The Settled Science of Teaching Reading – Part 3

In Part 1 of this series, we unpacked the current conversations happening around the science of teaching reading.  We focused on explicit and systematic phonics instruction in Part 2—how does your district ensure that students get phonics instruction at their point of need?  Now we will discuss the role of building knowledge and strategies to impact comprehension. 

Comprehension: Building Knowledge and Applying Strategies

As with explicit and systematic phonics instruction, the role of knowledge in comprehension is also settled science. Without a body of knowledge, it’s infinitely harder to make sense of text and, in fact, controlling for other factors, knowledge plays the largest role in comprehension (Cromley & Azevedo, 2007; Ozuru, Dempsey, & McNamara, 2009). In addition, the knowledge one has supports learning and retaining new knowledge.

In many classrooms, teachers utilize “activating prior knowledge” as a part of the reading process. However, activation of prior knowledge is significantly different than building a body of knowledge. Activation presumes the student already has background knowledge that needs to be brought forward. Building a body of knowledge, on the other hand, supports students in learning and deepening knowledge in topics they may or may not have been exposed to in the past. Building knowledge systematically adds to students’ knowledge base and supports their comprehension.

Current conversation around this topic may lead one to believe that there is only one way to build knowledge—through connected text sets. Cervetti & Heibert (2019), however, offer multiple knowledge-building practices that both increase comprehension of the current text and build students’ knowledge base to increase comprehension in the future. The first of their knowledge-building practices is wide reading. Reading volume has long been associated with general world knowledge (Stanovich & Cunningham, 1993). The more children read, the more they learn about the world (Sparks, Patton & Murdoch, 2014). Plenty of time for independent reading is one way for students to increase their knowledge base. A second and equally important way is teacher read alouds that introduce students to new topics and vocabulary. Wide reading also contributes to students’ vocabulary, which, in turn, increases their capacity to learn more from texts they read (Stanovich, 1986).

Another knowledge-building practice is to ensure that students have exposure and access to engaging and conceptually rich texts, especially non-fiction. Informational texts are essential for students to build wide knowledge of the world (Anderson & Guthrie, 1999) and support students in both a deeper and wider view of particular topics. Students who are exposed to informational texts through read-aloud are often more likely to choose those kinds of texts for their independent reading (Dreher & Dromsky, 2000).

One way to ensure that students use their knowledge to comprehend texts is to ensure that higher-level questions and dialogue are a guaranteed part of reading instruction. A recent study indicated a shockingly low amount of time is devoted to students talking, listening, reading and writing about text (Jeong, Gaffney, & Choi, 2010). When students have regular and ample amounts of time to engage in both teacher-led and peer-to-peer discussions involving sophisticated texts and tasks, they deepen their knowledge and comprehension (Driver, Newton, & Osborne, 2000; Pappas, Varelas, Barry, & Rife, 2002).

Explicit comprehension strategy instruction is clearly connected to building a body of knowledge. The strategies of “making connections” and “inferring” rely on existing knowledge and integrating that knowledge with new information from a text to build deeper understandings. A significant body of research links students’ knowledge with comprehension of text (Langer, 1984; Long, Winograd, & Bridget, 1989; Stevens, 1980). Students’ schematic knowledge base is activated when reading similar representations of familiar concepts in text (Pressley, 2000). Building on the schematic representations that students have as well as activating and linking those representations to text comprises the strategy of making connections.   

Readers use their knowledge of the world in many ways to comprehend text. One way is to make inferences about the text and better recall information that is both literal and inferential (Pressley, Johnson, Symons, McGoldrick, & Kurita, 1989). A significant number of studies demonstrate the effects of training students to use their prior knowledge to make inferences (Brown, Smiley, Day, Townsend, & Lawton, 1977; Hayes & Tierney, 1982; Omanson, Warren, & Trabasso, 1978; Pearson, Hansen, & Gordon, 1979).     

Another significant strategy that contributes to comprehension is visualizing—the direct action of making a mental image as one reads. Prior knowledge is essential to being able to create visualizations and students who are taught to visualize while reading are better able to make inferences, predict, and recall both literal and inferential information from the text (Center et al., 1999; Gambrell & Bales, 1986; Gambrell & Jawitz, 1993; Pressley, 1976; Sadoski, 1985; Truscott et al., 1995).  Making a mental image contributes to retaining new learning since the information is stored as an image rather than words (Pressley et al., 1989; Sadoski, 1983).

The settled science of comprehension instruction tells us that students need to continually build a body of knowledge and that they build that knowledge through various avenues. In addition, identifying the knowledge and integrating it with comprehension strategy instruction is a powerful, evidence-based part of comprehensive reading instruction. Knowledge and the act of building on that knowledge using comprehension strategies are linked.

Next Steps: Connecting Research to Practice

Unfortunately, current conversations about the science of teaching reading have been reduced to sound bites, Tweets, oppositional letters, and blogs. Many times, the conversation devolves into “sides” where instructional approaches are relegated to an “either/or” choice. We advocate that there is no either/or. There is absolutely an AND. Students need explicit and systematic instruction in decoding. Full stop. They also need ample amounts of time to read and be read to so their knowledge, vocabulary, and love of reading builds. Full stop. Students need a wide range of knowledge about the world. This knowledge is essential to their growth as readers and thinkers. There isn’t only one way to build that knowledge. There are many ways and as educators, we should take advantage of them all. Full stop.

Given what we know, our efforts should be devoted to ensuring that teachers have access to the research results and are given the tools that allow them to actualize this research with their students. Instructional time in classrooms should be supportive of the developmental process of reading on a continuum of learning—with more time devoted to decoding in the early grades and more time devoted to comprehension in the upper grades. That said, comprehension instruction is still absolutely necessary in our early grades—it’s not an either/or, it’s an AND. The science is settled. 

The full article, “The Settled Science of Teaching Reading,” was written by Marisa Ramirez Stukey, Gina Fugnitto, Valerie Fraser, and Isabel Sawyer.

The information presented in this blog series is also available as a white paper: download it here!


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