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Deborah Wells Rowe

Carolyn M. Evertson Professor in Teacher Education
Professor, Department of Teaching and Learning

Research Interests

Deborah 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.

Short Biography

Deborah Wells Rowe 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 is currently appointed as a Professor of Early Childhood Education. 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. In 2020, she was honored as the first recipient of the Carolyn M. Evertson Chair in Teacher Education. She served as Chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning from 2017-2022.

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 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.

She has also 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.

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 research and professional development work with preK and kindergarten teachers in the local schools and around the country.  Her most recent research has been conducted in a research-practitioner partnership with the Prekindergarten Department of the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.  In this work, she and school partners have designed and provided professional development experiences to promote research-based early writing instruction in the district’s prekindergarten classrooms. As part of this work, she and her team have observed the practices of a group of expert early writing teachers, yielding a rich profile of activities and interactive strategies that can be used to support young writers.

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.

Dr. Rowe is currently serving as a co-editor of the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy.  She has formerly served as a member of the Board of Directors for the Literacy Research Association. For the International Literacy Association, she has served on the Literacy Research Panel and as chair of the Dina Feitelson Research Award Committee.

Deborah is the author of a book, Preschoolers as Authors: Literacy Learning in the Social World of the Classroom, and of numerous chapters and research articles published in venues including Reading Research Quarterly, Research in the Teaching of English, Journal of Literacy Research, Language Arts, the Handbook of Writing Development and theHandbook of Research on Writing.  In collaboration with an internationally recognized group of writing researchers, she is a co-author of The Lifespan Development of Writing published by the National Council of Teachers of English.