UO team partners with Alaska to aid Native language literacy

Researchers from the University of Oregon have secured a $5 million grant to develop literacy screening tools for elementary school students learning Alaska Indigenous languages.

The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development has contracted with a team led by Gina Biancarosa from the Center on Teaching and Learning at the UO to conduct the five-year effort. Biancarosa is the Ann Swindells Chair in Education and a professor at the UO’s College of Education.

The project will support implementation of the 2022 Alaska Reads Act, which requires early literacy screening of all students, regardless of their language of instruction. 

Alaska recognizes 21 official state languages, including English.

“We are going to be working with Alaska Native partners throughout the process,” Biancarosa said. “We’re going to start with languages that have immersion programs in schools where students are learning to read and write in an Alaska Native language.”

Her team intends to focus on three to four languages at first, with a goal of expanding to include as many as another half-dozen languages in the coming years. The researchers and state will work to assemble advisory panels made up of elders, educators and other Alaska Native community members to help guide their work and act as partners in the work.

By the end of the five-year contract, the team aims to create an online tool to empower others to develop literacy screening assessments in the future for additional Alaska Indigenous languages.

The Alaska Reads Act directs schools to assess student literacy in kindergarten through third grade to identify students in need of help reading at grade level. 

Ensuring that Alaska students are reading on grade level by the end of third grade is one of the Alaska education department’s top priorities. Alaska recognizes that development of reading skills in any language increases reading skills in all languages.

To assess literacy in English, Alaska adopted the DIBELS Eighth Edition assessment developed by Biancarosa; Patrick Kennedy, director of data management at the Center on Teaching and Learning; and their center colleagues. Kennedy also will partner with Biancarosa in the Alaska Native assessment project.

But Biancarosa said the work ahead won’t be as simple as adapting the DIBELS assessment to other languages. 

“Languages aren’t all the same,” she said. “We need to respect the way that language and literacy develops in different languages. We’re bringing the expertise around what it takes to develop the measures and what the key constructs in literacy development area. We’ll be working with our Alaska Native partners to determine how do they manifest in Yup’ik, Inupiaq or another language.” 

For example, the timing methods used to conduct DIBELS assessments might not translate well to Alaska Native education programs.

“We will have to collectively determine what makes sense culturally,” Biancarosa said. “One of the very first conversations that I hope to have with the panels is the degree to which any timing would be acceptable. If it’s not, we will work around it and come up with something that is culturally responsive to how they think and teach language and literacy.”

The team from the UO includes other faculty members from the College of Education. Kennedy brings extensive experience working on the DIBELS literacy assessment for English speakers. Professor Sylvia Thompson has done similar work internationally to develop assessments for languages other than English. Professor and data scientist Cengiz Zopluoglu will help develop the tools Alaska can apply to create assessments for additional languages in the future. Two career research associates also will be hired to support the work.

For Biancarosa, the project also represents a way to support Native language revitalization.

“I’m very interested in partnering with and helping communities who I feel have been overlooked, under-resourced or even worse,” she said. 

In her research, that initially led her to work with struggling English language readers.

“Partnering with the Alaska Native communities feels bigger than helping individual readers,” Biancarosa said. “Supporting language revitalization efforts feels like it would be a more significant contribution than I would typically have made with my research.”

By Mark Furman, University Communications