Associate Professor Deborah MacPhee is a sought-after literacy expert, particularly for her research in retrospective miscue analysis. The practice helps readers understand and improve their skills by listening to their own recorded out-loud readings, identifying where miscues occurred, and discussing the thinking involved during reading.
Until recently, many whole-language educators considered miscue analysis to be the most effective way to assess and improve a person’s reading and comprehension abilities. However, Eye Movement Miscue Analysis (EMMA) labs are taking that work a step further.
In 2018 MacPhee brought eye-tracking to Illinois State’s Mary and Jean Borg Center for Reading and Literacy, where she serves as its director. There are currently only 10–15 EMMA labs around the world, and fewer than half possess the high-powered eye-tracking software being used in the Borg Center.
“We are merging these two methodologies to better understand the cognitive processes and strategies that readers are using as they read,” MacPhee said.
MacPhee explains that the lab combines a largely qualitative approach (miscue analysis) with an exclusively quantitative one (eye-tracking software) capable of providing precise data about a person’s eye movements. When reading text aloud, people’s eyes work several words ahead of their voices. The dichotomy between sight and sound is observable through the use of an infrared camera that takes up to 2,000 images per second.
“I started hearing people at literacy conferences talking about these labs and thought, ‘Wow, that’s really powerful,’” she said.
“There are a lot of opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration, and the equipment can be used for developing knowledge about reading across content areas and the reading process in general.”
Soon after acquiring the technology, she went on sabbatical to observe the inner workings of two EMMA labs up close. She also received training from the technology manufacturer.
For the past two semesters, the Borg Center has been using the new technology to assess and tutor young readers and their families across Central Illinois. Participants are ages 8-12 and engage in pre- and post-EMMA sessions that evaluate their eye movements. In addition to words-per-minute, the equipment measures several intricate aspects of how a reader’s eyes move across a page.
The technologies also help MacPhee to determine if her tutoring practices are improving young learners’ reading and comprehension. The data she collects will fuel a research project that informs the field and shifts perspectives.
“I hope that the research we do here supports a more complex understanding of the reading process, and as a result, makes its way to policy. There are a lot of people advocating right now for very scripted reading instruction, which I would argue does not take into consideration all the areas of reading that could be addressed instructionally,” she said.
“I think it’s really important for teachers to understand how the eyes move during reading and the connections to the brain and what that means for how we construct meaning from print. Not just reading a page but working through the process of comprehending.”
The lab is already saving community members’ time, money, and stress when it comes to helping their children read and comprehend passages.
One mother commented that her child preferred the EMMA lab to the for-profit learning centers in town. The mother herself was thrilled with the experience, as well. MacPhee and her doctoral-level graduate assistants used multiple assessments and measures to paint a more detailed picture of the learner’s needs—which were previously labeled as dyslexia.
“Her mean fixation duration was 237 milliseconds, which based on previous research, exceeds the average for same-grade peers,” MacPhee said. “Research has shown that readers with dyslexia typically have much longer fixations. Instead of applying that label and moving on, we are engaging in an ongoing process that is telling us more about the reader’s needs.”
MacPhee says the participant’s pre-EMMA session indicated high frequencies of fixations (looking at each word more than once) and regressions (looking back at previous words) indicating potential fluency issues. They determined that repeated readings of the same text would help the reader establish a rhythm and avoid constant starts and stops.
Parents also laud the cost-effectiveness of the lab and the graduate students’ attention to detail.
“Not only does my child get to read content she is interested in and relevant to what she is learning in school, but the graduate students make it fun for her,” said one student’s parent. “She enjoys coming here.”
Thus far, the work has served 10 young readers and employed several undergraduate and graduate-level assistants. Joe Durling and Thunsinee (Gift) Muangthong are both working toward their doctorates in teaching and learning.
“The work in the EMMA lab is interesting to me because it gets at a more quantitative approach, and you have a different way of answering questions and defining things like, ‘What is a good reader?’” said Durling, who previously taught at a Montessori school and currently serves as an instructor at the College of DuPage.
Durling was also MacPhee’s first graduate assistant in the lab, and he worked side-by-side with her to ensure the set-up would be effective. The technical issues were tedious, but for Durling, the payoff was worth the wait.
“It has been exciting to be in a position to make sense of something that has not been done before.”
Though the tutoring and evaluation of each reader’s data is extensive, Muangthong says MacPhee keeps the environment positive for both the participants and the student workers.
“Every time that we face a problem with a student, we work together to formulate a hypothesis and next steps. We then evaluate different strategies that may be a part of the answer for helping that student,” said Muangthong, who served as a high school teacher in Thailand before coming to Illinois State.
“Dr. MacPhee is a very encouraging teacher for both us and the young readers. She’s trying to help them to improve and to reinforce their positive thinking about learning. So, we often talk about motivation and using that in combination with reading strategies.”
In the coming years, MacPhee says she plans to more fully integrate the work taking place in the EMMA lab with pre-service and graduate-level course work. She is also hopeful that the positive impact of the work will lead to additional funding and, as a result, increased capacity to serve more community members.
Among the other research projects she has on the docket is to engage with an ophthalmologist.
“Doctors now are assessing children through their tracking abilities,” she said. “I am interested in working with an eye doctor to better understand, from a medical perspective, how they view eye movements on text.”
Collaboration will continue to be a point of emphasis for MacPhee. She is connected to an EMMA network of researchers who meet via video conference once a month to share industry updates, tips, and to bounce ideas off one another. She is also part of Illinois State’s Multidisciplinary Committee and said that her door is always open.
“This work is about advancing what we know about literacy and how to best serve all young readers,” MacPhee said. “I believe every area has something important to contribute.”