Supported electronic text is a form of hypertext applied to instructional materials in ways designed to increase reading comprehension and to promote content-area learning.
The concept was first proposed by Horney and Anderson-Inman in the late 1990s (1997; 1998) and has been expanded in recent years to reflect a growing body of literature and new examples for its use in the curriculum (Anderson-Inman, 2004; Anderson-Inman & Horney, 2007). The underlying assumption of supported eText is that text and/or other expository or narrative content, once transferred into an electronic environment, can be infused with additional text and/or media in ways that promote better understanding than what the author intended to communicate. In addition, the concept assumes that such eTexts can be structurally presented or organized in ways that accommodate individual learning needs and styles, or can facilitate the accomplishment of targeted instructional objectives. Together, it is assumed that these enhancements can help readers overcome the perceptual, conceptual, and comprehension hurdles found in the instructional materials they are asked to read and comprehend toward meeting some learning objective.
A “supported eText” consists of a triad: a “source text” containing the content being studied; a suite of “resources” designed to assist students in reading, comprehending and learning from the source text; and a “system” which conveys the source text and the resources. The system might consist of a free standing computer application, or an interactive website, or a reading environment such as the Kurzweil 3000 (Kurzweil), the WYNN Wizard (Freedom Scientific), or Read OutLoud (Don Johnston), into which a source text is imported. The source text might be a math textbook, quizzes and tests, handouts, worksheets, homework problems, or any of other many types of instructional materials in use in math classrooms. One of the MeTRC research groups identified 45 different items in use in just two 7th grade classrooms.
The distinguishing characteristic of a supported eText, however, is its resources. The resources chosen to support a specific source text depend on the characteristics of that text, the characteristics of the student(s) using the text, and the requirements of the specific reading or learning task that the student is undertaking. For instance, students with vision or hearing impairments will need translations of the inaccessible parts of the text into an alternative form of representation such as spoken text, or Braille, or closed captioning. Students with mobility disabilities will need alternative mechanisms for operating the eText reading system. Students missing background information may need vocabulary support, explanations, illustrations, or instruction on those concepts. Students with poor executive functions may need assistance with meta-cognitive reading and study strategies. Students will need writing tools for note taking and communication tools for collaborating with their peers and consulting their teachers. Each student requires access to a specific set of resources that build upon their strengths, and mitigate their weaknesses in reading, comprehending and learning from the source text.
The resources provided for a given source text are also dependent on the nature of that text. Some “texts” are precisely that: words, sentences and paragraphs. However, in this increasingly multimedia age, the flow of a narrative or exposition might be carried along by a sequence of images or video or audio or animation, in addition to a flow of words. In other cases, the source text might be very inter and/or intratextual in its rhetoric. That is, that its parts frequently reference other parts and sections, and/or other documents. This means that readers will need mechanisms for navigating in this landscape. Each text contains its own set of features and quirks that require support from the eText resources.
The selection of resources is driven by how the reader intends to use the text. When a student is reading for entertainment, it may not be critical to understand what all the words mean or to clarify passages that are confusing. The resources needed in such situations may be concentrated on features of the reading system, rather than some suite of cognitive scaffolds. Light, portable eReaders such as Kindles and iPads capable of holding dozens of books, and incorporating basic options for viewing and searching are becoming increasingly popular for this purpose.
In schools, students reviewing ideas learned in class while doing their homework, or studying for a test, will need different resources than if they are attempting to learn something altogether new through reading a text. In the first two cases the resources likely need to remind, reiterate, and reinforce the classroom pedagogy. When learning something new, students need more robust and sophisticated resources that can adapt to the special needs of the individual student, who is working to achieve a specified outcome.
The need for adaptability is a key concept underpinning the conceptual framework of supported eText. Printed books after all are full of resources. They have tables of contents, indexes, and page numbers to assist navigation. They have margin notes, footnotes, glossaries, appendices, pictures, maps, and diagrams for providing explanations and visualization. However, no matter how robust this collection of resources might be, they are frozen on the printed page. To get something different, you must get a different book. In an electronic reading environment, you can just go to the preferences and turn on the resources you need, and turn off those that you don’t. A supported eText can adjust itself to you, and your context, rather than forcing you to adjust to it.