Using eye-tracking to research the cognitive processes of multinational readers during an IELTS reading test


Stephen Bax

Date Published:

1st March 2015

This article reports on a research project which used eye-tracking technology to investigate the eye movements of a group of multinational students completing IELTS (International English Language Testing System) test items. It represents the first attempt to use such technology to gain insights into the cognitive processes of students of different nationalities and languages as they read test passages and respond to test items.

The approach shadowed earlier successful research reported in Bax (2013a and 2013b). One limitation of that research was the use of a single nationality (Malaysian) group, leaving open the possibility that the cognitive operations of readers of other nationalities with different first languages, as revealed through eye movements and other methods, might be patterned in different ways.

A further limitation of that research was that it was restricted to analysing local reading only. For this reason, the present study drew on the success of that earlier research, in terms of following its approach and methodology, but investigated a carefully selected multinational group and additional dimensions of their reading and test-taking behaviour not explored in the earlier study, through the use of the eye-tracking technology.

A cohort of multinational students (n=41) took an IELTS test which consisted of 11 test items and two authentic IELTS reading passages, delivered in onscreen mode to facilitate effective eye-tracking, carefully following the methodology of the Bax (2013b) study so as to allow for valid comparison. A random selection of these candidates was then made for eye-tracking analysis (n=30), and a sample of the same candidates (n=20) followed a retrospective stimulated recall procedure in which they reported on their reading. As in the earlier study, comparison was then made between successful and unsuccessful test candidates in terms of their eye movements and verbal reports.

The findings from this multinational group complement and extend the earlier research on a single nationality group in important ways. Significant differences were identified between successful and unsuccessful test-takers on a number of dimensions, differing in some respects from the findings of the earlier study. Areas of commonality included aspects of expeditious reading (Khalifa and Weir 2009), and various ways in which successful and unsuccessful readers focus differently on particular aspects of the test items and texts.

The research, therefore, offers significant additional insights from this new technology into the cognitive processing of multinational IELTS candidates in ways which could improve our development of reading test items, and also our preparation of candidates for reading tests.