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Leveling up literacy

ASU professor uses interactive tutoring systems to help improve reading skills for 8th-graders through adult learners

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June 13, 2017

One in five adults cannot read above a fifth-grade level, according to a study from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy. Nearly two-thirds of these adults did not complete high school. A lack of reading and writing skills makes it difficult to advance your education in any subject. It can also have a huge effect on other aspects of life — from understanding a shady loan contract to writing a cover letter for a job opportunity.

Danielle McNamara, a psychology professor at Arizona State University, is working to improve reading and writing skills with help from technology. She is the director of ASU’s Science of Learning and Educational Technology (SoLET) lab, where interdisciplinary researchers develop tools and interactive intelligent tutoring systems.

As an educator herself, McNamara has spent decades studying text comprehension and writing strategies. She has developed two computer programs, iSTART and W-Pal, that teach reading comprehension and writing strategies through interactive video lessons. Users reinforce these strategies with game-based practice. McNamara says she designed the programs to aid teacher instruction and provide students with more feedback-driven practice.

“We don’t want to replace teachers. We can’t replace the kind of feedback and encouragement a teacher gives. These systems are built to support teachers,” she said.

Both iSTART and W-Pal are geared toward eighth grade to adult learners. The programs are available online for free at

Reading to understand

Imagine being asked to read a paper on mitosis, the process of cell division. How would you confirm that you understood the content? One way would be to explain what you read using your own words, a process called “self-explanation.”

“In various studies we have been doing for 15 years, the students who are provided with instruction in self-explanation reading training either outside the tutoring system or within the tutoring system are better able to comprehend difficult text, do better in science courses, and we have even found effects in state standard scores,” McNamara said.

iSTART, which stands for Interactive Strategy Training for Active Reading and Thinking, teaches reading comprehension and self-explanation strategies such as linking ideas in a text, paraphrasing, using logic and common sense, and elaborating a text.

In this program, each user creates a personalized avatar and is introduced to the strategies through lesson videos. At the end of the lessons, users can practice their newly learned skills with feedback-driven practice and 10 different games.

In the "Map Conquest" game, for instance, a user earns points by producing self-explanations from given texts. With these points, the user can buy flags to claim a territory and competes against the computer to have the most flags on the map by the end of the game. Another game is called "Balloon Bust," where a user is shown self-explanations and must burst the balloon with the correct strategy labeled on it. These games are constantly regenerated so users can play them repeatedly without being exposed to the same texts.

Originally, iSTART was developed without the games. Although it was successful at teaching users reading-comprehension strategies, some users became disinterested and stopped using the program. Games keep users engaged with iSTART and more motivated to practice their newly learned skills. They also allow users to reinforce these strategies and ultimately improve users’ abilities to explain texts in their own words.  

“It became apparent through our studies that while iSTART was effective [without the games], it was also somewhat tedious. To be effective and something that students would stick with, we needed to have a game-based version,” McNamara said.  

iSTART also allows educators to customize the text that is used.

“The algorithms I build, I call them ‘any text, any time,’” McNamara said. “They are built to accommodate any text. It is very simple. If teachers want to use their own text, they insert the text, choose their target sentences and off they go.”

Shelia Lacey, an Arizona high school teacher, has used both iSTART and W-Pal in the classroom. For her master’s thesis at ASU, Lacey tested the iSTART program on seventh-graders at Franklin Junior High. She found a statistically significant improvement in students’ test scores after using the program. The improvement was equivalent to about a one-letter-grade increase in the students’ reading-comprehension scores.

“iSTART is training their brains to go through a reasoning process and get better at going through the steps to understand the readings,” she said.

“It has been proven that one-on-one tutoring will help you, but that is not what we call scalable. ... W-Pal offers a great opportunity for students to get back on grade level or even get ahead.”

