The effects of computer-assisted instruction on first grade students' vocabulary development.
Article Type:
Statistical Data Included
Language and languages
Audio-visual education (Evaluation)
Education, Elementary (Study and teaching)
Boling, Charlotte
Martin, Sarah H.
Martin, Michael A.
Pub Date:
Name: Reading Improvement Publisher: Project Innovation (Alabama) Audience: Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2002 Project Innovation (Alabama) ISSN: 0034-0510
Date: Summer, 2002 Source Volume: 39 Source Issue: 2
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

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The purpose of the present study was to determine the effect of computer-assisted instruction on first grade students' vocabulary development. Students participating in this study were randomly divided into experimental and control groups. The students in both groups were involved in DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) as part of their instruction in a balanced literacy program. During their normal DEAR time, the control group used a book and tape to explore stories. The experimental group explored stories using computerized storyboards. The results of the study show a significant difference for both groups on pre and posttests. However, the mean difference demonstrates a much larger gain for students in the experimental group.


What can teachers do to insure that the children they teach will develop into successful readers? This is a question that has puzzled the educational community for years. Most educators have their individual opinion as to how the reading process occurs. Morrow and Tracey (1997) state that some educators believe in a behavioristic approach where reading is taught in a skills-based environment through a prescribed curriculum. Others believe in a more constructivist approach where a relationship between the context and child must be developed where students build knowledge and gain skills through immersion in a literature-rich environment (Czubaj, 1997; Daniels & Zemelman, 1999). Whatever one believes, these approaches to reading instruction--behaviorist or constructivist--continue to be the subject of debates in our classrooms and communities.

The core beliefs that teachers possess have a great impact on students learning to read. Teacher's personal beliefs concerning the processes involved in learning to read greatly influence their instructional choices. A teacher's beliefs are based on his or her personal knowledge, experiences with instructional techniques, and the way students respond to the instructional strategies in classroom situations (Dillon, 2000; Howard, McGee, Purcell, and Schwartz, 2000; Kinzer and Leu, 1999). Therefore, while teachers maintain their core beliefs about how children best learn to read, they are continuously striving to find the technique(s) that will have the greatest impact on their students.

Since the early 1920s, educators have used a multi-sensory approach to teaching reading by combining reading, writing, and speaking in a natural context and not through deliberate teaching (Chall, 1992). This has been particularly useful in the teaching of vocabulary. It stands to reason then that the most active vocabulary growth occurs in the early years of life. A child learns to connect an object with the sight, sound, smell, taste, and feel associated with the object. This experience is followed by certain sounds made to represent the object. Thus, communication begins and the concept associated with the object develops into vocabulary. For example, a child understands the physical properties of an apple. He knows how the object looks, tastes, feels, smells, and sounds. A loving parent then builds vocabulary in a natural context by adding the word associated to this object--apple. Then, this label is connected to the experience. "You are eating an apple."

As the vocabulary increases, children realize words are used in many contexts. Children must then reach beyond the actual word and activate their schema of the context in which the word is used to understand the meaning. For example, the word "mouse" can have different meanings, such as, a small rodent or a computer device. A child needs to experience words being used in different contexts to understand the complexity of our language. The more children experience vocabulary in context, the sooner they will begin to realize that it is the concept of the word in question in the given context that provides meaning.

As a child progresses through the various aspects of literacy development (listening, speaking, reading, and writing), their communication skills become more interdependent upon vocabulary development. Vocabulary development involves understanding the `labeling' that goes with the `concept' that makes the word meaningful. It is acquired through direct experience, multiple exposure, context, association, and comprehension. As students become comfortable with new vocabulary words, they are more likely to use the words when communicating.

Elements of our `Technological Age' often influence the instructional decisions that teachers make in the classroom. One such decision is the role that computers will play in the reading development of the children one teaches. Computer-based teaching and learning has produced positive effects in the classroom. Students seem to be motivated by learning through this medium (Forcier, 1999). Therefore, it is essential that today's teachers change as our society changes (Hoffman & Pearson, 2000). Children who enter today's primary classrooms have been processing multi-sensory concepts for most of their young lives. Home computers, interactive games, television, the Internet, and software companies capitalize on this multi-sensory concept.

Software companies have developed many programs for beginning reading that appeal to the senses and interests of the young child who is learning to read. This multimedia concept stimulates the learner with sight, sound, and action while integrating skills necessary for language development. Instructional technology offers virtual multi-sensory perception that should provide meaningful instruction.

