The most fundamental responsibility of schools is teaching students to... future success of all students hinges upon their ability to...

The most fundamental responsibility of schools is teaching students to read. Indeed, the
future success of all students hinges upon their ability to become proficient readers.
Recent scientific studies have allowed us to understand more than ever before how
literacy develops, why some children have difficulty, and what constitutes best
instructional practice. Scientists now estimate that fully 95 percent of all children can be
taught to read. Yet, in spite of all our knowledge, statistics reveal an alarming
prevalence of struggling and poor readers that is not limited to any one segment of
_ About 20 percent of elementary students
nationwide have significant problems
learning to read.
_ At least 20 percent of elementary students
do not read fluently enough to
enjoy or engage in independent reading.
_ The rate of reading failure for AfricanAmerican, Hispanic, limited-English
speakers and poor children ranges from
60 percent to 70 percent.
_ One-third of poor readers nationwide
are from college-educated families.
_ Twenty-five percent of adults in this
country lack the basic literacy skills
required in a typical job.
What Does the Research Say About Effective Reading Instruction?
Well-designed, controlled comparisons of instructional approaches have consistently
supported these components and practices in reading instruction:
_ Direct teaching of decoding, comprehension, and literature appreciation;
_ Phoneme awareness instruction;
_ Systematic and explicit instruction in the code system of written English;
_ Daily exposure to a variety of texts, as well as incentives for children to read
independently and with others;
_ Vocabulary instruction that includes a variety of complementary methods designed to
explore the relationships among words and the relationships among word structure,
origin, and meaning;
_ Comprehension strategies that include prediction of outcomes, summarizing,
clarification, questioning, and visualization;
_ Frequent writing of prose to enable a deeper understanding of what is read.
1. Far too many children have trouble reading and writing. About 20 percent of
elementary students nationwide have significant problems learning to read; at least
another 20 percent do not read fluently enough to enjoy or engage in independent
reading. Thus it should not be surprising that, according to the United States Office
of Technology, 25 percent of the adult population lacks the basic literacy skills
required in a typical job.
2. Among those who do not make it in life—school dropouts, incarcerated individuals,
unemployed and underemployed adults—are high percentages of people who cannot
3. Such realities have prompted the National Institutes of Health to regard
reading development and reading difficulty
as a major public health concern. For poor, minority children who attend low-performn
urban schools, the incidence of reading failure is astronomical and completely
unacceptable. African American, Hispanic, limited-English speaking students, and those
from impoverished homes fall behind and stay behind in far greter proportion than their
white middle class counterparts. The rate of reading failure in these groups is 60% to
70% according to the NAEP.
4. This figure alone explains much about the poor academic achievement of minority
students and why they are under-represented in professions that depend on higher
education. Environment, however, does not explain all. Many children from more
advantaged, literacy-rich environments have trouble learning to read, and many children
from high-risk environments do indeed learn to read.
5. California recently initiated a series of laws to reform reading education after 49
percent of students of college-educated parents scored “below basic” on the National
Assessment of Educational Progress. One-third of poor readers nationwide are from
college-educated families who presumably encourage literacy in the home. The
tragedy here is that most reading failure is unnecessary. We now know that
classroom teaching itself, when it includes a range of research-based components
and practices, can prevent and ameliorate reading difficulty. Although home factors
do influence how well and how soon students read, informed classroom instruction
that targets specific language and reading skills beginning in kindergarten enhances
success for all but a few students with moderate or severe learning disabilities.
Scientists now estimate that 95 percent of all children can be taught to read at a level
constrained only by their reasoning and listening comprehension abilities.
6. It is clear that students in high-risk populations need not fail at the rate they do.
7. When placed into schools with effective principals and well-prepared and well
supported teachers, African-American, Hispanic, or students who are economically
disadvantaged can learn to read as well as their more advantaged peers.
8. Further, students who lack the prerequisite awareness of sounds, symbols, and
word meanings can overcome their initial disadvantage if teachers incorporate critical
skills into lessons directly, systematically, and actively.
