2018-2021: Effects of linguistic complexity on students’ text comprehension
Factual texts (e. g. in a textbook) serve as crucial instructional media and play a significant role in shaping classroom events and learning experiences, especially in subjects like physics. However, learners and teachers often perceive texts in textbooks as linguistically complex, making them seem incomprehensible and challenging to use effectively. Despite this, a closer analysis of physics-related factual texts reveals a stagnation in their linguistic demand level across different grades. Adapting the linguistic complexity to match learners' prerequisites could potentially enhance text comprehension. This hypothesis gains support from large scale studies, which indicate moderate to high correlations between reading proficiency and subject performance in science and mathematics.
Nevertheless, there is currently no clear empirical evidence demonstrating the specific impact of individual linguistic features on the comprehension of factual texts in physics education. For instance, it remains uncertain whether the surface linguistic features of a text hinder its comprehension.
This experimental study forms part of a broader research effort by the Subject and Language Working Group (AG FuS). The study aims to investigate the influence of linguistic demands on text comprehension of nonfiction texts (in this study) and item solution frequency (in the VAMPS project).
The main focus of this study is to explore how the language demand level of physics-related nonfiction texts affects both text comprehension and perceived comprehensibility. The study involved N = 812 middle school students who read three factual texts on thermodynamics and answered 27 text comprehension items. Additionally, perceived comprehensibility was measured using a Likert scale. The linguistic demand level of the nonfiction texts was systematically varied based on a model that considered various linguistic surface features (Heine et al., 2018). Other text comprehensibility features and the subject content remained constant throughout the study. To ensure the validity of the research, three preliminary studies were conducted to test and refine the necessary instruments.
The results of the IRT (Item Response Theory) analysis from the main study do not indicate a consistent effect of the linguistic demand level on item difficulty or learners' text comprehension. Furthermore, differential analyses of performance-related subgroups showed no consistent effect of the language demand level either. However, the study found that the highest level of linguistic demand led to lower perceived text comprehension, although students' actual text comprehension was not affected. To put it briefly, while the language demand was perceived as challenging, it did not significantly impact text comprehension.
This study provides valuable evidence suggesting that the influence of language demand level on text comprehension may be smaller than previously expected and may possibly be overestimated in current discussions. The research was conducted in collaboration with Prof. Lena Heine's "Language Education and Multilingualism" research area at RUB Bochum.
Hackemann, T. (2023). Textverständlichkeit sprachlich variierter physikbezogener Sachtexte. Logos-Verlag, Diss., doi: 10.30819/5675.
Hackemann, T., Heine, L., & Höttecke, D. (2022). Challenging to Read, Easy to Comprehend? Effects of Linguistic Demands on Secondary Students' Text Comprehension in Physics. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10763-022-10306-1
Hackemann, T., Heine, L. & Höttecke, D. (2021). Effects of linguistic complexity on students’ text comprehension – an experimental study. Paper presented at the ESERA conference as part of the symposium The role of language in learning science in four countries: Different languages, same conclusions? 30th-3rd September 2021 virtual.
Hackemann, T., Heine, L. & Höttecke, D. (2021). Wirkung des sprachlichen Anforderungsniveaus von Sachtexten auf Textverstehen und -wahrnehmung. In: S. Habig & H. van Vorst (Hrsg.), Unsicherheit als Element von naturwissenschaftsbezogenen Bildungsprozessen. Gesellschaft für Didaktik der Chemie und Physik, Virtuelle Jahrestagung 2021. (S. 480-483). Friedrich-Alexander-Universität.
Hackemann, T., Heine, L., & Höttecke, D. (2020). Textverständlichkeit sprachlich variierter physikbezogener Sachtexte. In S. Habig (Hrsg.), Naturwissenschaftliche Kompetenzen in der Gesellschaft für morgen (S. 306-309). GDCP, Jahrestagung in Wien 2019.
Heine, L., Domenech, M., Otto, L., Neumann, A., Krelle, M., Leiß, D., Höttecke, D., Ehmke, T. & Schwippert, K. (2018). Modellierung sprachlicher Anforderungen in Testaufgaben verschiedener Unterrichtsfächer: Theoretische und empirische Grundlagen [Modeling language requiremet levels of test items in different subjects: Theoretical and empirical foundation]. Zeitschrift für angewandte Linguistik, 69, 69-96.