By Juan Soto Franco
What a wonderful learning opportunity it is: free access to current news, a chance to look up words in a dictionary and everything on the palm of your hands. My interest for this action/classroom research began when I observed that CUNY students have free access to the digital version of the New York Times newspaper (TNYT). Plus, they all owned smartphones, and I had learned about this free app called “The Free Dictionary” (TFD) at an educational technology conference. Since most of our students are English Language Learners, a new and engaging learning opportunity was just around the corner. Then these questions crossed my mind: Would Hostos Community College (HCC) ENG 101 students’ reading comprehension improve if they looked up the unfamiliar words on TFD while reading TNYT articles? Would this app help them enhance their vocabulary?
At the beginning of the spring 2018 semester, HCC students were invited to participate in this research, create an account with TNYT and download TFD app on their smartphone. They were informed that at some point in the semester an action/classroom research would be conducted, which included the reading of an article off of TNYT followed by a reading comprehension quiz. Then, students were invited to use their HCC email account and create a free account with TNYT to access their newspaper (digital version). Also, students were prompted to download TFD free app on their smartphones. The last information provided was that these two tools (TNYT and TFD) would be necessary for this investigation.
On the very first week of the semester, the researcher created a tutorial with screen shots off of TFD app (See Appendix A) to illustrate how to share (look up a word) from an article to the dictionary app while reading on their smartphones. The tutorial was explained and discussed in class and uploaded to our course on Blackboard for future reference. It details on a step by step fashion what students need to do to search a word, learn its definition, pronunciation, synonyms, antonyms and related words as well as the use of the word in the context of a sentence. As the semester moved on, students practiced using the tools, and they felt more and more at ease with them.
Conscious about the importance of vocabulary acquisition in the learning of a second language, the use of a dictionary tends to be the helping hand when it comes to comprehension of texts. Krashen (1989) points out that language learners prioritize the use of a dictionary to master the language instead of relying on grammar texts. Further, Zhang and Annual (2008) emphasize through their research that learners’ vocabulary domain translates into a better reading comprehension. In other words, vocabulary acquisition, not only seems to be the way learners pick up a language better, but also, the way they tend to understand text better. Vocabulary knowledge works as the basis to reading comprehension just as a good foundation supports a building. Furthermore, Rashidi and Khosravi (2010) stress the idea that students with a deeper and wider scope of vocabulary perform better in reading comprehension assessments. Inversely, a small vocabulary knowledge along with limited word meaning obstruct the comprehension of a text (Garcia 1991). The mastery of the tool translates into a more efficient learning and enhancement of the language in general (Bax 2003). Such mastery needs to become so natural that students would feel that using such a tool is part of their everyday life. Hence, the comprehension of texts will turn to be more efficient.
The following hypotheses were developed on the basis of the observation and what the literature says regarding this particular topic.
a. Participants who use TFD app will have a better reading com-prehension of TNYT articles.
b. Participants’ vocabulary level will be enhanced by the use of TFD app.
An experimental method involving the use of two groups and a reading comprehension quiz was utilized during the semester of spring 2018. While reading an article off of TNYT on their smartphones, the experimental group used TFD app, but not the other the control group. Participants had downloaded TFD app on their smartphones at the beginning of the semester. Using the app, the experimental group was allowed to look up unknown words to facilitate their comprehension of the article.
The participants consisted of 26 students enrolled in the English department at Hostos Community College for ENG 101, a developmental English course. Out of this total of 26 students, 20 were females (77%) and 6 were males (33%). All these students had taken the reading and writing entry exams designed by CUNY. The group demographics split up as follows: 61% Dominicans; 20% Africans; 15% Americans and 4% Argentinians. The majority of students in this class were Latin Americans (65%). The average age of the group was 28. The class was taught by the same instructor, the researcher of this study, to minimize inconsistency due to external influences.
The Reading Material. It was based on an article from the editorial section of TNYT (See Appendix B). Students in developmental classes are expected to enhance their reading comprehension and writing skills. They also used the digital dictionary app to look up unfamiliar words and as a reading instrument since the app includes several reading sections such as The Word of the Day, Idiom of the Day, Article of the Day, Quote of the Day, This Day in History, Today’s Birthday, Today’s Holiday along with a few word games. Once this app is installed on their smartphones, students can use it any time they wanted to acquire more vocabulary.