Research indicates that, although some children will learn to read in spite of incidental
teaching, others never learn unless they are taught in an organized, systematic,
efficient way by a knowledgeable teacher using a well-designed instructional
approach. And, while many students from high-risk environments come to school less
prepared for literacy than their more advantaged peers, their risk of reading difficulties
could still be prevented and ameliorated by literacy instruction that includes a range of
research-based components and practices. But, as the statistics testify, this type of
instruction clearly has not made its way into every classroom.
Indeed, a chasm exists between classroom instructional practices and the research
knowledge-base on literacy development. Part of the responsibility for this divide lies
with teacher preparation programs, many of which, for a variety of reasons, have failed
to adequately prepare their teacher candidates to teach reading. Fortunately, this
situation is being corrected, thanks in large part to recent basic research on reading that
has allowed the community of reading scientists and educators to agree on what needs
to be done.
This new information about language, reading, and writing is just beginning to shape
teacher preparation and instructional programs. This knowledge must also form the
basis of high-quality professional development for practicing teachers.
In today’s literate world, academic success, secure employment, and personal
autonomy depend on reading and writing proficiency. All children who are capable of
reading must be taught how to read; such is the fundamental responsibility of schooling.
Although educators have long understood the importance of literacy, a series of recent
studies goes a long way in elucidating the chain of cause and effect that supports the
development of literacy. Convergent findings of high-quality research have clarified how
children learn to read and what must be done to ensure that they do. Beyond doubt,
reading early links one benefit to another. Enjoyment of reading, exposure to the
language in books, and attainment of knowledge about the world all accrue in greater
measure to those who have learned how to read before the end of first grade.
Difficulty with the first steps of reading, in contrast, eventually undermines vocabulary
growth, knowledge of the world, mastery of language, and skill in writing. Once
behind in reading, few children catch up unless they receive intensive, individual, and
expert instruction, a scarce (and expensive) commodity in most schools.
This is what reading is all about—decoding and comprehension.
The integration of these two skills is essential to reading, and neither one is more or
less essential than the other. If somebody was kind enough to read the story out loud
to a little girl, she would not need to decode it herself. She could sit with her eyes
closed, listen to somebody else tell the story, and just focus on comprehending it. The
comprehension she experiences listening to somebody else read aloud is the same
comprehension she would experience reading the text silently to herself. There are
subtle differences, but essentially, the only thing that makes reading different from
listening is the act of decoding the text.
If reading is the product of two cognitive elements (language comprehension
and decoding), two questions must be addressed:
What is required to be good at understanding language?
What is necessary to be good at decoding text?
Examining each of these elements, we find a collection of interrelated cognitive
elements that must be well developed to be successful at either comprehending
language or decoding. This text will examine both language comprehension and
decoding, along with the subordinate cognitive elements that underlie each. All of
these underlying knowledge domains will be described as discrete and distinct cognitive
elements, but only for the benefit of this examination. It is important for reading
teachers to understand what these elements are and how they fit in the "big picture“
of reading acquisition, but it is also important for teachers to understand that these
elements are all interdependent and interrelated in a child’s head.
Let us begin this examination of the cognitive processes involved in reading acquisition
where the child begins:
Language Comprehension.
Language comprehension generally refers to one's ability to understand speech
(there are other forms of language, but for the sake of the current conversation, we
will only consider speech). It is important to remember that language is not at all
generic. There are different "levels" of language. Adults do not speak to children the
way they speak to other adults; stories for adults are aimed at a "higher level" than
stories for children.
Further, there are different types of language. Language can be informal, as it often
is in routine discourse among friends and family, or it can be formal, as it often is in
classroom environments. Informal language for young children is usually very context
dependent; the conversation typically focuses on information that is immediately
relevant and often concrete. Formal language, on the other hand, is often
decontextualized and abstract (e.g., asking a child to retell a story or to consider the
perspective of a character in a story). Some children have more experience with
formal language than others, and naturally, this gives them an advantage in formal
classroom learning environments.
It is also worth noting that there are different types and levels of language
comprehension. The most mundane form is explicit comprehension—the listener merely
understands what is explicitly stated. The listener may not draw any inferences or
elaborate on what is said, but at least the listener understands what is specifically stated.
