Mastering the mechanics of fluent reading and the ability to comprehend text provides a key to acquiring knowledge in all other domains of learning. Given the escalating demands for text comprehension that pervade virtually every aspect of contemporary life in the United States, as well as the stagnating performance of students in reading mastery and reading comprehension, strengthening the knowledge base in ways that can support practice should be a high priority.
This chapter is divided into two parts: one on early reading and one on reading comprehension beyond the early years. In many respects the parts overlap: teacher education is a major theme in both, as is research and development to improve instructional interventions. In the school context, reading is treated differently in the early years than it is in the years after third grade. From fourth grade on, the emphasis switches from learning to read to reading to learn. Because a central purpose of the SERP work is to provide R&D that is useful to practice, we adopt the division used by schools. We would expect the SERP R&D network to operate in a highly interactive fashion, with research and methods used on one set of questions informing those used on other, related research efforts.
The Destination: What Should Children Know and Be Able to Do?
There is an unusual degree of consensus regarding the goals of early reading instruction. The consensus is captured in the National Research Council report, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (National Research Council, 1998) and in the report of the National Reading Panel, Teaching Children to Read (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). The goals are often expressed in terms of the competencies children should be able to demonstrate at the end of third grade: (a) reading age-appropriate literature independently with pleasure and interest, (b) reading age-appropriate explanatory texts with comprehension for the purpose of learning, and (c) talking and writing about those texts in age-appropriate ways. Achieving these goals requires simultaneous development of an interdependent set of abilities: decoding skills, reading fluency, oral language development, vocabulary development, comprehension skills, and the ability to encode speech into writing.
The Route: Progression of Understanding
The foundation for early reading lies in the earlier, informal acquisition of language. With little effort, children with intact neurological systems acquire the sounds of their language, its vocabulary, and its methods of conveying meaning (National Research Council, 1998). The path that children travel in acquiring language is predictable (National Research Council, 1998), although the age at which particular skills and abilities are mastered varies somewhat. Babies comprehend words during the first year of life generally well before they can produce them. Once production begins, usually during the second year, vocabulary grows steadily, and single word utterances become sentences that increase in length and complexity. As the ability to produce and understand more complex sentences develops, children are less reliant on the immediate context to support
meaning. This “decontextualized” language eases the transition to school, where it is the common parlance.
As proficiency with language use grows, children develop the ability to think about language. Before that ability develops, they do not distinguish between the word and the object to which it refers. “Snake” is thus deemed to be a “long” word, and “caterpillar” a “short” word (National Research Council, 1998:50). Children can begin to develop rudimentary metalinguistic skills as early as age 3. Acquiring this ability allows children to play with, analyze, and pass judgment on the correctness of language.
The trajectory of language development described above is universal, although the richness of the environment affects the pace and extent of language development powerfully (Hart and Risley, 1995; Huttenlocher, 1998). For example, Graves and Slater (1987) found that first graders from higher income families had a vocabulary that was double the size of those from lower income families. The differences are highly relevant because verbal ability generally, and vocabulary development particularly, are good predictors of success in early reading.
While normal language development supports reading acquisition, other abilities required for effective reading mastery are unlikely to develop unless children receive formal instruction. With few exceptions, children need systematic instruction in the alphabetic principle to learn to decode words and to learn how to encode words in writing (Adams et al., 1998). This instruction is what is referred to as “phonics.” But successful phonics instruction rests on a more fundamental ability: phonemic awareness. This is the awareness, for example, that the word “cat” consists of three separable sounds: c/ a/ t. The distinction is important because phonics instruction that teaches the mapping of separate sounds onto letters requires for success that a student hear those separate sounds.
Learning the alphabetic principle is a prerequisite to reading. However, it is not nearly sufficient to help children reach the desired third grade competencies. Phonics instruction must be integrated with comprehension instruction, opportunities to develop fluency in reading through practice, instruction to enhance and practice oral and written language abilities, and opportunities to acquire rich vocabulary and background knowledge. The failure of any one of these will result in falling short of the third grade goals. If fluency does not develop, little mean-
ing is taken from a text that a child must plod through. If background knowledge is inadequate, even a fluent reader will be unable to engage with and learn from the text.
The components of successful reading are tightly intertwined. There is strong empirical support, for example, for the relationship between young children’s oral language and subsequent reading proficiency (Bishop and Adams, 1990; Scarborough, 1989; Share et al., 1984). Oral language, vocabulary in particular, is essential for understanding the text that is read. In addition recent longitudinal research suggests that young children’s vocabulary is associated with improved decoding skills (Lonigan et al., 2000; Wagner et al., 1997), as well as growth in phonological sensitivity (Bowey, 1994; Lonigan et al., 1998, 2000; Wagner et al., 1993, 1997).
In addition to building vocabulary, oral language instruction can extend a child’s ability to understand and use academic, or literate, language. This is the decontextualized language that minimizes contextual cues and shared assumptions (e.g., by explicitly encoding referents for pronouns, actions, and locations; Olson, 1977; see Box 2.1).1 These extensions of discourse in the decontextualized register of academic language are what predict literacy success into middle school, controlling for home variables (Dickinson and Sprague, 2001). These relationships between preschool oral language and middle school reading comprehension are clearly mediated by decoding instruction in the primary grades (Whitehurst and Lonigan, 2001). But the point is that language intervention that builds vocabulary and decontextualized language structures needs to occur prior to and during decoding instruction, rather than later.
Writing is at the heart of mastering the alphabetic system. Writing starts with the encoding of speech to print. The ability to phonemically segment sounds in speech and represent them in conventional writing develops over time. A complete repre-
sentation of a word’s spelling in memory developed through writing will enhance the speed and accuracy with which it is recognized (Ehri, 1998; Perfetti, 1992). Thus, the writing of words supports the reading of words and, over time, builds toward the writing of text, which can support the comprehension of text.
In addition to understanding the contributors to successful reading acquisition, there is also an extensive research base on the typical hurdles that children encounter (National Research Council, 1998; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). It is now well established that a significant number of children have difficulty learning the alphabetic principle because they have not developed phonemic awareness. Among children who learn to decode words but do not comprehend well, fluency is often the culprit; if children struggle slowly through a text, their comprehension when they have finished will be poor. Fluency can suffer if children spend too little time actively engaged in effective reading practice, or if vocabulary and background knowledge are too weak to allow the student to read with understanding.
Links between decontextualized language and literacy have been made by Dickinson and his colleagues in a longitudinal study of 85 children from low-income families started in 1987 (Dickinson and Tabors, 2001; Dickinson and Sprague, 2001). Significant prekindergarten variables that influenced literacy development were quality of teachers’ talk and curriculum quality. Quality of teacher talk was measured in rare word usage, ability to listen to children and to extend their comments, and tendency to engage children in cognitively challenging conversations (i.e., conversations about nonpresent topics). The prekindergarten variables of quality of teacher talk, vocabulary environment, and curriculum quality predicted kindergarten outcomes above and beyond home variables, thereby emphasizing the importance of instruction in literate language and a quality emergent literacy curriculum in preschool classrooms for children from low-income homes.
