Learning to read between the lines with new digital tutor

Katie Jacobs Bohn
July 28, 2015

Most of us remember learning to read -- hours spent flipping through handwritten flashcards, learning to sound out strings of vowels and consonants, and eventually graduating from picture books to chapter books.

What we didn’t know at the time was that was the easy part.

While learning how to read can be a long process, it’s reading comprehension that Bonnie Meyer, a Penn State professor of educational psychology, says children often have a harder time with. And unfortunately, national test scores agree with her -- 66 percent of U.S. fourth graders scored “below proficient” on the 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress reading test.

“A lot of teachers don’t have enough time to devote to reading comprehension,” Meyer said. “Kids read a lot of narrative stories in the lower grades, but they often have trouble with expository texts -- like a history textbook -- when they hit fourth or fifth grade. But throughout your life and education, you need these comprehension skills.”

To help solve this problem, Meyer is currently part of projects led by Texas A&M University professor Kay Wijekumar, who previously taught at Penn State Beaver, which are adapting and fine tuning a Web-based digital tutor called Intelligent Tutoring of the Structure Strategy, or ITSS.

ITSS -- with more than 10 years of developing and testing by Meyer and Wijekumar -- is a unique tutoring program that teaches children in grades four through eight how to use the structure strategy to increase their reading comprehension. The strategy teaches students how to look at the way a text is organized to understand its main idea, a concept many students struggle with.

“I once asked a student how he finds a text’s main idea, and he told me he just copies the paragraph’s first and last sentence,” said Meyer. “There’re many things wrong with this. First, what if the text has more than one paragraph? Furthermore, he’s simply been taught to copy sentences, not to think critically about what he’s reading.”

Meyer said other students will simply list details when asked about a text. For example, if they read an article about bees, they may remember that each hive has one queen and that worker bees collect pollen, but not connect the dots that the article was about the comparison of the size, duties and longevity of queen and worker bees.

The structure strategy -- which was developed and refined over time by Meyer and her colleagues  -- shows students how to look for words like “however” or “in contrast” to signal that something is being compared. These “signaling words” clue the reader into what the text is trying to say.

“It teaches you to look more critically at the text -- looking for signaling words and then making sure you understand the main idea,” said Meyer. “It helps students organize their memory and gain information from the text. It helps them map good ways of thinking.”

ITSS teaches this strategy with the help of a digital avatar that appears as a friendly high school student, leading the student through each lesson. First, the student reads a short piece of text. Then, the avatar leads them through a succession of tasks -- the student may be asked to give the article’s main idea or explain what was being compared.

The system also incorporates games into the lessons. In one, Gertrude (a green dragon) walks through a series of boxes with words in them. When she passes by the signaling word, students are supposed to click on the box. Gertrude may wander through boxes labeled “great” or “U.S.A” before passing through “similarities,” which the student should click on.

“When kids hear they’re going to be on a computer, they think it’s just going to be a game. They were quite surprised when the system actually made them work hard,” Meyer said, chuckling. “But we did add games so it would bring that element of fun to the lessons.”

The evolution of ITSS spans much of Meyer’s career -- beginning in 1973 when she first studied how the structure of a text affected a reader’s memory of the material. Since then, she’s looked at how the structure strategy helps adults and children improve their reading comprehension.

In the early ’80s, Meyer was recruiting older adults to participate in a National Institute of Aging study on the structure strategy. An older man agreed to volunteer on one condition: that his granddaughter could participate, too. She had graduated from high school, but wasn’t doing much and needed a boost.

“On the pretest, she showed no understanding of the structure strategy and only remembered disorganized, unconnected lists of ideas from her reading of textbooks or magazine articles,” said Meyer. “However, after instruction, she clearly used the structure strategy and doubled the amount of information she could remember from texts.”

Meyer said the grandfather followed up with her years later to tell her the study had been a turning point in his granddaughter’s life. Learning the structure strategy had increased her reading comprehension and confidence in learning, and she had gone on to further education and eventually became a dental assistant.

Meyer continued her research on the structure strategy, and as Web technology became increasingly mainstream, Meyer and colleagues decided to try a digital way to teach the strategy. In 2002, they published a study with the first version of a digital system, and a year later, Meyer, Wijekumar and team were funded by the Institute of Education Sciences to improve it. Since then, ITSS has gone through many additional iterations — like the addition of games, more adaptive and individualized lessons, or more recently, options for Spanish-speaking students -- to get where it is today.

And ITSS is working.

Recently, Meyer was part of a study headed by Wijekumar that examined the use of ITSS with thousands of fifth-grade students in rural and suburban schools. They found that students who used ITSS for one or two sessions a week for 30 to 45 minutes over a six- to seven-month period scored significantly higher on a standardized reading comprehension test than students who didn’t.

“There’s simply not enough time for teachers to provide enough one-on-one time with each student. With our adaptive and individualized version of ITSS, each student can get personalized feedback and lessons," said Meyer. "Then, based on the student’s scores, the tutor can adjust readability levels and either provide harder or easier lessons, depending on what the student needs. It can remediate or enrich and personalize the student’s experience."

After last year’s published study with suburban and rural schools, the team will next look at how the adaptive-individualized ITSS helps students in high-poverty, primarily urban schools.

The team also will be using an updated version of the system that includes features for Spanish-speaking students. The students can read and listen to the lessons in Spanish, or if they’re reading in English, they can click on a sentence to get a simplified English sentence with a helpful illustration or hover over an English word to get the parallel Spanish word.

Although Meyer and Wijekumar now work mainly with children, Meyer says the structure strategy helps readers of all ages, and it’s something she still uses when reading about new subjects.

“I personally rely on the same signaling words we teach in ITSS in my own reading,” said Meyer. “I wouldn’t spend more than 40 years focusing on this strategy if it didn’t help people.”

She pauses.

“And it does.”

The digital tutor is available for teachers to use in their classroom if they first contact the ITSS team. For more information or to request to use the tutor, visit https://itss.psu.edu/itss/.

For more IT stories at Penn State, visit http://news.it.psu.edu.

  • Screenshot of online digital tutor introducing the avatar

    The system begins by introducing the user to IT, the digital avatar.

    IMAGE: Screenshot of ITSS
  • Screenshot of online digital tutor asking for signaling words

    IT instructs the user to identify the signaling words in the text.

    IMAGE: Screenshot of ITSS
  • Screenshot of digital tutor asking for the main idea

    IT asks the user to identify the text's main idea.

    IMAGE: Screenshot of ITSS
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Last Updated July 28, 2015