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The effects of syntactic and lexical complexity on the comprehension of elementary science texts

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In this study we examined the effects of syntactic and lexical complexity on third-grade students' comprehension of science texts. A total of 16 expository texts were designed to represent systematic differences in levels of syntactic and lexical complexity across four science-related topics (Tree Frogs, Soil, Jelly Beans and Toothpaste). A Latin-square design was used to counterbalance the order of administration of these 16 texts. After reading each text, students responded to a post-test comprehension measure (without access to the text). External measures of reading achievement and prior vocabulary knowledge were also gathered to serve as control variables. Findings show that lexical complexity had a significant impact on students' comprehension on two of the four topics. Comprehension performance was not influenced by the syntactic complexity of texts, regardless of topic. Further, no additional effects were found for English language learners. Potentially moderating and confounding issues, such as the inference demand of syntactically simple texts and the role of topic familiarity, are discussed in order to explain the inconsistency of the findings across topics.
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International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 2011, 4(1), 107-125.
ISSN:1307-9298
Copyright © IEJEE
www.iejee.com
The effects of syntactic and lexical
complexity on the comprehension of
elementary science texts
Diana J. ARYA
University of Oslo, Norway
Elfrieda H. HIEBERT
TextProject and University of California, Santa Cruz, United States
P. David PEARSON
University of California, Berkeley, United States
Abstract
In this study we examined the effects of syntactic and lexical complexity on third-grade
students' comprehension of science texts. A total of 16 expository texts were designed to represent
systematic differences in levels of syntactic and lexical complexity across four science-related topics
(Tree Frogs, Soil, Jelly Beans and Toothpaste). A Latin-square design was used to counterbalance the
order of administration of these 16 texts. After reading each text, students responded to a post-test
comprehension measure (without access to the text). External measures of reading achievement and
prior vocabulary knowledge were also gathered to serve as control variables. Findings show that
lexical complexity had a significant impact on students' comprehension on two of the four topics.
Comprehension performance was not influenced by the syntactic complexity of texts, regardless of
topic. Further, no additional effects were found for English language learners. Potentially moderating
and confounding issues, such as the inference demand of syntactically simple texts and the role of
topic familiarity, are discussed in order to explain the inconsistency of the findings across topics.
Keywords: Text complexity, reading comprehension, science literacy
Introduction
Recently, scholars have highlighted the need for increased attention to informational texts in
elementary schools, especially primary-level classrooms (Donovan & Smolkin, 2001; Duke,
2000). The argument for this shift in textual diet is that increased attention to informational
texts will improve many of the things that matter in students’ later development: world
Diana J. Arya, Norwegian Center for Science Education at the University of Oslo, Norway.
E-mail: d.j.arya@naturfagsenteret.no
International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education
108
knowledge, monitoring and problem-solving strategies, and dispositions toward academic
reading. While all disciplines have benefited from this shift in emphasis, science has received
the most attention. For example, in 2010, an entire special issue of the Journal, Science, was
devoted to the literacy-science interface—a remarkable departure for a public access journal
that normally focuses on research and policy for the hard sciences. Science requires
numerous firsthand experiences; however, appropriate texts can have a critical role in
science learning (Cervetti & Barber, 2009; Guthrie, McRae & Klauda, 2007). Science texts
provide readers with a purpose for reading and additional exposure to key science concepts
that lead to deeper conceptual understanding (Guthrie, Anderson, Alao, & Rinehart, 1999;
Palincsar & Magnusson, 2001; Romance & Vitale, 1992; 2006).
Although the academic benefits of science texts are evident, they pose challenges to
teaching and learning. In particular, the vocabulary of science texts can be dense and
complex (Armstrong & Collier, 1990; Schleppegrell, 2004; Snow, 2010). Elementary science
texts have been criticized for being inaccessible because they introduce the reader to many
unfamiliar words yet fail to explain them in ways that connect with students’ experiences
(Armbruster, 1993; Armstrong & Collier, 1990; Norris & Phillips, 2003; Rutherford, 1991). One
of the benefits of having a science text is to help clarify and extend scientific concepts that
students encounter during firsthand investigations (Duke & Bennett-Armistead, 2003;
Donovan & Smolkin, 2001). However, for young students who are still developing literacy
skills, as well as academic vocabulary, science texts containing unfamiliar terms can be very
difficult to comprehend.
In the development of student science texts, there is a tension between conceptual
explicitness (which often requires more complex syntactical realizations and rare, concept-
oriented vocabulary words) and linguistic simplicity (which generally requires less complex
syntactic realizations and simpler vocabulary). Matters of syntactic complexity were salient in
the text comprehension research of the 1970s and even into the early 1980s (Pearson &
Camparell, 1981), but text structure yielded to other emphases, most notably
comprehension strategy work, in the 1990s and early 2000s (see Pearson, 2009). The need to
re-examine these factors is greater than ever in light of two recent developments. First the
dramatic increase in the numbers of students with diverse linguistic and cultural
backgrounds (US Census, 2000) and the challenges many linguistically diverse students
experience on tasks such as the NAEP Science assessment (Gutierrez & Rogoff, 2003; Lee, &
Luykx, 2005; Shaw, 1997) requires us to take a closer look at text features that may prove
especially challenging or supportive for English language learners. A major challenge is
identifying text features that make information more accessible for ELLs. Second, the advent
of the new Common Core State Standards in English language arts (CCSS, 2010) has upped
the ante on standards of text complexity; educators are being challenged by these standards
to increase the complexity of texts students read at every grade level by at least a half grade
in measured readability. This means that all students are going to be asked to read texts with
more complex syntax and more difficult vocabulary. In this study, we investigate the extent
to which lexically and syntactically complex realizations of content hinder or help
comprehension—and whether these two factors interact to provide either unique scaffolds
or barriers to acquiring important science concepts.
Gauging Text Complexity
Syntactic Complexity. The “simple” view of syntactic complexity evident in readability
formulas such as the Flesch Ease of Reading formula (Flesch, 1948) holds that the fewer words
in a sentence, the less difficult it is for readers to comprehend (Klare, 1984). This perspective,
however, may be misleading; more words may simply be an alias for more ideas or, even
The Effects of Syntactic and Lexical / Arya, Hiebert & Pearson
109
more likely, more complex ideas. In other words, conceptual complexity could be driving
difficulty, and the number of words in a sentence simply indexes (rather than causes) that
complexity. In psychological terms, the longer the sentence, the greater the likelihood that
multiple discrete ideas, called propositions, are embedded in it (Kintsch, 1998). Examples 1-3
illustrate this point.
