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Deborah Wells Rowe

Department Chair, Professor of Literacy Education, Department of Teaching and Learning

Deborah Wells Rowe’s research focuses on understanding how preschool and elementary children learn to write in classroom settings. She is interested in preschoolers’ writing and book-related play, multimodal composing, and cultural, embodied, and spatial aspects of literacy learning in classrooms. Recently, she has explored how new technologies such as iPads can support children’s multimodal, multilingual composing.

She received her Ph.D. from Indiana University – Bloomington in 1986 with an emphasis in Language Education.  She joined the faculty at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University the same year, and continues to serve as Professor of Early Childhood Education in the Department of Teaching and Learning. At Vanderbilt, Deborah teaches undergraduate courses in reading and language arts methods, and graduate courses related to literacy development, language arts instruction, qualitative research methods, and educational inquiry.

As a researcher, Dr. Rowe conducts long-term ethnographic studies in classrooms aimed at understanding how preschoolers and early primary grades students learn to write.  With Sandra Wilson, she is the co-author, of the Write Start! Writing Assessment, a descriptive measure of 2- to 5-year-olds’ writing.  She has recently published a report on developmental patterns in young children’s writing, based on Write Start! data collected in a longitudinal study of 2- to 5-year-olds in two urban childcare centers.  Other interests include the role of gesture in supporting very young children’s first attempts at writing.

Recently, she has extended her research on early writing from the page to the screen.  In the PreKindergarten eBook Project, she and her research team invited 4-year-olds to use iPads and inexpensive digital cameras to compose eBooks containing images, emergent writing, and children’s voice recordings. The project explored how children navigate new technologies and also how they transfer page-based writing and drawing skills to the touchscreen environment. She and her team also explored ways of using the iPad’s built in voice recording tools to support emergent bilinguals’ recording of oral narrations in both their languages.  Study findings showed that touchscreen tablets and digital cameras provide new ways of making home-to- school connections and easy ways for children and their families to create culturally and linguistically relevant materials that reflect children’s home languages and cultures.

Dr. Rowe is also collaborating with an internationally recognized group of writing researchers to construct a lifespan view of writing development.   This three year, Spencer-funded project is coming to close and will culminate in a forthcoming book published by the National Council of Teachers of English.

From 2008-2012, Dr. Rowe served as co-PI, with David Dickinson, of a four year, Early Reading First project, “Enhanced Language and Literacy Success.” This work was funded by the U.S. Dept. of Education.  She and her colleagues worked with teachers and children in 13 public school prekindergarten classrooms to create preschool centers of excellence for literacy instruction, with a special focus on literature-based conceptual learning, emergent writing, and supports for English language learners. Dr. Rowe continues professional development work with preK and kindergarten teachers in the local schools and around the country.

In 2010, Dr. Rowe received the International Reading Association’s Dina Feitelson Research Award for her article “The social construction of intentionality:  Two-year-olds' and adults' participation at a preschool writing center” (2008, Research in the Teaching of English). This award recognizes an outstanding empirical investigation of literacy acquisition.