Local text cohesion, reading ability and individual science aspirations: key factors influencing comprehension in science classes

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Local text cohesion, reading ability and individual science aspirations: key factors influencing comprehension in science classes
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  Local text cohesion, reading ability andindividual science aspirations: key factorsinfluencing comprehension in scienceclasses Sophie S. Hall a, *, Rebecca Kowalski a , Kevin B. Paterson a , Jaskaran Basran a , Ruth Filik b and John Maltby a a University of Leicester, UK;  b University of Nottingham, UK  In response to the concern of the need to improve the scientific skills of school children, this studyinvestigated the influence of text design (in terms of text cohesion) and individual differences, withthe aim of identifying pathways to improving science education in early secondary school (KeyStage 3). One hundred and four secondary school children (56 females, 48 males), aged 12  –  13years took part in the study. To assess the influence of local cohesion (lexical and grammatical linksbetween adjacent sentences) in science texts, we measured students’ comprehension (through mul-tiple choice questions) of science text that was high and low in local cohesion. To explore the role of individual differences, students completed tests to measure general reading ability, general intelli-gence, facets of conscientiousness, science self-concept and individual, friends and family aspira-tions in science. Students were more accurate in answering comprehension questions after readingtext that was high in cohesion than low in cohesion, suggesting that high local text cohesionimproved students’ comprehension of science text. Reading ability predicted increased comprehen-sion for both text designs. Individual aspirations in science accounted for unique variance for com-prehension for high cohesion text. Implications for the teaching of secondary school science arediscussed. Introduction There is growing recognition of the crucial role of developing scientific literacy toimprove science education and in encouraging young people to study science to anadvanced level (e.g., Norris & Phillips, 2003). Student interest in science declinesfrom approximately 11 years of age (the start of secondary education; Key Stage 3),with one of the main causal factors being the quality of the educational experience(Osborne  et al  ., 2003). Given that students spend two-thirds of their lives outside of formal schooling there is also increasing awareness of the need to understand the con-tributions of the attitudes and involvement of family and friends in determining anindividual’s interest and achievement in science (Gilbert, 2006). With the aim of developing pathways to improving science achievement in secondary schools, weinvestigated beginning secondary school students’ comprehension of science text in aclassroom exercise by focussing on two key issues: (1) the influence of text design; (2) *Corresponding author. University of Leicester, Henry Wellcome Building, School of Psychology,Lancaster Road, Leicester, LE1 9HN, UK. Email: sophie.hall@dmu.ac.uk ©  2014 British Educational Research Association British Educational Research Journal Vol.    , No.    ,    2014, pp.   –   DOI: 10.1002/berj.3134  the role of individual differences, including beliefs and attitudes. More specifically,we examined the role of local text cohesion in text designs. Local text cohesion can bedefined as the presence (high cohesion) or absence (low cohesion) of lexical andgrammatical cues which enable the reader to link meanings across adjacent sentences. Comprehension of science text  Successful comprehension relies on fundamental reading skills such as letter identifi-cation and accessing word meaning (Perfetti, 1985), and the integration of individualword meanings into a coherent representation of the sentence (local text cohesion)(Vellutino  et al  ., 1994). The ability to integrate sentences promotes the developmentof a coherent text representation necessary for sound comprehension (Kintsch,1998).Assuch, theability tointegratethemeanings betweensentences inscience textis likely to be important for successful comprehension, and therefore science learning.Accordingly, we chose to explore the effects of local text cohesion in determining sci-ence comprehension.Text cohesion refers to the extent to which the text supports the reader in establish-ingacoherent understanding ofthe text. Inhigh cohesiontext, the textitself is usuallysufficient for the reader to obtain a coherent representation of the arguments. Bycomparison, low cohesion text requires the reader to generate inferences that gobeyond the information provided in the text in order to achieve a coherent representa-tion of the meaning of the text (see McNamara  et al  ., 2010). Our rationale for focus-sing on text cohesion derives from analyses showing that science textbooks arefrequently low in text cohesion, with regular omissions of information that may becrucial for achieving accurate comprehension (Beck  et al  ., 1991). Such informationincludes the use of linguistic devices which provide explicit links between sentences.For example, studies have shown that text comprehension can be improved by addingcohesive ties, including elaborating on concepts, replacing ambiguous pronouns withnouns, and adding connectives (‘and’, ‘because’) (see, e.g., Beck  et al  ., 1991; Ozuru et al  ., 2009).Modulations of text cohesion can be further illustrated by examining the text usedby Ozuru  et al  . (2009)in an extract‘Heat Distribution in Animals’. For instance, theyrepeated the terminology ‘warm blooded animals’ in