Improving Reading with Digital Scaffolding

Funders: Haynes Foundation and Spencer Foundation

Principal Investigator: Mark Warschauer

Background for the Study

US schools have done a good job of assisting reading development in early elementary grades through improved phonics instruction. However, we have yet to find similarly successful approaches to help students comprehend the more syntactically and lexically complex texts they start encountering in upper elementary grades. As a result, fewer eighth grade students are proficient at reading than 15 years ago, and the gap between Black and Hispanic students, on the one hand, and White students, on the other, has increased over this time period. With jobs demanding higher reading proficiency than ever before, the failure to teach our students to read well has a substantial impact on learners' life opportunities. 

A new technology called visual-syntactic text formatting (VSTF) parses, reformats, and presents digital texts in a cascaded manner that highlights their meaning units and makes them much easier and faster to read, especially by struggling readers or students who are less familiar with English syntax. Preliminary studies suggest that use of VSTF dramatically enhances students' reading comprehension, with the greatest impact on English learners. What's more, once students get extensive practice reading texts in VSTF, they also appear to transfer their new skills to reading material in traditional block formatting, thus raising their general reading proficiency.

Study Design

The proposed study seeks to confirm the potential of VSTF to improve outcomes in Los Angeles region urban schools. The study will take place in 25 Los Angeles County and Orange County schools in three school districts that, combined, have large numbers of English language learners, Hispanic students, and low-income students; all three districts already provide students laptop computers. Fifty upper elementary teachers in the schools will be randomly assigned to one of two groups: a treatment group whose students will read language arts and social studies textbooks in VSTF on their laptops, and a control group whose students will read the same materials in traditional block formatting either in their textbooks or laptops, whichever they prefer.

Quiz and test scores on the reading passages will be compared to measure the impact that VSTF has on reading comprehension. Pre- and post-standardized tests, done in traditional block formatting, will be used to measure how use of VSTF over the course of an academic year affects students' reading proficiency. The particular impact of VSTF use on reading comprehension and proficiency among English language learners, Hispanic students, and low-income students will also be investigated. Observations and interviews will be used to investigate how teachers and students experience use of VSTF in the classroom, and, when combined with test score results, to analyze which strategies for VSTF use are most effective.

Potential Benefits

Though VSTF has been studied before, with promising results, it has not yet been investigated through large-scale naturalistic classroom experiments in urban settings. In addition, the scarcity of digital textbooks, which are only now spreading quickly, has limited previous use of the tool. If the earlier positive results from VSTF use are confirmed in this study, it will encourage widespread use of the technology in the two districts and in other school districts throughout the Los Angeles region and nation, leading to improved reading outcomes for large numbers of diverse learners.