In just three years at Ohio State, professor Laura Justice has amassed a cool $35 million. The money comes in the way of five grants, the most lucrative of which is the U.S. Department of Education's Reading for Understanding Initiative. Accounting for a full $20 million, it's among the largest single grants ever obtained by researchers at OSU, with funds earmarked for helping youngsters understand what they read.
"This is the largest set of awards that the National Center for Education Research has made," says Elizabeth Albro, associate commissioner at the U.S. Department of Education.
Big grants are nothing new for Justice, a 2007 Fulbright Scholar, and neither are results. While at the University of Virginia, Justice used federal money to make a discovery about early reading: If you occasionally point out letters in books as you read to children-for instance, saying, "This is a 'D,' just like the 'D' in Daddy"-children are more able to learn to read on their own.
While this seems like a minor breakthrough, not only did it dramatically improve reading skills in the study group, it also won Justice the Presidential Early Career Award-the first time the honor had been given for educational research.
While that study dug into how children can piece together letters to figure out words, Justice's new research will look at ways to help them understand their meanings.
American schools typically focus instruction on decoding, the kind of letter recognition her early study covered, until Grade 4, when they begin to work on comprehension, says Justice, who is based at OSU's College of Education and Human Ecology.
"We have an alarming number of children in the U.S. who cannot understand what they read," she says. "The findings that emerge from this work may fundamentally change how we teach reading comprehension in schools."
Justice believes, for example, that schools may stop delaying the focus on comprehension, beginning instead as early as pre-kindergarten.
To accomplish her purpose, she's enlisted the help of Columbus area schools. "We tentatively have plans to partner with Worthington City School District, Hamilton Local School District and the Tri-County Educational Service Center, which is in the Wooster area," says Justice, who believes that working from the ground up with teachers improves the chances that study results immediately will inform the way Ohio students are taught.
"My major emphasis as a researcher is to build bridges between research and practice," Justice explains. "I always have an eye toward translating basic research findings into practices that can be used by very large numbers of educators."
Marcia Invernizzi, Justice's former colleague at the University of Virginia, has mixed feelings about OSU's grants. "For those of us she left behind at UVA, Laura's success is bittersweet-bitter because we're no longer with her on the day-to-day haul, but sweet because we can't think of a better person to do the job. And that's the damn truth."