high cohesion text, but used‘them’ (pronouns) and ‘mammals’ (ambiguous noun) to refer to these animals in lowcohesion text. The authors used ‘because’ (connective tie) in high cohesion texts toexplain why some warm-blooded animal allow their body temperature to drop,whereas in low cohesion text they just stated the facts without a causal connection.Additionally, they elaborated on concepts in high cohesion text (e.g., by stating thatblood vessels are part of the animals circulatory system) but not in low cohesion text.Theuseof extraconnectives andelaborating onconcepts producesalonger text whenit is a high cohesion design compared to a low cohesion design. Furthermore, byavoiding the use of pronouns, high cohesion text typically contains a greater degree of repetition than low cohesion text.When links between sentences are not explicit (low cohesion design), the readerhas to infer the relationships between different linguistic expressions (e.g., that ‘them’refers to ‘warm blooded animals’) and this can cause comprehension difficulty2  S. Hall   et al. ©  2014 British Educational Research Association  (Graesser  et al  ., 2003). In these situations the reader must dedicate more processingeffort in order to comprehend the text, relying on activating memory traces relating tothe previously read text sections as well as reasoning activities (Long & Lea, 2005;Kintsch, 2009), and so impairing comprehension. Increasing text cohesion has bene-ficial effects on adults’ comprehension of both narrative (e.g., Beck  et al  ., 1984) andexpository texts (e.g., Linderholm  et al  ., 2000). The effects of text cohesion on com-prehension is typically assessed through the use of multiple choice questions (MCQs)or short answer questions (e.g., Ozuru  et al  ., 2009, 2010; McNamara  et al  ., 2011).These measures allow the researcher to directly explore specific aspects of compre-hension (e.g., the links made between two sentences) which may not be possible withopen-ended style comprehension questions.More recently, investigations have begun to look at text cohesion in college-agedstudents’ science text comprehension and found similar increases in comprehensionwith greater text cohesion (Ozuru  et al  ., 2009). However, only a few studies havelooked at text cohesion with younger school students (Best  et al  ., 2006; McNamara et al  ., 2011) and these reports suggest that text cohesion does not significantlyimprove science comprehension at this age. Both of these two studies used an agerange of 9  –  11 years, focussing on children at the end of primary school (Key Stage 2),rather than the start of secondary education (Key Stage 3), leaving this latter age-group surprisingly under-investigated.In summary, the cohesive structure of text designs appears to play an importantrole in determining levels of comprehension. These effects have primarily been inves-tigated in older school students, but may also be important factors for determiningcomprehension in young secondary school students. Additionally, in secondaryschool education other factors should be considered in relation to science learning,including individual differences which have been identified, as modulating text com-prehension and achievement. The role of individual differences Previous researchsuggests that anumber ofindividual differences variables, focussingon levels of literacy, intelligence, personality and social influences, relate to an indi-vidual’s capacity and aptitude for science learning (e.g., St George  et al  ., 1997;Chamorro-Premuzic & Furnham, 2003; Primor  et al  ., 2011). Examining these indi-vidual differences variables in relation to the comprehension of texts with varying lev-els of cohesion could provide valuable insights into specific approaches that may becentral to promoting science text comprehension and therefore better scienceachievement.Individual reading ability is an important factor in determining text comprehension(Just & Carpenter, 1992; St George  et al  ., 1997). Reading skills, including worddecoding and vocabulary have been shown to be strong predictors of comprehension(Schatschneider  et al  ., 2007), with some children who have difficulties in readingcomprehension showing poor vocabulary skills (Catts  et al  ., 2006). Reading skillshelp readers to relate concepts from different parts of the text via inferential processes(Daneman & Hannon, 2001). By relating these disparate concepts, readers can forma cohesive representation of the text, and so this suggests an important relationship Local text cohesion, reading ability and science aspirations  3 ©  2014 British Educational Research Association  between reading skill, text cohesion and subsequent comprehension. Whilst poorreading ability reduces comprehension (Cain & Oakhill, 2004), the interactionbetween reading skill and text cohesion in influencing comprehension of text is notlinear. For instance, only skilled readers are thought to benefit from reading highcohesive texts (O’Reilly & McNamara, 2007; Ozuru  et al  ., 2009). It has been sug-gested that this reflects the increased density and complexity of reading text which ishighly cohesive (Beck  et al  ., 1991; Ozuru  et al  ., 2009). It is clear that to date, the rela-tionship between reading ability and text cohesion is not well established, especiallyas reading ability can be determined by a large variety of skills, including word decod-ing (Perfetti, 1985), syntactic knowledge and inferential abilities (Oakhill & Yuill,1996).There is conflicting evidence as to the importance of general intelligence in mediat-ing reading comprehension. Oakhill  et al  . (2003) report that although IQ (a measureof general intelligence), is related to comprehension abilities, other skills are more