Teacher-centered instruction is one approach to the use of instructional technology in the classroom (Forcier, 1999). The teacher-centered approach is similar to the direct-instruction approach in that the teacher is directing the children through the learning in order to achieve the goals of the lesson. One category of the teacher-centered approach is computer-assisted instruction. When using computer-assisted instruction the teacher organizes the learning situation. He/she selects the targeted learning goal, situates the learning environment, and then allows exploratory time as students engage in learning. The teacher then monitors the learning activities and modifies the instructional level as needed to meet the various needs of the children involved.

Classroom teachers have the unique opportunity to infuse a variety of technological components with multi-sensory learning while situating the learning situation. One area where this is especially true is in the teaching of reading to young children. The research study being reported employed a teacher-centered, computer-assisted instructional technique that situated progressive reading material in an attempt to answer the following question:

Will a computerized multi-sensory approach to the teaching of reading increase first-graders' vocabulary development?

Review of Literature

Many software programs offer `read alongs' and `edutainment' that assist students as they learn letter sounds, vocabulary concepts, comprehension, and to enjoy literature. Interactive multimedia allows the printed word to take on sight, sound, and action which visually and mentally stimulates the individual.

One such program is DaisyQuest I and II (Mitchell, Chad & Stacy, 1984-2000). An in-depth study investigated the phonological awareness in pre-school children utilizing this software (Brinkman and Torgesen, 1994). Each child in the treatment group interacted with a computerized story concerning "Daisy the friendly dragon". A computer, monitor, mouse, and standard headphone were provided to allow the child, as he/she listened to the story, to discover clues revealing where the dragon was hiding. The clues were revealed by correctly answering at least four correct answers in a row. The skills assessed were rhyming words, beginning sounds, ending sounds, middle sounds, and whether a word contained a given number of sounds. This study revealed that children in the treatment group responded at a higher and faster rate of reading readiness than children in the control group. Not only did the children in the treatment group gain knowledge to aid in their ability to read; these pre-schoolers had fun!

In another study, two literacy teachers (one a Reading Recovery teacher, the other a Title 1 Reading Teacher) wrote simple, predictable texts using a multimedia software, HyperStudio (Wagner, 1978-2000). These teachers created `talking books' for their students with a focus on high-frequency words with graphics and animation to offer sight, sound, and movement. Students enjoyed experiencing the stories as the computer `read' the story to them as the cursor (pointing finger) touched each word. This process came full circle by the end of the school year, as these students were writing and reading their own stories. Students were then encouraged to use invented spelling, graphics, and sounds, while they created their own stories using the Kid Pix Software program (Hickman, 1984-2000). "The computer serves as a motivational tool in their journey to literacy" (Eisenwine & Hunt, 2000, p. 456).

There are many reasons why computer-assisted reading instruction has been effective. The computer provides immediate responses and practice for the child learning a skill. Struggling readers interface with the computer and practice a skill without embarrassing situations in the classroom. Interaction with a multi-sensory format provides motivation and a positive attitude toward reading and learning (Case & Truscott, 1999; Forcier, 1999).

A word of caution accompanies much of the literature warning educators to focus on the targeted instructional goals and not be `enchanted' by the entertainment that makes software packages so appealing (Case and Truscott, 1999; Sherry, 1996). While this multi-sensory approach is highly motivating for young readers, the instructional purpose is to enable them to become better readers. Educators should choose the types of software and technological resources carefully in order to maximize learning without being entangled in the `bells and whistles'

The benefits of using instructional technology include "an intrinsic need to learn technology ... motivation increases engagement time ... students move beyond knowledge and comprehension and into application and analysis ... and students develop computer literacy by applying various computer skills as part of the learning process" (Dockstader, 1999, p. 73). As Ray and Wepner (2000) suggest, the question as to whether or not technology is the valuable educational resource we think it is may be a moot point since it is such an integral part of our lives. However, the question concerning the most productive methods of using technology in the classroom still needs to be addressed. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to investigate the effects of computer-assisted instruction on first grade students' vocabulary development. Specifically, this study investigated the impact of the WiggleWorks program (CAST & Scholastic, 1994-1996) on first grade students' vocabulary development.



