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Word Variety Helps Early Learners

Exposure to word variation for early readers may boost their abilities, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Iowa to be published in the January issue of Developmental Psychology. To test out the hypothesis, the researchers used Access Code, an online application from Foundations in Learning that applies the "Varied Practice Model" in helping students with word recognition. With varied practice, tasks are changed so that the student is continually exposed to new things to learn. Access Code attempts to help "struggling" readers improve fluency and comprehension of the material.

Although Access Code is intended for students in grade two and above, in this study, U Iowa doctoral student Keith Apfelbaum and Associate Professors Bob McMurray and Eliot Hazeltine of the Department of Psychology worked with 224 first-grade students in the West Des Moines Community Schools system. Some students learned words organized by traditional phonics instruction, which uses similar word sets to help illustrate the rules, the idea being to simplify the school work for learners. A second group of students used curriculum in Access Code, which pulls together sets of words with variation, appearing to make the lesson more difficult.

After a few days of phonics instruction through Access Code, including spelling and matching letters, all of the students were tested to see if they could read words they'd never seen before, read made-up words, and apply their new skills to work they hadn't done before.

The research team said the results even surprised them. Those students experiencing more variation in words showed better learning. More importantly, the researchers concluded, variation helped students apply their skills to new words and tasks.

"Variability was good for the low-performing students; it was good for the high-performing students. It was good for the boys; it was good for the girls. It was good for the words; it was good for the non-words," said Apfelbaum.

"In no case was similarity more helpful than variability," added McMurray. "This suggests a powerful principle of learning. While we've known about this in a variety of laboratory tasks for a while, this study shows for the first time that this principle also applies to early reading skills."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.