Researchers have learned a great deal of information in the last 30 years about how humans acquire knowledge, and this understanding provides important insights for using technology to enhance students’ reading skills.

At the 2008 Florida Educational Technology Conference (FETC) in Orlando, Vanderbilt University professor Ted Hasselbring discussed what researchers have discovered about the science of learning–and how software providers are using this information to create reading programs that work.

Only 38 percent of the students who aren’t reading well by middle school will graduate from high school, Hasselbring warned in a Jan. 24 keynote session. He said there are two key problems that typically hold students back: an inability to decode and read connected text fluently, and an inability to comprehend text.

Hasselbring showed conference attendees a short block of text and asked them to try reading it in 20 seconds. But, by putting capital letters where they didn’t belong, he made the task extremely difficult.

Simply changing the way the text looks “interferes with our neural models for how words should appear–or what our brains have come to expect,” he said.

A functional MRI taken as students are reading shows that the brain activity for struggling readers is different, Hasselbring explained: There is not as much activity in the back of the brain, where we recognize and retrieve words very quickly from our memory.

“When students lack fluency in foundational skills, performance is likely to be painfully slow, difficult, and full of errors,” he said. This leads to comprehension problems, because kids can’t read with enough speed and flow to make sense of the words together.

The automaticity with which skillful readers recognize words is the key to successful reading, Hasselbring said, because the reader’s attention can focus on comprehension only when it is not bogged down with decoding words and letters. “So, the key to successful reading is developing neural models for quick word recognition,” he said.

Developing these neural models requires students to move from using the alphabetic principle to recognizing entire words automatically, Hasselbring said. And the more times students read a word correctly, the stronger their neural pathway becomes to retrieve that word rapidly from their long-term memory.

So, repeated exposure to words is a key to developing students’ reading fluency. And an important advantage of technology is that it allows schools to provide more reading instructional and practice time for students than a teacher alone can provide.

But “we have to go beyond simple drill and practice if we want to realize this advantage,” Hasselbring said.

He described a successful model for using technology to boost students’ reading fluency that includes three components: assessment, instruction and guided practice, and independent practice.

In the assessment portion, he said, reading software programs can look at not only the accuracy, but also the speed of students’ responses, to determine whether a word has been stored in the students’ long-term memory or if it is still being processed in their working memory.

Rather than supplying random drill and practice, Hasselbring said, the latest research-based software programs only allow students to practice what they are ready for–that is, words they have moved from their working to their long-term memory.

Research on the science of learning also has informed the instructional component of many reading software programs. For example, studies show that students between the ages of five and 13 can only hold three to seven chunks of information in their working, or short-term, memory before they experience cognitive overload. So, many reading programs today offer small instructional sets, with no more than five elements presented at a time.

Reading comprehension relies on fluency with text, but it also relies on the building of accurate “mental models,” Hasselbring said.

While reading, he explained, we maintain and update complex mental models of the text–our mental “picture” of what the words are saying. Successful readers are able to retrieve previously learned information, or background knowledge, to support their understanding of the text.

But if kids don’t have the proper background knowledge to draw from, their comprehension will suffer.

“We have to prepare students with the proper background knowledge before they read a text, so they can construct an accurate mental model,” Hasselbring said.

One strategy that has proven effective is called “anchored instruction,” and it relies on preparing students to read a text by giving them the proper background knowledge first. And one highly successful approach to anchored instruction, he said, involves showing a video to students about the topic of a text before they are asked to read it.


Ted Hasselbring

Florida Educational Technology Conference