The Quiz. The researcher created a ten-item multiple choice quiz (See Appendix C) based on an editorial article (See Appendix B). The quiz aimed to test their reading comprehension and vocabulary in the article. Colleagues in the English department at HCC field-tested the quiz. Based on their feedback, some modifications were made to the quiz to increase its reliability and validity. Students accessed the quiz by logging in to our online course component on Blackboard directly from their own smartphones.
At the beginning of the semester, the students were instructed to create a free account on TNYT using their Hostos Community College email account and to download free app TFD on their smartphones. To get familiar with these tools, they began using them right away. In mid-June, students were prompted to read a specific editorial piece (See Appendix B) on their smartphones. Said article was sent to them as a link via email. Half of the class was informed to use TFD app while the other half was not allowed to use it. After reading it, the whole class was invited to log in to our course on Blackboard and take the ten-item multiple choice reading comprehension quiz, and so they did. The quiz was graded automatically by the test feature of Blackboard out of a 100-point score.
Also some on-site brief spontaneous interviews were conducted on a volunteer basis. Basically, students were asked open-ended questions. For instance, what impact did TFD app have on your comprehension of the article? What did you like best about TFD app? Lastly, would you recommended it to anyone?
The results of the quiz were somehow attention-grabbing. The quiz was taken only by the 22 students who attended class that day: 17 females and 5 males. 50% of the students used TFD app to look up unknown words on TNYT article, but the other 50% did not. Surprisingly, the outcomes showed similar results. That is to say, in both groups, 55% of the students passed the quiz with a 60-point grade or more. Table 1 below illustrates the results of the quiz. The identities of the participants have been protected by replacing their names by their respective gender.
Table 1: Results of the reading comprehension quiz by gender and use of TFD
Some brief interviews followed the quiz and were done on a volunteer fashion to learn about the students’ perceptions related to their experience using the app. One student said, “Best app ever,” while other expressed, “Yes, it helped me understand the text better.” A third pointed out, “I can’t use the app on my iPhone.” They all agreed that TFD helped them enhance their vocabulary and were willing to recommend it. Last but not least, one students mentioned that she “not only used TFD app for our class, but also for her other classes this semester.”
Analysis and Conclusion
Based on the results shown above, it seems like the use of TFD app did not make a significant difference in the comprehension of the article students read on TNYT. In both groups, 55% of the students passed the quiz with 60 points or more. After these scores, the following questions popped up in my head: Is it worth it to use TFD app? Do students actually comprehend the article better without TFD app? What happened that the results came out to be so identical? Did the instructor/researcher’s fail to consider any factors? While in the short run the results came out to be identical; in the long run, it might be recommended to keep an eye on this type of research because it could teach us a lot about engagement with new and innovative ways of learning in the 21st century.
As far as the interviews go, all interviewed students were under the perception that TFD helped them comprehend the text; not only in our class, but also, in other classes. Further, students expressed that they would recommend TFD app because it had helped them enhance their vocabulary and encouraged them to read more. It was clear that there was more engagement in reading, accessibility and portability contributed to their involvement of their learning because of a media-richness environment.
Looking forward, it would be interesting to replicate this study with a larger sample to see what comes out. Probably, having two full classes where one uses TFD app; but not the other one, might bring up a different outcome. It would also be advisable to train and monitor students’ actual mastery of the app more effectively before testing their reading comprehension skills. The researcher was under the impression that some participants did not quite master the use of TFD app.
Prof. Linda Hirsch, Professor at Hostos Community College, English Department
Prof. Prof. Jerilyn Fisher, Chief Reader and Professor at Hostos Community College, English Department
Prof. Alice Nicholas, Lecturer at Hostos Community College, English Department
Prof. Andrew Connolly, Assistant Professor at Hostos Community College, English Department
Bax, S. (2003). CALL – past, present and future. System, 31(1), 13-28. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0346-251X(02)00071-4
Garcia, GE. Factors influencing the English reading test performance of Spanish- speaking Hispanic students. Reading Research Quarterly 1991; 26, 371-392.
