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Using ICTs to improve comprehension in learning

Karen Power, Memorial University of Newfoundland


Comprehension difficulties are common in the content area courses of Science and Social Studies because students are required to “use skills and strategies to search, locate and organize information” while reading for understanding (Vaughn et al., 2013, p. 77). Many students experience difficulties using these comprehension skills effectively while reading textbooks in these courses (Vaughn et al., 2013). This task is especially difficult for students with learning disabilities as they often lack advanced thought processes and comprehension strategies (Kim et al., 2006).

Teaching comprehension strategies is often difficult for content area teachers (Kim, 2013). Providing students instruction on comprehension skills while ensuring that all outcomes for the content area are covered can be challenging (Kim, 2013). The language used in content area texts is advanced, and many elementary and secondary students do not possess “the requisite knowledge, skills, and disposition to read and comprehend” such material (Kim et al., 2013, p.235). Students often encounter difficulties with comprehension of informational text due to a lack of familiarity with technical terms and a lack of “background knowledge and conceptual development” (Baker et al., 2011, p. 200).

The difficulty in teaching comprehension skills experienced by content area teachers can be attributed to limitations in pedagogical knowledge (Vaughn et al., 2013). Teachers of content area subjects have limited exposure to practices in reading comprehension instruction during career training and professional development sessions (Vaughn et al., 2013). Due to this lack of knowledge, identifying methods of improving comprehension and implementing these methods into the classroom can be a daunting task for content area teachers (Vaughn et al., 2013). If this problem is not addressed, students are unlikely to advance their comprehension of informational text as they move through the education system and into the world of work (Baker et al., 2011).

Role of ICTs

Since “an important enabler of reading comprehension is reading engagement,” (Baker et al., 2011, p. 200) information and communication technologies (ICTs) can have a significant effect on comprehension in content area reading. Wright, Fugett and Caputa (2011) found that children preferred reading when the material was presented electronically using e-books on the iPad. Increased interest in reading leads to improvement in reading fluency, reading comprehension and thus achievement in content-based areas (Field, 2009). Internet programs, such as Renzulli Learning, identify interests, personal learning styles, and writing styles, and then provide “activities and resources designed to enrich students’ learning process” (Field, 2009, p. 29). Electronic devices provide resources that readers can access to improve comprehension (Horney et al., 2009). One resource, labeled as pop-up dictionary, provides a means for students to improve their comprehension of content area vocabulary since they have immediate access to word meaning (Fry & Gosky, 2008). Embedded digital notes, either typed or voice recorded, have been shown to improve students summarizing abilities, and therefore also improve content area comprehension, (Fry & Gosky, 2008).

Cognitive mapping, or concept mapping, is another strategy that aids in organization and comprehension of content area information (Blankenship, Ayres, & Langone, 2005). Computer software, such as Inspiration, which provides a method for students to develop concept maps, has proven to be more effective and engaging than traditional methods of teaching comprehension skills. (Blankenship, Ayres, & Langone, 2005). Interactive multimedia tools, such as ABRACADABRA (ABRA), and digital portfolio tools, such as e-Pearl, aid in comprehension development as they provide opportunities for “multiple cognitive, meta-cognitive and motivational strategies” (Lysenko & Abrami, 2014, p. 164).

Content area comprehension is improved when students use web based intelligent tutoring systems to identify signal words in order to organize presented information (Wijekumar, Meyer, & Lei, 2013, p. 377). ICTs “have the potential to offer consistent modeling, practice tasks, assessment, feedback, and application” of comprehension strategies (Wijekumar, Meyer, & Lei, 2013, p. 989). ICTs allow students to progress with comprehension activities even when teachers cannot work individually with them (Wijekumar, Meyer, & Lei, 2012). Computer programs further aid in comprehension skill development by providing “immediate individual feedback and allow(ing) students to control their learning pace” (Lysenko & Abrami, 2014, p. 164). Text-to-speech programs, when integrated with subject based teaching, provide further support in comprehension as students report they are able to organize and understand material more effectively when the computer reads to them (Zorfass & Clay, 2008).

Multimedia learning encourages a flexible learning environment promoting content learning and comprehension (Twyman & Tindal, 2006). When teachers combine instruction with ICTs, students’ learning and understanding is enhanced (Zorfass & Clay, 2008). Teachers who use technology that is aligned with curriculum outcomes report that students have increased levels of comprehension, and thus have increased achievement in content areas (Field, 2009).


