Merging Research and Practice: Professor Michael Kieffer ☆

Michael Kieffer, Assistant Professor of Language and Education for the TESOL and Applied Linguistics programs, is making a difference in public schools across the United States. His research, which primarily focuses on the literacy development of English language learners in K-12 schools, is an outstanding example of work that both informs and is informed by practice. “I like to start by thinking about the problem space,” says Michael, “What are the natures of academic challenges and difficulties that English language learners encounter? What are the variations? How do they impact literacy? What are the instructional supports and contextual changes we can undertake to address them?”

To explore these questions, Michael has embarked on research that merges two overlapping fields: second language learning and adolescent literacy. As English language learners transition from elementary to middle school, he notes, many of them can “struggle with the increasingly difficult language demands. That’s the bigger problem space.” Currently, Michael is pursuing three lines of research in this area, each one representing a different level of analysis: the student level, the classroom level, and the school context.

The Students

At the student level, Michael has built upon his dissertation research, in which he tracked literacy development in bilingual students for five years, from fourth to eighth grade, to investigate the linguistic and metalinguistic skills that figure into literacy. Vocabulary development, he explains, “is not just knowing more words, but knowing more about words.” The primary questions that Michael has approached this line of research with are how to build students’ metalinguistic awareness of morphology – the forms of words – and what strategic knowledge students need when they encounter new words.

The Classroom

At the classroom level, Michael has been taking research into reading comprehension into a new and innovation direction. While a considerable amount of studies address generalized reading comprehension, Michael is interested, rather, in discipline-specific reading comprehension, such as the particular language challenges involved in reading science and social studies texts. His work in this area is consonant with a move within the field of adolescent literacy to explore disciplinary practices – going beyond generalized reading strategies to examine how practitioners read texts in their own fields and how this looks different from reading English Language Arts texts. Currently, Michael says, “We have a depiction of what experts do, but we don’t know what the development is from being a novice to being an expert. In K-12 ESL, there’s been a real focus on how to scaffold content and simplify the language we use to teach content. There’s a place for that, but I also think there’s a place for asking ‘How do we build up students’ language capacity to the level of the content?’”

The School Context

Finally, Michael’s research into school context has been far-reaching, taking into consideration nationwide data from the publicly available Early Childhood Longitudinal Study to explore students’ growth trajectories in reading as they navigate various transitions and different school contexts. Presently, he has been looking at outcome differences between students who stay in K-8 schools and students who transition from elementary to middle schools. The results so far indicate that “the effects seem to be similar for English language learners and native speakers – students who stay in a K-8 school seem to show more growth in reading comprehension than students who transition from elementary to middle school.” Michael is now extending this work by looking at data from New York City schools, tracking students from fourth grade through graduation to determine how students navigate transitions and how this predicts their likelihood to graduate. Although it is too early to tell, he hypothesizes that “sixth grade is a very important time in adolescent development.”

From Research to Practice

Conducting research that ties into practice is particularly important to Michael, and for that reason, an aim of his work is to “provide teachers and administrators with feedback.” Making his research relevant to teachers, though, is not just an outcome of his work but a part of his entire research process: “We want research findings that are rigorously supported by data and contribute to knowledge, but we also want findings that are applicable. Part of that is translating the knowledge, but part of it is starting with questions that teachers want to know more about.”