How do kids learn to read? UI researchers hope their eye tracking study will provide insight

The University of Iowa’s Growing Words project uses eye tracking to see how quickly students correctly identify the picture that corresponds with the word they either see or hear. — Jav Ducker/Little Village

The education system evaluates teachers, facilities, budgets, curricula and students’ progress. But Bob McMurray believes there needs to be more to the discussion.

“Does anybody talk about how children actually learn? Or about how children actually read?” McMurray, a University of Iowa professor of psychological and brain sciences, asked. “We don’t think about that when we make education policy and when we think about whether the system is working for our children.”

“And I think it’s about time that we started.”

McMurray is the director of Growing Words, a four-year research study focused on understanding how language and reading skills develop in elementary school students and how this relates to their academic outcomes. The study is being conducted by the university’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, with grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“We go and talk to a teacher, and they assume that we’re education researchers and that our job is to evaluate if the students are learning or to evaluate if a curriculum works,” McMurray said. “We’re not trying to do any of that. We’re trying to figure out how their students are thinking and how they’re processing words, how they’re reading and how they’re listening.”

Around one-third of fourth graders in Iowa are below a basic reading level, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found in their 2019 assessment.

That number was true nationally as well — 34 percent of fourth graders across the country can’t read at a basic level.

The NAEP defines basic as students being able to locate relevant information, make simple inferences, identify details that support a conclusion and interpret the meaning of a word as it’s used in the text. They conduct a reading and math assessment for fourth and eighth graders every two years.

“We just don’t really know what kids need to optimize their learning,” Growing Words research scientist Keith Apfelbaum said. “We’ve been teaching reading for hundreds of years, and we’re still pretty bad at it.”

“There are countless debates. If you read education literature, everyone hates each other. It’s literally called the reading wars. And so I think this is a chance to actually find out how a kid’s reading is developing and then we can turn it around and say, ‘So how do we use that? What makes this child that was successful, different from this child that didn’t reach the levels they were supposed to reach?’ And we use that to say, ‘Here’s how education can be restructured to make it so that they all look more like that successful kid.’”

The team uses eye-tracking technology — which detects where the participant’s focus and attention are — to see how quickly students correctly identify the picture that corresponds with the word they either see or hear.


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A variety of factors cause kids to struggle with reading, and eye tracking can help identify the cause of some of the problems, project coordinator Jamie Klein-Packard said.

“It’s a much more natural task to really see what’s happening as people are processing what they’re hearing or what they’re reading, depending on the study,” Apfelbaum added about eye tracking.

University of Iowa undergraduate Emily Kaplan tests out the eye tracking for the Growing Words project. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

The goal is to have 400 elementary students participating — 100 from Iowa City and 300 from Cedar Rapids. Apfelbaum said the project is probably the largest the lab has undertaken, and it’s “all hands on deck.”

McMurray said the plan is to begin collecting data in February, while also continuing to recruit students in first, second and third grade. As of December, more than 200 families signed up to participate.

Children participating in the study will visit the lab once a year for a two- to four-hour session throughout the next four years. During the sessions, kids will complete four different eye-tracking measures, as well as various assessments related to language and reading.

“We want kids who are representative of all children, and that means some of them are not great readers [or] they’re not great with language. Some of them are really good. Some of them are in the middle,” Klein-Packard said.

“My hope, and I believe this is one of the goals of the project, is to be able to tease apart what some of those things are that are causing kids to struggle with reading or with language … because then you can develop interventions. You can develop appropriate interventions for what the actual problem is.”

One of the challenges of a longitudinal study is retention — keeping the participants who start the study involved throughout the entire duration.

Klein-Packard said the team wanted to make it as easy as they could for families to participate. It was also important to create a relaxed environment for the kids participating.

Families are paid for participation in the study, with the amount increasing every year. The team also provides transportation, holds weekend and evening hours and occupies lab space in both Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.

The Growing Words project’s lab space in Iowa City. The team is currently screening and recruiting elementary school students in both Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

And the Growing Words team is already thinking about how they can expand their research.

The team submitted another grant proposal at the end of last year to NIH. They want to do brain imaging on some of the children participating in the study, in order to better understand the relationship between how the eye moves while reading and how language is processed, McMurray explained.

“If that project goes through, that’s going to really change the game because we’ll understand the computational, like how the brain is solving this problem understanding, [and] where and what parts of the brain are different,” McMurray said. “We’ll understand how these develop together because we’ll be able to do this every year for a couple of years.”

“It would be extremely exciting and will add a whole new lens to what we’re doing.”

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