1. Tree frogs have red eyes.
2. Tree frogs have red eyes that help them see and find food.
3. Tree frogs have red eyes that help them see and find food at night.
Example 1 conveys two complete ideas or propositions: (a) tree frogs have eyes, and (b)
these eyes are red. Example 2 has two additional propositions: these red eyes help the frog
to (a) see food and (b) to find food. Example 3 actually adds three more propositions, one
explicit and two implicit. The explicit proposition is that the frogs do the seeing and finding
at night. That proposition invokes two more entailments: that (a) that frogs are awake at
night and (b) that their eyes help them to see in the dark. The amount and explicitness of the
information provided in each sentence increases as the number of embedded structures
(e.g., adjectives, relative clauses, and prepositional phrases) increases. Readers must be able
to unpack the propositions within complex sentences and establish their logical relations to
one another to understand all of the information presented.
Any account of text difficulty that uses sentence length to establish the readability of
texts assumes, at least implicitly, that unpacking the propositions within a complex sentence
is more difficult than making connections across related propositions stated in simple
sentences. A short sentence in itself may be easier to comprehend than a complex one.
However, the challenge may come when the reader needs to construct a cohesion model of
meaning from a series of short sentences. To illustrate this distinction, a complex sentence
such as the third example above can be broken up into five simple sentences, as in Example
4:
4. Tree frogs have eyes. These eyes are red. These eyes help them see. They help them
find food. The tree frogs are awake at night.
Just as the complex sentence required readers to unpack propositions within the sentence,
having to connect ideas across discrete, simple sentences may place other task demands on
readers. Connective cues (e.g., conjunctives, conjunctive adverbs, and relative clauses) and
other embedded structures serve as markers to guide readers to a full understanding of the
ideas presented. Eliminating these connective cues may increase the inference burden on
readers (Bowey, 1986; Pearson & Camperell, 1981); relationships, such as cause-effect or
problem-solution, or sequence, that were explicitly cued in the more complex versions have
to be inferred in the less complex versions. Ozuru, Dempsy, Sayroo and McNamara (2005)
found that adding cohesive devices such as connectives that made relationships between
sentences more explicit were beneficial for students reading science texts about unfamiliar
topics. Students were able to correctly answer more questions when texts had syntactic
structures that made meaning more explicit than when texts were less cohesive. Similarly,
Rawson (2004) found that texts that presented more ambiguous syntactic structures with
unmarked, reduced relative clauses (the girls told about the movie were excited) were more
difficult for college students (all of whom had high reading abilities) than texts with more
explicit structures, containing marked clauses (the girls who were told about the movie were
excited).
While some complexity in sentences can support readers in comprehending text,
presumably there is a point where sentences can become too complex for novice or
International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education
110
inexperienced readers. Several factors likely influence where this tipping point occurs.
Developmental level and reader proficiency appear to be two such factors in that older
readers and more proficient readers demonstrate greater comprehension of grammatically
complex structures than younger and less proficient readers (Nation & Snowling, 2000;
Willows & Ryan, 1986).
Background knowledge or conceptual familiarity of the topic may also influence readers’
abilities to comprehend the embedded structures of complex sentences. Goldman and
Bisanz (2002) reported that novice and less proficient readers who did not have background
knowledge of a topic were less able than more knowledgeable or more proficient readers to
avail themselves of embedded structural cues. However, McNamara, Kintsch, Songer, and
Kintsch (1996) found that science texts containing greater number of embedded structures
that clarify or highlight information (e.g. use of connectives or embedded explanations)
benefit readers with less knowledge of the concepts whereas texts with “cohesive gaps” (i.e.,
fewer connectives and embedded clauses) that require students to make inferences about
relationships and concepts benefit readers with a strong level of prior knowledge
(McNamara, 2001; McNamara et al., 1996); in short, less knowledgeable readers are aided by
the scaffolding of explicit cues but more knowledgeable readers are aided by the challenge
of a text that needs “fixing”. The current study attempts to address this conflict. Thus when it
comes to the issue of syntactic complexity, a trade-off may well exist: What is made more
easily accessible by complexity (seeing the relations among propositions) is made more
esoteric by simplicity. What is made easier to comprehend by simplicity (getting unitary
ideas through the veil of working memory) is rendered complex by the addition of
embedded structures.
Lexical Complexity. Sentence length, typically an alias for syntactic complexity, is often,
indeed almost universally, coupled with vocabulary difficulty in readability formulas in order
to determine overall accessibility of a given text (Flesch, 1948, 1979; Lennon & Burdick, 2004).
Vocabulary difficulty is generally indexed by how frequently a particular word generally
appears in texts (Zeno, Ivens, Millard, & Duvvuri, 1995). The assumption is that the more
exposures a reader has to a particular word, the more a reader learns about it and, in turn,
the more accessible that word (and the message in which it is embedded) becomes.
Indicators of familiarity have long been used to estimate the readability of text (e.g.,
Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998; Snow & Sweet, 2003; Stahl, 1999).
Word frequency is strongly correlated with word knowledge, which is a crucial aspect of
reading comprehension (NICHD, 2000; RAND Reading Study Group, 2002); simply put, the
more frequently a word occurs in a language the greater the likelihood that students will
know its meaning. Research on vocabulary suggests that texts containing few unknown
words provide readers with an appropriate source from which to develop fluency and word
knowledge (Beck & McKeown, 1991; Qian, 2002; Vellutino, 2003). Thus, the more students
read texts with very few rare words, the greater their chances in developing a solid
understanding of the unfamiliar concepts that are present, allowing them to comprehend
texts with additional lexical complexity in the future (Nagy & Scott, 2000; Stanovich, 2000).
However, it may be argued that the more frequent a word, the greater the likelihood that,
while students will know its meaning, its meaning may be less precise (Carey, 1985; Gopnik,
1996). This may especially be so with words in science where a less frequent word such as
astronaut conveys a level of precision that a generic word like man does not. Conversely, too
many unfamiliar or complex vocabulary words within science texts may inhibit readers’
ability to learn concepts through reading (Shymansky, Yore, & Good, 1991; Stahl, 1999). We
expect students to infer word meanings from context; it is a required part of skilled, strategic
reading. However, if there are too many unknown words in the surrounding context, there
The Effects of Syntactic and Lexical / Arya, Hiebert & Pearson
111
may be no meaning base from which a student could infer the meaning of a particular word.
