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Promoting Reading Comprehension and Learning with Multimodal Science Texts

Dr. Kausalai Wijekumar, Texas A&M, PI
Dr. Jennifer Cromley,



Middle grade learners continue to struggle with reading and comprehending illustrated science textbooks and other textual resources, understanding science conventions, diagrams, and concepts. Further students struggle in applying them in problem solving and becoming scientifically literate. Exacerbating these problems are factors related to the need for content area teachers to teach reading comprehension, conventions, diagrams, remediating prerequisite skills (e.g., vocabulary), and addressing motivational issues (e.g., showcasing the utility value of the learning activities). Evidence from state and national assessments showcase the continuing struggles of students in grades 6, 7, and 8 on reading comprehension and science tests.

Solving these problems has become an urgent crisis as evidenced by the continuing decline in students entering the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) pipeline as professions and a lack of scientific literacy in society. Not only is it important to develop the talent pool in STEM, but also to ensure the science literacy of Americans to safeguard personal and public health and an informed citizenry (Bybee, 2015; Gersten, Fuchs, Williams, & Baker, 2001). Science disciplinary knowledge is important for patients to understand their medical diagnoses and treatment options. Science knowledge is also important for children and adults to understand the environment around them. Most importantly, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS, 2017) states that “A high-quality science education means that students will develop an in-depth understanding of content and develop key skills—communication, collaboration, inquiry, problem solving, and flexibility—that will serve them throughout their educational and professional lives.” Without science and science education we would not be able to boast about landing a man on the moon or the near eradication polio. The NGSS further asserts that science and therefore science education is “central to the lives of all Americans.” Students, practitioners, school leaders, stakeholders, and policymakers can benefit from sound science and science education.

Two classroom-based approaches have shown promise in their own right for improving reading comprehension in the content areas and helping students to understand science diagrams, conventions, and concepts. First, the web-based intelligent tutoring system for the text structure strategy (ITSS), implemented by teachers in their classrooms, has been designed and tested in large scale efficacy studies and shows positive effects on student educational outcomes (Wijekumar, Meyer, & Lei, 2017). A second solution is the self-explanation-based visualization instruction intervention recently tested in middle school and high school classrooms, and shows strong effects on standardized science tests (Cromley, Weisberg, Dai, Newcombe, Schunn, Massey, & Merlino, 2016). Both ITSS and visualization instruction (VI) have grown independently with converging evidence on the need for scaffolded instruction in comprehension and understanding of science concepts, conventions, and diagrams. Both these approaches have strong theoretical foundations and empirical support. The track record for both interventions clearly shows that comprehension of text and comprehension of visual representations are malleable factors associated with student education outcomes. Furthermore, most texts that students now encounter include visualizations that contain important information, and expanding successful text- based programs to include visualizations will better meet the needs of students, parents, and future employers.

We are proposing a merger of these two well-researched interventions to design, develop, and test a comprehensive solution to science learning challenges experienced by middle-grade learners with this Goal 2 Development proposal. We believe that the combined effects of the text structure strategy (TSS) and visualization instruction (VI) can have larger effects than either one independently, and that intervening on these malleable factors (text comprehension and diagram comprehension) can show substantial effects on science achievement. We begin with a foundation of prior development and intervention research about the TSS where students learn how to select important ideas, make logical connections between ideas and prior knowledge, and generate strategic memory structures when reading to comprehend expository texts (Cook & Mayer, 1988; Meyer, 1975, 2003; Meyer, Brandt, & Bluth, 1980; Meyer & Poon, 2001; Meyer, Young, & Bartlett, 1989; Meyer et al., 2010; Wijekumar, Meyer, & Lei, 2013; Wijekumar et al., 2014; Wijekumar, Meyer, & Lei, 2017; Williams et al., 2005; Williams, Stafford, Lauer, Hall, & Pollini, 2009). The TSS has shown statistically significant and meaningful effects on improving content area reading comprehension in all these studies.

We then extend and synthesize a new PRISM intervention combining the TSS with prior intervention research by Cromley and colleagues (Bergey, Cromley, Kirchgessner, & Newcombe, 2015; Bergey, Cromley, & Newcombe, 2015; Cromley, Bergey, Fitzhugh, Newcombe, Wills, Shipley, & Tanaka, 2013; Cromley, Perez, Fitzhugh, Newcombe, Wills, & Tanaka, 2013; Cromley, Weisberg, Dai, Newcombe, Schunn, Massey, & Merlino, 2016; Miller, Cromley, Newcombe, Chang, & Forbus, 2015). The visualization and warm-up activities designed and tested have shown statistically significant improvements in understanding illustrations in science texts, in researcher-developed measures, and standardized test items.

When completed, the planned PRISM intervention will teach students to select important ideas from multimodal text, logically connect ideas using text structure, generate self-explanation of both texts and diagrams, make inferences based on text, illustrations, and prior knowledge, and integrate these to form strategic memory. We will also promote comprehension monitoring using the text structures and self-explanations of multimodal text. Specifically, we will design and develop eight new PRISM lessons using the successful ITSS platform on biomes, forces, human body systems, light, Rio garbage problems, states of matter, organisms, and earth and space. The new web-based PRISM lessons will contain multimodal texts, ones that illustrate the science content and provide four types of instruction to help students comprehend the diagrams: 1) Conventions of diagrams—tips that explain arrows, color coding, captions, labels, symbols, and other features of diagrams, and 2) Comparing and contrasting within diagrams—self-explaining cause-and-effect-problem-solution relations within diagrams, 3) connecting ideas between text and images, 4) generating inferences based on images and text, and 5) focusing on important elements of both the text and images. In addition to the web-based PRISM lessons we will develop and test corollary teacher support lessons, and professional development for ELA and science teachers to effectively manage the instruction. We will endeavor to develop content that is relevant and motivating for middle grade learners. We will also update the fidelity of implementation and fidelity of PD checklists and observation tools currently used in the ITSS project and visualizations intervention to reflect the new PRISM content, learning objectives, teacher roles, and technology implementation.

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