Krashen, SD. We acquire vocabulary and spelling by reading: Additional evidence for the input hypothesis. The Modern Language Journal 1989; 73: 440-464.
Rashidi N, Khosravi N. Assessing the role of depth and breadth of vocabulary knowledge in reading comprehension of Iranian EFL learners. Journal of Pan-Pacific Association of Applied Linguistics 2010; 14(1), 81-108.
Zhang LJ, Anual SB. The role of vocabulary in reading comprehension: the case of secondary school students learning English in Singapore. RELC Journal 2008; 39 (1), 51-76
Appendix A: TNYT and TFD app tutorial
The Free Dictionary (TFD) in combination with the New York Times (TNYT) to enhance reading comprehension on smartphones Here is how it works:
Once you identify an unknown word on a NYT article on your smartphone, press down on it to select it
A menu will pop up. Tap on the Share option to launch the TFD app
Tap on TFD app
Voilà! The definition, pronunciation, examples and much more will be displayed
Icons help you identify synonyms, antonyms and related words
Translations of the searched word is available in different languages
Created by Juan Soto-Franco, M.A.
Appendix B: TNYT article: “Stop Letting the Russians Get Away with It, Mr. Trump.”
Stop Letting the Russians Get Away With It, Mr. Trump
By The Editorial Board Feb. 16, 2018
A “March for Truth” rally in New York in June. Credit Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images
Are you sure you still want to call it fake news, Mr. President?
For the past year, Donald Trump has repeatedly denied the existence of a profound national security threat: Russia’s attempt to interfere in the 2016 election on his behalf. He dismissed the Russian subversion effort as a hoax by his opponents and the media despite voluminous evidence to the contrary — including the consensus of the American intelligence community — that it did in fact happen, and is sure to happen again.
Now come the indictments. On Friday, Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russia’s role in the 2016 election, filed criminal charges of fraud and identity theft against 13 Russian citizens and three Russian organizations, all alleged to have operated a sophisticated influence campaign intended to “sow discord in the U.S. political system.”
One organization, the Internet Research Agency — which the indictment says is funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the “go-to oligarch” of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin — began its efforts as early as 2014, according to the indictment. Its staffers, known as “specialists,” posed as Americans and created false identities to set up social media pages and groups aimed at attracting American audiences. The broad outlines of this interference have been known publicly for a while, but the sheer scope of the deception detailed in Friday’s indictments is breathtaking.
By the spring of 2016, the operation had zeroed in on supporting Mr. Trump and disparaging Hillary Clinton. The Internet Research Agency alone had a staff of 80 and a monthly budget of $1.25 million. On the advice of a real, unnamed grass-roots activist from Texas, it had focused its efforts on swing states like Colorado, Virginia and Florida.
Staffers bought ads with messages like “Hillary is a Satan,” “Ohio Wants Hillary 4 Prison” and “Vote Republican, Vote Trump, and support the Second Amendment!”
They created hundreds of social media accounts on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other sites to confuse and anger people about sensitive issues like immigration, religion and the Black Lives Matter movement — in some cases gaining hundreds of thousands of followers.
They staged rallies while pretending to be American grass-roots organizations. A poster at one “pro-Clinton” rally in July 2016 read “Support Hillary. Save American Muslims,” along with a fabricated quote attributed to Mrs. Clinton: “I think Sharia Law will be a powerful new direction of freedom.”
As the election drew nearer, they tried to suppress minority turnout and promoted false allegations of Democratic voter fraud. The specialist running one of the organization’s Facebook accounts, called “Secured Borders,” was criticized for not publishing enough posts and was told that “it is imperative to intensify criticizing Hillary Clinton.”
After the election, they continued to spread confusion and chaos, staging rallies both for and against Mr. Trump, in one case on the same day and in the same city.
