Tracking Texts: Designing Innovations to Enhance Reading Comprehension

by Lisa Stein

By the time students reach middle school, teachers expect them to have age-appropriate reading skills they can use to meet the demands of increasingly rigorous subject matter.

Unfortunately, many students don't. More and more children in grades 4 through 8, especially in urban settings, lack the reading skills necessary to succeed not only with a language arts curriculum but also with required reading in content-area classes, such as science. Students who struggle with reading tend to have the hardest time in most subjects.

In the past few years SESP faculty have developed fresh, innovative approaches designed to improve middle and high school students' reading skills and comprehension of texts, which are the cornerstone of academic inquiry. Louis Gomez, Aon Professor of Learning Sciences and professor of computer science, has co-created a program that tightly couples literacy support strategies with science instruction. David Rapp, assistant professor of learning sciences and psychology, uses a cognitive approach to discover some of the strategies good readers use and then designs interventions to help struggling readers.

To improve their comprehension of science texts, Karina Alvarado, Jesus Gonzalez and other students in Nisha Wise's biology class use double-entry journaling as part of a new program co-created by professor Louis Gomez (left)
To improve their comprehension of science texts, Karina Alvarado, Jesus Gonzalez and other students in Nisha Wise's biology class (right, and photos below) use double-entry journaling as part of a new program co-created by professor Louis Gomez (left).

Infusing Literacy into Science

Gomez has worked for decades to improve science instruction in high schools through technology and community supports. While working on a science program several years ago in a Chicago high school, he noticed how the reading scores of students who read more while doing project-based work improved along with their science achievement.

In 2005 Gomez and Kimberley Gomez, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction and learning sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, launched the Adolescent Literacy Support Project (ALSP) with Phillip Herman, SESP research assistant professor. The project's goal: to help underserved schools support increased science achievement by strengthening literacy through the study of subject matter text.

Some students in Chicago public schools come to high school science classes reading below grade level, a problem that most science teachers are ill equipped to address and that is exacerbated by the density of science texts. "If you are a teacher, I believe it is your responsibility to help a kid become a better reader," Louis Gomez says. "But teachers have very little support to do that, and many content-area teachers aren't deeply skilled in using text as part of instruction."

Instead, teachers work around their students' lack of reading skills by reading to the students in class and emphasizing hands-on activities. "Students go through the actions and activities but miss the specific and broader intellectual context," he remarks.

A three-year project now in its second year, ALSP uses an approach called "literacy infusion" in 9th- and 10th-grade science classrooms in several Chicago public high schools. To start, Louis and Kimberly Gomez sit down with teachers to examine science texts in order to identify core concepts and find where students are likely to have problems understanding what's written. Then they determine which literacy strategies will be most effective in helping students connect to those ideas.

The literacy strategies consist mainly of three techniques. First, students use annotation to highlight and code topics in a text such as the main idea, supporting ideas, vocabulary and conclusions. Second, double-entry journals help students analyze text by creating a tree chart that organizes a main idea with its supporting evidence, or a vocabulary word with its meaning. Third, summary writing aids students in condensing key concepts of a particular text. In addition, the ALSP team has developed rubrics that let students assess their peers' annotations, journal entries and summaries.

With these tools students improve their reading and analytical skills, which they can apply to different subjects and continue throughout their lives. "Students learn to have a dialogue with text, to make a contribution to it," says Louis Gomez. "Science is a conversation, and students have to know what it takes to contribute to that conversation. All inquiry-based learning is not dominated by memorization and lecture, but typified by learning to answer the question 'What are the essential arguments?'"

So far, feedback from ALSP participants has been positive, with the biggest gains seen in students who have the poorest reading skills. "Teachers are enthusiastically using the materials and remarking how much richer class discussions are because kids have read and understood the text in a deeper way than in the past. They feel kids are really learning science. From the students' standpoint, they're actually reading closely for the first time in their lives, and they're excited about that," Kimberley Gomez reports.

An Eye toward Higher-Level Understanding
While Gomez and the ALSP team help improve text comprehension through school-based projects, Rapp studies what individual readers do as they read. He develops cognitive profiles of readers who show a wide range of abilities, from good to average to struggling, with many subgroups in between. The readers he targets have a hard time with "higher-order comprehension," meaning they know how to decode letters and sounds but have trouble making inferences and extrapolating general themes from a text. Traditionally these readers have been sent to reading specialists who focus on decoding techniques, which doesn't really give students what they need, he says.

Assistant professor David Rapp shows SESP sophomore Amy Wu and senior Matt Loper the eye tracker he uses to examine how readers make connections as they read
Assistant professor David Rapp shows SESP sophomore Amy Wu and senior Matt Loper the eye tracker he uses to examine how readers make connections as they read.

Rapp is working on creating higher-order interventions for struggling readers that incorporate techniques used by successful readers. "Good readers will often make connections between elements of text, where they link an idea with one they read earlier and think about it. Sometimes struggling readers won't do that, either from a lack of motivation or prior knowledge," Rapp explains.

As part of an ongoing study with Paul van den Broek and Kristen McMaster from the University of Minnesota, Rapp looks at how 4th-, 7th- and 9th-grade students read. The students wear eye-tracking devices while they read text on a screen, so researchers can follow exactly how they peruse the text. Researchers also conduct "think-alouds," where students explain their thought processes out loud while they read.

"We do a quantitative and qualitative analysis that lets us see in a moment-by-moment way what they are doing as they read. Are there parts they gloss over, parts they go back to? Did they go back to look at the title? How much time do they spend? Some readers just plod through the text and others will go back, but in a haphazard way."

These tests relay a plethora of information about different reading styles and are much more helpful than standardized assessments. "Unfortunately we can't give every teacher an eye-tracker or do think-alouds for all students," Rapp notes.

Currently researchers have been able to distinguish between two different types of struggling readers. Some students are reluctant to make any inferences when reading, while others make too many, irrelevant inferences.

One intervention that Rapp is working on combines the well-established technique of peer-assisted learning strategies with training designed to help students make meaningful inferences. Students in a class break up into pairs, with one child reading and the other acting as the instructor according to a set of procedures. The procedures are designed to help readers establish connections between sentences in stories as texts unfold. "The intervention is intended to boost motivation for reading through social means as well as fostering higher-order comprehension activities," Rapp says.

Rapp and his team plan to create and implement more interventions as they finish collecting and analyzing data. "We think that the more we understand what people do when they read, the more we can help kids through actual classroom practices."
By Lisa Stein