A first grade classroom at a mid-Atlantic elementary school was selected for this research project. The subjects were 21 first grade students. There are 10 boys and 11 girls involved in this study. The ethnic background of this class was as follows: 13 Caucasian students, six African-American students, one Hispanic student, and one Pakistani student. Students were from a lower socio-economic status and had limited exposure to educational experiences outside the school. The subjects were assigned to either the control or experimental group by using a table of random numbers and applying those numbers to the students. Ten students were assigned to the control group and 11 to the experimental group.

Computer Assisted Program

The WiggleWorks (1994-1996) software program was used in this study. Co-developed by CAST and Scholastic, Inc., this program offers a literacy curriculum based on a combination of speech, sounds, graphics, text, and customizable access features. The software program features 72 trade books, audiocassettes, and a variety of computer-based activities. Students use the trade books and audiocassettes to read independently with or without the support of the audiocassette. Using the software program, students may listen to a story, read along with a story, or read a story silently. As they read, students are encouraged to review the suggested vocabulary words by selecting My Words. Students may listen to a pronunciation of the word by clicking on it or hear the word contextually in the story. Students may add new words to their vocabulary list by clicking on the selected word and the plus sign or remove words by clicking on the subtraction sign. Students may read and reread the story as they wish. Students may also create word families or practice spelling using a magnetic alphabet.

After listening or reading a story, students have the option of composing their own stories. WiggleWorks provides a story starter, cloze structured text, or free writing to help young students write their story. After composing a story, students may illustrate personal stories using basic drawing tools, stamps of the story characters, and/or story event backgrounds. Students may share their stories with others by recording their stories or printing the story and creating a book. These functions are available in a Read Aloud, Read, Write, My Book, and Magnet Board menu available to the individual user.

WiggleWorks is a managed instructional system. The management functions allow the teacher the opportunity to customize the computer-assisted instruction for each child. For instance, in Read Aloud, the settings can be adjusted so that the story is read to the student using a word-byword, line-by-line, or whole page approach. The management system also keeps a running log of individual and class activities. The Portfolio management feature provides a reading record for each child (tracks the stories read, date and time individual stories were read, etc.) including reading and writing samples. The WiggleWorks software program provides a multimedia approach to literacy while supporting traditional methods with the accompanying trade books and audiocassettes.


The research project tested the independent variable of computer-assisted instruction on reading vocabulary development. Eleven students received the treatment monitored by one of the researchers. The dependent variable was a pre and post vocabulary test. The test was an independent word list administered by the researcher to the experimental and control group at the beginning and end of each session.


The instrument used to determine the effect of computer-assisted instruction on vocabulary was a pre and posttest designed by one of the researchers. Six high-frequency vocabulary words from each of the seven stories were selected by the researcher and placed on an independent list. The independent list of words served as the pre and post vocabulary test for each. All results were compared to determine the effect the treatment had on these subjects.


As a part of the regular curriculum, all students received reading vocabulary instruction. The teacher utilized the reading instructional curriculum adopted by the county which consist of reading text books, related materials, and charts provided by the publishing company. Students participated in daily reading instruction. Each student in the class was randomly assigned into two groups: a control group and an experimental group. In an attempt to limit extraneous learning, both groups continued to receive regular reading instruction by the researcher/teacher. The regular reading curriculum had a twenty minute time block where students participated in a DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) program. The researchers used this block of time to implement this research project.

Seven pre-determined stories were used for this research project. The stories were available on book and tape as well as interactive, computerized storyboards. The control group experienced the story in a variety of ways. First, they listened to the assigned story as the teacher/researcher read the story to them. Next, students listened to the story on tape and read along with an accompanying book. Lastly, students were provided with an assortment of literature: library books, classroom literature, or the student's personal books to read at their leisure after the pre-determined book and tape assignment had been completed. During that twenty-minute time span, the 10 students in the experimental group visited the Media computer lab and explored the same story using the computerized storyboard. A computer, monitor, mouse, and headphone were provided for each subject. During the first session, the teacher/researcher explained the working mechanics of the computer laboratory and answered any questions from the students. Then, the lessons began as students listen to enjoy the story. Next, the students revisited and identified words unknown to them by clicking on the word. The computerized storyboards serve as a remediator. These subjects saw the printed word highlighted and heard as the word was produced in sound. Students were required to listen to the story once while reading along. After completing those requirements, students could listen and/or read any story previously read or any story at a lower level. Students were introduced to a new WiggleWorks story every other day. During this project, students experimented with seven different stories that became progressively more challenging. The ability levels of the stories ranged from Kindergarten to second grade. The project continued for six weeks.


