th graders with poor reading skills. Students in that program improved their performance across each cycle and outperformed peers who were not in the program. O’Connor said the results, although positive, highlighted the need to intervene earlier.

“While the 8th grade students made strong vocabulary gains with BRIDGES, they were still several grade levels behind their typical-student peers. By starting earlier, and building on each previous year’s learning, we are expecting to see students make stronger and lasting gains in academic vocabulary,” O’Connor said.

Like BRIDGES lessons, which are already available to teachers, O’Connor said the ultimate goal is to make the instructional routines available for teachers across the United States.

“Without a solid grasp of academic language, these students may fail the content area courses required for high school graduation,” O’Connor said. “With the support of the Department of Education and our partner schools, we plan to create a program that will address this problem and then make it free and available to teachers.”

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