Child Research:

Functional Analysis of Academic Skill Deficits

A learner may struggle to accurately or fluently complete academic tasks.  One strategy to increase academic performance is to investigate empirically supported academic interventions and use the intervention with your particular learner.  An alternative strategy is to investigate the specific challenges your learner is experiencing and intervene on the specific variables you uncover.

Daly III, Witt, Martens, and Dool (1997) proposed a model for conducting a functional analysis of academic skill deficits.  A functional analysis is when multiple treatments or hypotheses are evaluated in order to determine what affects behavior the most.  In the case of academic skill deficits, one would examine how various treatments differentially affect academic behavior.

Daly et al. (1997) proposed 5 hypotheses one could examine in a functional analysis of academic skills.  The first hypothesis is that a student lacks motivation to comply with instructional demands. That is, the student has a performance deficit and current reinforcement contingencies do not support academic behavior. Interventions to test this hypothesis include providing a reward contingent upon increases in academic responding above baseline responding. For reading fluency, a baseline performance would be determined and rewards are made contingent on reading performance that is a pre-determined level above baseline (Daly, Bonfiglio, Mattson, Persampieri, & Foreman-Yates, 2006). For instance, if a student reads 100 words per minute during baseline, rewards could be made contingent on reading 120 words per minute.

The second hypothesis is that a student has not had a sufficient number of learning trial with the academic skill (Daly et al., 1997). Interventions to test this hypothesis include providing an increased number of opportunities to respond to the academic materials. For reading fluency a common intervention to test this hypothesis is called repeated reading, or re-reads. This involves having a student read a passage multiple times to gain additional practice with reading the passage (Daly et al., 2006; Daly et al., 2002).

The third hypothesis is that a student has not had effective instruction on the academic skill (Daly et al., 1997). Interventions testing this hypothesis are aligned with a traditional understanding of skill deficits. These interventions involve enhanced delivery of instruction (prompting and feedback) or enhanced learning materials. There are a variety of reading fluency interventions that target this hypothesis. A popular intervention for reading fluency is Phrase Drill (Daly et al., 2006; Daly et al., 2002), which involves error correction (practicing reading specific error and context).

The fourth hypothesis is that a student's difficulty is in performing the behavior under the particular instructional demands (Daly et al., 1997). For instance, a student may have difficulty reading when the passage includes multiple pages that have to be navigated. The issue with learning is not reading, but rather the format or instructional demands (turning pages). Interventions testing this hypothesis involve direct instruction on how to use the format. Interventions targeting this hypothesis are less widely used. In one empirical investigation of writing skills, instructors placed a grid behind a piece of paper to help a student to correctly place one letter per box while writing and provided practice and feedback writing one letter per box (Burns, Ganuza, & London, 2009).

The fifth hypothesis is that a student does not have the prerequisite skills to complete the target academic skill (Daly et al., 1997). Interventions targeting this hypothesis involve instruction and practice with the prerequisite skills. Once the prerequisite skills are in place the student would be able to move on to instruction related to the target academic skills. With reading fluency, if the target skill is fourth grade reading passages, one would present third grade reading passages to examine if there is a deficit in prerequisite skills (Daly, Martens, Hamler, Dool, & Eckert, 1999; Daly et al., 2002).

In order to determine whether an academic skill deficit is due to lack of motivation, insufficient learning trials, ineffective instruction, the particular instructional demands, or lack of prerequisite skills, an instructor provides interventions targeting each of these hypotheses and examines which strategies produce the highest levels of academic performance (Daly et al., 1997).

ACE Lab conducted a study with children diagnosed with ADHD that examines functional analysis of reading fluency deficits.  In addition to including traditional functional analysis interventions, we incorporated reading interventions that have been empirically supported specifically for children with ADHD.  These included computer assisted instruction, choice, and increased stimulation of reading materials.

ACE Lab is gearing up to conduct a study examining functional analysis of spelling deficits.  To date, this technology has been applied to reading, math, and writing, but not spelling.  We look forward to collecting some data!