Composite variables that significantly influenced kindergarten literacy and vocabulary scores were home variables of literacy support, density of rare words used, and extended discourse. Kindergarten outcomes in turn predicted vocabulary and reading comprehension scores in middle school (Dickinson and Sprague, 2001).
The Vehicle: Curriculum and Pedagogy
Because there is general agreement on the goals of early reading instruction and a fairly solid research base on the contributors to success in achieving those goals, the targets of quality early reading instruction are fairly clear: phonemic awareness and phonemic decoding skills, fluency in word recognition and text processing, construction of meaning, vocabulary, spelling, and writing (Foorman and Torgesen, 2001). Box 2.2 reproduces the curricular components for first to third grade recommended by the National Research Council Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children.
Knowing the components of effective instruction is critical, but it is only a start. It falls far short of knowing how to effectively integrate the various components, how to allocate time among those components, and how to carry out instruction effectively in a classroom context in which children differ significantly in their preparation for learning and rate of progress on each of the components. And when a goal of instruction is to motivate children to read for pleasure, the how of instruction is at least as important as the what.
The research literature makes clear that there is no single answer to the instructional questions posed (National Research Council, 1998; Fletcher et al., 2002). Effective reading teachers use a variety of instructional strategies and curricula successfully. For example, while teaching phonics is a critical component of effective instruction, there are multiple approaches to doing so effectively (see Box 2.3). Many teachers rely largely on basal readers for teaching the alphabetic principle, supplemented by trade books for children’s reading practice, guided reading for comprehension instruction, and books read aloud for vocabulary development and further comprehension modeling. Other teachers place more emphasis on children’s writing as one source of instruction about the alphabetic principle, systematic minilessons in grapheme-phoneme correspondences using word sorts and other procedures (but no basals), and careful assignment of trade books to children for practice and comprehension instruction. Some reading curricula that have shown gains for groups of at-risk children involve fairly strict adherence to instructional scripts to deliver all the literacy instruction to highly homogeneous reading groups, whereas others use
Beginning readers need explicit instruction and practice that lead to an appreciation that spoken words are made up of smaller units of sounds, familiarity with spelling-sound correspondences and common spelling conventions and their use in identifying printed words, “sight” recognition of frequent words, and independent reading, including reading aloud. Fluency should be promoted through practice with a wide variety of well-written and engaging texts at the child’s own comfortable reading level.
Children who have started to read independently, typically second graders and above, should be encouraged to sound out and confirm the identities of visually unfamiliar words they encounter in the course of reading meaningful texts, recognizing words primarily through attention to their letter-sound relationships. Although context and pictures can be used as a tool to monitor word recognition, children should not be taught to use them to substitute for information provided by the letters in the word.
Because the ability to obtain meaning from print depends so strongly on the development of word recognition accuracy and reading fluency, both of the latter should be regularly assessed in the classroom, permitting timely and effective instructional response when difficulty or delay is apparent.
Beginning in the earliest grades, instruction should promote comprehension by actively building linguistic and conceptual knowledge in a rich variety of domains, as well as through direct instruction about such comprehension strategies as summarizing the main idea, predicting events and outcomes of upcoming text, drawing inferences, and monitoring for coherence and misunderstandings. This instruction can take place while adults read to students or when students read themselves.
heterogeneous grouping for most instruction, reverting to homogeneous grouping only to teach specific skills.
To extend the metaphor, there are different vehicles that are capable of making the journey to the desired destination. But the route traveled by any vehicle must cover certain territory to reach the destination, including decoding territory, oral language and vocabulary development territory, comprehension territory, and writing territory. But while there are multiple instructional approaches used by effective teachers, there are many ineffective teachers whose students do not reach the destination at all. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for the year 2000 found 37 percent of all fourth graders and 60 percent of black and Hispanic graders reading below the
Once children learn some letters, they should be encouraged to write them, to use them to begin writing words or parts of words, and to use words to begin writing sentences. Instruction should be designed with the understanding that the use of invented spelling is not in conflict with teaching correct spelling. Beginning writing with invented spelling can be helpful for developing understanding of the identity and segmentation of speech sounds and sound-spelling relationships. Conventionally correct spelling should be developed through focused instruction and practice. Primary grade children should be expected to spell previously studied words and spelling patterns correctly in their final writing products. Writing should take place regularly and frequently to encourage children to become more comfortable and familiar with it.
Throughout the early grades, time, materials, and resources should be provided with two goals: (a) to support daily independent reading of texts selected to be of particular interest for the individual student and beneath the individual student’s frustration level, in order to consolidate the student’s capacity for independent reading, and (b) to support daily assisted or supported reading and rereading of texts that are slightly more difficult in wording or in linguistic, rhetorical, or conceptual structure in order to promote advances in the student’s capabilities.
Throughout the early grades, schools should promote independent reading outside school by such means as daily at-home reading assignments and expectations, summer reading lists, encouraging parent involvement, and working with community groups, including public librarians, who share this goal.
SOURCE: National Research Council (1998).
“basic” level (National Center for Education Statistics, 2001).2 It is therefore of utmost importance that knowledge gleaned from the study of effective practice and from research on reading instruction be carefully articulated, tested in rigorous research, and incorporated into instructional programs and into teacher education programs.
The general consensus in the field of early reading that has emerged from a relatively strong research base extends to the
early indicators of reading difficulties. Effective indicators are emerging from longitudinal databases (e.g., Fletcher et al., 2002; O’Connor and Jenkins, 1999; Scarborough, 1998; Torgesen, 2002; Vellutino et al., 2000; Wood et al., 2001). These indicators can provide valuable information to teachers regarding the instructional needs of individual students. Predictiveness of particular skills depends on how and when they are assessed, but, in general, phonological awareness and its theoretically related construct of letter-sound knowledge in kindergarten and the beginning of first grade are predictive of first grade outcomes, as is word recognition at the beginning of first grade. In second grade word reading continues to be a strong predictor of second grade outcomes, with reading fluency and reading comprehension becoming increasingly important predictors of reading outcomes. For children at risk of reading difficulties due to poverty and language background, oral language in general and vocabulary in particular are critical to reading success (Foorman et al., in press; National Research Council, 1998; Dickinson and Tabors, 2001).
There are a number of models for screening children in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade for reading prob-
Analogy phonics: teaching students unfamiliar words by analogy to known words (e.g., recognizing that the rime segment of an unfamiliar word is identical to that of a familiar word, and then blending the known rime with the new word onset, such as reading brick by recognizing that ick is contained in the known word kick, or reading stump by analogy to jump).
Analytic phonics: teaching students to analyze letter-sound relations in previously learned words to avoid pronouncing sounds in isolation.
Embedded phonics: teaching students phonics skills by embedding phonics instruction in text reading, a more implicit approach that relies to some extent on incidental learning.
Phonics through spelling: teaching students to segment words into phonemes and to select letters for those phonemes (i.e., teaching students to spell words phonemically).
Synthetic phonics: teaching students to explicitly convert letters into sounds (phonemes) and then blend the sounds to form recognizable words.
