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The Inclusive, Shared Storybook Reading Project
The Inclusive, Shared Storybook Reading Project

Portland State University is becoming a national leader in research that leads to improvements in quality of life for individuals with developmental disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy. Faculty from units including the School of Social Work and the Departments of Speech & Hearing Sciences and Special Education create and enhance diagnostic tools that promote the health, education, communication, and general wellbeing of those within this population.

Assistant Professor of Special Education Samuel Sennott is one of the newest additions to this team. Proudly displaying the techie qualities common among this cohort, Dr. Sennott was the first faculty member to use Google Glass to better “read” information in his environment. Fittingly, his research program seeks to help some of society’s most challenged readers to better learn about their world.

In his Universal Design Laboratory (uLab), Dr. Sennott leverages technologies like smartphones and tablets to create innovative platforms and apps that facilitate shared reading experiences, hone emergent literacy and communication skills, and make it possible for individuals without speaking ability to better express themselves. He co-developed Proloquo2Go, a highly successful symbol-based app for the iPad and iPhone that helps thousands of people with complex communications needs to find their voices.

One of Dr. Sennott’s primary tools is a practiced called “shared storybook reading,” a suite of techniques that intentionally engage adults and children in the reading experience. These include allowing children to select what story to read, pausing to make time for discussion, matching content and interactions to expressed interests, and letting children hold and manipulate the books being read. For decades these practices have been known to help the general population acquire language and literacy skills. More recently, researchers like Dr. Sennott are uncovering the positive effects the same exercises have on developmentally disabled children.

Dr. Samuel Sennott                      

According to Sennott, while adults read with many of these children, the kids commonly miss the full benefits of the experience because of their intensive needs. However, if parents, teachers, and youth service professionals could align their practices to better suit the children and improve the quality, frequency, and duration of time spent reading, then these young people might benefit from shared reading in ways similar to that of their peers who do not receive special services.

Dr. Sennott recently launched the “Inclusive, Shared Storybook Reading Project” to design, implement, and evaluate an online training system that equips adults with the know-how to deliver high-quality reading experiences to these children. In order to support this training method, the project team built a web-based book and activity finder to increase access to educational materials and books in homes, at school, and elsewhere. Similarly, they are rolling-out a social network platform to promote sustained engagement in shared reading and the open exchange of ideas, materials, and experiences among participants. By weaving together technology, theory, and teaching, Sennott hopes to assist adults caring for young children (ages 0-6) with complex communication needs in communities large and small, urban and rural.

To reach such children within Oregon, the project is using a small grant from the Oregon Department of Education to form partnerships with public and private organizations including Oregon’s Early Learning Hubs (statewide centers focused on early childhood education and school readiness), the Multnomah County Early childhood Program PSU’s Helen Gordon Child Development Center, and local libraries.

“We’re really excited about this approach,” said Dr. Sennott. “Not only do we expect to see kids acquire basic literacy and communication skills and increase their readiness for kindergarten, we also think the online platform and book finder will be useful for other projects we hope to find federal, state, and foundation grants for in the future.”

In the coming months, Dr. Sennott and his team will invite 35 family members of children with developmental disabilities and 35 early childhood service provider professionals to PSU to participate in a full day inclusive shared storybook reading training session. These 70 individuals will help the team shape and refine the training, gain experience using the online platform and resources, and leave PSU as project evangelists equipped with books to read to children and information about how to participate in the project, which they will be able to pass along to friends and family in their communities and beyond.

“The goal is to help kids gain the reading experiences and skills they’ll need to communicate with others and get ready to enter the school system,” Dr. Sennott said. “We want their parents to read to them more frequently, for longer, and in the most engaged way possible.”

The innovative online approach will give Oregonians across the state new resources at their fingertips to engage and develop early literacy skills. The goal is to reach over 2,500 Oregon children and their families, with the possibility of expanding the project to serve anyone with Internet access.

“I believe shared reading is a fundamental experience missing from the lives of so many kids,” Dr. Sennott said. “With the right training and technology, we can extend that foundation to include children with complex communication needs. And all we have to do to achieve that is reach the adults in these kids’ lives. That’s what this project is focused on, and that’s what we want to do in the ULab: develop and use technologies for research and projects with the potential for major impacts in the real world.”

Dr. Sennott and his junior faculty colleagues continue a long tradition of updating PSU’s community engagement mission with the latest technological innovations. In this case, the result will be expanded opportunities for disabled children and their families to benefit from reading, first throughout Oregon, and later around the world.