Contrast the challenge of inferring the meaning of habitat in Examples X and Y:
X. The soil in the alluvial plane, rich in nutrients and decomposers, provided an optimal
habitat for our earthworms.
Y. The soil along the river provided a good habitat for our earthworms.
Science texts are purported to have more than twice the number of rare words as texts
from any other discipline, thus creating a vexing challenge for developers of science literacy
curricula: How can they create considerate and accessible texts for young readers that also
do justice to the concepts students are supposed to acquire (Hayes & Ahrens, 1988)? Just as
with syntactic complexity, there is a potential trade off in lexical complexity. Rare words have
a level of precision that high frequency words do not. However, the presence of too many
rare words may make a text inaccessible to readers.
Vocabulary familiarity (complexity) has a direct relationship to readers’ knowledge about
the topic, which has a great impact on comprehension (Kintsch, 1998; RAND Reading Study
Group, 2002; Smagorinsky, 2001; Snow & Sweet, 2003; Stahl, 1999). As one becomes more
familiar and experienced with a topic, knowledge of contextualized meanings of words
develops as well (Anderson & Freebody, 1981; Kintsch, 1998). In experiments that use
association and priming tasks, skilled readers have been found to approach a text with an
organized network of knowledge called schemata. These allow readers to integrate new
information with prior knowledge (Kintsch, 1998; RAND Reading Study Group, 2002;
Smagorinsky, 2001; Snow & Sweet, 2003) and, in the process, enhance their schemata even
more. The stronger one’s prior knowledge about a particular subject, the greater one’s ability
to read and comprehend texts quickly and efficiently (Kintsch, 1998). The connections that
readers make with text are dependent on their knowledge base and ability to retrieve the
most relevant meaning from alternatives in their mental lexicons (Kintsch, 1998;
Smagorinsky, 2001; Wilson & Sperber, 1987).
Just as students’ prior knowledge about particular concepts facilitates comprehension, a
lack of knowledge about concepts within a text can have a detrimental impact on
understanding. Bailey (2007) conducted a language analysis of American standardized
achievement tests and found that academic language (i.e., words often used in tests such as
examine or cause) confounds the ability of English Language Learners (ELLs) to demonstrate
their understanding of the construct that is being assessed in English. Similarly, Droop and
Verhoeven (1998) found in their study of third grade students learning Dutch as a first or
second language that lexical complexity (defined in terms of word frequency) as well as
cultural relevance impacts text comprehension. However neither of these studies examined
the impact of syntactic complexity or its interaction with lexical complexity in academic
language.
The Current Study
The aim of the present investigation was to compare the effects of syntactic and lexical
complexity on students’ understanding of science content. Students’ comprehension of texts
was examined as a function of two dimensions of syntactic complexity (simple, complex) and
two dimensions of lexical complexity (simple, complex); additionally, the main and
interaction effects of syntactic and lexical complexity were examined through the lenses of
reading ability and prior knowledge.
Language status was also considered as a potential confounding factor on the
comprehension of these texts. Text accessibility is an important issue for ELLs because they
must have the opportunity to read extensively in texts at their level of reading ability in order
International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education
112
to improve comprehension and fluency (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998; Elley, 1996; Grabe,
1991; Snowling & Nation, 1997). However, few studies of readability have investigated the
effects of text difficulty on the comprehension of ELLs. Further, no such study has focused on
both lexical and syntactic complexity while holding issues of cultural relevance constant.
Specifically, the following questions are addressed in this investigation:
1. Do syntactic and lexical complexity affect comprehension of science texts for third
graders?
2. How do these two forms of complexity interact to produce unique combination effects
on comprehension?
3. Are there any additional effects of syntactic and lexical complexity for ELLs?
We anticipated that, the greater the complexity of a given science text (as measured by
embedded clauses and difficult vocabulary), the more skilled a reader must be to successfully
understand the text. Thus, scores on general reading assessments such as informal reading
inventories and state tests should predict scores on an assessment of comprehension of
science content. Based on a long history of readability research, we also hypothesized that
lexical complexity might have a greater impact on performance than syntactic complexity,
but that the interaction of syntactic and lexical complexity would have the most debilitating
effect on comprehension. In short, only the very best readers as defined by reading test
scores would be able to handle the difficulty imposed by texts that are complex on both
syntactic and lexical criteria.
Questions about the manner in which prior knowledge of words and lexical complexity
influence students’ comprehension and how these constructs contrast with syntactic
complexity merit particular attention with science texts. It is possible that, when complex
ideas are communicated with accessible (i.e., high frequency) vocabulary, syntactic
complexity does not matter as much as it does when technical (low frequency) vocabulary is
used. Further, a reader’s experience with certain subject matter may determine the degree to
which lexical complexity, syntactic complexity, or both affect understanding.
Method
Participants
This study included all 142 third-graders who had returned parental consent in 10
classrooms in four non-charter public schools. According to California state regulations
operating at the time of the data collection, no K-3 classroom could enroll more than 20
students. An average of 14.3 students per classroom (minimum = 12, maximum = 19), which
was approximately 75% of total third grade enrollment across these schools, participated in
the study. All four schools were located in northern California and varied according to
urbanicity, ethnicity, and percentage of ELLs, defined by language spoken at home. The
reason for this ELL distinction is that three of the participating schools had no English
language program, thus having no school language designation for students who are
learning English as a second language. This information was reported by the participants and
confirmed by the parental consent letters. Students who spoke only English at home were
not considered to be ELL. All other students (49 students, 34% of total participants) were
considered to be ELL. Of the 49 ELL students, 23 (16%) spoke only Spanish at home while 11
(8%) spoke a mix of English and Spanish. The remaining 15 students (11%) spoke one of
various Asian or European languages at home.