SOURCE: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (2000).
lems.3 These assessments engage teachers—some more and some less formally—in collecting data on which to base curricular decisions about individual children. Both the Texas Primary Reading Inventory (TPRI) and the Virginia Phonological Awareness and Literacy Screening (PALS) have been implemented on a statewide basis.
Many children who master the process of reading nonetheless do poorly at developing broader literacy skills (RAND, 2002a). While there are fairly good predictors of difficulty in learning to read, predictors of comprehension problems are less well developed. Assessments of vocabulary and writing ability, both of which support comprehension, are underdeveloped. While there are many standardized tests of vocabulary and writing in use, they provide only normative information relative to students in the same age or grade and therefore are not adequate to provide individual feedback that can guide instruction. Vocabulary tests that assess the breadth and depth of word meanings are required to give teachers information about which words to target for instruction. Likewise, writing protocols that are evaluated for spelling, mechanics, grammar, word choice, ideas, and organization are needed to provide the basis for the revision process so fundamental to the development of skilled writing.
Reading teachers need to understand the current state of knowledge on the course of literacy development, and the role of reading instruction in supporting that development. The specific areas of study that would align teacher preparation with the learning experiences that should be provided to children in the classroom are outlined in detail in Preventing Reading Difficulties (National Research Council, 1998:285-287). We are far from the goal of effectively providing all reading teachers with
access to that knowledge base. But we know a great deal about what the knowledge is. There are two major teaching challenges, however, that are likely to require more than understanding the knowledge base: integrating the components of early reading instruction into an effective reading program and differentiating instruction for children with different competences.
Integrating Instruction Knowing the components of effective reading instruction does not ensure that a teacher will be able to integrate these in practice. With the multiple demands of managing a classroom, teachers often look to curriculum materials to simplify their complex task. For the majority of teachers in the United States, these are basal readers (National Research Council, 1998). The content of the basals influence’s how teachers allocate instructional time. The research base on phonics instruction is stronger than that on vocabulary instruction, oral language instruction, writing, and comprehension. Perhaps because dimensions of effective phonics instruction are better defined, basal reading programs place more emphasis on phonics. In many places, considerably more time is now invested in phonological awareness teaching and practice than would be recommended based on the research, which suggests that 18-20 hours is sufficient (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000).
With little attention paid to vocabulary and writing instruction in the basals, Foorman and Schatschneider (in press) observed little attention to these critical activities (i.e., less than 10 percent of instruction) in observations of 114 first and second grade teachers in 17 high-poverty schools. The National Reading Panel concluded that “teachers must understand that…. systematic phonics instruction should be integrated with other reading instruction in phonemic awareness, fluency, and comprehension strategies to create a complete reading program” (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000:11). But this is not now standard practice.
Differentiating Instruction Children who have mastered the alphabetic principle simply do not need phonics instruction that is as intense as that needed by their peers who have not achieved such mastery. Furthermore, as Box 2.2 suggests, a critical aspect of an effective instructional program is daily practice reading
within the student’s mastery level and daily supported practice working with text that is just beyond mastery level. With children at multiple mastery levels in a classroom, an effective teacher must be able to assess current mastery, provide students with work that is appropriate, and manage a classroom in which groups of students are engaged in different activities.
Without the opportunity for teachers to learn how to integrate research knowledge into instructional practice, the knowledge has a weak influence at best. Most basal reading instruction, for example, happens at the whole-class level. Students are rarely grouped for instruction because of concerns about managing the rest of the class and lack of knowledge about how to translate assessment results into small-group instruction. Most pre-service teacher credential programs do not provide coursework on assessment, and most reading basals do not provide assessments that clearly translate to differentiated instruction. Exceptions are well-implemented Success for All and Reading Mastery programs. The result is a preponderance of whole-class instruction in which, if assessment is present at all, results are not linked to instruction tailored to the needs of individual students.
The research base supporting principles of good literacy instruction has been in place for at least 20 years, and policies and strategies designed to improve reading outcomes have similarly been a priority at the federal level and in many states for a long time. Nonetheless, many children in U.S. schools are not learning to read well, and in many primary classrooms good teaching practices are not being implemented. While accountability and incentives may be part of the solution, the committee believes there are important gaps in knowledge and know-how that must be filled if effective reading instruction is to become the norm. The discussion above points to three critical questions:
How can we ensure that all children have the foundational experiences to support success in reading mastery? How can oral language development, including vocabulary acquisition, be supported in the preschool and early elementary years to counter the
effects of disadvantage? The question is particularly urgent for the growing numbers of children whose native language is not English.
How can the knowledge base on components of effective reading instruction be refined to address important instructional questions and classroom management issues? The goal must be to move from principles of good literacy instruction to the practices and programs that will support it.
How can pre-service and in-service teacher education be designed and combined to most effectively support the development of expertise in teaching reading?
These are the questions that motivate our early reading R&D initiatives.
Initiative 1: Narrowing the Gap
Awareness of the critical role of early experiences in preparing children for school success has been heightened in recent years by data collection efforts that document striking differences among socioeconomic groups when children first pass through the schoolhouse door (West et al., 2001). Several recent NRC reports have emphasized the importance of addressing these disparities in the preschool years.4 The report on preventing reading difficulties argues that preschool and kindergarten programs should pay ample attention to the skills that play a causal role in future reading achievement (National Research Council, 1998:9):
Instruction should be designed to stimulate verbal interaction; to enrich children’s vocabularies; to encourage talk about books; to provide practice with the sound structure of words; to develop knowledge about print, including the production and recognition of letters; and to generate familiarity with the basic purposes and mechanisms of reading.
Federal policy makers have responded with concern, as the Reading Excellence Act, the Early Reading First Guidelines, and
the No Child Left Behind legislation attest. With seeming agreement about what should be done, the time is ripe for investing in research and development on how to do it. How can preschool programs best enrich the oral language skills, including the vocabulary, of young children? How does the answer differ for children ages 3, 4, and 5?
There are examples of interventions for preschool and kindergarten programs that are designed to build children’s capacities with practices that the current knowledge base suggests are important. For classroom purposes, these must be subjected to systematic evaluation to determine whether they are indeed effective—both in general and for subgroups of children (e.g., English-language learners). These practices include the following:
Regular use of read-alouds that focus on engaging children in discussion of the text and that offer opportunities to reuse and to expand on the meaning of the more challenging vocabulary items in the text (e.g., Whitehurst et al., 1994; Lonigan and Whitehurst, 1998; Valdez-Menchaca and Whitehurst, 1992; Beck and McKeown, 2001).
Use of science-, number-, or world-knowledge-focused curricula to raise the quality of talk going on in the classroom and thus on children’s language growth (for examples of such curricula, see National Research Council, 2001b).
Increasing the amount of one-on-one or small group, adult-child conversation during the daily activities of the classroom, since considerable evidence (e.g., Dickinson and Tabors, 2001) suggests that such opportunities are both relatively rare and highly facilitative of children’s language growth.