All along, they took steps to cover their tracks by stealing the identities of real Americans, opening accounts on American-based servers and lying about what their money was being used for. Last September, after Facebook turned over information about Russian ad purchases to the special counsel, a specialist named Irina Kaverzina emailed a family member: “We had a slight crisis here at work: the FBI busted our activity (not a joke). So, I got preoccupied with covering tracks together with the colleagues.” Ms. Kaverzina continued, “I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people.”
Fake news, indeed.
Mr. Trump’s defenders, desperate to exculpate him, seized on a single word — “unwitting” — that the indictment used to describe certain “members, volunteers and supporters of the Trump campaign involved in local community outreach” who had interacted with the Russians.
In other words, as the White House subtly put it in a statement on Friday, “NO COLLUSION.” The president repeated the claim himself in a tweet, grudgingly acknowledging Russia’s “anti-US campaign,” but emphasizing that it had started “long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong — no collusion!”
It’s true that, as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in an announcement, these particular indictments do not allege that any American knew about the influence campaign, nor that the campaign had changed the outcome of the election. But that’s quite different from saying that there was no collusion or impact on the election. As Mr. Rosenstein also said, the special counsel’s investigation is continuing, and there are many strands the public still knows little or nothing about.
Remember, Mr. Mueller has already secured two guilty pleas, one from Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser and another from a former campaign adviser, for lying to federal authorities about their connections to Russian government officials. He has also charged Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and his top aide, Rick Gates, with crimes including money laundering. Mr. Gates appears to be nearing a plea deal himself.
Then there were Russian cyberattacks on the elections systems of at least 39 states. And the hacking of emails sent among members of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign — which Mr. Trump openly encouraged.
This is all going to happen again. Intelligence and law enforcement authorities have made that clear. The question is whether Mr. Trump will at last accept the fact of Russian interference and take aggressive measures to protect American democracy. For starters, he could impose the sanctions on Russia that Congress overwhelmingly passed, and that he signed into law, last summer. Of course, this would require him to overcome his mysterious resistance to acting against Russia and to focus on protecting his own country.
Appendix C: 10-item multiple choice reading comprehension quiz
Read the article “Stop Letting the Russians Get Away with It, Mr. Trump” then respond to the following comprehension questions.
In general, the article “Stop Letting the Russians Get Away with It, Mr. Trump” is about
a. Donald Trump’s acceptance of Russian’s help during the 2016 election
b. Different types of evidence that led to Trump’s win
c. Donald Trump’s denial on Russians helping him win the 2016 election
d. Proving that during the last election there was no conspiracy
a. Confirmed that Russians interfered in the last presidential election
b. Filed criminal charges against Donald Trump and some Russian citizens
c. Filed criminal charges against some organizations and some Russian citizens
d. Became Donald Trump’s best friend
In paragraph 2, in the expression, “He dismissed the Russian subversion efforts as a hoax by his opponents…” The word hoax means
a. True information
b. Ambiguous news
c. A fake, false news
The Internet Research Agency was in charge of
a. Creating fake profiles of Americans on social media
b. Posting false information online in favor of Donald Trump
c. Attracting the American people’s attention
d. All of the
In paragraph 8, the term “grass-roots” refers to
a. Common, basic people
b. A selected group of sophisticated people
c. A selected group of people from Texas
d. A group of well-educated people
In paragraph 8, in the expression, “A poster at one “pro-Clinton” rally in July 2016…” What does “pro-Clinton” mean in this con-text?
a. In favor of Hillary Clinton
b. In favor of Donald Trump
c. Against Donald Trump
d. In favor of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
The Internet Research Agency staffers tried to hide evidence by
a. Lying about the destiny of their money
b. Creating accounts on American-based servers
c. Robbing real Americans’ identifications
d. All of the above
In paragraph 13, the word “collusion” is a synonym of
According to Mr. Rosenstein, the public is
a. Knowledgeable of everything that occurred during the 2016 campaign
b. Not aware of most details of the campaign
c. Well-informed about what happened during the 2016 campaign
d. None of the above
The author of the article is convinced that the Russians will
e. Interfere in the next election
f. Stop manipulating social media
g. Convince Democrats to vote for Irina Kaverzina
d. Force Donald Trump to protect the American people