Two of the four participating schools (3 classrooms total) were urban, while one was
located within a suburban area (one classroom) and one is rural (6 classrooms total). The
The Effects of Syntactic and Lexical / Arya, Hiebert & Pearson
113
four schools ranged in percentage of ethnic minority (i.e., other than White, 44%--73%) as
well as language minority (other than English, 12%--59%) students. Half of the total
population of participants were Caucasian (71 students) while the other half represented
Hispanic (44 students, 30% of total participants), African American (15 students, 10% of total
participants), and Asian (eight students, 6% of total participants) ethnicities with a remaining
few (five students, 4% of total participants) representing other or mixed ethnicities. Note that
SES was not reported for this study: as of 2005, it is illegal to access this particular
demographic information according to California state regulations, even for classroom
teachers, regardless of consent or approval of the university’s internal review board.
In the initial phase of the study, each participant read a narrative passage orally from the
Qualitative Reading Inventory (QRI) (Leslie & Caldwell, 2000) and answered questions about it.
Students who were not able to read at least 75% of the narrative text (five participants total)
were excused from continuing on with the assessment procedure in order to prevent
potential frustrations. Thus, a total of 142 participants continued with the study. Participants
demonstrated a broad range of abilities in fluency (words read within a minute, WPM) and
comprehension (number of correct responses to questions about the passage reading) on
the QRI. The mean WPM performance was 97 with a standard deviation of 36. The mean
comprehension score was 5.8 (based on a total of 8) with a standard deviation of 1.7.
Assessments
Assessments were administered across three sessions that spanned a three-week period. In
the first session, the QRI and a measure of students’ knowledge on the specific topics of the
experimental texts were administered. In the second and third sessions occurring three
weeks later, students were given the experimental texts. Two additional measures of student
reading achievement were obtained: (a) teachers’ ranking of student reading proficiency and
(b) student scores on the Standardized Testing and Reporting Program (STAR) (California
Department of Education, 2007) from the previous spring. The mean score of the STAR was
351 with a standard deviation of 62. All assessments and scores described here were used to
establish a baseline of reading abilities for all participants.
Qualitative Reading Inventory (QRI). As already described, students individually read a third-
grade, narrative passage of the QRI and answered explicit and inferential questions about it
(Leslie & Caldwell, 2000). A student’s oral reading of the text was timed and miscues
recorded. The oral readings and responses to comprehension questions were tape-recorded
to establish fidelity of different investigators’ on-the-spot recording of miscues. The authors
of the QRI report very high alternate form reliability (r = .9) as well as high correlation with an
unidentified standardized reading test (r = .7). This form of assessment was used not only for
its reliability, but also for the fact that participating teachers and students are familiar with
this more qualitative format of assessment. Thus, the teachers could also use student
performance on the QRI formatively for general educational purposes.
Prior vocabulary knowledge. A prior knowledge measure was developed by identifying six
words for each of the four topics that were the focus of the experimental portion of the
study: tree frogs, toothpaste, jelly beans, and soil. Sixteen of the words in the 24-item
measure represented highlighted science concepts in the lexically academic forms of the
experimental texts (four items per topic). All words were within the same general range of
frequency, from 46 to 53 on the SFI index (Zeno et al., 1995). The remaining eight items
consisted of either words representing science concepts that were not part of the
experimental texts (e.g., terrarium) and or cross-disciplinary words (e.g., determine) that were
not in the experimental texts but were within the same range of frequency. This second
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114
group of words was included in order to obtain a measure of general lexicon as well as of the
specific topics in the study.
The 24 words were then randomly organized into six groups. A student’s task was to
match a word with its definition for each group of words. Definitions were short, everyday
descriptions of the words, such as to dig for burrow. This task was not timed and was
completed in small, investigator-supervised groups.
Teacher rankings of students. Teachers were asked to rank students, beginning with 1 (the
strongest reader in the classroom). Teachers completed these rankings without receiving
feedback on students’ performances on the QRI or the prior knowledge measure.
State assessment. Students’ performances on the state’s Standardized Testing and Reporting
Program (STAR) (California Department of Education, 2007) from the end of the prior
academic year were obtained as an external measure. This measure was used as a covariate
with the QRI to establish external validity of the vocabulary pre-assessment and
comprehension measure of the experimental texts. Forty-two scores were missing due to
record unavailability (15 total) and missing teacher files (two of the six classroom teachers
within the rural school were unable to locate scores).
Experimental texts. Sixteen texts of approximately 200 words in length were written, with four
versions of each of four different science topics. Topics were identified from the national
science education standards (NRC, 2001) to represent the three strands of life, earth, and
physical science.
The creation of the experimental texts began with a single text for each topic. This initial
text had three sections: (a) an introductory section of 50 words that was common across all
conditions, (b) a manipulated section of approximately 100 words (within a 9-word range)
that differed according to condition, and (c) a concluding section of 50 words that was
common to all conditions. The introductory and concluding sections of the text used
“simple” syntactic forms and “everyday” lexical content.
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115
Table 1. Example of Manipulated Version of Topical Texts: Jelly Beans
Everyday Vocabulary Academic Vocabulary
Syntactically Simple A scientist wanted to make a
new flavor. He wanted to make
grass flavor. Grass is not safe
food. He could not use real
grass. He used other things.
These things are safe. His new
jelly bean smells like grass. It
tastes like grass.
One scientist wanted to invent
1
a flavor. This was grass flavor.
Grass is not edible. He could
not manufacture the flavor. He
used different ingredients. This
jelly bean had the odor of
grass. It had the taste of grass.
Syntactically Simple A scientist wanted to make a
new flavor. He wanted to make
grass flavor. Grass is not safe
food. He could not use real
grass. He used other things.
These things are safe. His new
jelly bean smells like grass. It
tastes like grass.
One scientist wanted to invent
1
a flavor. This was grass flavor.
Grass is not edible. He could not
manufacture the flavor. He
used different ingredients. This
jelly bean had the odor of grass.
It had the taste of grass.
Syntactically Embedded One scientist wanted to make a
new flavor, grass flavor, by
2
using other things because
grass is not safe to eat. He
could not use real grass to
make the flavor, but it smelled
and tasted like grass.
One scientist wanted to invent a
flavor, grass flavor. by using
different ingredients because
grass is not edible. He could not
use grass to manufacture the
flavor, but this jelly bean had the
odor and taste of grass.
