Reading Comprehension: How Stories Help Students Learn New Information

Reading comprehension for young students has always been a primary focus for a number of researchers here at the College of Education and Human Development. In the Text and Discourse Lab, we work with both children and adults to understand the underlying processes that support reading and learning from texts. To do so, we use methods like eye tracking, verbal protocols and more traditional paper and pencil tasks. We are especially interested in how those cognitive processes develop for young readers and support the revision of common misconceptions during reading.

Using Stories to Teach New Information and Revise Misconceptions

Our work has shown that presenting information in the context of a simple story has proven very effective when we teach new information, but also when we aim to revise or change pre-existing incorrect information. Stories have a familiar structure, especially for children, and it is pretty amazing how powerful they can be. In the context of these stories, the new information is presented by story characters, engaging in relevant actions and reaching resolutions.

Let’s take for example the concept of gravity, a very difficult concept to teach in science. If you open a science textbook, you will typically find the description of the ‘dropping balls’ example: You drop two balls of the same shape and size but different weights, and you predict which one will reach the ground first. A common misconception held by children, but also by many adults, is that the heavier ball will hit the ground first. Over the course of developing a narrative to address this pre-existing incorrect information, we will state the misconception as held by one of the story characters, and have another character, a science teacher or scientist for example, refute and explain it with a detailed explanation. Our work has shown that the more detailed the explanation, the more effective it is at changing students’ pre-existing incorrect beliefs. We also demonstrated that the character refuting and explaining the misconception must have a certain degree of credibility.

Using Other Mediums to Improve Reading Comprehension

Another line of our work focuses on understanding how our text experiences change in the context of different media. For example, we are currently exploring how Twitter messages are processed and understood. We are also exploring how text information presented via television, listening, or written form is processed. For example, in our work with children, we demonstrated that watching, listening, or reading a story involves many of the same processes. Therefore the skills you acquire from one medium, whether it’s watching, listening or reading, often transfer to others.

This work means the use of other forms of media can be helpful in alleviating the pressures of decoding during reading, especially for struggling readers. Decoding is one of the basic skills that support reading, and struggling readers often have decoding difficulties. For example, when we read words, three different types of representations get activated: phonological (from how the word sounds), orthographic (from how the word is spelled), and semantic (from the word meaning). If any of these representations is not adequately developed, then the reader may experience decoding difficulties. For these readers, the use of different media may be especially helpful because it poses fewer demands on decoding skill.

Four Tips to Boost Reading Comprehension for Students

  1. Read with a purpose. Goal-oriented reading affects what learning processes will take place and how effective those processes will be. Whenever we assign reading activities, especially for children, they need to be assigned with a purpose. For example, reading to locate information, to summarize, to tell a friend, or to learn how to put together a toy are great ways to facilitate effective learning. If you have a purpose, it influences how things come together and interconnect in your memory.
  2. Choose the right texts. It’s important to separate the texts we use for children learning to read and the texts we use for children reading to learn. When selecting a text for a child who is learning to read, we need to match his or her reading level so it’s not too difficult and not too easy. Reading to learn, on the other hand, means we should also worry about whether the information to be learned is also age appropriate.
  3. Think out loud. Verbalizing your thoughts is a methodology we use in our Lab to understand the processes of reading. It helps reading itself and influences learning in a positive way. Take the lead on this by showing your child or student how you think through specific texts, one sentence at a time. Illustrating this process will help those students who have yet to figure out how reading unfolds explicitly.
  4. Ask “why questions.” Reading is a constructive process. We interconnect information and ultimately form a mental picture about the text in our minds. Choose a pre-specified point, such as after every paragraph, to dig deeper and ask your students or children “why questions.” This helps students make connections when those are needed and facilitates their comprehension and learning.
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Panayiota (Pani) Kendeou

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Panayiota (Pani) Kendeou

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