Investigating Socioeconomic Disparities in Literacy

A Grand Challenges Interview with Min Wang
Min Wang

Funded by a Grand Challenges Individual Project Grant from the University of Maryland, How Does Statistical Learning Interact with Socioeconomic Status to Shape Literacy Development? looks at whether explicitly teaching statistical learning (the ability to detect patterns or sequences in the environment) might reduce socioeconomic disparities in children’s literacy development.

This study is one of 11 projects involving College of Education faculty that were funded by Grand Challenges Grants earlier this year. In all, the university awarded more than $30 million to 50 projects addressing pressing societal issues, including educational disparities, social injustice, climate change, global health and threats to democracy. The Grand Challenges Grants Program is the largest and most comprehensive program of its type in the university’s history.

Min Wang, professor, is the principal investigator. Wang discusses the potential of her research to improve literacy development for children living in poverty.

Illustration by Jeannie Phan

How will this project make a difference?

A great deal of research has revealed that children living in poverty demonstrate a considerably lower level of reading than their peers with higher socioeconomic status. We are testing children’s statistical learning (SL) ability, including the ability to detect patterns and sequences in spoken and written language, as well as in visual images, music tones and sounds. We will investigate how the interaction of socioeconomic status and SL shape reading development over two years and whether explicitly teaching SL might reduce socioeconomic disparities in literacy outcomes. For example, in English, educators might teach that when “oo” is followed by the letter “k” as in “book,” the vowel sound is pronounced differently than when it is followed by “m” or “l” as in “boom” or “tool.” In the Chinese writing system, teachers might point out that a certain component always occurs at a certain position within the character.

Why does this issue matter to you personally? 

We are conducting this study in China, which is personal to me given my roots in the Chinese language and culture. There has been rapid but inequitable economic growth across areas in China over the past two decades. China now has some of the most unequal incomes in the world, as well as severe socioeconomic disparities among school-aged children. Our findings from this project can guide similar studies in other parts of the world where severe socioeconomic disparity is also present, including the United States.