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Rethinking the way children learn to read

  |   Kristen B. Morales   |   Permalink   |   Spotlight

We know a lot about the way adults read — technology, although primitive at times, has tracked the eyes of experienced readers for years. Children, on the other hand, have been difficult to study.

But thanks to a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Scott Ardoin, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and director of the School Psychology Clinic at the University of Georgia's College of Education, is changing that. Using cutting-edge technology that digitally follows a child's eyes as they move across a screen, Ardoin and his researchers are studying reading intervention methods and best practices when it comes to teaching children how to read and assessing their reading skills.

The result? An examination of some of the most widely taught reading methods, as well as the first eye-tracking study to be published in a school psychology journal.

"My research team provided one-on-one reading instruction to elementary students," says Ardoin. One group of second graders in the study read everything four times — a widely used reading practice — while another group used a guided reading method, reading passages only once.

"There's a large base of research for repeated reading," he adds. "But our data suggests that there was no difference between the two intervention practices. It seems that what is most important is just spending time having students read aloud and providing them with immediate corrective feedback and praise for doing their best."

With repeated reading, he says, children read the material faster and may develop a deeper understanding of the material, but they do not get exposed to as much content or vocabulary words. "We spend a lot of time with repeated reading, but it's not necessarily the best instructional practice for all students," Ardoin says. "I'm still up in the air in regards to whether it may be the best practice for struggling students."

The methods for eye tracking have changed over the years as technology has improved. Once a device that sat on top of the subject's head, it required meticulous calibration and was difficult to use on children, who are always in motion. The latest generation of the devices works more like a Wii video game, digitally following a child's eyes from a box below a television screen. As the children read words across the screen, the computer tracks their pupils and collects data on movement and time spent on each word.

The study also showed how children might proceed through a test of reading comprehension. Often, Ardoin says, students read the questions first, then go back to the text to find the answers. This practice can have particular implications on standardized tests.

"Are we truly measuring comprehension, or are we measuring kids' word-search skills?" Ardoin says. "When we didn't allow access to the questions until after the passage, they read through more thoroughly. And surprisingly, preventing them from going back to the text did not negatively impact their comprehension accuracy."

Now, Ardoin and his team are moving forward with a similar study comparing three different reading instruction methods, as well as a study focusing on working memory in students with special needs and how this affects their test taking strategies and comprehension outcomes.

The end result, Ardoin says, is a greater understanding of how children understand what they are reading, and the best practices to support that learning. "It all has an effect on how we measure comprehension."

See how the eye tracker works:

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