Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Editor’s Note: This blog post is part of an ongoing series entitled “Research Briefs.” In these posts, we identify new research studies that are relevant to literacy instruction, summarize their findings, and explain important implications for practitioners.

Article Summarized in This Post
Reed, D. K., Jemison, E., Folsom, J. S., & Weber, A. (2019). Electronic graphic organizers for learning science vocabulary and concepts: The effects of online synchronous discussion. Journal of Experimental Education87, 552-574. doi:10.1080/00220973.2018.1496061

Vocabulary plays an important role not only in students’ literacy development, but also in their ability to learn scientific concepts (Reed, Petscher, & Truckenmiller, 2017; Taboada, 2012). Research on teaching vocabulary in science classes has often included the use of graphic organizers to help students relate words to images or other information that helps clarify the meanings and applications of the words (e.g., Dexter, Park, Hughes, 2011; Therrien, Taylor, Watt, & Kaldenberg, 2014). Although graphic organizers are common learning tools in elementary classes, there have not been as many studies that have explored specific graphic organizer templates that students must complete electronically (Ciullo & Reutebuch, 2013).

One type of graphic organizer that students might use to learn vocabulary is called the Frayer Model (Frayer, Frederick, & Klausmeier, 1969). This was originally developed as a framework for measuring what students understood about a concept, its characteristics, examples of the concept, and contrasting concepts or non-examples. Eventually, these elements were incorporated into a four-square organizer such as the one shown below.

Figure 1. Example of a Frayer Model Graphic Organizer

Graphic Organizer split up into 4 sections for the Definition, Characteristics, Examples, and Non-examples of Plant Fertilization

In addition to graphic organizers, building an understanding of the scientific concepts represented by vocabulary words also requires students to discuss what they are learning (Colley & Windschitl, 2016). By sharing their thinking with peers, students have the opportunity to practice using the science vocabulary and refine their knowledge (Puzio & Colby, 2013). Just as there is limited research on electronic graphic organizers, little is known about the role online peer-to-peer discussions in elementary school might play in helping students learn science vocabulary.

Given the increased use of technology in elementary classes, my colleagues and I thought it was important to investigate how using electronic graphic organizers and online discussions might support students in learning science vocabulary.


The study being summarized here was an experimental study (i.e., a study where participants were randomly assigned to different groups). A total of 92 fourth graders from two general education classes in a Title 1 elementary school (a school that receives federal funding to provide extra instructional support in reading) were randomly assigned to complete electronic Frayer Models either in the online partner discussion treatment (45 students) group or the independent comparison group (47 students). A statistical analysis confirmed that students in both groups had similar characteristics (gender, race/ethnicity, special education status, English learner status, pretest benchmark scores).

During the study, the two teachers taught their students 30 science lessons over 7 weeks of a school semester. Each lesson lasted approximately 45 minutes. Students in both classes completed at least two Frayer Models per week, interspersed with other hands-on science activities. The lessons focused on the heredity, reproduction, and interdependence of plants and animals. The vocabulary targeted for the Frayer Models included:

  • Stamen
  • Pistil
  • Plant reproduction
  • Germination
  • Plant fertilization
  • Pollination
  • Seed dispersal
  • Nymph
  • Metamorphosis
  • Animal characteristics
  • Heredity
  • Dormancy
  • Migration
  • Food chain
  • Animal consumer

Students always read about a concept before completing a graphic organizer on it. After learning about the Frayer Model, students in both classes were encouraged to use other resources available online, such as graphics, in order to complete their Frayer Models. Both teachers opened the lessons with a review of the science concepts students were learning.

In the online discussion treatment group, the teacher paired students of slightly different ability levels, using the district benchmark reading and science results. The benchmark had four performance levels (Levels 1-4), so students first were organized by their reading performance level. Students in reading Level 1 were paired with peers in Level 3 who had similar levels of performance on the science benchmark. Likewise, students in reading Level 2 were paired with peers in Level 4 who had similar levels of performance on the science benchmark. This method of pairing was intended to provide students with lower reading performance appropriate support and a more balanced opportunity for both partners to contribute to the Frayer Models. The pairs were assigned to complete a Frayer Model together.

The pairs were seated individually at computers in different locations throughout the room so that they could not speak directly to each other. They used the online chat feature or the notes section of the electronic organizer for written discussion in real time, or synchronously. They were not able to communicate via audio or video. The partners were to communicate about the content they wanted to include on their jointly completed Frayer Models, so they had to help each other find the information and come to a consensus on what was added or omitted.

Students in the comparison group completed their Frayer Models electronically as well, but they did so by themselves. They could ask the teacher questions, but they could not discuss their work with a peer—either in person or online.

At the end of the lessons in both groups, the teacher reviewed the Frayer Models with the class to clarify students’ understanding. The fidelity of the teachers’ and students’ implementation of the procedures was monitored throughout the study. The only procedure not implemented with 100% fidelity involved asking students questions during the review of the science concepts. Both teachers omitted this about 18% of the time.

Students took the district science benchmark before the study began and after it ended. In addition, their completed Frayer Models were evaluated for quality with a rubric that included the following yes/no criteria:

  1. The definition was accurate.
  2. The definition was stated in students’ own words.
  3. There were three or more characteristics.
  4. The characteristics helped to distinguish examples of the concept from non-examples.
  5. There were three or more examples.
  6. The examples met all of the characteristics.
  7. There were three or more non-examples.
  8. The non-examples were related to the concept but did not meet all characteristics.