A more elaborate form of language comprehension builds inferential understanding on
top of explicit comprehension. Sometimes, in order to truly understand language, the
listener must consider the context in which communication is taking place. Sometimes,
one needs to "read between the lines" and draw inferences. Sometimes, these
inferences are context dependent, meaning that it is necessary to consider the speaker
and the audience. Consider the following statements out of context: "My car broke down
the other day, and it’s going to cost $2000 to fix! This couldn’t have come at a worse
time, either. Bob Junior needs braces, and Mary hasn’t been able to work very many
hours recently.“
Out of context, this person seems only to be seeking sympathy. However, what would
you think about these statements if you knew that this person was speaking to his boss?
He never says it explicitly, but it is obvious that he is asking for a raise. In real
communication, sometimes the true message is never explicitly stated—the listener must
deduce the speaker’s intent behind the message.
For language to work, it is assumed that both the speaker and the listener are cooperating in their communication: The speaker is attempting to convey only the
information that is relevant and interesting for the listener; the listener is trying to
ascertain the important and relevant message that the speaker is conveying.
The context
The nature of the discourse
The speaker’s underlying intent
These and many other factors are important to language comprehension.
The importance of connecting the child's spoken language to the text is paramount, but
it is frequently overlooked when assessing the reading instruction needs of children.
This is not just a concern when addressing the needs of students who are learning
English as a second language, or addressing the needs of children who speak a
non-standard dialect of English. This is a concern that every reading teacher of every
child should be aware of. Some children—English speaking children—grow up in an
impoverished linguistic environment. Despite the fact that English is their native
language, their language comprehension skills are underdeveloped. Furthermore,
explicit instruction aimed at developing linguistic comprehension usually takes a back
seat to explicit instruction of text-awareness or decoding skills in the classroom. The
balance is important, and reading teachers need to consciously maintain that balance.
Language Comprehension Assessment
Because comprehension is what is being measured, language comprehension can be
assessed in basically the same way reading comprehension is assessed. With language
comprehension assessment, however, the child should not be expected to read any text.
Everything from the instructions to the comprehension questions should be presented
verbally to the child.
It is also worth noting that a child’s listening comprehension "level" is usually
considerably higher than her reading comprehension "level." A child that is not able to
read and understand a passage of text usually has no difficulty understanding the text if
somebody else reads it to her. For most young children learning to read, their ability to
read and understand text is limited by their decoding skills, not by their comprehension
skills (That is not to say that most children have "good" comprehension skills or that
comprehension skills are not a reading teacher’s concern. The point here is that even
when a child’s comprehension skills are poor, their decoding skills are usually worse.).
However, sometimes teachers find that a child who can not read and understand a
passage of text also does not understand it when the teacher reads it to the child. It is
always worthwhile to compare a child’s language comprehension with her reading
comprehension to be sure that her ability to understand text is not being limited by her
ability to understand language.
So, What is Reading Comprehension?
Reading comprehension is composed of two equally important components. Decoding,
or the ability to translate text into speech, is only part of the process of reading
comprehension. The other part is language comprehension, or the ability to understand
spoken language. All struggling readers have difficulty with either language
comprehension or decoding or both.
What does teaching Reading Comprehension look like?
Reading comprehension activities depend upon sufficient development of decoding
skills and language comprehension skills. If a child is having trouble with a reading
comprehension activity, it is probably because the child needs more instructional
support focused on helping the child to develop language comprehension and/or
decoding skills.
Reading Comprehension Assessment
Reading comprehension assessments are the most common type of test available. IRI,
Cloze, etc. are the most common. Reading comprehension should not be confused with
reading accuracy, another common form of reading assessment. Often, an assessment
combines these two different assessments into one – the child reads a passage out loud
while the teacher makes note of errors (running record), then the child is asked some
comprehension questions.
It is worth noting that a readers comprehension usually suffers when he or she is asked
to read aloud. When children read orally, they concentrate on accuracy and do not pay
As much attention to comprehension of content. Oral reading does give insights into
decoding skills and strategies, but that is a separate test. A reading comprehension
Test is most accurate if the child is not reading for an audience.