Professional development programs that provide rich practice-embedded knowledge about vocabulary and oral language development, whether or not paired with explicit guidelines about the use of such activities as dialogic reading, text-talk sessions, science curricula, and so on.
Initiative 2: Models of Integrated Reading Instruction
Moving from the principles to the practices of effective reading instruction will require attention to the detailed instructional decisions teachers must make on a daily basis. How much attention should be paid to writing, to oral language development, and to decoding? At the same time that the National Reading Panel emphasized the importance of what research says about phonics instruction, for example, they point to the instructional questions that remain unknowns (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000:10):
If phonics has been systematically taught in kindergarten and 1st grade, should it continue to be emphasized in 2nd grade and beyond? How long should single instruction sessions last? How much ground should be covered in a program? Specifically, how many letter-sound relations should be taught, and how many different ways of using these relations to read and write words should be practiced for the benefits of phonics to be maximized?
Phonics is by no means atypical with regard to unanswered instructional questions. Reading practice is generally recognized as an important contributor to fluency. Two instructional approaches—guided repeated oral reading and independent silent reading—are generally used to support fluency development. While evidence regarding the effectiveness of the first is strong, evidence on independent silent reading is more mixed (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). Either approach, however, uses valuable instructional time. Questions regarding the amount of time that is optimal for reading practice at each stage of the learning process and whether the combination of oral and silent reading that is desirable changes as mastery level changes are central to everyday instruction. Similarly, while much is known about the importance of vocabulary to success in reading, there is little research on the best methods or combinations of methods of vocabulary instruction.
To make headway on the instructional questions, the research and development we propose would consist of two closely sequenced and intertwined efforts. The first is the study of exemplary teaching practice in early reading instruction, and
the second is the design and study of specific interventions, with particular attention to basal readers.
Learning from Exemplary Practice We know that very successful reading teachers manage to integrate the components of early reading instruction. But many teachers are less successful. An important resource for advancing understanding of the practices that promote student success is the study of contrasting practices and outcomes.
One approach to this research would be to identify teachers who consistently beat the odds with the performance of their students on the full range of literacy skills. Observing these teachers—the constellation of practices that they employ, the mix of activities, the distribution of time spent on various tasks, and the assessment measures to which they attend and respond—would allow for hypothesis formation regarding the features of effective, integrated reading instruction programs. These beat-the-odds teachers would be compared with teachers in the same school and teaching the same grade level whose students consistently make only average progress for their school, in order to identify the crucial features that differentiate the two groups of teachers.
These features are likely to differ by grade, and by the average achievement level and language development of the students in the classroom. Designing the research to look at various levels (kindergarten, first, second, third grade) and at classrooms chosen to represent a wide variety of demographic factors (e.g., in suburban high-scoring schools, in urban low-scoring schools, in schools serving language minority learners) would be required to draw implications for practice.
A first level of analysis of the data would be to see whether the features that differentiate the beat-the-odds teachers are the same for different groups of learners. It is entirely plausible that the characteristics of excellent teaching for inner-city or for English-language learners are different from those that work best with suburban youth. It is even more strongly to be suspected that the characteristics of excellent instruction in one year (e.g., third grade) will vary from the instruction that has gone on in earlier years. Clarity about these and other dimensions that require instructional responsiveness is an important target for this research.
Developing and Testing Reading Intervention Once hypotheses are generated regarding the components of effective instruction for different groups and grades, the next phase of R&D would involve the design of interventions that incorporate those components into instruction systematically, in an effort to verify their effectiveness experimentally and to assess their efficacy with a wider array of students and reading curricula or subject matter.
Since basal readers are the primary reading curriculum materials for the majority of American classrooms (National Research Council, 1998), they are an obvious target for improvement in reading instruction. Two studies have examined first grade basal readers for their theories of learning (Foorman et al., 2002; Hiebert et al., 2002), and both studies report their limitations. For example, the vast majority of words presented in text selections in a lesson in first grade basals are used only once, yet research clearly indicates that multiple presentations of a word are required before it becomes part of a student’s vocabulary (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). Basals also differ significantly on the decodability of the text (the composition with respect to length, grammatical complexity, the number of unique and total words, repetition of words, and coverage of important vocabulary). Iterative cycles of design and research on the features of instructional interventions generally, and basals specifically, could make a direct contribution to instructional practice.
The development projects should be undertaken in competing efforts in order to maximize creativity and entrepreneurship, and each project should be conducted with a research component to test critical features (e.g., variation in time spent on vocabulary instruction.) Once instructional interventions have gone through sufficient iterations of design, testing, and redesign, the interventions should be tested more broadly. More powerful, large-scale, longitudinal, planned variation studies could be undertaken to test the relative benefit of different instructional programs, and data on student achievement results should be collected to ascertain how large an impact the intervention has on students with different characteristics (socioeconomic status, primary language, achievement level, etc.). Simultaneously, teacher knowledge and support requirements should be studied.
Initiative 3: Teacher Education
While the research base is quite strong on the elements of effective reading instruction (what we want teachers to be able to do), we know surprisingly little about how to provide teachers with the learning experiences that can support effective practice in teaching reading (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000).
We do know, however, that existing teacher preparation has not been adequate to support widespread use of research-based practices in the classroom (Moats and Lyon, 1996; Moats, 1994). The problem is as difficult as it is important. Teachers have long-standing beliefs about student learning and teaching practice that are built on personal experience, and many believe that a knowledge base in pedagogy is not needed (Lanier and Little, 1986; RAND, 2002a). Some research indicates that even teachers who say they use reform models use traditional practices (Stigler et al., 1999). Heibert and Martin (2001) found, for example, that teachers distort knowledge about mathematics reform to make it consistent with what they already do. True changes in practice are difficult to effect. Yet mounting evidence suggests that the quality of teaching strongly predicts student achievement, explaining as much as 43 percent of the variance after controlling for socioeconomic variables (Ferguson, 1991; National Research Council, 2002a). Clearly, if student learning is the ultimate goal, teacher learning must be a target. In developing the agenda, we ask what research and development would support more effective learning for teachers of early reading.
The first question a research team must address is how teacher learning, and the effect of teacher learning on student learning, will be measured. The problem is not trivial. Key to success is a teacher’s ability to effectively integrate and differentiate instruction. These are multifaceted, complex phenomena. How they can be captured in measurable dimensions of teacher practice will itself require careful research. And the impact of teacher instruction on student achievement is equally complex, relying as it does on multiple literacy skills, including the difficult-to-measure variable of “comprehension.”
Once the outcomes of interest are identified, the question for research is how to achieve them. A report by RAND (2002a) asks the question for reading comprehension that could just as easily be asked of all teacher education for early reading: “What
is the relative power of various instructional delivery systems (e.g., field-based experiences, video-based cases, demonstration teaching, microteaching) for helping teachers acquire the knowledge and skills they need to successfully teach comprehension to students of different ages and in different contexts?” (p. 51). In the fields of medicine and business, in which much of what needs to be learned by practicing professionals is how to draw effectively on a knowledge base to support good judgment, education programs generally place heavy emphasis on case-based learning. Similarly, the ability to move successfully from study to practice, from knowing “what” to knowing “how,” is likely to require supervised practice (internships) and mentoring relationships. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that coaching and mentoring models that translate research into instructional activities in actual classrooms are more likely to have an impact on teacher development and hence student learning (Bos et al., 1999; Foorman and Moats, in press; McCutchen et al., 2002; O’Connor, 1999; Thomas et al., 1998). The effectiveness of various approaches and the optimal combinations of approaches to teaching teachers are empirical question’s of such wide-ranging importance that there can be little debate that they deserve research attention.
