In this week’s Q&A, The Texas Tribune interviews Stephanie Al Otaiba, professor of teaching and learning at Southern Methodist University.

Texas Tribune reporter Sanya Monsoor interviewed SMU education expert Stephanie Al Otaiba Professor of Teaching and Learning in the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development for a Q&A about early language acquisition in children.

Al Otaiba holds the Patsy and Ray Caldwell Centennial Chair in Teaching and Learning and teaches graduate courses in literacy, special education, assessment, response to intervention and mentoring doctoral students.

Al Otaiba’’s research interests include school-based literacy interventions, response to intervention, learning disabilities, diverse learners and teacher training. Her line of research has been supported by several federally funded grants from the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences, the Office of Special Education Programs, and from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Her dissertation was awarded the 2001 Outstanding Dissertation Award from the International Reading Association and in 2010 she was the recipient of The Council for Exceptional Children Division for Research’ Distinguished Early Career Research Award. She is vice president of the Division for Learning Disabilities of the Council for Exceptional Children.

The Texas Tribune article, “The Q&A: Stephanie Al Otaiba,” published April 27, 2017.

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By Sanya Monsoor
Texas Tribune

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week’s subject:

Stephanie Al Otaiba is a professor of teaching and learning at Southern Methodist University. Her work focuses on early language acquisition, literacy interventions, disabilities and diverse learners.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: Tell me more about your research regarding early language acquisition and why it’s important to start early.

Stephanie Al Otaiba: Research shows that once kids are in third and fourth grade it’s a lot more difficult to remediate reading problems, which sometimes go on to be classified as disabilities. But early intervention can help kids before they fall behind. In many cases, if we start very early, we can discern who are the children who have true learning disabilities from children who just haven’t had the right kind of instruction.

Trib+Edu: How common is it for those two categories to get mixed up?

Al Otaiba: It’s common. The statistics show that fewer than 50 percent of children that are in urban high-need schools are reading on grade level by fourth grade. Classrooms are getting more and more diverse, which brings more heterogeneity to the classroom. Teachers need to have an array of strategies that they can use to target the needs of different children.

If we have children that are emerging bilinguals, ideally, they will be taught in both languages but primarily in their native language until they learn how letters and sounds work. Children that are coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, many of them have had less exposure to rich academic language or had fewer opportunities to read at home, and so may come to school with different levels of preparedness.

If you work hard in pre-K and kindergarten to close the language gap, then these students will be better prepared once they get to second and third grade. If we get kids to third grade and they’re two grade levels behind, it’s really hard for them to catch up.

Trip+Edu: How do you deal with students of the same age group who are at different stages in their reading comprehension?

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