Let’s look in the Locating and Correcting Reading Difficulties book, pages 141 and 153.
The second important element underlying reading comprehension is decoding, which
generically refers to the child’s ability to recognize and process written information.
What is Decoding?
Good readers are able to correctly pronounce familiar words (at the reader's level)
whether they be regular or irregular words, and are able to pronounce unfamiliar words
in a way consistent with the conventions of written English. For skilled readers,
decoding is so automatic that it requires virtually no conscious effort, so the reader can
devote full attention to the task of comprehending the text.
What does teaching Decoding look like?
Decoding activities focus on helping the child to develop fluent word recognition skills.
Lessons aimed at developing decoding skills assume that the child has adequate cipher
knowledge and lexical knowledge (the child can sound-out regular words and can
recognize familiar irregular words). Decoding lessons focus on helping children to fluently
and automatically recognize ALL words, both regular and irregular. If a child is having
trouble with a decoding activity, it is probably because the child has not yet adequately
developed and integrated cipher knowledge and lexical knowledge.
Decoding activities focus on fluid and rapid word recognition skills. This can be done in
the context of authentic, connected text, or decoding lessons may involve word games.
Decoding Assessment
A child can be tested on their accuracy (Is each word pronounced correctly?), their
fluency (How much does the child struggle with word naming?), or their "level" —
Leveled lists of words are provided by many publishers, and the child can be assessed
as to her ability to decode words that are of varying difficulties.
Sometimes teachers test children’s ability to "recognize" sight words as a test of
decoding skill, but "recognizing" words is not the same as decoding them. Decoding is
a strategy that readers can use on all words, even words they’ve never seen before.
Sight-word reading has to do with memorizing the "image" of a word or a specific
feature of a word, and with this strategy, only a select few words are learned. All
children go through a stage as they learn to read where they memorize a few sight
words, and sometimes they are even encouraged by teachers who use Dolch word
lists and frequency indexes to focus the child’s attention on the most useful sight
words. However, memorizing sight words does not help a child to learn how to decode
words, and testing the child’s knowledge of specific, well-practiced sight words does
not provide a measure of her decoding skill.
As mentioned earlier, oral reading accuracy is one form of decoding assessment, but it is
not a very "clean" assessment. Teachers need to be aware that, in their early attempts to
acquire reading skills, children apply many different strategies, some of which are hard to
detect. Children often attempt to guess words based on the context or on clues provided
by pictures — most of the time, a child’s guesses are inaccurate, and their difficulties with
decoding are revealed, but sometimes the child guesses correctly, making the teacher
believe that the child accurately decoded the word.
Teachers who use oral reading as a
decoding assessment need to pay careful attention to the child as they read, and need to
be aware that the child may know some words because those words are in the child’s
sight-vocabulary, and the child may know other words because she is guessing.
Typically, decoding skill is measured through the child’s ability to read words out of
context. Isolated words are presented to the child one at a time, and the child is asked
to say the word aloud (this is not a vocabulary test, so children should not be expected
to provide meanings for the word). The words selected for a decoding test should be
words that are within the child’s spoken vocabulary, and should contain a mix of
phonetically regular and phonetically irregular words.
Background Knowledge
To have strong language comprehension skills, children must know about the world in
which they live, and must have elaborate background knowledge that is relevant to what
they are trying to understand. This knowledge is more sophisticated than mere facts or
word definitions—it is a reference base for personal experiences, scripts, and schemas
that help those children understand how the world works.
To really understand and appreciate a story, children need to know more than the
definitions of words in the story; they need to have a frame of reference so they can
make sense of the plot.
Children learn by comparing new information against information they already have in
their heads—and that information must be relevant to the story they are listening to.
"Casey at the bat," for instance, makes more sense to people who are familiar with
baseball, and teaching children about baseball will help them to appreciate "Casey at the
bat." This point seems trivially obvious, but the issue is raised here to emphasize a
non-trivial point—not all children have the same background knowledge. Children cannot
understand what is being said to them if they do not share some background knowledge
with the speaker. Likewise, they cannot understand a story if they do not have some
background knowledge related to the topic of the story.