Wright, Fugett and Caputa (2013) observed that students took longer to read material using ICTs than regular print material. They questioned whether or not children are distracted by technology, and if this distraction negatively affects comprehension. Upon completion of their investigations, they found no negative effects, but nor were there improvements in comprehension. They noted children’s engagement in, and motivation for, reading was enhanced when using ICTs and suggested that it is advantageous for students since it increases access to reading material (Wright, Fugett, & Caputa, 2013).

Comprehension can be negatively affected when a page contains additional text that may be irrelevant to the topic, such as advertising on webpages (McMullin, Varnhagen, Heng, & Apedoe, 2002). This problem can be addressed by ensuring that the “goals of the Web site (are) understood” and pages are developed or chosen to “address different user needs and involve different tasks” (McMullin, Varnhagen, Heng, & Apedoe, 2002, p. 26).

If the correct form of technology is not used to assist in content-based comprehension, computer tools will not improve comprehension (Wijekumar, Myer, & Lei, 2013). This concern can be addressed with careful attention to details of how the technology will be utilized by the teacher and students to increase comprehension (Wijekumar, Myer, & Lei, 2013). Kim (2013) proposed that ICTs will increase comprehension skills more effectively if there is careful consideration of the learner’s strengths and needs, the learning goals, and the context of the activity before the implementation of the technology into the content-based curriculum.

Works cited

Baker, L., Dreher, M. J., Shiplet, A. K., Beall, L. C., Voelker, A. N., Garrett, A. J., Schugar, H.R., & Finger-Elam, M. (2011). Children's comprehension of informational text: Reading, engaging, and learning. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 4(1), 197-227.

Blankenship, T. L., Ayres, K. M., & Langone, J. (2005). Effects of computer-based cognitive mapping on reading comprehension for students with emotional behavior disorders. Journal of Special Education Technology, 20(2), 15-23.

Field, G.B. (2009). The effects of the use of Renzulli Learning on student achievement in reading comprehension, reading fluency, social studies and science. International Journal of Educational Technology, 4(1), 29-39. Doi: 10.399/ijet.v4il.629.

Fry, S. W., & Gosky, R. (2008). Supporting social studies reading comprehension with an electronic pop-up dictionary. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 40(2), 127-139.

Horney, M. A., Anderson-Inman, L., Terrazas-Arellanes, F., Schulte, W., Mundorf, J., Wiseman, S., Smolkowski, K., Katz-Buonincontro, & Frisbee, M. L. (2009). Exploring the effects of digital note taking on student comprehension of science texts. Journal of Special Education Technology, 24(3), 45-61.

Kim, A., Vaughn, S., Klinger, J., Woodruff, A., Klein-Reutebuch, C., & Kouzekanani (2006). Improving the reading comprehension of middle school students with reading disabilities through computer-assisted collaborative strategic reading. Remedial and Special Education, 27(4), 235-249.

Kim, Y. (2013). Digital peers to help children's text comprehension and perceptions. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 16(4), 59-n/a.

Lysenko,L.V. & Abrami, P.C. (2014). Promoting reading comprehension with the use of technology. Computers and Education, 75, 162-172. DOI: 10.1016/j.compedu.2014.01.010

McMullin, J., Varnhagen, C., Heng, P., & Apedoe, X. (2002). Effects of surrounding information and line length on text comprehension from the web. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 28(1), 19.

Twyman, T., & Tindal, G. (2006). Using a computer-adapted, conceptually based history text to increase comprehension and problem-solving skills of students with disabilities. Journal of Special Education Technology, 21(2), 5-16.

Vaughn, S., Swanson, E., Roberts, G., Wanzek, J., Stillman-Spisak, S., Solis, M., & Simmons, D. (2013). Improving reading comprehension and social studies knowledge in middle school. Reading Research Quarterly, 48(1), 77-93. http://dx.doi:10.1002/rrq.039

Wijekumar, K., Meyer, B. & Puiwa, L. (2012). Large-scale randomized controlled trial with 4th graders using intelligent tutoring of the structure strategy to improve nonfiction reading comprehension. Educational Technology Research and Development 60, 987-1013. Doi: 10.1007/s11423-012-9263-4

Wijekumar, K., Meyer, B. & Puiwa, L. (2013). High fidelity implementation of web-based intelligent tutoring systems improves fourth and fifth graders content area reading comprehension. Computers and Education, 68, 366-379. DOI: 10.1016/j.compedu.2013.05.021

Wright, S., Fugett, A., & Caputa, F. (2013). Using E-readers and Internet resources to support comprehension. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 16(1), 367-379.

Zorfass, J. & Clay, K. (2008). Biology, reading, comprehension, and technology: Tools for shaking it up. Journal of Special Education Technology, 23(4), 53-61.