A well-known supportive strategy with struggling readers is to highlight specific phonemes (parts of a word) within a text by colour-coding them. Specialist teachers do this all the time: using a coloured pencil they may circle tricky vowel combinations on a piece of paper. Coloured letters can help in developing accuracy and fluency, foundational skills in reading. An accurate and fluent reader is someone who can read a text without the need to stop creating a “bridge” between the words and comprehension. However, the effectiveness of this common pedagogical practice has not been empirically tested for native English-speaking struggling readers. 

Recently, Dr Nelly Joye, Lecturer based at University of Essex and Dr Emma Sumner, Lecturer at University College London, studied the effect of using coloured letters with children aged 8-11, who struggle with reading. Taking a novel and innovative approach, the team studied the coloured-letters concept using an e-reader. Strikingly, half of the children improved dramatically with colour-coded letters, while others actually did worse. The researchers were surprised at this polarising result amongst children with reading difficulties. While no overall advantage to colour-coding was detected, this research shows how important it is to take individual differences into account amongst this group of learners, highlighting a need for a more personalised approach to support readers. 

Figure 1. A young child reading with an e-reader.

Planning and running the study in schools 

To study how coloured letters – and thus making parts of the word more salient – affected reading accuracy and fluency, the team designed a study where children read short stories on an e-reader in two conditions: with and without coloured letters (see Figure 2 below). “[T]here had been some investigations on how these types of colouring might impact learning of specific language features.” Dr Joye describes the story behind the study. “However, there wasn’t very much about the process of it. Such as when children are exposed to this – what actually happens?”  

To gain insight into the process of how coloured-letters affects children’s reading, Dr Joye organised reading sessions at three primary schools with thirty-four children aged 8-11 years. Children’s reading accuracy and fluency were measured with a single-word and vowel combinations reading tasks. In addition, children also read stories such as Cathy the Caterpillar who entered a leaf eating competition, purposely written by the researchers for the study. These stories (see figure 2 below) were not ordinary stories you would find in any library. Instead, they had special words with vowel combinations (“ay” and “igh”) that the researchers had discussed with teachers beforehand in order to know which of them children found challenging. It was important to get the level of challenge just right for the study: not too difficult nor too easy.  

Figure 2. E-reader displays showing parts of the short stories children read. The images show the chosen tricky vowel combinations igh and ay with the non-coloured (L) and coloured letters (R) versions.  

For this study, the chosen letter colouring was green (see figure below). Dr Sumner describes the use of the colour: “It was really to bring the children’s attention to this is the vowel that we’re meant to be working on.” The strict timing was important and enabled the researchers to know how to compare the two conditions afterwards – and to understand whether reading accuracy and fluency had changed across the two. After the reading time was up, Dr Joye asked children to rate the helpfulness of the colour-coding using a 5-point Likert scale (see figure below). 

Figure 3. Five-point Likert-scale.

 Tailoring support to each reader on their terms 

Results from the study highlighted significant variability of reading accuracy and fluency amongst the struggling readers. Dr Sumner recounts: “For some children, the coloured letters and the highlighting of text really benefitted them, and for others, not so much.” Children who had experienced more difficulties with a vowel combination during the reading tasks tended to prefer the colour-coded condition. However, half of the children who struggled most with the ay vowel combination during the reading task also responded negatively to colour-coding. Researchers also found that colour-coding igh vowels supported reading accuracy and fluency more than the ay vowels. This might have explained why the response of this vowel was also more positive.  

This research highlights how challenges in reading are multifaceted and each individual perceives them differently. As Dr Sumner puts it: “These findings about preference really flag that every learner is different.“ While there is no overall advantage to colour-coding, children’s responses to them ranging from negative to very positive means that their preference had an important role to play in how they engaged with the text. There remains much to be learned about individual preference and performance using different types of display and letter/sound combinations. Dr Sumner describes: ”[t]here is no one-size fits all and that’s why individual responses must be taken better into consideration.” 

Dr Joye believes understanding the role of preference plays a huge role in helping children at a particular time in their reading development. When a child is only beginning to learn about a new vowel combination “it might be helpful for them to get a little bit of that extra help to visually help them identify this in the text.” This may be a helpful for teachers to consider: knowing when a child specifically benefits of colour-coding during their reading development journey. Dr Joye emphasises how different supports may be needed at different times: “It might be the case that when they are proficient in using this particular feature and recognising it in their reading, they might not need this type of support anymore.”  

Using digital technology to provide personalised support for reading 

While digital technologies offer a myriad of design opportunities, what seems most important here is giving children the opportunity to tell us what motivates them to spend time reading and learning: “The whole point is to really encourage children to think about what strategies would help them,” Dr Sumner says, reflecting on the study. Where technology can help is creating opportunities for personalised approach by supporting independent exploration and learning. Having a variety of options that can be tailored for a reader’s individual needs means children can choose knowing what strategy supports them reading those tricky vowel combinations. “I think that’s where the technology really has its value.” Thinking about children’s preference as a starting point for designing future supports for reading, Dr Sumner concludes: “There’s so much more that could come from it!” 

***

The iRead project is dedicated to researching personalised learning technologies that support children struggling with reading. Please read more about the importance of personalised reading technologies here: https://iread-project.eu/about/vision/ The project website also features useful tips and strategies for parents and teachers to support children’s learning journey: https://ireadprojecteu.files.wordpress.com/2020/06/navigo-at-home-event-session-2-leaflet-1.pdf  Dr The research above has been written into an academic paper collaboratively by iRead UCL team members Nelly Joye, Emma Sumner, Elisabeth Herbert, Laura Benton and Mina Vasalou, and is currently under review.

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