The specific questions that might be the subject of research on teacher education, however, are innumerable. Consider those posed by the National Reading Panel: “What is the optimal combination of preservice and inservice education, and what are the effects of preservice experience on inservice performance? What is the appropriate length of inservice and preservice education? What are the best ways to assess the effectiveness of teacher education and professional development? How can teachers optimally be supported over the long term to ensure sustained implementation of new methods and sustain student achievement gains? The relationship between the development of standards and teacher education is also an important gap in current knowledge” (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000:17). The long-term agenda must be one in which this broad set of questions is addressed in an attempt to make the massive system of teacher education more rational and effective. The benefit of a SERP network is that these questions can be taken on sequentially over time.
How might the network set priorities for early focus? We can apply the previously stated principle that existing, impor-
tant research findings should be carried through to practice. The very powerful research base discussed above suggests that many of the students who do not learn to read could be effectively instructed if teachers could assess individual student needs and differentiate instruction in response to the assessments. A high priority, then, might be given to teacher learning in this area. What do teachers need to know to grasp the goals of individual assessments, to administer and score the assessments competently, and to understand their implications? What do they need to know to effectively group students and align assessment results with instruction? And how can teachers be prepared for the demands of managing a classroom in which different groups of students are working on different tasks, some independently and some with teacher guidance?
A key advantage of the network is that it can monitor progress on research questions and steer the agenda over time. As progress is made on one set of questions, the next set can follow. Even more importantly, knowledge from research on teacher learning with respect to early reading instruction can be integrated in the network context with research on teacher learning with respect to mathematics and science.
READING COMPREHENSION BEYOND THE EARLY YEARS
In the area of reading comprehension, the panel had the benefit of drawing on a thorough and very recent assessment of research needs by the RAND Reading Study Group (RAND, 2002a), as well as on the report of the National Reading Panel (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). Those reports make clear that with regard to both student learning and teacher preparation, the research base to support practice is weak.
The Destination: What Should Children Know and Be Able to Do?
An answer to this question is implied by the RAND study group in its definition of reading comprehension as “the pro
cess of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning through interaction and involvement with written language” (RAND, 2002a:11). To extract meaning requires the reader to decode the words and form a mental representation of what the text actually says, at both a local (sentences, phrases, and their interconnections) and global level (the gist of the text’s meaning). To construct meaning requires that the reader create a “situation model,” or an understanding of the intended meaning conveyed with these words that is informed not just by the text, but also by the knowledge and experience of the reader (Kintsch, 1998). The situation model is the foundation from which inferences are drawn (see Box 2.4). Consider the sentence, “The sky was a clear, bright blue the day she first saw Charles.” The sentence does not state that it is not raining, but the reader can infer this from the bright blue sky. More importantly, it says nothing about who Charles might be to the referenced woman, but we infer that he will be significant and memorable—not a plumber who will fix her drain then disappear.
First, there is the linguistic level, the text itself. The reader must decode the graphic symbols on a page. Perceptual processes are involved, as well as word recognition and parsing (the assignment of words to their roles in sentences and phrases).
Semantic analysis determines the meaning of the text. Word meanings must be combined in ways stipulated by the text, forming idea units or propositions. However, there is more to the meaning of a text than word meanings and propositions. The global structure of a text is often crucial for comprehension. Psychologically, these processes involve the determination of the coherence relations among the propositions expressed in a text (which are often, but not always, signaled by linguistic markers). Inferences, such as simple bridging inferences or pronoun identification, are often necessary. Macrostructures require the recognition of global topics and their interrelationships, which are frequently conventionalized according to familiar rhetorical schemata.
But if a reader comprehends only what is explicitly expressed in a text, comprehension will be shallow, sufficient perhaps to reproduce the text, but not for deeper understanding. For that, the text must be used to construct a situation model, that is, a mental model of the situation described by the text. Generally, this requires the integration of information provided by the text with relevant prior knowledge, as well as the goals of the reader. One important fact to note about the process of constructing situation models is that it is not restricted to the verbal domain. It frequently involves imagery and emotions, as well as personal experiences.
The Route: Progression of Understanding
We would be pleased if a 6-year-old student could read the above sentence and understand it semantically. But we would expect a 16-year-old student to develop a situation model that is more complex due to greater developmental maturity, more experience with texts and text genres, and the benefits of instruction. The high school student might appreciate the expectation created by the author with two very simple phrases and might productively reflect on how that expectation might change if the sky were dark and the wind threatened to carry away all in its path. And yet understanding of the typical progression of student reading comprehension between ages 6 and 16 is poorly mapped, with a consequence that instructional support for comprehension is poorly defined as well. As the RAND study group argues, “without research-based benchmarks defining adequate progress in comprehension, we as a society risk aiming far too low in our expectations for student learning.”
Research in this area is, for the most part, still upstream. Many research perspectives offer relevant insights (Pearson and Hamm, 2002), but as yet there are no integrated theories and companion models that provide a foundation for accumulating knowledge and guiding instruction. Moreover, mapping progress in reading comprehension requires that the phenomenon can be measured. Here again the knowledge base is weak. Worse, what is known suggests that existing, commonly used measures of comprehension can be misleading. They capture meaning extraction and short-term memory, but these are not good predictors of meaning construction. Interventions that can improve short-term recall can actually weaken inferencing capacity (Mannes and Kintsch, 1987). Both the mapping of progress in reading comprehension and the evaluation of instructional interventions to improve reading comprehension depend on the development of assessments that can measure all its aspects, including the quality of the situation model.
The Vehicle: Curriculum and Pedagogy
Instruction in reading comprehension is generally limited. Research in the 1970s indicated that only 2 percent of classroom reading instruction time was devoted to comprehension of the text being read (Durkin, 1978-1979). In the various domains
that place heavy demands on reading comprehension abilities, like social studies, science, and even mathematics, little or no comprehension instruction takes place. Yet mastering the vocabulary, text structures, methods, and perspectives of the discipline places simultaneous demands on the student to acquire content knowledge and reading skill. While teachers in a variety of domains recognize that for many students subject-matter knowledge is held hostage to reading comprehension skill, they are given no preparation or guidance in providing reading comprehension instruction.
Many teachers assume that children will acquire comprehension skills simply by reading. While some do, many do not. Research done 25 years ago found that many readers of various ages who were given text with logical and semantic inconsistencies failed to detect them (Markman, 1977, 1981; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). The surprising failure of comprehension focused attention on the complexity of the comprehension process, as well as on the nature of the activity as one involving active engagement rather than passive reception (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). Research on comprehension instruction in the decades since has focused on strategies to actively engage the reader.
