Dr. Gene Ouellette leads research teams examining how vocabulary and spelling skills develop and how these areas factor into learning to read by Laura Dillman Ripley P sychology professor Dr. Gene Ouellette is working to improve literacy skills of elementary, high school, and university students by finding out more about how they acquire vocabulary and spelling skills, and how these areas in turn influence learning to read. Ouellette has simultaneously received research grants from two of Canada’s major funding agencies — the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). As primary researcher for both projects, a rarity in Canadian research, Ouellette will conduct the studies with students and colleagues at schools in the region and Quebec over the next five years. “The SSHRC study is looking at vocabulary in kindergarten and Grade 1 students, specifically how we learn vocabulary and how this connects to learning to read,” says Ouellette. “Right now a lot of the research is focused on short-term skills, but long-term skills like vocabulary are important indicators of future academic success.” Ouellette and his research team, including several Mount Allison students, hope to begin their work in local schools shortly. They will be teaching and evaluating how young students acquire new vocabulary through storybook exposure and how this directly influences learning to read words and comprehend text. Mount Allison has a long history of involvement with enrichment and volunteer programs in Sackville, including the LINKS program, co-ordinated by honours psychology student Thomas Williams (’14), who was trained and mentored by Salem Elementary School teacher and LINKS founder at Salem Ellen Hicks. LINKS sees university students paired with Salem students, volunteering as tutors on a set literacy program twice a week over a semester. “This year the LINKS team has started evaluating students’ vocabulary to help determine who may benefit most from the tutoring program,” explains Ouellette. “This is key information as vocabulary is an important language skill, but is currently not widely tested in schools. It’s hard to measure quickly in a standardized test, and it’s a skill that varies greatly when kids start school.” Ouellette’s second research project, funded by NSERC, will examine the quality of orthographic representations (the letters used to make words) and their importance for spelling and reading. “This work is more cognitive-based and theoretical in nature,” he says. “For this study we are working with high school and university students. Our research team will be marking how quickly these students can read words and how this relates to the ability to spell and define the same words. This speaks to the storage of word forms in long-term memory and how quickly they can be retrieved from memory when reading, resulting in more fluent reading.” Ouellette is working with researchers at Concordia University, including education professor Dr. Sandra Martin-Chang, who previously worked in Mount Allison’s psychology department. In addition to Mount Allison students, the research teams for both projects include master’s students at Concordia, as well as Allisonian Allyson Haley (’09) who is completing her doctorate. “Not all readers are good spellers,” says Ouellette. “But our studies show that if you teach spelling first, it improves reading. We’re looking forward to finding out more about this connection between spelling and reading, as well as the importance of vocabulary for students on the pathway to literacy.” 10 / Winter 2014 / RECORD