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How children's eyes move across a page of text can be as influential as what they're reading

Kristen B. Morales

October 19, 2015

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Imagine you're taking a test, and as you scan a paragraph of text, your eyes wander to a list of questions nearby. Do you:

a) Keep reading the text

b) Read through the list of questions first

c) Flip back and forth as you try to figure it all out

d) Just go to the next question

Wait a minute—did you even finish the first sentence of this story?

If you skipped right to the questions, you're not alone; Studies of adult learners show people react differently when faced with a block of text and questions—either reading the text first, reading the questions first, or going back and forth between the text and the questions.

But now, research led by Scott Ardoin, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, points to similar patterns with children. These reading behaviors not only manifest themselves as lower scores on tests but they also have larger implications for students with learning disabilities.

The research on test questions was inspired by a larger, groundbreaking study conducted earlier this year by Ardoin and a team of graduate students investigating different reading intervention methods. Whether students read different texts every week or read the same text four times before moving on, Ardoin says they found both methods helped students improve their reading when compared with a control group.

"Both interventions improved students' reading achievement, but there weren't differences between the two, which sort of goes against prior research," he says. "But there's never been any research that compares these two methods against each other."

Typically, children who are struggling take part in repeated reading, but that has the potential to be boring, he says. By always reading something new, children are exposed to a greater amount of vocabulary and topics. But the caveat remains that the materials students read need to be at the appropriate level of difficulty.

Ardoin's expertise is in applied behavior analysis in academic settings. Just like brushing your teeth is a learned behavior, so is reading, he says. And because human nature tells us to take the path of least resistance, some behaviors need to be reinforced more than others.

And when you add a potential learning disability into the mix, certain behaviors could be even more detrimental to a child's success.

For example, when a child with a disability faces a block of text and questions, it's even more important that the student read the text and understand it before moving on to the questions. Holding the questions in your head while you go back to read the text can interfere with your working memory, and Ardoin's research shows this is particularly important when a disability comes into the picture.

After Ardoin and his team finish evaluating the data, they will also have a better idea of how to structure a test—for example, how separating the text and the questions affects the outcome—and how the results of the test might be a better indicator of students' actual reading comprehension skills.

"It's important to do this research with kids because we've only studied skilled adult readers," Ardoin says. "So not only do they differ from children, but children with and without learning disabilities might differ in how they approach a test. … Students with learning disabilities generally aren't able to build as strong of a mental model of texts as are children without a disability in reading."