Why Vocabulary Instruction Should be an Embedded Activity

9 Sep

Numerous studies have shown a moderate correlation between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension in school children, and vocabulary knowledge varies substantially from student to student (c.f. Ouellette, 2006 ). Comprehending text on an unfamiliar topic is very difficult when one needs to learn a lot of new words specific to that topic. The problem is magnified, of course, for students with poor general vocabulary. For example, Hirsch (2003) states that in order to learn new words from a text, students need to be able to identify at least 90% of words in the text. Thus, when there are few unknown words and the text is coherent, comprehension proceeds more smoothly, and the reader can more easily learn the meaning of the new words he or she encounters. This happens because good comprehenders can usually derive the meaning from the context of a sentence or paragraph. However, a problem emerges when the number of unknown words becomes so great that students no longer have sufficient context to make an informed guess about the meaning.

So how do students acquire new words? Time constraints often limit teachers’ focus on vocabulary instruction in class. Instructional activities typically consist of selecting a set of low frequency words or new topic related terms from a text, learning and testing definitions for the selected words, discussing meanings, and encountering the words in the instructional text. How well do these activities match up with what we know about vocabulary learning in cognitive psychology? Does this pedagogy provide an effective way to teach vocabulary and enhance students’ comprehension of the texts that they are reading, allowing students to consolidate their new vocabulary into long-term memory?

Research suggests that repeated exposure to a new word in a context is the most effective way for words to be consolidated into memory (e.g., Butler et al., 2010; Lawrence, White, & Snow, 2010; McKeown, Beck, Omanson, & Pople, 1985 ). McKeown et al. (1985), for instance, found that vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension scores were better when students had 12 exposures to a word compared to only 4 exposures. Similarly, Gardner (2004) found in a sample of 10-11 year-olds that the minimum sufficient number of times a new word needed to be encountered in text was 10. Furthermore, from around 12 -18 years of age, children typically learn 10-15 words per day on average primarily from reading text (c.f. Landauer and Dumais, 1997 ). In other words, students need to be interacting with lots of texts, so that they can have opportunities for repeated exposure to new words in order to store these words in long-term memory.

In our reading intervention, BRAVO, vocabulary is always taught in context, either with the teacher providing just-in-time vocabulary definitions as students are reading the text or when students are using the text to learn about new content. Thus, comprehension and vocabulary acquisition go hand in hand. Moreover, when students read multiple texts on a single topic, they are able to build knowledge from one text to the next that they can then use to provide a broader context for learning new vocabulary and improving comprehension in general. Vocabulary instruction is less effective when taught in the absence of context because it does not generalize beyond the activity itself (c.f. Goldman, 2012; Hollenbeck & Saternus, 2013 ). Therefore, in BRAVO, students learn new vocabulary in the context of multiple texts dealing with the same general topic or concept, so that their vocabulary and reading comprehension are jointly enhanced.

Using Sequenced Texts to Improve Reading Comprehension and Build Content Knowledge

25 Jun

When students get to college and take courses in specific domains like biology, they are expected to learn from textbooks with content that builds from one chapter to the next. It is understood that in order to develop domain knowledge, students must not only build an accurate textbase from each of their readings, but also build a situation model of the topic that connects previous texts and background knowledge while incorporating the information from the new text as well as new inferences. This means, for instance, that the reading comprehension skills necessary for learning from the last chapter of a biology textbook are different than the skills that were involved in comprehending the first chapter of that same biology textbook. However, in K-12, instruction in literacy courses does not explicitly address this need for building domain specific knowledge through the use of sequenced informational texts. Although students do experience sequenced narrative texts in middle and high school, these kinds of texts do not typically require students to learn a new domain topic. Furthermore, students at the middle-school level in particular, rarely have access to textbooks outside of the classroom, and the time that is spent is focused primarily on the graphical information from those texts. Without sufficient literacy instruction in the reading of informational texts, students continue to struggle with reading comprehension in high school. In fact, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) reported that only 38% of high school seniors score at or above proficient reading levels (NAEP, 2009 ). Moreover, the majority of high school seniors are unprepared for college, especially in STEM majors that require students to understand informational texts. We argue that in order to maximize students’ understanding of informational texts, they must be given explicit literacy instruction that combines acquisition of reading comprehension skills with content knowledge built from sequenced, informational texts.

