Research in Education

Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS)

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CHRIS MATTATAL: PALS stands for Peer Assisted Learning Strategies. And it's a supplementary reading program that we put in place to help kids who are struggling academically, or struggling in reading.

LESLY WADE-WOOLLEY: The research on PALS comes primarily from the United States and in the US, PALS is something that is a program that's delivered by the regular classroom teacher. In the Thunder Bay Board and in another board that has used this model, PALS is delivered by the special education teacher.

JOAN POWELL: And the kids get it for forty minutes a day, four to five days a week, junior kindergarten to grade three. And what they actually do is involve themselves in activities in pairs, directed by the teacher, around key reading skills.

KATHY ZANNI: PALS is a very structured program. The manuals that we receive for PALS are very, very directed…the way we speak in our lessons.  It's specific to the point that you have a timer and students are performing certain activities for a specified amount of time.

You have this many minutes to do your partner reading and do your retell and all those different things. So it's very interesting to see something day after day consistently the same thing repeated over and over. That routine is really benefiting a lot of the students in their classrooms.

NARRATION: The Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board was looking for a program with a strong research base to prevent reading failure and help identify students “at risk.”

Researchers at Queen's University in Kingston were interested in implementing recommendations in the Education For All report – to build capacity in a school board and to change instructional practice. They had a doctoral student who was interested in conducting research on evidence-based teacher collaboration.

Together they developed a program to determine if PALS could be effectively utilized to promote literacy achievement and build sustainable teacher expertise.

CHRIS: The purpose of our partnership between Queen's University and the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board is .. it's twofold, the purpose for them is that they have assistance in helping them implement their PALS program and get it up and going and have that support from the university.

The purpose of the partnership from our standpoint is credibility for Queen's program because we can say that, you know, we are working in schools.

NARRATION: In any partnership there are challenges. The challenge for the PALS project partners was the distance. To ease this, Queens doctoral student Chris Mattatal relocated to Thunder Bay for one year to ensure a hands-on presence in the classrooms. However, other challenges arose during the early stages of the partnership.

KATHY: It was something that was out of the ordinary. It was something we were going to have to learn from scratch. It was going to be implemented from scratch and I think starting something like that new can be very intimidating.

CHRIS: I've learned that it's not easy to get buy-in from the beginning. It takes a long time. And I think we have to take a long view of research instead of taking the short view. People don't immediately accept you because you're at a university or you have all this research behind you, it's not that easy.

You have to earn that rapport and you have to be able to give something to classroom teachers before they say – Okay, now you're talking my language, you're giving me something really practical. Now I'm ready to listen to you.

CHRIS: A lot of teachers don't have a lot of time on their daily schedule to go and do the background research that's necessary to show why PALS is effective or why curriculum based measurement is effective.

But we have that background and we have that body of research that we can bring to the School Board and say – This is what the research is currently saying. And this is the correct way to go.

LESLY: And the research results for PALS shows that demonstrated gains are observed for both low achieving and high achieving students. So everybody gains from this.

NARRATION: After twenty PALS lessons, Grade 1 students' ability to recognize words, or word identification fluency, has improved.

The project is still underway and the early evidence seems to indicate that PALS is making a difference.

KATHY: I think the biggest impact that the PALS program has had on me is seeing the results that so many of these students are achieving. And to be able to show those students, you know, in September, you were able to read five words in one minute, and now you can read sixty-seven words in a minute. And just the way they light up, that's such an accomplishment for them.

CHRIS: Teachers like it. The children seem to like it and enjoy it, they look forward to PALS. And the PALS teachers have reported to me that classroom teachers are now starting to talk the same language that they are. Saying, you know – remember your PALS' rules, or – remember what you learned in PALS. And so we're seeing I think a co-operation between PALS teachers and special education teachers that has become real positive.

LESLY: The findings that come from this project I think are going to be the kinds of findings that really do have an impact, the potential for an impact on changing practice.

NARRATION: Collaborative research in education can help to break down the barriers between the field and the academy.

The PALS project promotes a deeper understanding of how data can be used to make instructional decisions, and applies research based knowledge and evidence to classroom practice.

JOAN: For me, it's really opened up my eyes to this whole opportunity and value for working for a school board and working with a university.

CHRIS: One of the things that this particular school board did really well was they came prepared. They did their homework. They started early, they didn't just do it quickly or on a whim. They talked to other people who were doing the same type of program.

CHRIS: The Superintendent of Special Education has set aside special people to work on this project and fund it. So I think it's got a lot of support and that's why it's working.

JOAN: It was something that was really tried and true. It was working elsewhere, elsewhere really well. So to me, the stars were in alignment for this project because everything was going for us and it seems to have really worked out well.

LESLY: I think this partnership worked because we were able to help make a proper match between Thunder Bay's needs and what the research could offer.