Funding, Grants & Awards

$3.5-Million Grant Aims To Improve Student Reading Comprehension

A professor at Texas A&M University has received a $3.5-million grant from the United States Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences to continue work on her project to improve reading comprehension for fourth- and fifth-graders who go to school in high-poverty areas.

Kay Wijekumar, a professor of teaching, learning and culture at the College Station, TX, university first initiated her Intelligent Tutoring System for the Structure Strategy (ITSS) project in 2001 when she was teaching at Pennsylvania State University.

ITSS is a Web-based digital tutor that teaches students to examine the structure of content in order to increase their reading comprehension. The software is intended to show students how to look at the way a text is organized in order to understand its main idea, a concept that many students struggle with.

With the ITSS software, a digital avatar appears as a friendly high school student who leads the student through each lesson. After the student reads a short piece of text, the avatar leads him or her through a series of tasks. For instance, the student might be asked to describe the article's main idea or explain what is being compared.

Games are also used as lessons. In one, a green dragon walks through a series of boxes with words in them. When she passes by the signaling words, students are supposed to click on the box. The dragon might wander through boxes labeled "great" or "U.S.A." before passing through "similarities," which the student would be expected to click on.

"Computers are only helpful to the extent that they can make us strategic thinkers and problem solvers," Wijekumar said.

The ITSS software has already been tested on 15,000 children in high-poverty schools in Pennsylvania, Michigan, California, New Mexico and Texas.

About the Author

Michael Hart is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and the former executive editor of THE Journal.