BRAVO is a content-based reading comprehension intervention that that we have developed based on a well-supported cognitive theory of comprehension, the Construction-Integration (CI) model . The CI model proposes that the cognition that underlies comprehension involves linking the propositions and idea units provided in the text into a coherent memory structure – the textbase, which is integrated with the reader’s prior knowledge to form a situation model – a mental representation of what the text is about.

The goals of BRAVO include both increasing content knowledge about a topic taught in the school curriculum and improving reading comprehension. A unique aspect of the BRAVO curriculum is that it focuses on improving comprehension of STEM texts. Middle-school readers have typically had much less exposure to informational texts during their schooling as compared to narratives. Hence, dealing with both the difficult, novel content as well as the variety of unfamiliar prose structures used in informational texts, can pose a significant obstacle to their learning. The BRAVO curriculum guides students in the use of expert reading strategies that target coherence building at the local and global levels together with knowledge integration, with the goal of constructing a rich and accurate memory representation of the content. Instruction is centered on a particular topic area – Ecology – with texts that are carefully sequenced in conceptual and processing complexity.

Selecting Informational Texts Using Measures of Text Complexity

6 Jun

The international reading association (IRA) provides a publication geared toward teachers called Engaging the Adolescent Learner. In a recent publication, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey tackle text complexity and close readings from the perspective of classroom application.
Given the goal set out by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) to focus on literacy instruction across content domains, teachers face the challenge of selecting and effectively incorporating informational texts into their classrooms.

Although there are several readability measures available for teachers to use, these rely primarily on sentence length and word choice and rarely lead to adequate text selection when used in isolation (Fisher & Frey, 2012). Although they suggest that readability measures should be used in conjunction with other measures for text selection, research supporting readability measures may reflect a small subset of texts that are particularly well written. Fisher, Frey, and Lapp (2012) also noted that readability measures are often criticized for their potential misuse by publishers. For instance, if a publisher manipulates an existing text by removing words or phrases, this may lower the readability score suggesting that the text should now be easier to read. However, this manipulation of the text may actually make it more difficult to read because it lacks cohesion. This creates an additional challenge for teachers who want to select appropriate informational texts based on readability scores.

Moreover, our lab recently conducted a study examining the effects of lowering Lexile (from 1st year college to 8th grade) of four informational texts while maintaining each text’s content and length. Lexile was manipulated primarily by breaking up long sentences with multiple clauses into short sentences. In our work, we found that college students’ comprehension for the low lexile versions of the texts was significantly lower compared to their comprehension for the high lexile versions. Sentences with multiple clauses lead the reader to make connections among those clauses that appear to be lost when isolated across sentence boundaries. This suggests that text cohesion may be compromised in some lower lexile texts. Furthermore, such quantitative measures of text complexity should be supplemented by qualitative measures that suggest how characteristics of the readers are related to text difficulty (Fisher & Frey, 2012; Fisher et al., 2012). Fisher and Frey (2012) recommend that teachers take the time to do a content analysis of potential texts, such that teachers look for:

• Levels of meaning – by considering how much relevant background knowledge would be necessary for comprehension. For example, some texts may appear quite simple if one engages in a surface read, but if the reader takes into account intent, context, etc, the text may contain multiple implicit messages

• Text structure and organization – by considering the organization of the text (e.g. cause and effect) Fisher and Frey also encourage the teacher to look for texts that include more signal words, more headings and subheadings, and other organizational features that make comprehension easier. Although the authors do not mention making these features explicit for the students, we argue that many students are not aware of how text structure and organization facilitates comprehension and we suggest that these features be made explicit to students.

• Visual supports – it is not sufficient for a text to have visual supports, those supports must accurately reflect the text. We agree with this recommendation and caution that including many photographs, diagrams, etc., that are either irrelevant or inaccurate may actually lead students to erroneous assumptions about the text especially for weak or struggling comprehenders who typically engage in only surface reading of the text.

• Student background knowledge – teachers should be aware of students’ background knowledge or lack thereof because it impacts their text comprehension. Although the authors recommend providing information prior to reading, they caution that instruction should only include information that is critical for comprehension.

