Moments that Matter: A Qualitative Study to Understand How Young Children Make Sense of Reading Instruction


Nicole Mancevice



(508) 667-7312




Assistant Professor-in-Residence



Brian Zamora, Graduate Student Researcher


This study will explore what young children think about reading instruction. Our goal is to understand how students make sense of the multiple literacy learning contexts that they engage in throughout the day. What activities, materials, and features of the classroom learning environment are important to them? The methods of data collection will include classroom observation, teacher interviews, and photo-based student interviews. The photo-based interview protocol builds on the school's pedagogical documentation routines and provides an authentic opportunity for students to share and reflect on their experiences of learning to read.


The reading wars appear to have reignited in the popular media. The contemporary battle is between “balanced literacy” and the “science of reading.” This debate over how to teach reading is not new; however, it has taken on a new urgency in the context of a pandemic and concerns over potential impacts of remote learning on young readers. In the past year alone, The New York Times printed the following headlines: “We’re Bad at Teaching Kids to Read” (Kristof, 2023 February 12), “Sounding It Out” (DiMarco, 2022 October 9), “In Mississippi, a Broad Effort to Improve Literacy Is Yielding Results” (Kaufman, 2022 October 9), “She Helped Transform Reading Lessons. Now She’s Backtracking” (Goldstein, 2022, May 2), “A Reading Crisis” (Wolfe, 2022 March 8), and “Pandemic Has Pulled Reading Skills Down Into ‘New Territory’” (Goldstein, March 8). There appears to be a shift in reading instruction as school districts across the country incorporate a systematic approach to teaching phonemic awareness and phonics as part of their reading curriculum.

Research on teachers as learners, curriculum design, and policy implementation provides the field with important insights as to the work involved in changing curricula and instructional approaches. Teachers plan and enact lessons based on a variety of factors (e.g., knowledge of students, knowledge of content, pedagogical beliefs, organizational context; Beyer & Davis, 2012; Davis et al., 2011; Forbes & Davis, 2010; Remillard, 2018; Penuel, Phillips, & Harris, 2014; Stigler & Thompson, 2009). They need time to learn about a new instructional approach (Cohen, 1990). How teachers interpret and enact a new curriculum will be influenced by their prior experiences and beliefs, opportunities for professional collaboration, and the messages they receive from school leadership (Coburn, 2001, 2006).

We know less about students’ experiences during a period of instructional change. This study seeks to explore and understand reading instruction from the students’ perspective. What moments are important to them during the school day? The focus school has recently incorporated a systematic phonics program within a workshop approach to teaching reading and writing. The teachers also incorporate texts as part of learning science, social studies, and other school subjects throughout the day. Through classroom observations, photo-based student interviews, and teacher interviews, we will answer the following questions: What types of interactions related to reading are important to students? In what ways do these interactions support student learning?

The primary method of data collection will be photo-based interviews with students. These interviews build on the practice of pedagogical documentation, which is an instructional practice that is part of the school’s inquiry approach. Students will take turns being a documenter and taking photographs of important moments related to reading in their school day. These interviews will then be the foundation for an interview with a member of the research team. Other data sources will include interviews with the classroom teachers, participant observation and video recording in the classroom, and classroom- and school-based data related to reading and student demographics.


My goal is to understand how students make sense of the multiple literacy learning contexts that they engage in throughout the day. By asking students to document important moments in their school day, we would hear students’ ideas about their learning environment.


Teachers and students may benefit from the study in the following ways:
1) Students will have an opportunity to reflect on their learning.
2) The photo-based interview protocol will reinforce the school’s practice of pedagogical documentation as a method of learning about children’s ideas as well as the school’s commitment to involving children in pedagogical documentation.
3) The study could be an opportunity to learn how students are making sense of reading instruction in relation to other school curricula.

The results of the research may contribute to: knowledge about how teachers and students frame reading tasks in productive ways, and our understanding of how to conduct interviews with young children.


The research team will disseminate the findings through conference posters/papers and journal manuscripts. If the participating classroom teachers think it would be beneficial, the research team will also collaborate with the teacher team to share the study findings internally at the school.




The study will involve teachers and students in an Early Childhood II (EC II) classroom. That the classroom be at the EC II level is the only selection criteria.


