Washington Middle School is a large suburban school with a diverse population of 1,150 sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students. More than 75% of the students receive free or reduced lunch and the school is a Performance Improvement school since it has not made its targeted AYP goal for three years in a row. Because one goal is to improve students’ reading comprehension, the administration purchased Scholastic/Tom Snyder Productions’ Thinking Reader last year to assist with students’ reading skills and to help teach reading strategies
Thinking Reader uses human voice narration to present grade-appropriate stories to the student as she/he follows along. Then the student completes a journal entry using one of the seven reading strategies: visualizing, predicting, clarifying, questioning, summarizing, feeling and reflecting. There are highlighted vocabulary words for the student to look up. It also offers models of responses and an explanation of the strategies. The teacher reads the student’s response and then posts advice or suggestions. The program is self-paced and the students are quizzed after every few chapters.
The initial reactions to the program ranged from suspicion to loathing. Most saw this as just one more ‘quick fix.’ Then there was the over-arching question, ‘how am I going to fit this very time intensive program into an already crammed full day?’ Not one teacher seemed interested in even giving the software a chance.
Because my graduate class required enrollees to perform an action research project, I decided to put Thinking Reader to the test. We decided to have a control group of students, approximately 30, who would read the novel Bud, Not Buddy, with their teacher in the classroom for one class period a day. The teacher, reading the novel aloud as students followed along, would employ reading strategies designed to increase student comprehension. The focus group of 30 students would read the same book, but in the computer lab using Thinking Reader.
This was the methodology. Each group was to spend four weeks reading the novel. But first both groups would participate in a survey about their reading habits and comfort-level with computers. Then both groups would take the Star Reading assessment test to determine each student’s reading grade level. After completing the book both groups would take the Accelerated Reader test, a multiple-choice test that assesses reading comprehension. Both groups would also engage in reading focus group question-and-answer sessions. After completing the novel both groups would complete another survey. The triangulation of research would be the Star Reading test to evaluate each student’s reading level, the pre- and post-reading survey questions, and the Accelerated Reader comprehension test.
My hypothesis was that there would be no difference between the tests scores of students who read their book on the computer and those who had their teacher guide their reading in class. My hope of course was to prove that the program did improve student’s comprehension, yet I was skeptical. Also there were several variables that could affect the outcome, including differences in student reading levels and even differences in how each teacher related to his/her group. Actually, the control group had a lower average reading level, 3.5, as compared to the focus group’s 4.3. I wondered if this was enough to skew the results but we plodded on and plunged into the project.
An initial problem was the time it took to load the program onto computer. On the first day I introduced the students to the novel and to the seven reading strategies (modeling them using an activity provided by Thinking Reader). Then I logged each into the program and showed them how to navigate the site. This took longer than anticipated because it took at least 10 minutes for the software to load, to enter the password, and then to wait while the program located the database. I eliminated the problem on subsequent days by opening the program on each computer before the students arrived and then we discussed the novel or worked on story summary or strategies while they waited to logon. Once this became our routine the students adapted very well.
After completing Bud, Not Buddy the focus group’s response to the survey indicated that 54% would like to read a book on a computer, compared to just 24.6% before the project. This compared to the control group, where only 35% said they would like to read a book on the computer.
All of the students took a post-reading Accelerated Reader comprehension test. The focus group averaged 80.8% for their tests and the control group averaged 67.1%. In the control group 10 out of 30 students failed the test while in the focus group 4 out of 26 failed the test. Although this was not a major difference I feel it is significant enough to warrant more research and I believe it is enough to convince colleagues to give the program a chance. The teacher who assisted with the experiment says she wants to use Thinking Reader with her students.
After completing the project I interviewed a small group of students from the focus group. Some of their responses:
- I liked that the book was read to you on the computer.
- It was easier to follow along.
- You could keep track of what was going on in the book.
- The reflection was the hardest response to write, I wasn’t sure what to say.
- My favorite part was predicting.
- The voice of the person reading the story was good. They put emotion into the story.
All of the students I interviewed said they would like to read a book on the computer again and they felt more comfortable using a computer after their experience.
The results based on the statistics are not significantly high enough to say that the students who used Thinking Reader did better overall then the control group. I believe a more detailed study with a larger group of students would show there is significant improvement in reading comprehension using the computer software program. The focus group of students did better then the control group and I would say the majority of them enjoyed the experience, as most stated.
The action research project combined with Thinking Reader allowed me to challenge my teaching, inspire my students and hopefully compel my fellow teachers to give the software program a try with their students.