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ASU team creates reading comprehension app for bilingual students

In pilot studies, EMBRACE app has been shown to double reading comprehension levels

woman shows young girl EMBRACE app on tablet
May 18, 2020

Imagine two children, Lucas and Gabby. They are both 4 years old and come from bilingual households. Lucas’ parents read to him every night. They talk about the books they read together often. Gabby’s dad is a single parent who works two jobs. He’s tired by the time he gets home, so he doesn’t have time to read to Gabby often. 

By the time Lucas and Gabby start school, Lucas will have heard over a million more words than Gabby. Due to this, Gabby is more likely to struggle with reading comprehension and is at a higher risk of being misidentified with a learning disability. 

To help close the gap between students like Lucas and Gabby, a team of researchers at Arizona State University created EMBRACE, an interactive, iPad-based reading comprehension app for bilingual students. In pilot studies, EMBRACE has been shown to double reading comprehension levels.

The app was created by Arthur Glenberg, a professor in ASU’s Department of Psychology; M. Adelaida Restrepo, a professor of speech and hearing science in ASU’s College of Health Solutions; and Erin Walker, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Computing and Information.

Understanding through action

Children read stories in both English and Spanish on the EMBRACE app and perform the actions in the story digitally. For example, for a sentence reading, “He brushed the cat’s fur to make it clean and soft,” the child would drag a picture of the character to the brush and then to the cat to demonstrate the action in the story. 

The app is based on the theory of embodied cognition. The theory suggests that we match experiences from our bodies to words that we read and hear. We understand language by matching it to perception, action and emotional experiences.

Glenberg was one of the first researchers working on embodied cognition in the mid-1990s. He wanted to use the way our bodies help us comprehend language to help kids increase their reading comprehension. 

He began with toys and simple stories. He would have some kids act out sentences in a story with the toys and some simply read the story. When children can imagine what they read, it activates multiple systems in their brains and allows for deeper understanding, according to Glenberg. 

For instance, understanding the sentence, “You and your beloved are walking hand in hand along a moonlit tropical beach,” requires activation in many areas of the brain. Readers use the visual system of their brains to imagine a moonlit tropical beach, the motor system to imagine walking, and the emotional system to imagine holding hands with someone they care about, Glenberg said.  

EMBRACE mirrors this process in an app format. When children read about brushing a cat’s fur and then use the app to act it out, they retain and understand the story more fully.

“The first step is to get them to externalize that imagination by just having them brush the cat’s fur,” Glenberg said. “For the first half of the story, the children move the pictures on the iPad, and that greatly improves their memory and understanding of the story. For the second half of the story, the children imagine moving the pictures. Creating this sort of internal simulation of movement both helps the children with the specific story and also teaches them a general skill that they can apply when reading on their own."

The EMBRACE app includes an intelligent tutoring system that tracks the success the child has following the directions with each story. For example, if the child makes a mistake reading a word, that word is added to the vocabulary list for additional practice. 

“By developing an app around embodied cognition, we can understand in a new way how moving and reading are related,” Walker said. “We can adapt in real time to give (parents and students) the support they need. This opens up an area of intelligent tutoring that hasn’t been explored before.”

child's hand clicking on EMBRACE app

Child uses EMBRACE app on iPad to digitally act out a story. Photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU

Reading comprehension starts at home

EMBRACE is a tablet-based app that does not require an internet connection. However, the team is looking to create an online version to make it more widely available. The team is also working to adapt EMBRACE to encourage parents and children to read together, through funding from a National Science Foundation grant. 

“We found out that a lot of our at-risk families don't read at home, partly because they think they shouldn't be reading in Spanish, partly because they are not great readers, and partly because they think reading needs to be done at school,” Restrepo said.  

The newest version of EMBRACE will prompt parents to stop and ask questions and begin conversations while reading. 

“These conversations improve oral language, improve vocabulary and increase the use of sophisticated syntax, and all of that improves reading comprehension,” Restrepo said. 

The app is still in the research and development stage, but parents, teachers and students can still use the concepts behind it. Reading to children at home is valuable, regardless of language. If parents are more comfortable reading to their children in Spanish, they absolutely should still do that, according to Restrepo. 

Another way to help kids improve reading comprehension is by asking questions during and after the story to determine if they have questions, to connect the material to their experiences, and to get them to articulate understanding in different parts of the story. 

Once widely available, EMBRACEEMBRACE is partially supported with funding from the National Science Foundation., and the concepts it teaches, could help students like Gabby be more prepared to start school and increase levels of reading comprehension at a faster rate. 

Written by Madison Arnold. Top photo by Andy DeLisle/ASU

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