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Education Professors Conduct Math-Literacy Study

During the fall 2021 semester, a group of professors from the Department of Education created an after-school program that employs literacy tactics to reinforce fourth grade students’ understanding of mathematics. Their findings were presented during a research conference this past December.

Vecihi Zambak, Ph.D., Assistant Professor and Program Director of Interdisciplinary Studies for Elementary Educators, Lilly Steiner, Ed.D., Associate Professor and Literacy Program Director, and Kerry Carley-Rizzuto, Ed.D., Associate Professor and P-3 MEd Program Director, were inspired by each other’s specialties to join forces and create the program.

Zambak, Steiner, and Carley-Rizzutto’s specialties are mathematics, literacy, and early childhood education, respectively. When they noticed that the interrelatedness between literacy and mathematics could prove useful both in the classroom and at home, they began planning the form in which their research would take.

“Upon deciding that this after-school program would involve teaching both students and parents how to be good at math using literacy strategies, we had to narrow our target age group and find the research site,” introduced Zambak.

The professors decided to focus their research on fourth graders who belong to a local town in Monmouth County. Although they initially intended to perform the study at the school itself, due to COVID-19 restrictions, they had to find different accommodations.

Carley-Rizzuto explained, “We then thought of the Monmouth Graduate Center; more specifically, its Literacy Center.”

The Monmouth Graduate Center is located two miles from campus, offering immersive learning experiences and an environment for community engagement, as stated on its website.

The professors set up the program so that there was one session per week over the course of five weeks. Zambak added, “Each week we met together and talked about what we should do for the following session.”

Although their sample only included four students and their respective parents, the professors feel the study was powerful nonetheless.

According to Carley-Rizzuto, the primary premise of the study was to give students multiple ways of approaching concepts in real life. Mathematics was the vehicle by which they achieved this goal.

“We found that many parents were frustrated by the math curriculum as they were used to solving problems a completely different way, finding no purpose in having their child learn common core math,” elaborated Carley-Rizzuto. “But by the end of the program, the parents eventually understood why teachers provided different ways of reaching the same answer.”

For Carley-Rizzuto, the interaction between children and their parents was one of her biggest takeaways from the afterschool program.

“I was impressed by how well the parents really listened to their children explain their emotional reactions and frustrations– even when they pertained to the parents themselves. For example: ‘Mom, you do not understand, I have to learn how to solve the math this way for school– I cannot do it your way.’”

Zambak reflected, “Both parents and kids may have some predispositions about how math should be taught in fourth grade, which is linked to their previous school experience, and literacy integration may change those dispositions and help them appreciate the new way of learning math.”

“Parents want to be involved in their children’s math learning when they effectively know how to do so and they believe their involvement positively impacts their children’s achievement,” added Steiner.

In assessing the pre and post interviews from their sample population, in addition to their general observations of the study, the professors found that the program went beyond than just facilitating more proficient math skills.

Carley-Rizzuto said, “It was nice to see parents come out at night and motivate their children; likewise, the children liked the one-on-one time with their parents.”

Stein attributes their ability to perform research studies like this one to Monmouth’s positioning in surrounding communities.

“We are able to pursue this research because of our partnership districts. This is how we can work closely with the schools in our community,” emphasized Stein.

Zambak praised his colleagues for the success found in this study, “It has been great to collaborate with Dr. Rizzuto and Dr. Steiner. These collaborations allow us to learn from your colleague’s expertise. Each one of us has specialties and strengths in research and teaching, which made our projects more impactful and rigorous.”

The three professors are now planning for a different study involving three kindergarten classrooms with three different teachers, focusing their work on teacher-learning and how oral language can improve literacy learning in early childhood.

Stein concluded, “We all have different perspectives, training, and backgrounds. Therefore, we are always learning from one another.”