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Exemplary Research Nets Anne M. Reece Dissertation Award

Anne M. Reece's dissertation, A Critical Discourse Analysis of English Language Learning (ELL) Student and Teacher Interactions During Reading Comprehension Literacy Events in a Multi-
lingual Classroom, has been selected to receive the Gordon C. Lee award for this year. The
Gordon C. Lee Dissertation Award is given in recognition of the best dissertation from the College
of Education in a given year.

Anne M. Reece
Anne M. Reece

When Anne M. Reece, a Ph.D. student in Curriculum and Instruction, joined the College of Education, she was seeking answers to challenges she encountered during her experience teaching ELL students at a high-needs school in Bellevue, Wash. "I had questions about my ELL students," she explains, "and the effectiveness of the way I was teaching them, and I couldn’t get answers that worked for us. So as a teacher I had a huge question mark about how ELL students learn to read in English, especially in a class where the teacher doesn’t speak a second language. I kept asking, 'How can we teach reading comprehension to ELL students better?'"

Reece says this question was with her as she joined the College to pursue her dissertation work, which she envisioned as a "once in a lifetime project." As a result she came in highly motivated and committed to academic excellence from the outset of her program.

As Reece’s adviser, Sheila Valencia, says, "Anne took these qualities into her dissertation research on literacy instruction for English Learners, one of the most pressing issues facing education today."

Reece’s dissertation, A Critical Discourse Analysis of ELL (English Language Learners) Student
and Teacher Interactions During Reading Comprehension Literacy Events in a Multilingual Classroom
, investigated the effect of various typical instructional classroom practices on the literacy learning and engagement of ELL students in a mainstream classroom. Reece was interested in how the reading comprehension activities academically and socially positioned the ELL students in the interactions during these activities.

Reece conducted an ethnographical study and used a combination of video- and audio-tape recordings, interviews, observations and the collection of artifacts to gather data to capture the interactions between the teacher and the students with four focal ELL students. She qualitatively analyzed the data to reveal meta-themes, then selected representative conversations and used critical discourse analysis to do a fine-grained analysis of teacher and student talk around text during these conversations.  

Says Valencia, "this kind of fine-grained analysis allows insight in the nuances of teaching and learning that is critical to improving student learning. I fully expect that Anne's findings will have an impact on classroom practice and on future research studies."

Reece’s findings revealed the vital role the teacher played in creating opportunities for the ELL students to engage and learn through interactions around text.

"I was looking at the data critically but also looking at it from the enabling point of view," Reece says "because I wanted to know what teachers, just like myself, can do to improve the learning outcomes for these students. I found there were moves that the teacher made that enabled the ELL students to participate in the construction of knowledge more. Many times the teacher would ask a question and the ELL students would offer an answer but the answer wasn’t quite right. Often the teacher would unintentionally overlook these approximated answers and the student’s thinking around the text would not be developed more. But sometimes, the teacher would extend student answers by elaborating on what they said and getting them to talk more. When she did this ELL students would respond to her and she would respond again in a back and forth kind of way. It was during this elaborated conversation that the teacher built on ELL student thinking and led the student to re-work their responses to extend their knowledge about the text. This was hard for the teacher to do in a big group, and it rarely happened, but when she worked with them in small groups or in pairs or individually, she did it a lot more often and the data showed that it increased ELL student participation in the construction of knowledge in the classrooms."

Reece’s dissertation also found that the text itself played a tremendous role in mediating the interactions between the teacher and the students and in the way ELL students were positioned in the interactions. When students related to a text or had background knowledge of the text’s content, they could embody a position of power. While many texts for students contain content that is easily relatable to white, middle-class children, there are fewer books in classrooms and libraries that are as easily relatable for ELL learners that reflect their cultural experience.

Reece relates an anecdote about one of her focal ELL students in the study, one of the many data points that showed how learning can be structured to empower ELL learners.

"The teacher was teaching reading comprehension strategies and Munira, a Somali immigrant, wasn't getting them" she explains. "When I taped the students, I’d just put a tape recorder down on the desk and move away so that I could listen to it later. On this one occasion Munira was reading with another little girl, Sara, in paired reading. She had a book called 'Muslim Child' that was about Muslim religious practices of some children that she was reading to Sara. And it was amazing to see the comprehension strategies she was using with this culturally familiar text. She was doing everything that the teacher taught her to do that I hadn’t seen any evidence of before this. She was making inferences, adding background knowledge, asking questions, making connections. In effect, the text enabled Munira to apply strategies and to be the teacher to Sara…she had this one moment of opportunity that the other white middle-class students had all the time."

The Munira anecdote is a representative conversation that Reece includes in her dissertation to illustrate her analytical findings. Her dissertation findings are full of anecdotes and data points like this one. In order to do the dissertation Reece sorted through hours and hours of data, engaging in deep research every step of the way, from data collection to dissertation defense.

Along the way, she had several mentors that guided her. Sheila Valencia, as previously written, served as her primary advisor. Reece credits Valencia as being crucial to her learning in the program and has nothing but praise for Valencia’s advising and mentoring, especially during the dissertation process.

Also on Reece’s committee, Juan Guerra, associate professor as well as associate dean and director of the Graduate Opportunities and Minority Achievement Program in the UW Graduate School. Guerra specializes in language, literacy and ethnic identity, which brought Reece an important perspective on how oppression is framed within education. Reece acknowledges that Guerra helped her to understand her own position as a white researcher working on issues of, primarily, immigrant learners. He also connected her with other well-known researchers in ethnography and ELL work when she had a particularly tricky question about her work.

Reece originally had Bill McDiarmid on her committee, but when McDiarmid left to become dean at UNC School of Education, Charles “Cap” Peck stepped in and offered his expertise around theories of learning. He encouraged Reece to think more deeply about the way her work applied to theories of learning.  

Additionally, Tom Stritikus, associate dean of Academic Programs at the College of Education and associate professor in Curriculum and Instruction, was a member of her committee and helped Reece with the link between literacy and second language acquisition.

In addition to her strong committee members, Reece says that she couldn’t have accomplished this dissertation work without the support of her husband, Harry Katz, and her three children, Joshua, Simon and Michelle. Says Reece, "My husband encouraged me and gave me personal support every step of the way. My children did too. At one point I questioned why I was doing it and pulling so much time away from my family and Michelle, who was 11 at that point, turned to me and said, 'We didn’t come this far for you to turn back now.'" The first woman in her family to obtain a Ph.D., Reece has inspired her children to pursue higher education.

And finally, it comes back to the teacher and children in the classroom where she collected her data. "The teacher was amazing, so willing to be open and let me investigate her practice. How many teachers let you do that?" And the students taught her huge amounts about what they are talking about in the classroom. Reece explains,

"A lot of my data was off the radar, it was about what the tape machine captured when I was not there, so I got access to their ways of thinking and talking that one normally wouldn’t be privy too. They were so generous with it. They were really remarkable young people facing a lot of injustice, even if it wasn’t intentional. Every day we teachers are doing the best we can but in the study the unintentional aspects of what we do revealed themselves and they stifle students. And I think that is what this dissertation allowed me to find were the unintentional consequences that influence how these students learned and progressed through school and life and some of the ways we can interrupt that."

On behalf of the entire University of Washington College of Education community, congratulations Anne!

June 2010  |  Return to issue home

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