1
Academic vocabulary
2
Word indicating an embedded structure
Table 2. Indexed Features of Syntactic and Lexical Complexity
Syntactic Complexity (Average Number
of Propositions within Version)
Lexical Complexity (Average Standard
Frequency Index (SFI) within Version)
Simple Embedded Everyday Academic
Tree Frogs 2.9 7.3 65.9 52.1
Soil 2.9 7.3 63 48.3
Jelly Beans 2.6 7 67 47.5
Toothpaste 2.7 6.8 63.4 47
The middle section of the text was rewritten so that there were four texts for each topic: (a)
syntactically simple with everyday vocabulary (simple/everyday), (b) syntactically complex
with everyday vocabulary (embedded/everyday), (c) syntactically simple with academic
vocabulary (simple/academic), and (d) syntactically complex with academic vocabulary
(embedded/academic).
For this study, a high level of syntactic complexity was defined as the presence of two or
more embedded structures within a sentence; sentences with one or no embedded
structures were deemed as low in syntactic complexity. Embedded structures included
relative clauses, nominalizations, appositives and multiple modifiers. An illustration of the
“treated” portion of a text and the nature of embedded structures appears in Table 1.
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A propositional analysis (Kintsch, 1998) was used to determine the difference between
syntactically simple and complex texts. The average number of propositions per sentence for
the simple and embedded versions of the texts is summarized in Table 2. Across the four
topics, the difference between the simple and complex version is consistently about 4
propositions per topic.
Lexical complexity was indexed by the presence or absence of academic (cross-
disciplinary or scientific) words that directly relate to science concepts or processes and are
beyond the 1000 most frequent words according to Zeno et al. (1995). High-frequency words
(words within 1000 most frequent) are referred to as “everyday words.” To verify the
differences across these passages, the standard frequency index (SFI) of the words in each
passage were computed. The higher the SFI, the more frequently the word is used in texts
(e.g., the = 88.3; sanitize = 25.6). The average SFIs for academic and everyday versions across
the four topics are reported above in Table 2. Averaged across the four topics, the difference
between the mean SFI values of the academic and everyday versions was 16 (the difference
between the mean SFI value of each of the individual topics were within three points of this).
Since the remaining portions of the texts (i.e., the first and last 25% of each text) are
equivalent, and since the function words for all manipulated versions are high in frequency,
the focus of the analyses was on the everyday and complex version of academic words.
For each topic, 10 questions were constructed to measure students’ comprehension. Half
of the questions were multiple-choice and half required short-answer responses. An example
of a multiple-choice question is the following: What makes plants grow? a. rocks; b. vitamins;
c. bugs; d. wind. The short-answer responses were constructed to elicit a specific response,
such as the following: Write two ways that animals help plants. The questions for a given topic
were the same, regardless of the manipulated condition that students received. Four of the
10 questions targeted the content of the manipulated portion of the text; the remaining six
questions referred to the first and last 25% portion of the text (three questions for each
portion). Two of the four questions for the treated portion were explicit recall of information
from the text and two required the student to make inferences based on what they read
from this portion. The remaining six questions also consisted of both direct recall and
inferential questions.
The short-answer questions (e.g., How do frogs get away from their enemies?) were scored
on a scale of 0-1-2. A rubric was constructed to assign no, partial or full credit. No credit was
given to responses that were irrelevant (e.g., they like to swim). Partial credit was given to
responses that included part of the intended answer (e.g., they hop around). Full credit was
given to complete and accurate answers (e.g., they hop around really fast). A sample of 20%
of the responses was double-scored; the inter-rater agreement was 95%.
Reliability and validity of measure
All experimenter-designed assessments were piloted to determine validity and reliability.
After revision, the prior knowledge assessment had a Cronbach’s alpha coefficient of .85 and
correlated strongly with the QRI timed miscue measure (.65, p < .01), teacher ranking of
reading ability (.57, p < .01) and performance on the STAR (.67, p < .01).
The comprehension assessments for the experimental texts on the four topics, Tree Frogs,
Soil, Jelly Beans and Toothpaste, had a Cronbach’s alpha coefficient of .86. These
comprehension assessments strongly correlated with the state reading assessment (.56, .67,
.74, .63; p < .01) and the QRI timed miscue measure (.51, .50, .51, .51; p < .01).
The Effects of Syntactic and Lexical / Arya, Hiebert & Pearson
117
Procedures
Three experienced researchers collected all of the data for the present study. To reduce the
possibility of priming the participants on key vocabulary, the prior knowledge measure was
administered individually in one session, along with the QRI task, at least three weeks prior to
the experimental reading task. The passage reading/comprehension tasks took place in two
sessions as whole-class events on two separate days; each of these sessions lasted
approximately 50 minutes.
All participants read four passages with the constraint that each student received each
topic and each version once and only once. There were 4 topics and 4 versions per topic,
yielding 16 unique reading tasks (a passage followed by the comprehension items
connected with that particular topic). These reading tasks were assigned to participants
using a Latin-square design, which resulted in complete counterbalancing for the order in
which both topic and version were presented. In other words, each of the 16 reading tasks
was completed equally often in the first through fourth testing positions across students. To
avoid fatigue, participants completed two reading tasks on the first day and two on the
second day of testing. As an example, one student might have read Tree Frogs in the
syntactically simple/everyday vocabulary version and Soil in the syntactically
simple/academy vocabulary version on day one, followed by Toothpaste in the syntactically
complex/everyday vocabulary version and Jelly Beans in the syntactically
complex/academically vocabulary version on day two. It required a total of 64 participants to
complete one complete replicate of the 4 topics X 4 versions X four serial testing positions
design.
Participants were given as much time as needed to read the text and then answer the
questions, but each text was collected directly before distributing questions. They were
required to answer each set of questions based on memory of what had been read, without
the opportunity to look back at the text. Tables 3a and 3b show the total performance on
each text by version and topic as well as specific performance on only the treated portions.
Results
A series of 2-step (students were level 1 and classrooms, level 2), hierarchical linear models
were fit to the data to examine the relationship between treatment (syntactic and/or lexical
complexity) and performance on the treated sections of the text, while simultaneously
accounting for variance due to the clustering of students within classrooms. A random
intercept was included in the model; it permitted different mean performance levels across
classrooms. No random slopes were included in this model due to the small number of
classrooms (N = 10) as well as the implausibility and irrelevance of classroom-specific effects
of treatment on performance. No additional classroom variables were considered in the
present study. Such analyses, which would have allowed for more level-2 covariates, would
have required a much larger sample of classrooms than was available.
