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IES Grant

Title: Improving Reading Comprehension of Middle Grades English Language Learners by Combining Structure Strategy with Web-Based Adaptive Tutoring for EL Learners (SWELL)
Center: NCER Year: 2012
Principal Investigator: Wijekumar, Kausalai Awardee: Texas A&M University
Program: Policies, Practices, and Programs to Support English Learners      [Program Details]
Award Period: 3 years (7/1/2012-6/30/2015) Award Amount: $1,497,191
Type: Development and Innovation Award Number: R305A130704

Previous Grant Number: R305A120593

Previous University Affiliation: Pennsylvania State University

Co-Principal Investigators: Bonnie J. Meyer, Pui-Wa Lei (Pennsylvania State University); Ana I. Schwartz (University of Texas at El Paso)

Purpose: English language learners (ELLs) are at particularly high risk for poor education outcomes due to poor reading performance. This risk becomes more apparent as ELLs progress through school and knowledge of academic language becomes increasingly important for learning. This project will extend a web-based intelligent tutoring system, Intelligent Tutoring using Structure Strategy (ITSS), designed to teach students explicit strategies for using knowledge of the structure of informational text to improve understanding. Prior research has found that students who use ITSS improve their reading comprehension. The new intervention, Structure Strategy with Web-Based Adaptive Tutoring for EL Learners (SWELL), will be designed to help Spanish-speaking ELLs. SWELL will add new components to ITSS that will provide scaffolded materials in Spanish and/or simplified versions of English materials, and then adjust the delivery of scaffolds based on student progress to transition toward materials that are all in English.

Project Activities: The research team will develop SWELL through a series of iterative studies in which components for the five structures are gradually created, tested, and revised. Students will be tested to determine the most appropriate learning conditions given their language proficiency, and then receive Spanish-scaffolded and/or enhanced English materials to best meet their needs. Teacher and student input will be gathered via focus groups and interviews and student performance will be assessed on measures of strategy use as well as reading comprehension. The pilot study will compare reading comprehension of ELLs using the final version of SWELL with performance of students in similar classrooms using typical techniques for teaching reading to ELLs.

Products: The products of this project will be a fully-developed, web-based intelligent tutoring system, SWELL, intended to help Spanish-speaking fourth- to sixth-grade students read informational text. Peer reviewed publications will also be produced.

Structured Abstract

Setting: SWELL will be developed and field tested in a school districts in central Pennsylvania and Texas.

Sample: Study participants include fourth- through sixth-grade Spanish-speaking ELLs who have at least second grade decoding skills. Development activities will include 45 ELLs in grades 4–6. The pilot study in Year 3 will include approximately 384 ELLs in grades 4–6. The sample includes a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students and Spanish-speaking English learners.

Intervention: SWELL will be a web-based intelligent tutoring system designed to help Spanish-speaking ELLs learn strategies to increase their comprehension of informational text. A similar system called ITSS was developed and tested in previous IES grants for use with native English speakers. SWELL will teach the same five strategies as ITSS for using text structure to support comprehension: compare and contrast; problem and solution; cause and effect; sequence; and description.

In this intervention, students will participate in one of three instructional conditions based on their initial language and literacy skills in Spanish and English. Students who have strong language and literacy in Spanish can use these skills to scaffold reading in English, whereas students who are not literate in Spanish would not be expected to benefit from seeing passages in Spanish. Students with Spanish language and literacy skills will participate in the Spanish-scaffolding condition, where they will receive procedural instructions on how to use the structure strategy and practice passages previewed in Spanish followed by an English language version of the lesson. In the English preview condition, students will receive instruction in English for novel vocabulary with access to on-click assistance at the word and sentence level, including paraphrasing and easier versions of sentences. In the third condition, students will receive both the Spanish scaffolding supports and the English preview materials. Students will be assessed at the beginning of instruction to determine which condition they will receive, and then periodically reassessed during the intervention to guide future activities.

A web-based teacher guide will be developed to accompany each structure strategy. The intervention is expected to be used for sixty minutes each week during the time for English Language Arts instruction and also in after-school programs for students who would benefit from additional time using SWELL.

Research Design and Methods: In the first year of this project, researchers will interview teachers about proposed aspects of the design of the intervention and the suitability of the proposed adaptations to ELLs. They will next conduct a study with 96 students in grades 4–6 to confirm the psychometric suitability of the proposed assessments and scoring for ELLs. Next, the team will develop prototypes for the five comparison structure lessons with adaptations in three academic domains and create fidelity of implementation measures. These prototypes will be field-tested with 15 ELLs in each of the three grades, and refined based on student performance on assessments, classroom observations, and teacher and student interviews.

In Year 2, two cycles of development (with 15 ELLs in each of the three grades) will be utilized to create prototypes of lessons for the remaining four structures. A web-based teacher guide will also be created for each structure strategy and logistics for delivery of the pilot study will be finalized. In Year 3, the final version of all structures in all conditions will be field tested with 128 ELLs in each grade in SWELL classrooms and comprehension outcomes will be compared to ELLs in comparison classrooms.

Control Condition: The pilot study will compare ELL students using SWELL to students in other classrooms in the same school district using business as usual approaches to teaching reading.

Key Measures: Student language and literacy skills in English and Spanish will be measured using the Woodcock-Munoz Language Survey. Effects of using SWELL will be measured using the Gray Silent Reading Test (GSRT) and researcher-designed measures of strategy structure use.

Data Analytic Strategy: Information from focus groups with teachers and interviews with students will be transcribed and verbal protocol analysis will be used to analyze the data. Data from computer logs will be analyzed for patterns of response and response time. The iterative development will use a repeated measures, one-factor analysis of variance to study pre-post differences in reading comprehension of using SWELL. Analyses for the pilot study will use a 2-level model (ELLs nested within classrooms) in which post-test GSRT scores are compared between SWELL and comparison students after controlling for pre-test GSRT scores.

Project website:

Related IES Projects: Efficacy Trial of Text Structure Strategy Instruction on the Web for Spanish-Speaking English Learners (SWELL) in Grades 4 and 5 (R305A180060); Efficacy and Replication Trial of the Individualized Adaptive ITSS with 4th and 5th Grade Students in High Poverty Schools (R305A150057); Efficacy and Replication Research on the Intelligent Tutoring System for the Structure Strategy–Rural and Suburban Schools Grades 4, 5, 7, and 8 (R305A080133); Intelligent Tutoring Using The Structure Strategy To Improve Reading Comprehension of Middle School Students (R305G030072); Promoting Reading Comprehension and Learning With Multimodal Science Texts (PRISM) (R305A220015)


Journal article, monograph, or newsletter

Wijekumar, K., Meyer, B.J., Lei, P., Hernandez, A.C., and August, D.L. Improving Content Area Reading Comprehension of Spanish Speaking English Learners in Grades 4 and 5 Using Web–Based Text Structure Instruction. Reading and Writing, 1–28.


Wijekumar, K., Meyer, B.J.F., and Lei, P–W. (2016). Improving Content Area Reading Comprehension with 4–6th Grade Spanish ELLs using Web–Based Structure Strategy Instruction. In J. Michael Spector, Dirk Ifenthaler, Demetrious G. Sampson, and Pedro Isaias (Eds.) Competencies in Teaching, Learning and Educational Leadership in the Digital Age: Papers from CELDA 2014, Springer.