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Professor Scott Beers demonstrates the Eye and Pen program used to determine where the eye looks during writing. Beers hopes that by using this program with children researchers can better understand how people learn to read and write.

Photo by Joshua Bessex

A new approach to learning may change the way elementary through junior-high school students learn to read and write — on a computer.

In a study headed by UW Professor Virginia Berninger, researchers are testing the effectiveness of newly developed computerized reading and writing lessons.

The lessons would take place on iPads — a low-cost and transportable method of learning in schools.

Dr. Scott Beers, associate professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Seattle Pacific University, has worked closely with Berninger to facilitate the study. He said the decision to use technology as a medium for learning is an effort to make writing activities interesting and motivating for young students, while employing a forward-thinking approach.

“Writing is becoming an increasingly digital and technology-mediated practice,” he said. “We’re reflecting that reality as much as trying to increase student motivation and interest and persistence in doing these kinds of things.”

This study is project one of three total, all part of a five-year cross-disciplinary research period, which will focus overall on creating new methods of teaching reading and writing in grades four through nine. This project is in the Center for Defining and Treating Specific Learning Disabilities in Written Language in the UW’s College of Education, which is headed by Berninger as well. It is funded by an $8.1 million federal grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Though the study aims to achieve a more comprehensive understanding of reading and writing processes for children of all learning levels, Beers said one of the goals of the study is to pinpoint ways to personalize teaching for students with learning disabilities.

“We don’t have a sense of the different sub-types of writing disabilities and then a sense of the most effective interventions would be for those different groups of struggling writers,” he said. “If we can get a sense of very specific targeted interventions for these writers, we will have done something really helpful.”

The study tests aspects of thinking skills, learning skills, and reading and writing skills. Berninger said many of these computerized lessons are designed to help individuals learn in ways that cannot be replicated with teacher-to-student classroom instruction.

“A lot of the activities are involving all their senses and motor systems and language systems,” she said. “They get constant feedback how they’re doing, which they record [so] we’re going to see not only the product of learning, but the process of learning.”

In the study, students complete a series of 18 reading and writing intervention lessons and receive frequent feedback. Before and after the interventions, students write with an eye-tracker to allow researchers to watch mind processes during writing. The students also have the option of giving a small blood sample so researchers can later analyze genetic data.

The study currently involves students in grades six and nine, and will recruit student in grades five and eight in the fall.

To develop the platforms for the computerized lessons, Berninger has collaborated with CSE Professor Steve Tanimoto and CSE graduate student Robert Thompson in UW’s Computer Science and Engineering department. Thompson said he has been working with Tanimoto on developing the programs for about a year.

“We’re getting some good data, and hopefully pretty soon we should start analyzing it and see some interesting trends,” Thompson said.

Berninger hopes that these computerized lessons will provide an effective way for students to learn reading and writing skills in the classroom. She says the next step will be to actually implement these new lessons into classroom learning.

“Technology’s here; it’s not going to go away,” she said. “I think we need to be more thoughtful and figure out more intelligent ways to use it that will help kids learn.”

Reach reporter Shirley Qiu at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @callmeshirleyq

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