SRU professor and student to coach Butler preschool teachers


Pre-School teacher at a table

From left, Slippery Rock University early childhood-special education major Lauren Denny shows Olivia Van Der Zee, a preschool teacher, a phonemic awareness demonstration with Sara Tours, SRU associate professor of elementary education and early childhood. Denny and Tours will be conducting coaching sessions and research on phonemic awareness with Butler-area preschool teachers this summer

May 23, 2018

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Preschool teachers are among children's first sources for learning how to read. With that in mind, a Slippery Rock University professor and her student are going straight to that source to better equip teachers to help their students succeed.

As part of a summer research project, Sara Tours, assistant professor of elementary education and early childhood, and Lauren Denny, a senior early childhood-special education major from Butler, are coaching a group of local preschool teachers how to help children read through a concept called phonemic awareness.

According to Tours, a strong predictor of children experiencing success reading is through phonemic awareness, or their ability to hear and manipulate the sounds of spoken words, while also understanding the sequence of speech sounds. For example, a child must hear that "cat" and "car" start with the same sounds and blend the sounds to make words before connecting them with written letters - all of which leads to reading.

"Phonemic awareness is the most important skill for future reading and a lot of preschool teachers aren't as familiar with it," said Tours, who, prior to arriving at SRU last August, completed a doctoral degree at Florida State University studying phonemic awareness, particularly with English language learners. "We chose to work with teachers instead of students because the teachers impact so many more students. They can use these types of strategies with the students, that way more students are prepared in the future."

The study, titled "iPad Phonemic Awareness Coaching for Preschool Teachers," is funded by the University through a Summer Undergraduate Research Experience grant. Tours and Denny will record coaching sessions each week using the VoiceThread app, and three preschool teachers from Butler County Children's Center will watch the sessions and record feedback using tablet computers borrowed from SRU. In some cases, the teachers will record audio of themselves implementing phonemic awareness exercises with students.

"We'll role-play to show what a student should be doing," Tours said. "We aren't there giving them the direct instructions so they can interpret and use it and they won't feel uncomfortable with us there."

The coaching will take place June 4 to August 3, after which Tours and Denny will gather and analyze feedback for later presentation at conferences, with a particular eye on next spring's Eastern Educational Research Association conference in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Additionally, the pair will determine if this model can be used to coach preschool teachers on a grander scale.

"We are studying the teachers, not the students," Tours said. "We want to see if there's an increase in the teachers' self-efficacy, that they are more competent and confident teaching these phonemic awareness skills, and if they feel that their students are getting better."

Tours said she will be a "backseat driver" on the project, with Denny, working 100 hours this summer, steering most of the coaching and the research. Tours was impressed by Denny as a student in her reading instruction class last fall and approached her about applying for a SURE grant.

"I've always loved reading more in-depth into education," said Denny, who received an associate degree from Butler County Community College before arriving at SRU. "This is an experience that's more than just what you get in college. This is diving deeper into my education. It means a lot to have that opportunity."

Denny pursued contacts through Butler County Head Start to identify preschool teachers who would participate.

"I love teaching reading and it's neat that we're going to be working with people within my hometown of Butler and that we can impact the community," Denny said. "When I first came into this I was thinking mostly about working with the students, but when Dr. Tours suggested working with the teachers, it opened my mind to how many more people we could influence."

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