Findings: A Path to Better Science Learning Through Reading Ability

We analyzed the data in different ways as appropriate. First, we used statistical tests to confirm that students within each group significantly improved their science benchmark scores. The results indicated that, on average, students in both groups had similar improvement. The students who completed the Frayer Models by having written online discussions with their peers had an effect size of 0.60, and those who completed their Frayer Models independently had an effect size of 0.61. This means that, on average, all students at posttest demonstrated over one-half of a standard deviation improvement from the pretest mean. We considered that to be moderate but not exceptional growth.

Because the analysis described above explored changes in students’ science knowledge within each group, we needed to use a separate statistical test to determine whether there were differences in improvements between the two groups. The students who completed the Frayer Models in the online discussion group had slightly higher scores on average than the students who completed the organizers individually, but we found no statistically significant differences in the groups’ posttest science performance. The online discussion group was quite small, d = 0.176, indicating students in the online discussion group had less than 0.2 of a standard deviation of improvement over the mean of the group completing the Frayer Models independently. With no statistically or practically significant effects, we cannot say that online discussion made a difference in student performance. However, we also wanted to know whether the quality of the Frayer Models each group completed was associated with their posttest science benchmark performance.

Therefore, our final analysis used the rubric scores in what is known as a multigroup path analysis. This allowed us to explore how students’ pretest reading and science abilities contributed to the quality of their Frayer Models, and how students’ pretest scores and the Frayer Model rubric scores contributed to their posttest science performance.

In both groups, students’ pretest reading ability contributed to the scores they received on their Frayer Models, but their pretest science ability did not. We might expect that reading ability would support completing a vocabulary strategy when the target words were science concepts the students did not previously know. The path analysis also showed that the quality of students’ Frayer Models contributed to their posttest science performance. In other words, reading ability was related to Frayer Model quality which, in turn, was related to science learning.

The path analysis also revealed an important difference between the online discussion group and the group who worked independently. The online discussion group showed a stronger path from reading ability to Frayer Model quality to science learning, compared to those who completed their Frayer Models independently.


The discussion component in this study was limited to what students could share in online chats and notes, and it was very task-oriented to complete the graphic organizer—as opposed to a discussion that is more probing of ideas or directed at scientific problem-solving. Therefore, the discussion was not of the same quality as might be fostered by a teacher (Colley & Windschitl, 2016). Moreover, we did not have a group of students who were learning the science content without completing Frayer Models, so it is not possible to know if the Frayer Models were influential in students’ improved posttest science performance or how much the vocabulary component of the instruction added to students’ learning beyond the other components the teachers delivered. 

Implications: Reading and Technology as Potential Supports for Science Instruction

The stronger contribution of the quality of the students’ Frayer Models to their posttest science performance in the online discussion group suggests that the peer-to-peer support may have supported the relationship between reading and science. We also noted that the record of the online chats and notes kept both partners accountable for participating in the completion of the graphic organizer. Equal participation is often a concern when a slightly lower ability student is paired with a higher ability student, as was the case with our pairs.

The collaboration meant that students took slightly longer to complete the Frayer Models than students working independently. Although the average 6 minutes and 45 seconds of extra work were not excessive in one lesson, it would add up over multiple lessons. For example, students completed 15 Frayer Models in our study, which equates to 101 min of extra time spent on the work in the online discussion group. That is just over two days’ worth of science instruction in the elementary school where our study took place, so we would want to see more benefit of the online discussion on students’ science performance to justify the time spent collaborating.

Additional research is needed, but our study identified the potential ways that technology and reading might support students in learning science concepts.


Ciullo, S. P., & Reutebuch, C. (2013). Computer-based graphic organizers for students with LD: A systematic review of literature. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice28, 196-210. doi:10.1111/ldrp.12017

Colley, C., & Windschitl, M. (2016). Rigor in elementary science students’ discourse: The role of responsiveness and supportive conditions for talk. Science Education100, 1009-1038. doi:10.1002/sce.21243

Dexter, D. D., Park, Y. J., & Hughes, C. A. (2011). A meta-analytic review of graphic organizers and science instruction for adolescents with learning disabilities: Implications for the intermediate and secondary science classroom. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice26, 204-213. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5826.2011.00341.x

Frayer, D., Frederick, W., & Klausmeier, H. (1969). A schema for testing the level of concept mastery. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Center for Education.

Puzio, K., & Colby, G. T. (2013). Cooperative learning and literacy: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness6, 339-360. doi:10.1080/19345747.2013.775683

Reed, D. K., Petscher, Y., & Truckenmiller, A. J. (2017). The contribution of general reading ability to science achievement. Reading Research Quarterly52, 253-266. doi:10.1002/rrq.158

Taboada, A. (2012). Relationships of general vocabulary, science vocabulary, and student questioning with science comprehension in students with varying levels of English proficiency. Instructional Science40, 901-923. doi:10.1007/s11251-011-9196-z

Therrien, W. J., Taylor, J. C., Watt, S., & Kaldenberg, E. R. (2014). Science instruction for students with emotional and behavioral disorders. Remedial and Special Education35, 15-27. doi:10.1177/0741932513503557