CLAS Undergrad, Neag School Professor Selected for Funding on Collaborative Research Project

When Marissa Gadacy ’17 (CLAS) joined Neag School of Education assistant professor Devin Kearns in his research lab, she proposed exploring a relatively unchartered piece of the puzzle in elementary school students’ reading comprehension skills: spelling.

This fall, the Office of Undergraduate Research selected Gadacy and Kearns for one of its 2016 Social Sciences, Humanities, and Arts Research Experience (SHARE) Awards, providing their proposed project with $2,000 in funding for use in their collaborative research this semester. The award is given each year to a selection of UConn undergraduate student-and-professor pairs who are conducting research together in the social sciences, humanities, or arts.

The study, titled “Longitudinal Examination of Children’s Polysyllabic Word Reading,” tests children’s development in reading multiple-syllable (polysyllabic) words and its effects on reading comprehension. Last year, Kearns concluded that second-graders’ reading comprehension related more to their polysyllabic word reading than reading for a variety of words on a standardized test. What Gadacy will add to the study in 2016 is an examination of whether students’ ability to spell words correctly impacts their reading comprehension.

Current student Marissa Gadacy and Neag School assistant professor Devin Kearns will collaborate on research examining aspects of elementary school students’ reading comprehension skills, thanks to funding from a UConn Office of Undergraduate Research SHARE Award.

Gadacy predicts that spelling will be related to reading comprehension, perhaps more so than reading, because it requires a number of additional skills. To test this hypothesis, Gadacy and Kearns will be designing and administering a spelling exam to third-graders this winter in more than 10 schools in Rhode Island and Connecticut.

Gadacy admits that designing the test is a complex undertaking. Each of the test’s 20 to 40 words (ranging from two to four syllables each) must be selected from a large database that records how frequently specific words are used in elementary school textbooks. In selecting words for the test, the objective is to choose medium-frequency words – words that are familiar to students without being so recognizable that their spelling becomes obvious.

Kearns says he expects students to perform better in spelling words that occur more often and words that have spellings students could guess without knowing spelling rules. For example, “drips” is easy to spell because the letters say what students would expect. Words with ay and ai, however, are hard to spell without knowing a spelling rule. Both make the “a” sound, like in play and plain. Kearns explains that we spell “a” with ay at the end of words, and often ai elsewhere in the word.

“In some schools, children learn to spell by memorizing words,” he says. “That doesn’t build spelling skill as well as teach students well-established pattern like the ones for “a.”

Gadacy, a double major in psychology and human development and family studies, began working with Kearns last year because his work related to her interests in language development.

“I took a psychology of language course that taught me how people read and speak to each other, which I thought was extremely interesting and complex,” she says. Over the course of her time working in the research lab, Gadacy says she has progressed to working with study participants in schools and developing her own research ideas.

Even though her SHARE grant expires after the Fall 2016 semester, Gadacy says she will likely continue to perform undergraduate research. The Wallingford, Conn., native plans to pursue graduate school before beginning a career in psychology research or social work.

“She has worked hard and learned a great deal in a short time,” Kearns says. “I’m thankful to have her on my team and exited to work with her on the SHARE project.”