Error-variance histograms revealed that the error variance from each of the regression
models fit was normally distributed. Also, predicted-versus-observed scatterplots of the
outcome variables revealed that the error variance was constant across the range of data.
Thus, the assumptions of regression modeling were met for the data used in this study.
This study uses a modest form of HLM, with a random intercept only and no level-2
covariates. In Raudenbush and Bryk’s (2002) notation, our full model (which corresponds to
Model 3 described below) is described by this formula:
International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education
118
Table 3a. Means and SDs for Total performance on Designed Texts
Topic Tree Frogs Soil Jelly Beans Toothpaste
Version 1
(simple/everyday)
10.6 (3.3) 9.5 (3.3) 6.2 (3.6) 9.7 (3.2)
Version 2
(complex/everyday)
10.7 (3.4) 8.7 (3.1) 5.1 (3.6) 9.7 (3.2)
Version 3
(simple/academic)
10 (3.2) 7.5 (3) 6.3 (2.8) 10.2 (3.7)
Version 4
(complex/academic)
9.6 (3.1) 7.3 (2.6) 6.1 (2.9) 9.6 (3.1)
Table 3b. Means and SDs for Treated Portion of Designed Texts
Topic Tree Frogs Soil Jelly Beans Toothpaste
Version 1
(simple/everyday)
4.4 (1.7) 3.4 (1.6) 2.2 (1.8) 3.4 (1.4)
Version 2
(complex/everyday)
4.5 (1.6) 3.2 (1.5) 1.8 (1.6) 3.5 (1.2)
Version 3
(simple/academic)
4.0 (1.7) 2.6 (1.7) 2.1 (1.5) 3.9 (1.6)
Version 4
(complex/academic)
3.5 (1.7) 2.6 (1.6) 2.2 (1.5) 3.5 (1.3)
In the present study, the model form described above was fit four times, once for each of the
four topics. Although the multiple models were fit using the same participants, a Bonferonni-
like correction was not applied in this situation given that the same question was asked four
times, once for each topic. Naturally, we hoped that results from the four model sets would
converge.
The first model fit (Model 1) is a variance-components model with no covariates and is
presented to illustrate the amount of total variance in performance that can be attributed to
classroom-level effects. Model 2 adds the control variables, and Model 3 adds the
independent variables. Since the interaction between syntactic and lexical complexity was
not significant, it was dropped for the final model (Model 4). This variance components
model indicates that a significant amount (6.4%, p < .05) of variation in performance is
between-classrooms. Since the various text conditions were assigned randomly to students
within classrooms, it was important to control for classroom-level effects in order to
accurately assess treatment differences within all ten classrooms included in the analysis.
Model 2 adds in the covariates, which are home language (i.e., ELL status) and four pretest
scores (STAR from grade 2, prior vocabulary knowledge, and the fluency and comprehension
scores for the 3
rd
grade QRI passage). Pretest scores were a highly significant predictor of
performance; ELL status was not, after controlling for pretest scores. Thus, ELL status did not
explain any additional variance in performance on the designed texts. The random intercept
variance remained significant, but its share of the variance was reduced greatly in
comparison to Model 1, indicating that much of the variance between classrooms is
attributable to student background characteristics and prior achievement.
Model 3 adds in the independent variables: presence of syntactic complexity, presence of
lexical complexity, and an interaction term between the two. All three of these variables
The Effects of Syntactic and Lexical / Arya, Hiebert & Pearson
119
were non-significant. We then dropped the interaction term from the model, leaving model
4, in which lexical complexity affected performance but syntactic complexity did not.
Model 4 explains a significant amount of variance for only two of the four topics, Tree
Frogs and Soil. Similar results were not obtained for Jelly Beans and Toothpaste; for the latter
two topics, neither lexical nor syntactic complexity affected performance.
This final model suggests that high lexical complexity (i.e., more low frequency words) in
the text is associated with lower performance on the test (p < .05). As would be predicted by
the design of the passages, the impact of lexical complexity was limited to items in the
middle 50% of the passage (the manipulated portions); lexical complexity did not explain
any significant portion of variance in responses for comprehension items relating to the first
and final sections of the texts. A model with only syntactic complexity as a predictor variable
was also fit to the data, but was not significant at the 0.05 level. Model 4, with lexical
complexity predicting comprehension differences across forms, is presented in Table 4 for all
four topics.
These inconsistent results prompted a series of post-hoc investigations into the particular
conditions under which lexical complexity of a text may affect comprehension of that text.
The most obvious candidate to explain the inconsistent patterns is background knowledge
of particular concepts across the four topics. The knowledge of concepts explanation was
explored in two ways. The first was an examination of the SFI indices of frequency from the
Zeno et al.’s (1995) corpus; these data appear in Table 2. Differences between the SFIs for the
academic and everyday versions of the texts for the four topics were calculated. The
observed average SFI differences between levels of lexical complexity, which were (in order
of magnitude), Jelly Beans: 19.5; Toothpaste: 16.8; Soil: 14.7; and Tree Frogs: 13.8, would have
predicted the greatest between-version differences in comprehension on the Jelly beans and
Toothpaste passages. Ironically, just the opposite pattern was evident in the data, with the
greatest differences between academic and everyday versions on Soil and Tree Frogs, the two
topics with the smallest differences between the everyday and academic versions. Thus, SFI
index does not provide a suitable explanation for the apparent interaction between topic
and lexical complexity.
The second way in which background knowledge was considered was to examine the
relationship of the prior knowledge vocabulary measure to comprehension of the topics.
Recall that the prior knowledge vocabulary measure correlated strongly with students’
comprehension of the manipulated portions of the texts: Tree Frogs: .52; Soil: .59; Jelly Beans:
.65; toothpaste: .67 (p < .01). The mean scores (out of a maximum of 4) and standard
deviations of the prior vocabulary assessment items for the four topics are as follows: Tree
Frogs: 2.3 (sd, 1.3); Soil: 1.7 (sd, 1.3); Jelly Beans: 2.9 (sd, 1.1); Toothpaste: 2.8 (sd, 1.0). When the
simple effects were calculated across these four means, the analysis showed that “academic
vocabulary” used to create the complex versions of the passages yielded significantly
different pre-test vocabulary results across the four topics. The pre-test academic vocabulary
performances for Toothpaste and Jelly Beans, which did not differ from one another, were
significantly easier than either Soil or Tree Frogs; additionally, Tree Frogs was easier than Soil (p
< .01, in all cases); in sum: (Jelly Beans= Toothpaste) > (Tree Frogs > Soil). Thus, the empirical
measure of students’ prior knowledge of words was a more accurate predictor of lexical
complexity than the SFI index. It is the only plausible explanation of the differential effect of
lexical complexity across topics.
