Why we do what we do…
The learning science behind STORYWORLD
STORYWORLD is supported by significant academic research in language acquisition and was developed during 3 years of in-school research with teachers and students.

The following is an overview of key research findings that support our approach to learning:

1. The Cognitive Power of Stories

Research in neuroscience has demonstrated that stories stimulate many parts of our brain, beyond the portions that focus on language processing alone (Boulenger & Nazir, 2010; González et al., 2006). Specifically, storytelling enhances language fluency, vocabulary acquisition, recall and concentration (Farrell & Nessel, 1982; Maguire, 1985; Wright & Dunsmuir, 2019). Research has also shown that stories, accompanied by visual aids such as pictures, help students acquire content better and result in improved reading and writing (Carney & Levin, 2002).

STORYWORLD’s approach to language learning is through stories with abundant visual clues embedded in each narrative and throughout follow-up exercises.

2.Content-based Learning

Significant research suggests that second language acquisition is most successful when instruction is focused on meaning – or content – rather than on form – such as grammar. Instruction is also more effective when students engage in meaningful use of that language in a relatively anxiety-free environment (Brinton, Snow & Wesche, 1989; Krashen, 1985; Savignon, 2018)

STORYWORLD’s narratives focus on meaningful content that provide abundant opportunities for students to engage with the content in an enjoyable, non-threatening way.

3. Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

The Zone of Proximal Development is the area where the material to be learned is just outside the competence of the student, but can be acquired with outside assistance or “scaffolding.” According to sociocultural learning theory, the ZPD is where the greatest learning gains occur (Moll, 2014; Vygotsky, (1987).

For language learners, scaffolds include more home language (L1) support, translations, images, and other supports that enable them to more easily comprehend what they are learning. Because these scaffolds help to support comprehensible input (Ellis, 2012), these scaffolds have been shown to help ELs improve overall academic success regardless of the educational context (Anton & DiCamilla, 1998; NASEM, 2017, 2018; Swain & Lapkin, 2000; Watanabe, 2008).

STORYWORLD provides learning scaffolds that allow each student to decode the meaning of each story at each level according to her/his language needs – exactly within their ZPD – so they are challenged but never bored or frustrated.

4. Language Practice in Multiple Modalities

Evidence suggests that increased instructional practice in all four language modalities – reading, listening, speaking and writing – improves academic vocabulary and overall language proficiency (IES-NCEE, 2014).
Reading & Vocabulary: In order to read successfully, students must be able to comprehend what they are reading. Vocabulary knowledge is essential for all literacy learning (Nagy & Townsend, 2012). For language learners to develop language and literacy proficiency, vocabulary (including academic vocabulary) is considered an essential factor in language proficiency and success in school because of the close relationship between text and comprehension (Bernhardt, 2005; Echevarria, Vogt, and Short, 2004; IES-NCEE, 2007, 2014; Nation, 2001; Schmitt, & Schmitt, 2020; Snow, 2002).

STORYWORLD has a strong focus on vocabulary development and comprehension as part of the overall reading experience.

Listening: Robust research supports the idea that listening comprehension is a decisive factor in reading comprehension (Biemiller, 1999, Garcia & Cain 2014; Verhoeven & Van Leeuwe, 2008). Listening comprehension contributes directly to reading comprehension and reading fluency (Yaghoub, et al., 2012). For EL’s, researchers agree that until English listening vocabulary is well established, the skills that they can import from listening into reading cannot come into play (Alderson, 2000; August & Shanahan (2006).

All STORYWORLD’s narratives and games include embedded audio to support listening skills.

Speaking: Significant evidence supports integration of speaking into language instruction. Oral proficiency is associated with well-developed reading comprehension skills (August & Shanahan, 2006; IES-NCEE (2014). Oral proficiency is especially important for younger language learners because early delays in speaking skills can be reflected in low levels of reading comprehension, which can then lead to lack of academic success in the future (Beattie & Ellis, 2017).

STORYWORLD includes integration of speaking skills throughout each story’s exercises. Students practice speaking either samples from the text or create original narrations to send to the teacher for review and feedback.

Writing: Language learners benefit from writing that extends and deepens understanding of the material and writing practice should start as soon as possible (IES-NCEE, 2014; Lems, Miller & Soro (2017). The need for an early beginning of writing practice is particularly acute for ELs because good writing takes a long time to develop. Educators are encouraged to “provide continuous, structured opportunities for Els to develop writing skills by ensuring that writing assignments contain academic content and language” (IES-NCEE, 2014).

