Scaffolded Digital Reading Environments

A post by Bernadette

Ebooks and online learning environments introduce a number of possibilities for learner control to support literacy development. “Scaffolded digital reading (SDR) ”   (Dalton & Proctor, 2008) environments, provide embedded supports to both enhance access to texts and enable the construction of meaning for a range of diverse learners, such as struggling readers or English Language Learner (ELL) students. Embedded supports introduce physicality to the interaction between text and readers. Text-to-speech supports enable students to bypass the decoding bottleneck and so enhance listening comprehension, develop automaticity in reading fluency and word recognition. Studies have shown variance in the effectiveness of such supports where in terms of self-regulation students over or under utilise them (see for example, Dalton & Strangman, 2006; Mc Kenna, 1998).
As I discussed in my April blog, the Centre for Applied Special Technology (CAST) (  has developed a number of free digital software tools based on the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) (Rose & Meyer, 2002). UDL principles are underpinned by the concept that text should in the first instance be accessible to all readers rather than compensated or fixed at a later stage for the struggling reader or ELL student. This is achieved through the provision of a myriad of learning supports, such as hyperlinked glossaries, multiple means of representation in audio and visual modes, and ways to build engagement and expression. Avatar coaches are embedded in texts to provide prompts for students to activate comprehension skills and strategies such as, activating prior knowledge sources, making predictions, asking questions, and encouraging affective responses.
A recent study published in the Journal of Literacy Research (Dalton, Proctor, Uccelli, Mo, & Snow, 2011) explored the contributions made by vocabulary, comprehension strategy support and a combination of both vocabulary and comprehension support. The Improving Comprehension Online (ICON) study was conducted with 5th grade bilingual and monolingual students and provides evidence of the support offered by SDR. Students were assigned to one of three conditions: vocabulary support; reading comprehension strategies support and a combination of reading comprehension strategies and vocabulary support. The students read eight multimedia and informational texts (CAST Folktales).
Listen to a podcast of Dr. Bridget Dalton discussing this study with Dr. Elizabeth Baker in the voice of literacy podcast at this link
Significant variation was reported for standardised measures and researcher designed measures for students in the vocabulary and combination groups. Interestingly, the effects were non-significant for the reading comprehension strategies support group.

This study raises many interesting questions. For example, were the findings due to the needs of ELL learners where vocabulary support is of upmost importance? Or do these learners need vocabulary support in tandem with comprehension strategy support for optimum literacy development? Are comprehension strategy prompts only useful as strategies-in-use and not as an end in-and-of themselves? What is the optimum level of support for elearning environments? Could too many supports lead to a cognitive overload? Perhaps, as the authors speculate, the current level of interactivity and dialogic conversation between the reader and text (programmed coach avatars) is too limited. Interaction between reader and text (or avatars) needs to be dynamic and truly bi-directional to enable a dialogic response. What is the role of social learning and peer-to-peer collaborations in elearning environments? So many interesting questions are raised by this study!

Future research needs to focus on teasing out the nuanced interactions between reader, text, activity and context and thus provide software developers with options for designing customised elearning and literacy environments to accommodate and support the unique individual needs of a diverse student population of readers.
Baker, E. A. & Dalton, B. (2011, April 18). Designing technology to support comprehension among monolingual and bilingual students. Voice of Literacy. Podcast retrieved from
Dalton, B., Proctor, C. P., Uccelli, P., Mo. E., & Snow, C. E.(2011).Designing for diversity: The role of reading strategies and interactive vocabulary in a digital reading environment for fifth-grade monolingual English and bilingual students. Journal of Literacy Research , 43(1) 68-100.

Dalton, B., & Strangman, N. (2006). Improving struggling readers’ comprehension through scaffolded hypertexts and other computer-based literacy programs. In M. C. McKenna, L. D. Labbo, R. D. Kieffer, & D. Reinking (Eds.), International handbook of literacy and technology. Volume II (pp.75-93 ). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Mc Kenna,M.C. (1998). Electronic texts and the transformation of beginning reading. In D. Reinking, M. C. McKenna, L. D. Labbo, & R. D. Kieffer (Eds.), Handbook of literacy and technology: Transformations in a post-typographic world (pp. 45-59 ). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


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