• Reader motivation – a student’s intrinsic interest in a subject can facilitate their comprehension. Fisher and Frey suggest making activities and readings that are closely related, allow for student choice, collaboration, and thematic units.

Supporting the CCSS for Science Literacy through Professional Development

24 May

In a recent post, we highlighted the importance of reading comprehension instruction in STEM content area classrooms. This sentiment is also reflected in the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), including standards for science literacy skills and reading of informational texts. However, previous research has suggested that content area teachers were resistant to the idea of including reading instruction in their classrooms because they felt it would not leave them enough time to teach content (Heller & Greenleaf, 2007; Ness, 2009). Fortunately, there is new evidence to suggest that teachers’ attitudes regarding how to teach science in the classroom may be changing. A recent report generated by the National Center for Literacy Education (NCLE) demonstrated that approximately 77% of teachers surveyed, including content area teachers, indicated that that they agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Developing students’ literacy is one of the most important parts of my job.” However, these teachers have little to no training on reading comprehension instruction using informational texts, which makes it difficult for them to implement the CCSS.

Thus, in order to support the CCSS for science literacy, it is crucial that we provide teachers with adequate opportunities for professional development. Heller and Greenleaf (2007) suggest that school systems should provide opportunities for teachers to collaborate with one another to discuss classroom issues and curricula. Unfortunately, it seems that the time allotted for such efforts is declining. The NCLE (2013) reported a drastic change from 2009 to 2012 “with the percentage of teachers having virtually no opportunity for collaboration (30 minutes or less per week) more than doubling from 12% to 28% and the percentage with more than 2 hours shrinking from 41% to 24%.” Despite this, the teachers surveyed indicated that they often participated in these efforts outside of regular business hours, “off the clock.” This suggests that although teachers have not been provided with the systemic support necessary for continued professional development, they recognize its importance.

However, even if schools shift towards allowing more time for collaboration among teachers, this may not be enough to support the CCSS for literacy in science. Many content area teachers feel under qualified to teach literacy skills even if they believe that it is a vital part of their students’ education (Heller & Greenleaf, 2007; Ness, 2009). Furthermore, the informational texts commonly used in science classes require different comprehension skills than the texts commonly used among language arts teachers. Thus, content area teachers may need additional professional development beyond collaboration with language arts teachers. In addition to increasing opportunities for collaboration, schools should provide content area teachers with specific training to assist them in helping students to build content knowledge while they simultaneously develop the reading comprehension skills necessary to learn from scientific texts.


Why Should STEM Content Teachers Care about Reading Comprehension?

7 May

When you think about middle school science students developing scientific literacy, what comes to mind? You may imagine students participating in basic experiments and engaging in hands-on class activities. Although these types of activities are an excellent supplement to learning, Cromley (2009) demonstrated a strong correlation between reading comprehension and science proficiency scores in students, which suggests that reading comprehension is also a critical component of science education.   Pearson, Moje, and Greenleaf (2010) argue that to build knowledge in science, students must also read and understand scientific texts. For example, learning from scientific texts allows scientists to generate research questions and inform their research. Thus, in order to do science you must be able to engage in reading comprehension activities.

Unfortunately, several studies show that students in the U.S. struggle with comprehension of expository texts typically used in science classes. These expository texts are potentially challenging in part because students have much less exposure to informational texts as compared to narrative texts (see Snyder & Caccamise, 2010). In addition to this, a recent classroom observational study indicated that reading comprehension only comprises about 3% of instruction in middle and high school content area classrooms (Ness, 2009). Pearson et al. (2010) point out that in the absence of reading comprehension activities, educators often resort to presenting the information to students passively. In this scenario, students may learn some new information, but by not engaging with text, they are still missing a piece of the puzzle necessary for them to build domain knowledge. By having students learn reading comprehension skills while they read informational text in a content area, they can begin to build a lasting mental model of the subject they are learning and engage in the same kinds of thought processes that professionals in those domain areas use to be successful in their careers. Thus, engagement with informational text in the context of learning:

  1. Allows students to integrate new information with what they already know, or revise their misconceptions.
  2. Allows students to participate in an important aspect of scientific inquiry– using the content of scientific texts to generate research questions and inform research design.