Discussion
The present study was designed to address the question of whether lexical or syntactic
factors exert greater influence on the comprehension of elementary science texts. Based on
International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education
120
previous research on text accessibility, it was expected that syntactic and lexical complexity
would each affect students’ performance on science texts, and that these two types of text
complexity together would additionally impact student performance. In order to test this
hypothesis, 16 texts that varied in syntactic and lexical complexity across four different topics
were constructed. Students read texts that ranged in complexity, each from a different topic.
Contrary to our hypotheses, syntactic complexity did not explain variance in performance
across any of the four topics. It is difficult to interpret our results on syntactic complexity. As
established in the review of research on this topic, opinions are divided as to whether or not
explicitness, as defined by embedded clauses and connective cues, hinders or aids
comprehension. It is possible that different sorts of cognitive loads effectively canceled out
differences between the syntactically simple and complex versions: our syntactically simple
versions required students to engage in a great deal of inferencing to create the logical links
between sentences (e.g., A caused B or A happened before B). By contrast, the syntactically
complex versions required readers to hold many embedded constructions and cues in short
term memory to unpack those logical links. However, since reading ability (as measured by
the QRI and STAR test) and the prior knowledge assessment did not interact with syntactic
complexity, it is difficult to sort out what was happening across levels of syntactic
complexity. We certainly were not able to replicate the McNamara et al (1996) finding of an
interaction between students’ level of prior knowledge and the cohesion of the texts as
indexed by strong use of cohesive ties between clauses and sentences. Future studies might
include gradations of syntactic complexity in order to begin to unpack this mystery. The
other possibility is that the methodology used for measuring comprehension obscured the
real impact of syntax. It may be that syntax achieves its effect on comprehension in the
“search” process readers engage in when they consult the text to find exact answers to
explicit questions or clues to help them draw inferences. By taking away the texts during the
comprehension assessment, we may have pre-empted the very mechanism (text search)
through which syntactic explicitness achieves its effect.
Table 4. Regression Results without Interaction Terms (Model 4)
Predictor Topic 1
(Tree frogs)
Topic 2
(Soil)
Topic 3
(Jelly Beans)
Topic 4
(Toothpaste)
Intercept 1.82** (.52) 1.23** (.34) .80 (.53) 3.77** (.64)
Home language -.47 (.34) -.46 .(23) -.53 (.35) -.61 (.47)
QRI (pretest) .46** (.07) .27** (.05) .24** (.08) .54** (.10)
Syntactic complexity .06 (.25) -.22 (.17) .06 (.26) -.46 (.35)
Lexical complexity -.55* (.24) -.54** (.16) .13 (.25) .36 (.34)
Variance component of:
Classroom mean,
ij
u
.044* .185* .086* .228*
Level-1 effect,
ij
r
1.999 .854 2.103 3.599
Note: The results represent a set of non-nested multilevel models, fit to the same participants using
different topics. Standard errors are given in parentheses.
* p < .05; ** p < .01.
Lexical complexity significantly influenced comprehension performance for texts on two of
the four topics, Tree Frogs and Soil, but not for texts on Jelly Beans and Toothpaste. This
finding was consistent across all participant groups, including ELLs. A possible explanation is
that prior knowledge of vocabulary, rather than any established index of word frequency,
determines how difficult a lexically complex text will be for a student. Although, for example,
bacteria is considered a very low frequency word, 62% of the participants were able to
The Effects of Syntactic and Lexical / Arya, Hiebert & Pearson
121
correctly identify its meaning. Further, essential, a word with a comparable SFI value to
bacteria (SFI=56) was a much less familiar word, at least for our sample of students, in that
less than half (42%) of the students were able to correctly identify its meaning. Assuming
that world and word knowledge is shaped by experience, it is plausible to assume that most
eight year olds (the average age of our sample) have visited the dentist several times and
have learned about dental hygiene, including words such as bacteria. The role of conceptual
familiarity as a predictor of text comprehension has been commented upon in previous
research (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998; Kintsch, 1998; Smagorinsky, 2001; Snow & Sweet,
2003; Stahl, 1999), thus giving strength to this admittedly speculative explanation for the
interaction between topic familiarity and lexical complexity. However, it is important to note
that our explanation of the inconsistent lexical complexity effect are tentative at best and
require further investigation. Future studies on the effects of lexical complexity should
include measures of students’ prior knowledge in order to assess conceptual familiarity
adequately.
A specific interest in the present study was the effect of variations in text complexity on
the comprehension of ELLs. Language status did not explain any additional variance in
performance beyond the general findings in this study. Thus, lexical complexity was the only
significant factor in comprehension performance for ELLs. This finding is consistent with
research by Proctor, August, Carlo and Snow (2005) who reported that L2 vocabulary
knowledge was a significant predictor of L2 text comprehension of ELLs. Our findings did not
reveal any significant differences in comprehension performance between native English
speakers and ELLs, thus suggesting a global model of comprehension, seemingly contrary to
Proctor et al.’s (2005) conclusion that we need an L2-only model of comprehension.
However, due to differences in specific information about L1 proficiency, comparisons
between this study and the work by Proctor et al. are speculative at best.
While the results of this study are intriguing, it is important to note significant limitations.
First, the manipulated portions of the experimental texts (approximately 100 words in each
of the 200-word texts) may not have been long enough to allow for the detection the effects
of syntactic and lexical complexity across all four topics. Additionally, the fact that ELL status
was dichotomously classified (ELL or non-ELL) could limit our ability to explore the effect of
first language (L1) expertise on performance. A multitude of studies highlight the significant
effects of L1 proficiency on L2 acquisition and comprehension (Jimenez, Garcia, & Pearson,
1996; Proctor et al., 2005). The hypothesis that students’ command over their first language
influences their ability to comprehend both syntactically and lexically complex features of
texts was not considered in the present study. Further research is needed to determine
possible effects of varying gradations in L1 proficiency on L2 text difficulty.
