The Strategies Students in Years 5, 7 and 9 Use for Processing Texts and Visual Aids

Article excerpt

An examination of strategies students used for processing written and visual information provides suggestions on how to encourage strategic reading behaviour.

Background to the problem

A cursory examination of almost any Australian primary and post-primary classroom would reveal the presence of textbook-type materials, be they readers from set series or textbooks designed to provide the learner with a knowledge in some discipline or interdisciplinary domain. Closer examination would also show that many of these materials contain both written text and supporting visual aids such as graphs, charts, maps, tables, and illustrations. The intention of such aids is not only to break up large chunks of continuous text but, more importantly, to present key data in a spatial, visual way so that learners may better comprehend it. From an information-processing perspective, the presentation of material in different modalities (verbal, visual) should lead to better understanding because of the potential for dual coding (Paivio, 1986), conjoint retention (Kulhavy & Stock, 1996) and construction of superior mental models for the material (Schnotz, Picard & Hron, 1993). All this, however, clearly depends upon what the learners do when confronted with such textbook materials. If they do not have the strategies for processing the written words and the visuals, and also for recognising the usefulness of the visuals for understanding, then it will not be surprising to find that the potential is not realised.

What strategies do students use then when they are confronted with textbook materials containing visual aids? Are there differences in the ways in which primary school students approach the problem, compared to their colleagues in post-primary school? For example, do they monitor, reread, make judgements about the quality of the piece, generate images, comment about trying to memorise the information? When it comes to the visual, do they attempt to use different strategies such as relating the written words to the visual, seeing its usefulness for understanding? Indeed, it might also be asked if different subject domains and different visual representations encourage different strategies. While there is substantial literature on reading and studying strategies (e.g. Loxterman, Beck & McKeown, 1994; Wade, Trathen & Schraw, 1990), strategies for visual aids (e.g. Guthrie, Kimmerly & Weber, 1993; Robinson & Schraw, 1994) and the effects of visual aids on learning (e.g. Moore, 1994; Moore & Scevak, 1994), there seems to be less literature about how students actually go about the task of reading and studying textbook materials. Furthermore, examination of developmental patterns has received scant attention, hence the study reported in this article, which focusses upon the strategies verbalised by students in years 5, 7 and 9 as they learned and studied two sets of textbook material that contained visual aids. One set of materials was related to History, the other to Science.

The problem that arises is how to access the mental thoughts of students as they learn and study textbook materials. In other words, how do you get into their heads? Two prominent approaches have been taken, retrospective questioning (`What were you thinking when you did such and such?') and on-going protocol analysis using think-a-louds (students are prompted to talk out loud about what they are thinking at selected times). While there are limitations to each of these approaches, the latter seems less fraught with problems, and has been used in a number of recent studies examining reading strategies (e.g. Loxterman et al., 1994). On these bases, we decided to use think-alouds as a way `info the students head'.

Our study

A total of 119 individuals were involved in the study, made up of 37 Year 5, 40 Year 7, and 42 Year 9 students, all attending a non-government high school or three of its feeder primary schools. …