To the extent that reading comprehension is addressed at all in the K-12 curriculum, it is generally done through strategy instruction (RAND, 2002a). Common approaches to strategy instruction focus on strengthening recall of textual materials. Study skills instruction, for example, typically teaches students skills like previewing texts, paying attention to headings, rereading for specific information or structural cues, outlining or mapping the text in graphic form, and rehearsing questions to prepare for a test (Kintsch et al., 2001). These strategies have been shown to improve recall, particularly for low-achieving students (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). But because they focus on surface features, they can be mastered successfully without the student’s developing a situation model or integrating the new knowledge with the student’s background knowledge.
A number of programs were developed to help combat the surface-level reading identified as a widespread problem (Brown et al., 1983). The programs focus on the development of metacognition, a term that refers to the ability to monitor and
guide one’s own thinking processes. Students who are good comprehenders actively monitor whether their purpose in reading is being met. They notice when something is unclear or is inconsistent with their background knowledge. Metacognitive strategy instruction teaches students to consciously use problem-solving strategies to comprehend difficult text, to activate relevant background knowledge, and to stay alert to comprehension breakdowns. Several have demonstrated promising outcomes.
Reciprocal teaching, a program developed by Palincsar and Brown (1984), is based on the notion that the internal thought processes involved in effective comprehension can be taught to students explicitly. The teacher initially models aloud four strategies: questioning unclear content, summarizing meaning paragraph by paragraph, clarifying comprehension problems, and predicting what will come next. Students practice the strategies under the teacher’s guidance, and gradually the teacher’s role diminishes. As students become more adept, they take on the role of the teacher themselves in small “cooperative learning” reading groups, asking their own questions aloud. Over time, students internalize the comprehension process. Reciprocal teaching can be used to support listening comprehension among younger children, as well as reading comprehension once children become fluent readers.
Questioning the author is an instructional strategy that supports deeper comprehension by changing the nature of the questions students are asked about the text they read. Rather than focusing on factual questions that direct the student to retrieve information from text, Beck et al. (1997) found that focusing on interpretation and intent became a powerful tool for changing students’ approach to reading comprehension. In questioning the author, students are asked to think about the author’s intended message and to evaluate how successfully that message is conveyed. The strategy calls attention to gaps in understanding and stimulates retrieval of existing knowledge against which to judge the author’s case. Beck et al. (1997) have documented impressive changes in the classroom culture, with students more actively engaged in interactive discourse. The dynamic is self-reinforcing; as students and teachers engage more in thoughtful questioning, they become more critical readers and thinkers. A version of the approach, called text talk, was developed to support listening comprehension in young children.
Transferring strategy use effectively from a particular classroom context to other classrooms or to contexts outside the school has proven difficult (National Research Council, 2000; RAND, 2002a). Several quasi-experimental studies suggest the benefit of embedding strategy instruction in content learning (Guthrie et al., 1998a, b). The purpose of the strategy as a tool for understanding challenging text and the need to adapt the strategy to the activity are both more apparent when embedded in content. Students become more proficient at deliberate strategy use as a means for learning (Brown, 1997).
For well over a decade, research findings have confirmed the benefits of metacognitive strategy instruction (Pressley et al., 1989; Rosenshine and Meister, 1994; Rosenshine et al., 1996). In reviewing the studies that met their methodological standards, the National Reading Panel concluded, “when readers are given cognitive strategy instruction, they make significant gains on measures of reading comprehension over students trained with conventional instruction procedures” (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000:4-40).
Research also suggests that the classroom norms and practices that promote reading comprehension are those that enhance student motivation and engagement (RAND, 2002a). That motivation is important is hardly surprising given that reading comprehension requires effortful engagement of multiple cognitive processes. The RAND review concludes that teachers who give students choices, challenging tasks, and opportunities for collaborative learning increase their motivation to comprehend text. Both classroom observation (Turner, 1995) and quasi-experimental studies (Reeve et al., 1999) suggest the importance of student choice and autonomy that are limited but meaningful in increasing motivation.
Unlike word decoding, comprehension is not an isolated ability the mastery of which can be straightforwardly measured. Comprehension takes place at the intersection of the reader, the text, and the activity. Assessing progress of an individual student and diagnosing problems requires attention to that interaction. While the person must bring or develop the requisite skills, what is requisite will depend on the text to be comprehended and the purpose for which it is being read.
The Reader The capacity to comprehend text varies enormously across students. Some of the contributors to that variation are well established (see National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000, and RAND, 2002a, for elaboration). These include the following:
Comprehension capacity builds on successful initial reading instruction;
Comprehension capacity is coincident with good oral language skills (vocabulary and listening comprehension);
Students who have had rich exposure to literacy experiences are more likely to succeed at reading comprehension;
Maturing cognitive capacities, including attention, memory, analytical ability, inferencing ability, and visualization ability, contribute to comprehension ability;
Good comprehenders actively monitor their understanding and use strategies that help them retain, organize, and evaluate information;
The growing store of background knowledge acquired both inside and outside school contributes to comprehension capacity; and
The motivation that the student brings to reading contributes to comprehension.
The Text Features of a text can facilitate or complicate comprehension. But the relationship is not simple. We know how to make a text easy or hard to read, for example, by controlling vocabulary and syntax, by using an appropriate rhetorical structure, and by calibrating the information in the text to the readers’ prior knowledge. However, what is crucial for comprehension is neither the reader nor the text alone, but the reader-text interaction. The goal is to engage the reader as actively as possible, so that the reader will utilize his or her prior knowledge to make inferences and construct a situation model that integrates this prior knowledge with the newly acquired textual information. A text designed to be maximally readable may leave the reader passive, resulting in the readers’ knowing the textbook by heart (and doing very well on an exam that tests for rote knowledge). But that knowledge may be inert, inflexible knowl-
edge that will not help the student to solve novel problems and understand new texts requiring that the knowledge be brought to bear.
The problem, then, requires careful attention. If the text is too hard and relies on background knowledge that the reader does not have, he or she will not be able to construct a good situation model and comprehension will fail. If it is too easy, comprehension may remain superficial.
The Activity The pedagogical problem for comprehension is to get the reader to engage in the right kind of processing, in which what is “right” depends on the purpose of the activity.
Different purposes for engaging with text place very different demands on the reader and suggest different standards for adequate comprehension. Skimming a text for particular information that can help solve a problem is quite different from studying a text to be conversant with its entire content. Reading a novel for pleasure imposes different demands from reading the same novel in order to critique features of the author’s technique and style. The same reader may have good comprehension skills for one purpose and weak skills for another.
Assessing progress and making course corrections both require focus on all three factors. While strengthening a particular weakness of the reader may be the appropriate response to inadequate progress in some cases, providing a text that is more appropriate to the reader’s background knowledge or providing activities that have a greater capacity to engage the student may be more appropriate in others. The teacher’s task is complex. Assessments that can assist a teacher in diagnosing the nature of the problem for an individual student have not yet been developed.
