Academic journal article Education & Treatment of Children

The Effects of Highlighting on the Math Computation Performance and Off-Task Behavior of Students with Attention Problems

Academic journal article Education & Treatment of Children

The Effects of Highlighting on the Math Computation Performance and Off-Task Behavior of Students with Attention Problems

Article excerpt


This study evaluated the effects of color highlighting during a math computation task on performance accuracy and behavior of students with attention problems. Using a multiple baseline across participants design, three students solved math computation problems on worksheets with and without highlighting. Off-task behavior recorded from videotape and number of problems correct were measured. Results suggest highlighting increased math computation accuracy and reduced off-task behavior for students with attention problems.


Students with attention problems appear distractible because they selectively attend to aspects of the environment that are salient or novel, such as things that change, move, or are loud or colorful (Copeland & Wisniewski, 1981; Radosh & Gittelman, 1981). Any strong environmental stimulus can capture their attention as they are more likely than students without attention problems to attend to the salient features of a task. This attentional bias to salience results in problems with sustained and selective attention. Selective attention is the ability to focus on a specific aspect or characteristic of a task while ignoring all other, possibly more salient, aspects (Zentall, 1993). Selective attention is required when listening to instructions, identifying letters, or when selecting operations in math problems, for example.

Zentall (2006) recommended two strategies for improving selective attention, a) providing additional task practice, and b) highlighting either global structures of a task or relevant task information (e.g., parts of problems, words, sentences, instructions). The recommendation to highlight is drawn from an interpretation of the Optimal Stimulation theory (Hebb, 1955), which suggests that students with attention disorders are under-reactive to environmental stimulation and their attention to that which is stimulating serves a self-regulatory function (Zentall & Zentall, 1983). Adding stimulation (e.g., in the form of bright color) to tasks could temporarily increase arousal and thus focus attention to relevant task details.

Zentall and Dwyer (1988) added non-relevant color to a version of the Matching Familiar Figures Test and showed that color reduced impulsive responding and normalized the performances of students with attention problems. Further assessments of the effects of color, added to instructional materials, for students with attention disorders have shown improvements in sustained attention, academic performance, and behavior (Rugel, Cheatarn, & Mitchell, 1978).

Two studies assessed the effects of color stimulation on handwriting or graphomotor control. Imhoff (2004) asked students to copy text from an overhead onto either white paper or the students' choice of colored paper. The handwriting performance of the children with attention problems was differentially affected as compared to the control children in letter formation, alignment, and neatness. Children with attention problems responded to the color stimulation with improved control of attention and motor processes. Previously, Zentall, Falkenberg, and Smith (1984) added color highlighting to alternate lines of text, using two colors per page. They also asked students to copy text and assessed handwriting errors. The error rate for students with and without attention problems was again differentially affected by the color stimulation. That is, the color stimulation improved the performances of students with attention problems but did not affect the performances of control students. Unfortunately, the effects of the color stimulation washed out over time as students became acclimated to it.

In the area of reading, Belfiore, Grskovic, Murphy, and Zentall (1996) asked elementary-aged students with attention disorders to read black text on white paper where some passages had the second and last thirds of text highlighted with mild and intense colors. …

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