The primary method of data collection will be photo-based interviews with students. Other data sources will include interviews with the classroom teachers, participant observation and video recording in the classroom, and classroom- and school-based data related to reading and student demographics. I describe each method of data collection in greater detail in the instrument explanation and justification of methods sections below.


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Student Interviews: I will conduct one photo-based interview with each student who volunteers to be a documenter. Several times a week, the classroom teacher will ask for two student volunteers to document during the school day. We will give the two student volunteers an iPad and ask them to document important moments related to reading in school that day. I will interview the two students individually the following day (or within 1-2 days) and use the student-generated photos as the basis of the conversation. These interviews will be approximately 30 minutes each and will be audio recorded.

Teacher Interviews: I will conduct two interviews with each participating classroom teacher. One interview will be conducted at the beginning of the study to learn about the school’s reading curricula as well as the teacher’s pedagogical approach to teaching reading. The second interview will be conducted after I complete the student interviews. This interview will involve sharing a summary of the student interviews and engaging in a debrief conversation with the teacher about the students’ insights. Each interview will be 30-45 minutes and will be audio recorded.

Participant Observation: I’ll conduct classroom observations in two phases. 1) I will first observe classroom instruction daily for one week. During this week, I will stay in the classroom for several hours each day to learn how the school day is structured for students and what kinds of reading activities the students engage in during the day. These classroom visits will also allow students an opportunity to become familiar with me and ask questions. During this first week, I will document my observations in extended fieldnotes and video recording. 2) When we begin the documentation routine and student interviews, I will conduct classroom observations on the days that there are student documenters. I will document my observations through extended fieldnotes and video recording. The video recordings and fieldnotes will allow me to create a timed log that links student photographs with the larger context of classroom activities.

Classroom-based Data: I am requesting access to students’ scores on the classroom reading assessment. Students have different instructional experiences in reading based on their assessment scores. As part of the data analysis, I will look for patterns in the instruction students received and the types of moments or interactions that they thought were important.

School-based Data: I am requesting demographic data from the school so that I can describe important characteristics about the student population.


Photo-based interviews have been used with young children to understand their experiences in and out of school (Carter Ching et al., 2006; Orellana, 1999). When talking about their photos, the children may highlight aspects of the image or experiences that are not obvious to the researcher (Orellana, 1999; Smith et al., 2012). The interview prompts are open-ended questions (e.g., Why did you decide to take this photo?) and requests (e.g., Please tell me about the photo that you took.) to allow the student to share and elaborate on their thinking (Ponizovsky-Bergelson et al., 2019). I’ve designed the interview to build on pedagogical documentation, which is an existing instructional practice at the school. In doing so, my aim is for the interview to align with the ways and contexts in which students at the school may be used to sharing their knowledge and experiences (Franke et al., [date?]; Parks & Schmeichel, 2014).


There will not be a separate informed consent for students, but there will be a separate informed consent for teachers.


The primary risk potentially associated with this study is whether young children feel comfortable participating in the research activities. To minimize this risk, I have made the following three study design decisions. 1) I will conduct observations in the classroom prior to beginning student interviews so that students become familiar with me and have opportunities to ask me questions. 2) The classroom teacher will ask for the student volunteers to document reading practices to increase the likelihood that students feel comfortable deciding whether they would like to participate (Parks & Schmeichel, 2014). 3) During student interviews, I will incorporate a check-in to confirm whether the student would like to continue with the interview (Parks & Schmeichel, 2014).


The research design does not involve deception. Regarding debriefing, I will share the photos and a summary of the students’ comments with the teacher. The teacher may choose to share this information with the whole class.


We will use pseudonyms when writing or presenting about the findings outside of the school. Within the school, the teacher will have copies of the students’ photos and comments. The teacher and students may choose to display or share the photos and comments internally, which is a practice aligned with the school’s pedagogical documentation routine.

The research team will store data files on team members' laptops, Box, and Dedoose. We also plan to use for transcription services.



I have worked with some of the EC II teachers on the pedagogical documentation action research project. I have had preliminary conversations with teachers about this project to share ideas and get feedback.


I will share the attached study information sheet with teachers as part of the consent process. I have requested permission from the IRB to obtain oral instead of written consent from teachers.


EC II teachers




Demographic data aggregated at the grade or school level.











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