What do we want teachers to know and be able to do with respect to reading comprehension? The answer proposed in the RAND report is to “enact practices that reflect the orchestration of knowledge about readers, texts, purposeful activity, and contexts for the purpose of advancing students’ thoughtful, competent, and motivated reading”(RAND, 2002a:29-30). That orchestration is highly complex because the amount of support that individual students need is likely to differ considerably, and
because the support any given student needs may change with different texts. This kind of “adaptive expertise” requires that a teacher have a deep understanding of comprehension processes and approaches to supporting them. Mastering decontextualized rules of instruction will not be adequate (National Research Council, 2000).
Metacognitive strategy instruction is a case in point. To teach metacognitive strategies effectively, teachers must have a good grasp themselves of the text content and of the strategies. But their knowledge must be conditionalized; they must know which strategies are most effective for which students and which types of content. They must be able to respond flexibly and opportunistically when the intervention is needed to aid student comprehension rather than using strategy instruction as the end in itself.
Research by Palincsar et al. (1989) suggests that the preconceptions that many teachers hold regarding student learning are at odds with the research-based conceptions incorporated in reciprocal teaching. In one study with first grade teachers, for example, the teachers’ own goals for student listening comprehension emphasized the ability to follow a sequence of directions, and instruction was limited to the support of that goal. The teachers believed that collaboratively constructing the meaning of text was beyond their students’ abilities. Pilot studies of reciprocal teaching using teachers whose beliefs were in accordance with the program showed significant gains for 85 percent of students. But in the hands of first grade teachers with discordant beliefs, only 47 percent of their first graders showed comparable improvement, even after the teachers were trained in the technique by the researchers.
In other work as well, Palincsar and her colleagues found that teachers who conceptualize reading as a sequence of isolated skills require considerable support and coaching to overcome the propensity to use the strategies in a routine fashion. Without that support, their students show gains in tests of strategy use, but not in reading comprehension (Palincsar, 1986). Teachers’ conceptions regarding collaborative learning more generally diverge from the research base as well. While research suggests that student performance in collaborative groups exceeds individual performance, teachers generally believe that collaborative groups support social goals but not cognitive gains (Palincsar et al., 1989).
The National Reading Panel reviewed quantitative studies of teacher preparation in the area of strategy instruction for reading comprehension and found four that met their methodological criteria. The conclusions drawn from these few studies reinforce the findings above, suggesting that to be effective teachers required extensive instruction in explaining what they were teaching, modeling their thinking processes, encouraging student inquiry, and keeping students engaged. But the studies provided little guidance on which aspects of the teacher preparation were most effective (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000).
In the area of reading comprehension, the panel proposes four initiatives:
to conduct R&D on assessments of reading comprehension;
to conduct R&D on the teacher knowledge requirements for effective use of proven approaches to metacognitive strategy instruction;
to advance the knowledge base on the components of effective comprehension instruction across grades; and
to undertake a benchmarking effort to define expectations for comprehension across the school years.
Initiative 1: Assessments of Comprehension
All research on the effectiveness of interventions to support reading comprehension requires that the phenomenon of comprehension be measured. In laboratory research, different levels of text comprehension can be distinguished (Kintsch, 1998; Graesser et al., 1997). Comprehension can be deep in the sense that the information is integrated with prior knowledge and can be used for problem solving or other purposes. In contrast, comprehension can be shallow, focusing on the text itself. In this case, new knowledge is inert; it is not integrated into the reader’s general knowledge base or used when applicable for problem solving.
Current reading comprehension assessments do not effec-
tively capture this distinction. Tests that are widely used today require students to answer questions that often assess only superficial aspects of comprehension. If deeper understanding of text is the goal of instruction, those tests will be inadequate to inform decisions about instructional effectiveness. Indeed, Box 2.5 suggests that inferencing ability and recall are different aspects of comprehension, and measuring recall only can be highly misleading. New assessments must therefore be a high priority.
Since comprehension is not a unitary process, it is necessary to assess separately the different components of comprehension. Just how many independent components exist is a matter of some disagreement (Pearson and Hamm, 2002). Rigorous research to push further on a working answer to that question is under way and should be continued and extended. Hannon and Daneman (2001), for example, designed a comprehensive test that measures four different components of comprehension: a reader’s ability to recall a text, the ability to make inferences based on explicitly stated facts, the ability to access general word knowledge, and the ability to make inferences that require integration of prior knowledge with text information. These four components proved to be good predictors of performance on a variety of comprehension tasks. Kintsch et al. (2001) pursued a similar goal when they assessed separately how well people could reproduce a text and how well they could answer simple problem-solving (inference) tasks for which information in that text is required.
Importantly, promising initial developments must be followed through to ensure both their validity and their practicality. Evaluation of internal construct validity examines how well the assessment explains comprehension performance in com-
In a study by Mannes and Kintsch (1987), students read one of two versions of a chapter: one was well organized and explicit; the other was slightly disorganized and left some things unsaid. When asked to recall the chapter, the well-organized version produced 25 percent more recall. However, when understanding was tested by inference questions, the less explicit version was better by 75 percent. Making readers draw their own inferences when studying had its benefits, but if measured by a test that merely required them to reproduce the text, the reverse would appear true.
parison to what is considered a reliable measure of that performance. The benchmark might be the ratings on one or more indepth interviews that thoroughly explore and rate students’ comprehension of a text. Questions of practicality must also be investigated. Measuring comprehension could be made more reliable if testing time and scoring time were not constraints. However both are valuable resources, and balancing quality and practicality will require attention. Box 2.6 gives an example from the recently revised SAT. It provides a measure of deep comprehension in the very practical (for scoring purposes) multiple-choice format.
But perhaps most importantly for improving educational outcomes, the instructional validity of the assessment must be investigated: Does it provide information that can be used to productively shape an understanding of the student’s instructional needs? Can it help guide the teacher’s instructional decisions? The SAT question posed in Box 2.6 provides insight into the student’s ability to understand the literary use of a word in context that requires a fairly sophisticated understanding. But
In its recent revision of the SAT, the College Board includes the item below in the verbal section:
Dinosaurs have such a powerful grip on the public consciousness that it is easy to forget just how recently scientists became aware of them. A 2-year-old child today may be able to rattle off three dinosaur names, but in 1824, there was only one known dinosaur. Period. The word “dinosaur” didn’t even exist in 1841. Indeed, in those early years, the world was baffled by the discovery of these absurdly enormous reptiles.
The statement “Period” in the middle of the paragraph primarily serves to emphasize the:
SOURCE: Education Week (2002).
the assessment information becomes useful for instruction only if instructional approaches to developing that understanding are known and available to teachers.
While we discuss this research first, clearly the ongoing work of developing and improving assessment tools must be directly influenced by other components of the research agenda. The definition of comprehension used to establish internal validity will depend on what one wants students to know and be able to do. As research knowledge improves, the benchmarks change (see Initiative 4), and so must the assessments. SERP will be a particularly productive environment for this iterative work, because the research on these interdependent questions is conducted within a single, well-integrated network.