sig-nificant, including the ability to integrate text, metacognitive monitoring and workingmemory. Additionally, children with lower IQ scores do not have reliably lower scoresof reading ability; likewise, children with higher IQ do not consistently achieve higherscoreson reading abilitytests (Meyer,2000). More recently, researchhas investigatedwhether general intelligence interacts in a similar manner with the comprehension of narrative and expository text. Primor  et al  . (2011) reported that scores on RavensMatrices predicted comprehension on both text-types for participants with readingdisabilities; however, scores on Ravens Matrices only predicted comprehension of  narrative  texts for participants without reading disabilities. Whilst this study was con-ducted with Hebrew speaking adult readers, similar effects have been reported withEnglish speaking children (Tiu  et al  ., 2003).Studies have also shown a relationship between personality and academic achieve-ment. Personality traits of openness to experience and conscientiousness are signifi-cantly related to academic achievement (Robinson  et al  ., 1994; Chamorro-Premuzicand Furnham, 2003), with conscientiousness reported as the strongest personalitypredictor of college students’ grades (Matthews  et al  ., 2006; Noftle & Robins, 2007).More specifically, conscientiousness has been shown to be strongly related to scienceachievement (Eilam  et al  ., 2009) and interest (Fesit, 2012). However, a recent reviewhighlights inconsistencies within the research examining personality and readingcomprehension and appeals for more research to examine the potential relationshipsbetween these factors (Sadeghi  et al  ., 2012).It is well documented that academicachievement is modulated by individual beliefsand interests (Valentine  et al  ., 2004; DiPerna, 2006; Rothon  et al  ., 2011) as well asinfluences from parents and peers (Duncan  et al  ., 2001; Nichols & White, 2001;Gonzalez-DeHass  et al  ., 2005; Seginer, 2006; Rogers  et al  ., 2009). Individualbeliefs that are likely to be important in determining science achievement includeself-concept and career aspirations. Academic self-concept is highly domain-specific(Marsh & Hau, 2004; M € oller  et al  ., 2009); science self-concept refers to an individ-ual’s belief in their abilities in science alone. Both positive (Wilkins  et al  ., 2002) andnegative (Kifer, 2002) relationships have been reported with science self-concept andachievement, indicating that the role of domain-specific self-concepts and subsequentachievements require further investigation. Some research suggests that career aspira-4  S. Hall   et al. ©  2014 British Educational Research Association  tions modulate academic achievement (e.g., Benbow  et al  ., 1991). Career interest forscience occupations has been shown to develop particularly early in secondary educa-tion (Foskett & Hemsley-Brown, 2001), providing motivation for investigating therole of science aspirations on science comprehension and achievement. With regardto influences from external sources, including parents and peers, a recent studyreported that students who reported positive attitudes to scientific studies were thosewho also experienced support from significant others in their lives (Aschbacher  et al  .,2010), demonstrating an important interaction of support and attitudes that requiresfurther investigation. Additionally, the finding that students often report negativeexperiences of school science is an increasing cause for concern (Osborne & Collins,2001; Osborne  et al  ., 2003), which may prove to have a mediating role in scienceachievement.  Aims of the study It is evident that text cohesion may play an important role in determining the compre-hension of scientific text, and that, when considering how students learn in school, itis important to consider a range of individual differences. However, two key issuesremain to be addressed. Firstly, how do local text cohesion and academic individualdifferences interact with young students’ comprehension of science text? Secondly, inorder to develop effective science teaching strategies we need to understand which of these variables are of particular importance for predicting science text comprehensionin the classroom.To address these questions we investigated the influence of different text cohe-sion designs (high and low) on determining secondary school students’ comprehen-sion of science text in a classroom exercise. It was predicted that if a locallycohesive text design enhanced students’ understanding of textbook science, thiswould be observed in greater accuracy in responding to MCQs after reading textthat was high in local cohesion compared to low in local cohesion. With the aim of identifying factors which may prove important in promoting scientific attainment,we investigated the predictive role of individual differences that have been identi-fied as being particularly relevant to science text comprehension at secondaryschool age. The individual differences measured were: reading ability, general intel-ligence, conscientiousness, self-concept in science, science aspirations, experienceof school science, parental support and involvement, and peer orientation to schooland science. Method Participants 104 participants (56 female, 48 male) from a mixed ability secondary school inLeicestershire, UK, took part in the study. Participants were of mixed ethnic srcin,and ages ranged from 12  –  13 years (12.3 years    2.1; Mean    Standard Error). Par-ticipants were instructed that the study was investigating the design of science text Local text cohesion, reading ability and science aspirations  5 ©  2014 British Educational Research Association
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