Faculty member receives NAEd postdoctoral fellowship

News | 07.31.2019
Douglas Sperry
Douglas Sperry, Ph.D.

Douglas Sperry, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC), has been named a recipient of the 2019 National Academy of Education (NAEd) Spencer postdoctoral fellowship.

The NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowships provide funding and professional development to early-career researchers whose projects address critical issues in the history, theory, or practice of formal or informal education, at the national and international levels. The $70,000 award allows scholars to focus on their research and attend professional development retreats. This year, Sperry was among 30 postdoctoral fellows who were selected from a pool of 221 applicants.

“The receipt of the fellowship has many layers of significance for me.  First, it represents a validation of my research, providing me with much-needed encouragement that my work is considered by leaders in education to be important to children and their development, to their families, and to the scholarly community as a whole,” Sperry said.

“Second, the fellowship offers support for me to pursue my research on a half-time basis for two years, allowing me greater time to do data analysis and writing than is often available.  Third, the NAEd/Spencer program provides financial support to attend several week-long meetings of the National Academy of Education where I will be able to present my work to, and discuss it with senior scholars in educational linguistics, curriculum development, and educational policy.  This opportunity will provide enormous continued professional development for me as I continue with my research agenda.”

Sperry, who studies language development in young children, was awarded the fellowship to further develop his recent research on the ambient vocabulary environments of children. Last year, he published research challenging the famous Word Gap claim that children living in poverty and children of color hear far fewer words than their more privileged counterparts.

Sperry and his colleagues demonstrated that in certain minority communities, children living in poverty actually heard as much language spoken to them by their primary caregivers as did children from upper-class and middle-class families. Additionally, when the language spoken to the child by others and the language spoken around the child was considered, the number of words heard by these children far exceeded what the current literature predicts.

This research has been featured in reports by the National Public Radio, The Atlantic and the Brookings Institution.

With the help of the fellowship, Sperry plans to assess the quantity and quality of overheard speech by children ages 24 to 42 months in five diverse American communities using mixed methodology. The results are expected to provide a culturally sensitive evaluation of overheard speech that will afford educators a better understanding of the verbal strengths young children bring to the classroom.

“I believe my involvement in research contributes to my teaching at The Woods in several ways.  First, I teach Research Methods and Developmental Psychology, and I believe my active engagement in research around a current ‘hot topic’ in education and human development provides my students with a chance to see scholarship in action, supplementing the knowledge they gain through traditional classroom activities.  In addition, I have been fortunate to work one-on-one with many students at SMWC who are passionate about issues of child development, social equity, and the helping professions, all areas that intertwine in my research program.”

“My pursuit of this research has allowed them to participate in real-word inquiry as they see first-hand the process of taking hypotheses through the stages of data analysis, writing, and presentation to the public.  Finally, many people consider research to be a “dry” activity–I certainly disagree!  Hopefully, this fellowship opportunity helps our students to see that conducting research is not only essential to helping the lives of children and their families, but that it is a vibrant, worthwhile, and (dare I say) fun activity.”



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