Mitchell native presents early literacy research to lawmakers, public in South Dakota State Capitol
“I tried a bunch of other things because you have to do that, but I always came back to teaching," said Talia DeWitte, who is planning to teach special education in Harrisburg after graduation.
PIERRE, S.D. — Ever since Talia DeWitte could remember, she wanted to be a teacher.
“I don’t know why, it’s probably the nerd in me. But I just thought school was the coolest place in the world,” said DeWitte, a Mitchell native who moved to Sioux Falls in eighth grade, where she graduated from Roosevelt High School.
During the 2023 Student Research Poster Session at the South Dakota State Capitol on Feb. 7, she was one of 10 students from the state’s public colleges and universities showcasing a wide variety of research in the building’s second-floor rotunda.
Among the posterboards set in view of lawmakers and other Pierre passers-by were projects looking at how the spread of a type of cedar tree is affecting grassland bird populations in the eastern part of the state and how artificial intelligence could help diagnose COVID-19.
An elementary and special education major in the University of South Dakota’s Honors Program set to graduate in May, DeWitte says her research project followed a lifelong passion: reading.
Over the summer of 2021, she worked with two students with educational disabilities who were at or slightly below grade reading level on their oral reading skills through a process called repeated readings, measuring their results in each attempt.
“A lot of times when teachers are given goals to work toward over the summer, the teacher may not know the student super well, and so we rely on evidence-based strategies. One that’s tried-and-true is called repeated readings,” DeWitte explained. “It kind of sounds like it is. You give a child a passage, and then you read it for a minute and you keep track of how many correct words they read and how many incorrect words.”
Over 10 weeks of repeated readings and working on reading skills, like practicing common words and breaking down some of the more difficult words at that grade level, the two students improved from just three or four correct words per minute to 40 and 32 correct words, respectively, with a consistently low number of errors.
After the summer, DeWitte says these students continued to show more reading fluency in the classroom, demonstrating the importance of early intervention in building reading skills.
“They made a lot of progress,” she said.
She added that, in a broader setup, she may have tried an experimental comparison of a handful of some 15 types of evidence-based reading strategies. However, with time and logistical constraints, the repeated reading strategy offered the best opportunity for accurate data collection.
After all, as most students can attest to from the use of reading logs in school, corralling objective data from time spent reading alone can be nearly impossible.
“Every kid cheated on those,” she laughed. “I love reading, and even I cheated on those.”
In her final year attending school, DeWitte is building on her literacy work in her research project in her honor’s thesis, a literature review looking at the merits of different evidence-based reading strategies.
Getting ready for her full-time work in the classroom, she’s also student-teaching full-time in the Harrisburg School District. Last semester, she helped teach sixth-grade math, while this semester she’s working in special education in various grade levels.
Outside of school and involvement in student organizations, she paints, bakes and practices kickboxing. She also, of course, enjoys reading, and says her favorite work this past year was Holly Jackson’s murder-mystery debut, “A Good Girl's Guide to Murder.”
After graduation, DeWitte says she plans to work as an elementary level special education teacher in the Harrisburg School District, a role she accepted last week. She also plans to get a master’s degree in education.
“Anyone who knows me knows that this is something I’ve wanted pretty much forever,” she said. “I tried a bunch of other things because you have to do that, but I always came back to teaching.”
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or email@example.com.