The findings within the present study have left questions regarding text accessibility
unanswered. Does syntactic complexity have absolutely no effect on comprehension, or is
there some gradation of difference that was not captured within the design of our texts?
Does prior knowledge, as defined by conceptual familiarity, trump lexical complexity, as
indexed by frequency, in determining comprehension? If so, how much familiarity is
necessary to overcome difficult vocabulary? Finally, do EL learners face the same difficulties
as native English speakers in terms of text accessibility, even when considering the effect of
gradations in L1 proficiency? We hope that future studies will shed further light on these
important questions. At the same time, our failure to elicit a syntactic complexity affect
might give us pause, when we design curriculum, of being too rigid about keeping sentence
length to an absolute minimum. Further, the lexical complexity effect, which seemed to be
most powerful in situations in which students could not rely on prior knowledge from
International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education
122
everyday experiences, merits attention for all students who struggle with unfamiliar content
when reading in disciplinary settings.
Diana J. Arya is currently a research fellow working with the Norwegian Center for Science Education
at the University of Oslo, Norway. The central focus of her research is on the quality of school science
texts and on methods for improving this quality. Arya is a recent graduate from Berkeley (PhD) with
additional degrees from Illinois (MA) and Michigan (MA). Before joining the academic research
community, Arya was a reading specialist and middle school science
teacher in Seattle, WA.
Elfrieda H. Hiebert is President and CEO of TextProject, Inc., a not-for-profit aimed at increasing
student-reading levels through appropriate texts as well as a research associate at the University of
California, Santa Cruz. Her research focuses on text design and instruction around the core and
extended vocabularies of written English. She began her educational career as a teacher in California
and, after receiving the Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison,
taught at the Universities of Kentucky, Colorado-Boulder, Michigan, and California, Berkeley.
P. David Pearson is a Professor in the Language, Literacy and Culture program in the Graduate School
of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, where he pursues research on assessment,
instruction, and curriculum reform in literacy. With colleagues at Lawrence Hall of Science, he is
building and validating an integrated science and literacy curriculum for grades K-8. With degrees
from Berkeley (BA) and Minnesota (PhD) and professorial stints at Minnesota, Illinois, and Michigan
State, he began his career as a 5th grade teacher in Porterville, CA.
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[Note: This article is reprinted in Promisng Practices for Urban Reading Instruction, www.reading.orgpublicationsbbvbooksbk518.] Si bien, desde hace algún tiempo, los investigadores han mostrado la necesidad de prestar mayor atención a los textos informativos en los grados iniciales, se dispone de pocos datos acerca del grado en el que efectivamente se incorporan textos informativos en las aulas de grados iniciales y de la forma en que son utilizados. Este estudio proporciona información básica, descriptiva acerca de experiencias con textos informativos llevadas a cabo con niños de 20 aulas de primer grado seleccionadas de distritos escolares de nivel socioeconómico (NSE) muy bajo y muy alto. Se visitó cada aula durante cuatro días completos en el curso del año escolar. En cada visita se recogieron datos sobre los tipos de textos que aparecían en las paredes del aula y otras superficies, en la biblioteca del aula y en las actividades de lenguaje escrito. Los resultados muestran una escasez de textos informativos en las escrituras del medio y en las actividades; había pocos textos informativos en las bibliotecas de las aulas, pocos textos informativos en las paredes del aula y otras superficies y una media de sólo 3.6 minutos por día dedicados a textos informativos durante las actividades con el lenguaje escrito. Esta escasez fue particularmente aguda en el caso de los distritos escolares de bajo NSE, en los cuales los textos informativos constituían una pequeña proporción en las ya pequeñas bibliotecas de las aulas. Asimismo, era poco probable encontrar textos informativos en las paredes de las aulas y otras superficies, el tiempo promedio por día dedicado a textos informativos fue de 1.9 minutos y en la mitad de las aulas de bajo NSE no se trabajó en ningún momento con textos informativos durante los cuatro días de observación. Se presentan estrategias para desarrollar la atención hacia los textos informativos en los grados iniciales. Obgleich die Wissenschaftler seit einiger Zeit fordern, den informativen Texten größere Beachtung in Anfangsklassen zu widmen, sind nur wenige Daten über das Ausmaß verfügbar, in welchem informative Texte tatsächlich in Anfangsklassen integriert werden und auf welche Weise dies geschieht. Diese Studie liefert gründlich dargelegte Erkenntnisse über die Verwertung informativer Texterfahrungen, die Kinder der ersten Klasse in 20 ausgesuchten Klassenräumen von sehr niedrigen bis zu sehr hohen sozial-ökonomischen {SES=SocioEconomic Status} Schulbezirken machten. Jeder Klassenraum wurde für einen vollen Tag an insgesamt vier Tagen im Verlauf eines Schuljahres besucht. Bei jedem Besuch wurden Daten über die Art der Texte an Klassenraumwänden und anderen Aushangflächen, in der Klassenraumbücherei und bei schriftlichen Klassenraumaktivitäten gesammelt. Die Resultate zeigen einen Mangel an informativen Texten in dieser für Gedrucktes und ähnlicher Aktivitäten vorgesehenen Klassenraumumgebung-es fanden sich relativ wenige informative Texte einschließlich der Klassenraumbücherei, wenig informativer Text an Klassenraumwänden und anderen Flächen, und während der Sprachaktivitäten im Durchschnitt nur 3.6 mit informativen Texten verbrachte Minuten pro Tag. Diese Einschränkung war besonders bei Kindern im unteren SES-Schulbezirk akut, wo informative Texte einen noch weit geringeren Anteil bilden, bei ohnehin kleineren Klassenraumbibliotheken, wobei solche informativen Texte weit weniger an Klassenraumwänden oder anderen Flächen zu finden waren und wo im Tagesdurchschnitt 1.9 Minuten mit informativen Texten verbracht wurden, wobei die Hälfte der niedrigen SES-Klassenräume überhaupt keine Zeit an nicht einem einzigen der vier observierten Tage mit informativen Texten verbrachten. Strategien für eine gesteigerte Bedeutung hin zu informativen Texten in den Anfangsklassen werden dargelegt.