The results were analyzed using a Paired-Samples T-test. An alpha level of .05 was set incorporating a two-tailed significance level. The analyses showed significant positive changes for both groups. The mean scores confirm that students using computerized storyboards demonstrate significant gains in their ability to recall a greater amount of new vocabulary words (See Table 1). The pre and posttest were analyzed using a Paired-Samples T test. The results demonstrate a statistically significant difference (p>.002) in the experimental (computer) group. A significant difference (p>.01) was also found (See Table 2) in the control group (Book/Tape).

The mean scores of the pre and post vocabulary tests indicate a significant gain in the experimental (computer story board) group (MeanPre = 3.7; MeanPost = 16.9). A further analysis involving the reading ability of the individual students demonstrated that students with higher reading ability scored higher in the experimental and control groups than average ability or low ability student. Those students who were performing successfully in their reading scored significantly higher that those students who were performing at a lower level.


The stories selected for this project were progressively more challenging so as to meet the needs of as many young readers as possible. Students with greater reading ability scored higher on the pretests and showed greater improvement on the posttests. These students seemed to possess a greater command of reading and technological skills required in maneuvering the storyboards.

Students with less reading ability did not gain as much from the experience. While they seemed to enjoy the stories, they were greatly challenged by the pre and posttest. These students would have been more successful with stories developmentally appropriate for their reading ability. Overall, the ability level of the students in the classroom seemed to mirror their performance in the computer-based reading instruction. Strong readers worked somewhat independently, average-ability students were at an instructional level with reading and technology skills, while students with less reading ability needed assistance with reading and technology. Students in the experimental group (computer storyboards) were greatly motivated by the use of computers. They enjoyed the interactive, multi-sensory aspect of learning. This was evidenced by the students' request to spend more time listening to stories on the computers. Multi-sensory teaching seemed to make their learning fun.

Implications and Significance

This research project was designed to investigate the effects of computer-assisted instruction on first grade students' vocabulary development. With the integration of sights, colors, sounds, actions, plus the printed word, vocabulary lessons took on a new meaning. Students recognized the word on sight, remembered the word through association and phonemes, and quite a few could use the word as a part of their spoken and written vocabulary. Students were able to recognize the words in isolation and in text.

Overall, implications of this research project are that a 20-minute DEAR time using computerized storyboards directly results in improved vocabulary development among first grade students. Learning new vocabulary words took place at a faster pace with greater accuracy than with the direct teaching format. "Technology brings to your classroom the capability of connecting dynamic, interactive vocabulary learning with reading, writing, spelling, and content learning." (Fox and Mitchell, 2000, p. 66)

Computerized classroom instruction does not infer inflated test scores or a magic potion for teaching. It is a motivating medium that enhances good teaching. The infusion of technology and literacy is a lifelong learning gift we create for our students.


Computer-assisted instruction has a positive influence on student's motivation, interest, and learning. This research project validates the effect that computer-assisted instruction has on first graders vocabulary development during a crucial time when they are learning to read. To improve upon this study, a concentrated effort should be made to determine the developmental reading level of each student. Students could then receive more individualized instruction at their appropriate reading level. Additionally, teachers/researchers need to move students from dependent direct instruction to more independent learning. A natural follow-up to this study could be to see if this move to more independent learning is facilitated by differing uses of technology in the classroom.


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CHARLOTTE BOLING The University of West Florida 11000 University Parkway Pensacola, FL 32541

SARAH H. MARTIN Department of English and Theatre, Case Annex 467 Eastern Kentucky University 501 Lancaster Avenue Richmond, KY 40475-3102

Michael A. Martin Department of Curriculum and Instruction 112 Bert Combs Building Eastern Kentucky University 521 Lancaster Avenue Richmond, KY 40475-3102
Table 1
Means and Standard Deviations

             Pretest      Posttest

Group       M     SD     M      SD

Computer    3.7   4.37   16.9   13.17
Book/tape   1.8   2.68   5.45   6.07
Table 2

Paired-Samples T-test

Group       df   t      P

Computer    9    4.18   0.002
Book/tape   10   3.17   0.010
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Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.