— Shelia Lacey, an Arizona high school teacher who has used both iSTART and W-Pal in the classroom

Writing a success story

Teaching students to write well is a time-consuming process. Educators must read all of the assignments and provide individual feedback. However, budget cuts and teacher shortages mean that class sizes are increasing. Teachers must educate larger and larger classes each year, which limits how much time they have to provide in-depth feedback on writing assignments. McNamara hopes that her Writing Pal, or W-Pal, program can help.

W-Pal is designed for students in eighth grade through adulthood. It teaches basic writing strategies in a series of nine modules. Business-savvy Mike and aspiring-journalist Shelia are animated characters who provide students with memorable mnemonics and tips for each strategy. At the end of each video lesson, users can review what they learned through traditional quizzes or a Jeopardy-style game show.

Users can also practice their skills in 20 different games. One game, called “LockDown,” has users race against the clock to secure Writing Intelligence Agency government files before hackers get to them. To secure the files, users must use the RECAP mnemonic and write conclusions given a prompt and the thesis.

Another game, called “Planning Passage,” tests a user’s ability to organize an essay by selecting the correct argument that supports a position and the correct evidence to support the argument. Choosing correctly moves users through a virtual road trip and lets them collect photo souvenirs along the way.

Beyond the games, users can test their writing skills through timed essays. After writing, they receive feedback and the opportunity to revise accordingly.

Like iSTART, W-Pal is customizable. Educators can insert their own writing prompts, assign certain modules to each student, and decide which mini games their students should engage in.

Strategies taught in W-Pal include how to write an introduction, how to write the body of an essay, how to make an argument and how to provide evidence for claims. W-Pal focuses on how to write persuasive essays, but these strategies are widely applicable. 

“These are strategies that can be applied to essentially any kind of writing because you have to have an introduction, a body and conclusion to most writing. Even narratives require those essential parts,” McNamara said.

Practicing writing and receiving feedback not only improves writing, but it also reduces the time it takes to improve.

“We show significant improvement if they have feedback and the strategy instruction after eight essays with revision,” McNamara said.

This can allow students to receive additional tutoring.  

“It has been proven that one-on-one tutoring will help you, but that is not what we call scalable. Not every student can have hours and hours of one-on-one tutoring. There is not enough time, not enough people and not enough money,” Lacey said. “W-Pal offers a great opportunity for students to get back on grade level or even get ahead.”

screenshot of reading game

Screenshots from the W-Pal game, designed to teach students in eighth grade through adulthood. Top left: The lessons in both W-Pal and iStart are taught by animated characters. Top right: The Planning Passage game in W-Pal takes users on a road trip to see exciting destinations. Bottom right: After watching each lesson, W-Pal users can refresh their memory with a short quiz. Bottom left: Upon starting W-Pal, students are greeted with instructions that look like a memo from the Writing Intelligence Agency.

Fun homework

The words “fun” and “homework” are probably not an association many students would make. But Lacey found that both iSTART and W-Pal engage students more than traditional homework assignments.

“What is really good about these programs is that it has a well-thought-out sequence of tasks for students to practice in a way that is less boring than, say, giving them worksheets. It can be a homework assignment that might be more fun than sitting there and doing a worksheet or reading a book or reading comprehension or taking tests. A lot of kids thought these programs were a more enjoyable way of learning,” she said. 

For educators, learning the programs does take some time, but McNamara and her team are dedicated to helping. McNamara recently published a book, “Adaptive Educational Technologies for Literacy Instruction,” that provides educators with information about freely available literacy tools and technologies. 

Lacey says she did not have any difficulty learning to use iSTART and W-Pal.

“As programs go, they are on the easy side to learn,” she said. “The people supporting the programs are there and available to help teachers know how to do the various back-end manipulations. They can do a lot of demonstrations for you.”

McNamara is actively studying, improving and expanding the programs, as well. She is working on a Spanish version of iSTART that is being tested in South America and Spain as well as an iSTART geared toward adult learners.

“It is not a one-and-done thing,” she said. “We are constantly conducting experiments to look at its effectiveness, what do we need to change, what are the features that are necessary and unnecessary, and improving the algorithms.”

Written by Cheyenne Howard, Knowledge Enterprise Development

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