organisms). Children’s life experiences of learning about what different living things “eat” creates a common perception of eating as an
active process (this eats that). This view confounds their reading of
the diagram because the arrows have a different (conventional) meaning than their expectations.
Example 2: Arrow Meaning
RESEARCHER: Have a look at this diagram for me. What do you think is
MICK: Well, ah, so the bird is eating the frog, the frog is eating the snail
and the butterfly, and the snail and butterfly is eating the plant.
RESEARCHER: Okay, and what do the arrows mean?
MICK: Well when you, what it eats is that.
In direct contrast to Norma, Mick started reading from the opposite
end of the diagram, at the bird. The presence and direction of the
arrows did not affect his reading approach. Mick invented his
own definition of arrow meaning, “what it eats is that,” to compensate for the arrows facing the opposite direction. An underlying
intuition that “the biggest animal is most important” likely influenced Mick’s choice of starting point in reading the diagram.
Example 3: Reading Pathway
RESEARCHER: Can you tell me what is happening in this diagram please?
ELAINE: The pot plant [pause] the snail, the pot plant. The snail would
come to the pot plant. The butterfly would come to the pot
plant. The snail will eat a bit of the pot plant and the butterfly
will eat a bit of the pot plant. Then the frog will eat the butterfly and the snail, and the kookaburra will eat the frog.
RESEARCHER: What do you the arrows mean in this diagram?
ELAINE: Going on.
RESEARCHER: Anything else?
ELAINE: [Shakes head]
Elaine was unsure whether to start reading from the plant or the snail.
It took her a while to figure out that the diagram was concerned with
feeding relationships. Her convoluted reading approach is shown in
Elaine made sense of the diagram by choosing a nonstandard
starting point and adopting a unique, backward-looping strategy
to read the arrows from right to left rather than left to right. When
asked directly about arrows, her generic meaning “going on”
indicated lack of knowledge of specific scientific meaning. In the study
students were re-interviewed after a one-month period to determine any lasting effects of diagram interaction. Elaine’s reading
approach the second time is shown in Figure 5.
This time Elaine’s diagram reading was more succinct, aided by
a direct approach that was more ordered. She commenced with the
herbivores and again mentally reversed the arrows, but maintained
a consistent approach to the diagram. This highlights the value of
repeated exposure with biology diagrams to hone students’ reading
skills. As students become more comfortable with the visual representations and rethink their meaning, the messages they are
designed to convey become clearer.
Example 4: Accumulation Effect
RESEARCHER: What’s happening in this picture?
MITCHELL: The kookaburra eats a frog and it eats butterfly, whatever,
or moth and snails eats plants, and butterflies eat plants,
and frogs eats snails, and the kookaburra eats all of them.
RESEARCHER: Good, and what does the arrow mean?
MITCHELL: Means eats.
RESEARCHER: So the plant eats the snail?
MITCHELL: No, the snail eats the plant.
Mitchell started reading the food web at the bird. Like others he
overcame the problem of arrow meaning by reading the diagram
in the reverse direction. He read toward the left, correctly identifying what each animal “eats” before incorrectly stating that the kookaburra “eats all of them,” suggesting they were all consumed by the
bird. Mitchell appears to have an intuitive view that “large animals
eat everything else,” which influenced this interpretation of the food
web. This example highlights that the arrows have multiple functions
Figure 4. Elaine’s diagram reading path.