Keyword app demystifies the language of textbooks

30 May 2014

Joanna Norton, founder of the Keywords English app

Keywords English founder Joanna Norton is on a mission to make learning more accessible and interesting for students, she tells Claire O’Connell.

If you have ever read paragraphs in a textbook, and then blankly re-read them, still none the wiser about what they mean, you are not alone. The academic language of textbooks can be difficult for students to figure out, creating a barrier to learning, according to Joanna Norton, who has developed an app to help school students and their teachers to get to grips with vocabulary.

Banking on better comprehension

Called Keywords English, the app looks to support all young people with the academic language of school, according to Norton.

“We know the academic language used in textbooks, particularly in second level, causes huge challenges for young people,” she explains, pointing out that even basic words can have multiple meanings depending on the context. “Take the word ‘bank’ – in a geography class, you might have a bank of clouds, then students go into a science class and learn about a blood bank. Then in a history or English class they hear about banks of Tiber, and of course there is the local bank, too.”

Inspired by her own experience in teaching and by research carried out at Trinity College Dublin on the range of vocabulary that causes difficulty, Norton set out to design and make an app to improve language comprehension and demystify technical academic terms used for particular topics. So far, versions are available that cover photosynthesis and the parts of plants.

Early mobile homework

Norton, who was born in Dublin and studied international development before moving into teaching, is no stranger to being inventive with technology in the classroom. When she was teaching in London in the 1990s, she began texting her students key items of vocabulary that she wanted them to spell, pronounce or define the next day in class.

“The deal was that if the students answered those questions and I was able to see they were doing some homework, then I wouldn’t ask them anything else in class,” she recalls. “Bringing them into the learning process gradually this way was so successful – it was breaking down learning and making it accessible to young people who did not like formal learning.”

Technology to learn

Mobile technology has moved on since then, and Norton saw an opportunity when she heard about research at Trinity that looked at English vocabulary in textbooks which tend to confuse learners whose first language is not English. As Norton explains, many students who do speak English as a first language still struggle with such terms, so she was driven to develop an app to help everyone.

To prepare, she interviewed around 500 16-year-olds across a range of schools in Ireland about their views on learning and mobile technology.

“We really have to listen to young people about what it is they want to do, and how they want to learn,” she says.

Norton’s results showed that biology was a relatively popular STEM subject, with 75pc of respondents liking it, but physics trailed at 11pc, and none of the female students said they liked it. The better news was that the students were generally keen on using mobile technology to learn. So Norton worked with a gaming company to develop the app and user interface, but kept strong instructional design principals at its core.

So far, the results have been showing a positive effect in practice, she says, citing a study she carried out in the UK: of four 15-year-old users who were struggling readers, three substantially improved their comprehension skills using the app over the course of six weeks.

The initial Keywords English app launched in 2012 and this autumn Norton plans to release a ‘super app’ that keeps the foundations of literacy and encourages higher-order thinking skills.

Rebrand STEM for interest

Norton is an advocate for making STEM subjects relevant and interesting for learners.

“STEM needs to be rebranded and marketed to young people,” she says. “Most of the young people that I have dealt with don’t want to do science and maths. Instead you need to be able to identify what they are interested in and use that to increase learning and engagement in STEM.”

She provides language support for students at London College of Fashion, and uses their interests as a platform for learning.

“I work with a lot of design students and we approach STEM from a design perspective and embed maths within that. They are highly motivated to learn design, but are less motivated to learn maths.

“Undoubtedly STEM is embedded in all our lives and it is going to increase, so I would advise students not to be put off by STEM – instead try to see it through what interests you – it makes more sense when you can understand the relevance.”

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication