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Hypertext as a Tool for Building ESL Students’ Reading Skills:

A Pilot Study

Loretta F. Kasper

Kingsborough Community College/CUNY

Recent research (Kasper, 2000; Lomicka, 1998; Soe et al., 2000; Warschauer, 1999) suggests that hypertext can provide an effective tool for developing reading skills. Because hypertext is a relatively new textual medium, and because it is likely to become more dominant in the future, research is needed so that both reading instructors and students may be empowered to use hypertext to its full advantage. This paper describes the pilot phase of a two-year controlled research study of the features, design, and effects of hypertext on the development of the reading skills of high intermediate level1 college ESL students.

Mishra et al. (1996) note that well-designed hypertext systems can facilitate active interaction between readers and texts and can promote cognitive flexibility necessary for the integration and consolidation of knowledge gleaned from a variety of sources. Although nonlinear hypertext can offer students many benefits, Rouet and Levonen (1996) advise that without overt instruction in how to navigate hypertext effectively, students may become lost in a sea of information, potentially experiencing cognitive overload. Foltz (1996) further cautions that hypertext may present a problem for students with poor reading skills.  Having to choose where to go next can take students’ attention away from processing the text, with the possible result that they generate fewer hypotheses as they read, making it harder for them to integrate the information presented. Foltz’ work pointed to two key factors in hypertext comprehension: (1) the coherence of the text and (2) how the reader’s goals affected strategies used. 

My two-year study seeks to investigate and assess the role of hypertext in developing ESL students’ reading comprehension skills. The pilot study, conducted during the 2001-2002 academic year, focused on developing and testing different types of hypertexts with a total of 50 high intermediate students enrolled in two different sections of an integrated reading and writing course.

 In keeping with the different experimental conditions to be tested in Phase 2 of the study, I constructed several types of hypertexts, each based upon topics studied in the course.  The five types were: (1) glosses, in which links provide popup vocabulary definitions, (2) controlled hypertexts, in which links lead to a predetermined and limited number of texts on the topic, (3) free hypertexts, in which students are directed to freely explore the Internet for other texts related to the topic, (4) controlled hypertexts with glosses, and (5) free hypertexts with glosses.

 The pilot study tested and compared these hypertexts. It measured the effects of each on students’ performance on reading comprehension tasks. An online feedback questionnaire assessed students’ reactions to the effectiveness and ease of use of each type of hypertext.

The majority of students reported that they found gloss hypertexts to be the most useful; of these gloss hypertexts, the controlled hypertexts with glosses were rated the easiest to use and the most effective. In contrast free hypertexts, with or without glosses, were rated the most difficult to use. Students’ performance on reading comprehension exercises mirrored their preferences. Scores on gloss hypertexts, particularly controlled gloss hypertexts, were significantly higher than those on free hypertexts.

Students’ said that gloss hypertexts enabled them to read with greater comprehension because these texts provided easy access to the definitions of new vocabulary words. They said that controlled hypertexts made the text clearer by providing links to specific relevant information. Students’ preference for controlled hypertext supports Foltz’ (1996) claims that text coherence plays a powerful role in students’ comprehension of hypertext.

Overall students disliked free hypertext because they found it confusing. They complained that free hypertext led to too much information, making it easy to get lost in exploring the links and forget about the main topic. They also said sorting through and evaluating the usefulness of all the different definitions and opinions on the topic was time-consuming. In addition, free hypertext was intimidating to students who were less experienced with the computer. These results support the claims of both Foltz (1996) and Rouet & Levonen (1996), and are particularly interesting since students here received instruction both in how to navigate hypertext and in how to evaluate information found on the Web.

            Overall the pilot study has provided student feedback and performance data that support the claims of previous researchers and has also helped to elucidate issues that need further attention in Phase 2 of the study. Student feedback and performance data indicate that glosses facilitate comprehension. Therefore hypertexts used in developmental reading courses should incorporate glosses. The results of the pilot study also suggest that students need more extensive training in how to navigate hypertexts. In addition, students’ exploration of free hypertexts needs to be more carefully evaluated, with data collected on the number and content of the sites visited. It is possible that with increased instruction and practice, students will experience less information overload with free hypertexts, and they may become more proficient at finding and pursuing links that lead them to more coherent, and more useful, free hypertexts.


1 High intermediate here refers to an entry-level TOEFL score of approximately 425.


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Kasper, L. F. (2000). New technologies, new literacies: Focus discipline research

and ESL learning communities.  Language Learning and Technology, 4(2). [Online]. Available:

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Mishra, P., Spiro, R. J., & Feltovich, P. J. (1996). Technology, representation,

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Soe, K., Koki, S., & Chang, J. M. (2000). Effect of computer-assisted instruction

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Biographical Information: Loretta F. Kasper, Ph.D. is Professor of English at Kingsborough Community College/CUNY. She regularly teaches sustained content courses with an Internet component. Dr. Kasper has published several books, book chapters and numerous scholarly articles on her work. She serves on the editorial review boards of several journals and is the Kingsborough liaison to the CUNY Online program.