By scaffolding the content through reading comprehension activities, content area teachers can improve their students’ learning and retention such that they can build the background knowledge and the critical thinking skills necessary to pursue STEM majors in college and beyond.

What works Clearinghouse

29 Apr

How do Educators choose programs and materials to implement in their classrooms? How do they decide what curricula will be the best and most conducive to learning? Perhaps you are approached by someone who wants to demonstrate an educational product. Perhaps they tell you that it is “evidence-based.”  But what does this really mean?  What information would you use to decide whether or not you should adopt this product for your school?

Let’s step back and think about a situation you may be familiar with. You decide that you need to buy a new car for your family. You are interested in finding a vehicle that meets your family’s needs based on size, fuel efficiency, safety, and cost. How would you go about finding the facts about a vehicle before you purchase it? You could just ask your local car salesperson, but they may not provide comprehensive information, so it may be wiser to seek out other resources before you go to the dealership so that you can be an informed consumer.

The same strategy applies to adopting educational curricula and technology. Educators have a powerful resource in the What Works Clearinghouse [(WWC)], which was created in 2002 through an initiative by the Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences [(IES)] to provide reliable and useful information on the scientific evidence of educational programs.   The cite provides a link to reviewed studies, and directs educators to select additional options such as target population, age, and program type.  Once selected, programs are listed along with easy to read graphs demonstrating effect size.

In order for a study to be reviewed as effective, it needs to pass a set of strict [criteria] and include randomized control trial data, which requires partnerships among educators, schools, and researchers to be successful.  Unfortunately, many researchers are finding it difficult to find schools interested in participating in the design and allowing for these critical randomized control trials.

As an educator, you play a vital role in developing educational curricula. Teachers should seek to partner with local researchers to develop educational materials through participatory research design. For example, we have utilized a participatory design in the development of BRAVO. We have worked closely with the teachers implementing the program and have incorporated their feedback to make adjustments and improve the curriculum. Furthermore, it is very important that researchers evaluate the programs they are developing in a setting where they are able to solicit valuable feedback from both teachers and students.

Participating in these development and efficacy research efforts helps to assure that the school’s budget and teacher time and effort is targeted to curriculum and pedagogy that is designed with students and teachers in mind and is truly “evidence-based.”


Using concept maps in Education

17 Apr

Through Science IDEAS, a program aimed at improving science literacy in K-12 students, Romance and Vitale, 2012 present results from several studies showing the benefits of integrating reading comprehension and science instruction in content area classes.  The interested reader is encouraged to read the article for a detailed outline on how their program was implemented at the k-5 level.  Of particular interest to those of us interested in implementing informational texts in literacy classrooms is their application of concept maps. Teachers use the Science IDEAS concept maps to guide their lesson planning and their interactions with students. Each step includes opportunities to enhance learning through reading and writing activities that reinforce students’ learning of concepts related to a specific topic (e.g., different climate conditions on earth, what causes climate differences, the effects climates have on the water cycle). Romance and Vitale (2012) outline an example of how teachers may follow the Science IDEAS model using a concept map by:

  • Assessing and Building on Students’ Prior Knowledge: Teachers assess students’ existing knowledge of the topic, and then build on that knowledge through a variety of oral and written activities. Finally, students reflect by journaling about the topic and reading text materials.
  • Engaging Students in “Science Investigations”: Teachers engage students in investigative activities to deepen students’ understanding of the topic. These investigations may include reading a variety of materials such as online articles or non-fiction texts as a means to gather additional information on the topic. Students then engage in writing activities to summarize and reflect on the information that they have gathered.
  • Cumulative Review/Concept Map Construction: Teachers lead a class discussion reflecting on how the background readings and other science investigations contributed to the students’ overall understanding of the topic. As part of the process, teachers may have students develop their own class concept map showing the hierarchical structure of the concepts that they have learned and how those concepts are linked.

In BRAVO, we have incorporated a concept map that students use to link concepts learned across all of the texts in the program.  Thus, concept mapping allows both students and the teacher to address the important relationships among concepts as they occur both within and across texts .

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