All STORYWORLD narratives include opportunities to write answers to prompts that go “beyond the text,” including inference and opinion questions to send to the teacher for review and feedback.

5. First Language as a Bridge

According to extensive evidence from the US and abroad, literacy developed in the primary language transfers to the second language. With respect to ELs, there is strong evidence that continued support of the home language is of considerable benefit to language learners’ overall academic success (August, Carlo, Dressler & Snow, 2005; August & Shanahan, 2006; Bell & Bogan, 2013; Cook, 2001; Cummins, 2015; Fillmore, 1991; García, 2009; Riches & Genesee, 2006; Silverman, 2007; Ulanoff & Pucci, 1999; Woodall, 2002).

STORYWORLD provides bilingual scaffolds throughout every story with word-by-word audio support in the first and second language and full first-language translations to help learners transition more easily from their first language to the target language. Scaffolds can be turned off if deemed no longer necessary or supportive of learning goals.

6. High Engagement

A significant body of research supports the relationship between student engagement and academic performance, including second language acquisition. By “engagement” we include: behavioral, emotional, and cognitive engagement which suggests students are exerting the necessary mental effort to understand and master the knowledge (Fredricks, 2014; Mahdikhani & Rezaei, 2015; Mercer, 2019; Philp & Duchesne, 2016).

STORYWORLD was developed to engender and maintain high engagement throughout all learning activities.

According to 2019 research on STORYWORLD:
“Student engagement was extremely high across all classrooms. Students read the books enthusiastically, in some cases clicking specific words to hear the audio re-read to them. Because students found the content highly engaging, researchers did not observe any students being off-task while using the STORYWORLD e-books. Many students chose to read more than one book in a single session and relished getting a high point value on the gold star at the end of each e-book. The teachers appreciated that the platform inspired renewed interest in reading.” (WestEd, 2019).

7. Real-time Evaluations to Guide Instruction

Research shows that teachers are better able to intervene with effective support when provided with actionable data in real time on each student (Colombo, McMakin, Jacobs, & Shestok, 2013; Samson & Collins, 2012; Task Force on Educator Excellence, 2012). According to research on preventive measures for ELs at risk for learning disabilities (Haager & Windmueller, 2001), an effective reading intervention program should address three important needs: (a) identifying students in need of supplemental instruction, (b) guiding instructional planning, and (c) monitoring student progress.

STORYWORLD’s Formative Evaluation Dashboard (FED) provides teachers with an easy tool for monitoring student progress and identifying students who are most at risk of falling behind. The FED provides actionable data in real-time designed to guide individual and group instruction and facilitate tracking of each learner’s proficiency in reading, listening, speaking and writing as well as overall progress over time.

2019 Research Conclusions by WestEd

A consistent finding in a Feasibility study conducted in 2019 (as well as prior Usability studies) is that STORYWORLD is highly engaging for students. Research revealed that student engagement was particularly exemplified by the students’ veracious appetite for STORYWORLD e-books. While only required to read one book per setting, many students chose to read more than one book, citing excitement about the content. The gamification aspects of the platform engendered friendly competition among peers, motivating the students to retry the e-book and improve their score. Students also cooperatively helped their classmates in a positive attempt to assist ones who were struggling.

The 2019 study included 44 ELL students (27 first grade, 17 second grade) across four classrooms (2 first grade, 2 second grade) and focused on students’ attitudes toward reading, the results showed that overall. The mean total scores of participating students on both the Self- Concept as a Reader and Value of Reading sub-scales increased after two weeks of using the STORYWORLD product, with statistically significant differences between the classroom’s score changes from pre to post. Teachers articulated that the STORYWORLD product would be a very useful tool in their classrooms and could be integrated into their curriculum for ELA or ELL support.

Researchers concluded that STORYWORLD was a positive reading experience for students and it reflected in the potential for improved attitudes from pre-to-post intervention. Teachers also appreciated using STORYWORLD as a supplement to their curriculum, indicating that it served as a fun way to integrate more reading practice into a student’s day (WestEd, 2019).

Link to citations

Links to summary research reports:
1. 2018 Study of Promise Research (pdf)
Conducted by: WestEd

2. 2019 Usability & Feasibility Research (pdf)
Conducted by: WestEd

3. Improving EL Language Proficiency Through a Multimodal Language Software Platform (pdf)
WestEd/STORYWORLD
Published by American Educational Research Association, 2020

4. Selected Educator Comments (pdf)
From research conducted by WestEd
2017-2019