Similarly, children depend on life experiences to develop schemas and scripts about how
the world should work. Certain events are more likely to happen at a baseball game than
at a restaurant, and events typically take place in a certain order or sequence. We
depend on our internal schemas and scripts to help us organize and anticipate events in a
So, What is Background Knowledge?
In order to understand language, the child must have some background knowledge
to use as a reference for interpreting new information. Moreover, if the child is
expected to understand something specific, her background knowledge must be
relevant to what she is expected to understand.
What does teaching Background Knowledge look like?
Background knowledge activities focus on helping the child connect new
information about the world with what she already knows. Activities that focus on
enhancing background knowledge help children to see how they can incorporate
their life experiences into their classroom lessons. Further, background knowledge
activities can help a child to see how to make use of and apply information in
different situations.
Background Knowledge Assessment
There are many assessments on the market that measure a child’s general knowledge of
facts about the world. Usually some estimation is made of what one could reasonably
expect children in the first grade to know (e.g. birds build nests in trees, or bicycles have
two wheels), and the child is asked to answer these simple "fact" questions (similar to
what would be found on the old intelligence tests). However, the assessment we are
suggesting is a measure of the child’s relevant background knowledge, and by "relevant"
we mean "related to the task at hand."
For example, if a child is expected to listen to and understand the story Charlotte’s Web,
the child should have some background knowledge about farm animals and spiders.
Children know a lot of things; children raised in the city know about public transit, taxis,
traffic jams, shopping malls, and sky scrapers. Children raised in other settings know
about other things. A particular child may not know much about a particular topic, and it
is worthwhile to assess a child’s relevant background knowledge before expecting a child
to be able to accomplish a task.
Instruction tip: Typically, the problem that children have with comprehension is not
that they lack knowledge in a general sense—the problem is that the knowledge that
they do have is not relevant to what they are trying to understand. You can either
provide background knowledge relevant to activities (e.g., before telling stories about
a zoo, the class could take a field trip to the zoo), or you can search for stories that
are relevant to the knowledge you know the children already have (making the
classroom materials relevant to the backgrounds and cultures of the students).
Assessment tip: It is safe to assume that all children have knowledge, but it is not
safe to assume that the knowledge they have is relevant to a particular activity. Before
starting an activity, sample the children's knowledge about the content of the activity
with some informal questions.
ACTIVITY: This is a variation of the original KWL chart. Before beginning a unit or
theme, tap into student's background knowledge by creating a KWHL chart with four
columns. Record student contributions under each column.
K stands for what the children already know about the topic.
W stands for what the children want to know or find out.
H stands for how the children will find the new knowledge.
L stands for what the children learned after studying that theme/unit.
What We Know -- What We Want To Know -- How We Will Find It -- What We Learned
ACTIVITY: For this activity you will need a tape recorder, and children will need to be
broken into small groups. Have children interview other students, teachers, and if
possible, family members on tape to gather information about some specific topic
(e.g. horses, bicycles, history). Encourage the children to add information they already
know on the subject matter, and to use what they know to ask more informed questions
of the people they interview. In the end, the recording will contain information that the
child learned, and they can play back their recording for other people (or for the class for
show and tell if the tape is short).
Develop a collection of ten assessments that you want to
represent your expertise in literacy assessment.
Describe the purpose of each assessment, your
experience of using it, what a teacher can learn from
using it, its shortcomings and blind spots.
With your written description and critique, also include
artifacts (2 per assessment) that serve as strong
evidence that you are proficient in the use of the
Complete three assessments of literacy, one for an emergent reader, one for
an adolescent reader, and one for a developmental reader of your choice.
Each of the above assessments should include a list of the questions about
the individual you are raising in your assessment.
Include an explanation of why you are raising those questions and how they
relate to your understanding of literacy.
Include a vivid description of the processes you used to find answers to your
questions; an analysis of the individual’s responses to processes.
Include a well-elaborated explanation of ways to help this individual develop
his/her literacy further.
Include an explanation of what you will be looking for as you teach this
individual in the future. The explanation should be written as a narrative or
story of the assessment process. An example would be the type of narrative
written by a psychometrist.