School & District Management

Studies Find Students Learn More by ‘Acting Out’ Text

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 12, 2011 4 min read
Researchers found that elementary school students working through narrative math problems were less distracted by irrelevant information if they used a computer program to act out the text by moving images on-screen.

While most readers might think of curling up in a quiet place with a good book, a new series of studies suggests young students may comprehend more if they take a more active approach to reading.

A series of experiments by researchers at Arizona State University in Tempe and the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests that students can understand and infer more by physically acting out text—either in real life or virtually—than by reading alone.

In the most recent of the experiments, published in the June issue of the journal Scientific Studies of Reading, researchers found that elementary mathematics students who acted out text in word problems were more accurate and less distracted than those who didn’t.

“We know that children have difficulty doing story problems” in math, said Arthur M. Glenberg, a psychologist and the studies’ lead author. “The idea is if we can help children understand the story better, they will understand the story problem better.”

Both the math study and earlier experiments on basic reading comprehension explore the concept that students “embody” what they read in order to understand it.

Embodied, or grounded, cognition posits that meaning in language comes when words or phrases are mentally mapped onto memories of real experiences and perceptions. The concept’s popularity has had a surge of support thanks to recent brain-imaging research such as a seminal 2004 study published in the journal Neuron. That study, by the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, England, found that reading action words like “kick” or “lick” activated motor areas of the brain associated with moving the foot or tongue.

“When people started seeing the evidence that the brain really works in an embodied way, that coupled with the neuroscience really got people’s attention,” said Lawrence W. Barsalou, a psychologist at Emory University, in Atlanta. Though not part of the studies, he also researches embodied cognition.

Studies since then have found that people process more-abstract words and sentences similarly, and even conceptualize words spatially based on where they likely would be in real life, such as the word “wheel” being toward the ground.

“When we as readers are thinking about what we’re reading, we are embodying it even if we aren’t literally moving our arms. We are calling upon our experiences,” said Mr. Glenberg. “Good readers are doing things like that all the time, but it’s not quite as conscious when they are doing it in domains they understand because they are doing it so quickly.”

Language Disconnect

Yet the Arizona and Wisconsin researchers found this learning process can lead to a disconnect for some students between oral and written language. Babies often learn spoken words coupled with actions or objects; a mother tells her child to “wave bye-bye,” while waving herself, or a father asks, “Do you want your bear?” while holding the stuffed animal.

By contrast, the authors found, students may learn to read words divorced from the actions or concepts they represent. Teaching students to make those connections may help them understand a narrative better, the scholars said.

A 2009 study analyzed 53 1st and 2nd graders in Wisconsin’s Madison Metropolitan School District. Researchers asked each of the children to read a series of short stories about farm life. The control students simply repeated aloud key sentences, while students in the experimental group acted out the sentences by either physically moving toys on a desk or by dragging pictures of the toys on a computer screen. A week later, control students were taught to silently reread while the targeted student were told to imagine moving the toys as they had the prior week, while reading one new story about the farm and one story about a new topic.

Researchers found that the students who acted out the sentences, either through toys or by computer, had better comprehension than the control students and were also better able to make inferences about the text.

The more-recent math study followed the same format with 97 3rd and 4th graders using math story problems instead of the farm scenario. Researchers found students who acted out the story and then learned to visualize it mentally were significantly more likely than the control group to answer the problems correctly, in large part because the students were 35 percent less likely to be distracted by irrelevant numbers or other information than students who did not act out the text. Forcing the students to think through the story helped them weed out what information related to the math question, Mr. Glenberg said.

Scott C. Marley, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque, who also studies math interventions, said the experiments offer a “key notion, that you can learn to imagine the manipulation,” but he cautioned that it will require larger student studies, preferably with brain measurements, to prove that students’ gains come from embodying the stories.

Mr. Glenberg and his colleagues are now discussing a large-scale trial of their computer-based intervention with the New York City-based education publishing company Macmillan/McGraw-Hill.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of Education Week as ‘Acting Out’ Text Found to Promote Pupils’ Learning

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