Reading Reimagined

By Anna Lynn Spitzer

Irvine, CA, August 17th, 2012 - - It’s not news that during the last decade, technology has changed the way we read, write and learn. What interests researchers like UC Irvine education professor Mark Warschauer is how those changes are affecting today’s students.

“There are a lot of questions about how [the transition to digital reading] transforms reading,” he told a SURF-IT lunchtime seminar audience this week. “Does it affect how students learn? You might say, ‘well, it’s the same content either way.’ But when content is presented in different ways it can have a big impact.”

One of his areas of interest involves a type of “digital scaffolding,” which he defines as support structures that help students learn, and which are removed once they have accomplished that goal.
Specifically, he is studying a software system called Live Ink. The system takes ordinary block text and automatically transforms it into shorter lines broken at phrase and clause boundaries, with varying indentation patterns and highlighted verbs. The approach, known as visual syntactic text formation, helps users read more quickly and understand content better.
“There are limitations to block formatting,” Warschauer said, including the fact that the human eye can take in only nine or 10 characters at a time, creating regressive eye movements that account for 20 percent of the total involved in reading.
Grammatical sentence structure impacts eye regression as well, slowing reading comprehension. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) tests indicate that reading complex syntax requires more complicated brain activity than reading simple syntax, he said.
By altering block text, Live Ink attempts to create the syntax “cues” similar to those present in spoken language. Warschauer believes the program is beneficial, but he is interested in just how much it improves children’s reading and learning skills.

So he has launched the largest independent study of the software ever undertaken. Forty-eight fourth- and sixth-grade teachers volunteered to participate; half of each classroom studied language arts and social studies from textbooks, while the other half read Live Ink-formatted text on their laptop computers.

Comprehension was measured by classroom quiz and test results, as well as year-end proficiency tests. Final results are not yet available but Warschauer said the participating teachers were enthusiastic about the outcomes.  “They were very skeptical at first but they felt there was a lot of anecdotal evidence that their students are actually learning to read better, especially kids with special needs.”

One hitch in the research was Live Ink’s omission of charts, graphs and images, an important addition to most textbooks. The study’s next phase seeks to create a Live Ink version of middle-school science texts that integrate these graphic elements. Warschauer also hopes to test the system in Korea, Japan and China.

He spoke briefly about a few of his other ongoing research projects, including the investigation of differences in classrooms with and without computers, a study of how classroom microblogging affects test scores, and an analysis of how the Google docs program impacts students’ attitudes toward writing and their success at it. He’s also interested in creating online dialogic games for teaching science, as well as studying whether social media usage helps or hinders learning.

Warschauer sees digital devices eventually replacing print publications in the same way that computers have supplanted paper and pen for writing. “That’s why I think it’s important to do a lot of research on how we can make use of this transition to support the reading, writing and learning process,” he said. “In the U.S. we have a high dropout rate, a high illiteracy rate – so a lot of the research is focused on better improving the educational process.”