Initiative 2: Teacher Knowledge and Metacognition Strategy Instruction
While reading comprehension has been defined as upstream because much of the fundamental work to understand and measure the phenomenon has not yet been done, strategy instruction provides an opportunity for improving comprehension that is further downstream. Several programs, including reciprocal teaching, text talk, and questioning the author, provide clearly articulated approaches to metacognitive strategy instruction that substantially improve reading comprehension, particularly for struggling students. While the techniques involved can be simply and briefly described, to effectively execute strategy instruction in the classroom proves a challenge for many teachers.
The panel therefore recommends an R&D effort to develop instructional materials, protocols, and supports for teachers who are learning to use strategy instruction in the classroom. The effort should include careful identification of teacher conceptions regarding student learning and effective instruction in reading comprehension, as well as their divergence with the research base that undergirds the intervention.5 Instructional
experiences that can support conceptual change should be developed and tested for effectiveness.
Because reading comprehension is a problem across all disciplines, the research should be conducted separately with teachers in different fields. The nature of the texts that allow teachers to master the nuances of matching strategy use with text type and comprehension goals should be studied carefully. As in the teacher learning initiative in early reading, a variety of tools for supporting teacher learning should be considered separately and in combination.
The development should be undertaken as a research effort, in which program components or tools are tried and tested with classroom teachers. Dimensions of variation to be studied should include discipline and grade level taught, experience level, and school demographic characteristics (e.g., suburban high-scoring schools, in urban low-scoring schools, schools serving language minority learners). The products should be tested during and after development for their impact on teacher understanding, changes in practice, and attitudes toward the product or program. Dimensions of effective use should also be examined, including the time and feedback required for mastery.
Initiative 3: Instructional Practices to Support Reading Comprehension
The variety of contributors to successful reading comprehension listed above suggest there are many potentially productive avenues for improving student performance. But from the perspective of practice, the list begs for greater clarity regarding which factors have the greatest capacity to influence comprehension outcomes, which can be most effectively influenced instructionally, and which interventions are most productive, in which combinations, at which ages. Indeed, these questions are so fundamental to practice in so critical an area that our current ignorance is rather astonishing.
Research could be designed to test the “which” questions in much the same way as research on effective reading instruction in earlier years. Teachers who consistently beat the odds with the performance of their students in the area of reading comprehension could be identified and compared with other teachers whose students consistently achieve less. The observation would include the constellation of practices that they employ,
the mix of activities, the distribution of time spent on various tasks, and the assessment measures to which they attend and respond. This work must be coupled with research to test the core hypotheses experimentally, so that the causal mechanisms are clarified.
As with reading instruction in the earlier years, features are likely to differ by grade and by the average achievement level and language development of the students in the classroom. Designing the research to look at various levels (e.g., third, sixth, and ninth grade) and at classrooms chosen to represent a wide variety of demographic factors (e.g., in suburban high-scoring schools, urban low-scoring schools, schools serving language minority learners) would again be required to draw implications for practice with specific attention to differences for students in different demographic groups and in different grades.
The next phase of R&D would involve the design of interventions that incorporate those components into instruction systematically, in an effort to verify their effectiveness experimentally, and to assess their efficacy with a wider array of students and reading curricula or subject matter. The interventions should address both teacher learning and student learning.
The design and testing phases of the development projects would look much like those in the initiative on early reading interventions. An important benefit of an R&D network is that the expertise in doing this type of work begins to accumulate in an organizational setting in which what is learned—both in research outcomes and in the conduct of research and development—has a continuing influence on future R&D projects and designs.
Initiative 4: Benchmarks for Comprehension
Simultaneously with the efforts to explore, identify, then rigorously test best practices in comprehension instruction, it is crucial that the educational research and practice communities collaborate with stakeholders, such as future employers, faculty in community colleges and universities, and others interested in educational outcomes, to define what adequate reading comprehension is for readers of various ages. The SERP networks are in a unique position to engage in this kind of stock-taking on
a regular basis. Indeed, this is an important raison d’être of the networks.
Ultimately, of course, defining what readers should be able to comprehend constitutes a decision based on a society’s values and willingness to invest in education as much as it does on research. Research can make a unique contribution, however, regarding what is achievable at what ages. Examples include research on children’s developing abilities to consider simultaneously opposing perspectives, to understand the motivations and intentions of others, and to distinguish between their own beliefs and knowledge. Furthermore, establishing reasonable benchmarks for comprehension can be informed by considering historical, international, and economic perspectives.
A useful place to begin is with an understanding of the endpoint. What should an 18-year-old be able to comprehend? One dimension that would enter into any benchmarking process is defined by the complexity of the text she or he might be expected to read. Presumably 18-year-olds should be expected to understand general-purpose texts—newspapers, magazines, novels, popularized presentations of science or history, introductory university level textbooks—with no difficulty. Reading these texts presupposes a minimum vocabulary of 40,000 words, the capacity to process fairly complex syntax, and some flexibility in processing various discourse structures.
But the readability or complexity of the text is only one dimension defining comprehension level. Another is the depth of processing that one can expect of the text being read. One might well expect an 18-year-old to understand nonliteral uses of language in text, for example, irony, parody, sarcasm; to appreciate stylistic niceties in text; to consider the possibility that “factual” texts include intentional misrepresentations, biased or limited perspectives, incomplete representations of reality, and errors; to process fiction as being about themes or issues and not just about plot; to appreciate cogent arguments in texts with which the reader nonetheless disagrees; and to read for attitude and perspective rather than just for information.
If the capacities outlined above can reasonably be expected of an 18-year-old reader, then what are the developmental benchmarks that characterize progress toward that point? Once the endpoint is established, it is relatively easy to work backward in order to define the expected comprehension capacity of younger students. If these are defined for the dimension of text complex-
ity, then a linear projection is probably reasonable: children learn a certain number of new vocabulary words a year, and there is no strong reason to believe, for example, that during some years they can only learn fewer and during other years can learn more. But the depth-of-processing dimension is limited by children’s cognitive capacities—their theory of mind level, their capacities to take others’ perspectives, to coordinate multiple perspectives, and to distinguish belief from knowledge. We would need to call on the knowledge built up from basic research in cognitive development in order to establish reasonable expectations about children’s capacities for deeper processing of texts. Elaborations of that work might well be helpful in deciding at what age the majority of children would be most susceptible to being taught about multiple perspectives in text, or about the use of textual features to raise doubts or questions, or other subtleties of processing.
Thus benchmarks for comprehension, while not themselves a simple matter of drawing conclusions from research findings, could be deeply informed by a set of research activities that considered both basic cognitive development and the array of standards identified by various groups with a wide array of interests and experiences. Establishing an initial set of benchmarks, and developing assessments of them, would help improve outcomes in reading comprehension simply by proffering a common understanding of what needs to be taught and learned. The initial set of benchmarks should be subject to regular review and recalibration. In fact, the comprehension-instruction agenda outlined above and the benchmarking agenda sketched here should be constantly confronting one another. As improved instruction in reading comprehension raises learners’ capacities, the benchmarks can be ratcheted up to ensure that the proper balance between high standards and opportunities to succeed is maintained.