Throughout history, literacy and reading comprehension has been shaped by cultural, technological, and educational developments. Today, literacy remains a critical skill for navigating an information-rich world and is a key focus in global education. Advances in cognitive psychology and educational research provide keen insights into how individuals comprehend text, leading to new instructional strategies to improve reading comprehension.
The integration of technology, digital texts, and multimedia presents new challenges and opportunities for teaching and assessing reading comprehension. As literacy remains a high priority for schools, there are numerous tools to support literacy instruction. But what do teachers and students truly need? Keep reading to catch up on the current conversation around reading and literacy instruction.
Historically there has always been some level of debate about the best ways to teach literacy and reading comprehension, giving rise to multiple theories and strategies. But currently the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows a consistent decline in national literacy performance and a growing achievement gap between student reading skills. As achievement levels have fallen at a faster pace in recent years, there is an urgency for changes in how we help students improve.
Research-based practices like the importance of phonics and phonemic awareness (as well as vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension) have shifted us from “Balanced Literacy” to “Structured Literacy” with systematic “Science of Reading”-like approaches. But there are still some critics who worry that a heavy focus on reading words proficiently will take the spotlight away from critical thinking or comprehension skills.
Many states are introducing new legislation on reading curriculum, while others are proposing ways to improve reading by aligning instruction with science-backed strategies. And 18+ states are dedicating ESSER funds to back “Science of Reading” approaches. Still others are defining what the right curriculum is, particularly in states that previously were adopters of balanced literacy programs, or in those states where they often leave decisions up to districts.
While legislation is a great first step, it doesn’t mean immediate action in the classroom. Districts then have to figure out how to support teachers with the latest literacy instruction requirements. Educators are not equally well-trained on the use of research-based instructional approaches to support literacy, which is amplified by the teacher shortage crisis.
The bottom line is that schools are under pressure to boost literacy as quickly as possible, and federal and state investments are on the rise to help districts address these needs.
Learn from the Mississippi Science of Reading “Miracle Workers” on how they became a leader in reading acceleration as they share insights and strategies in an executive roundtable.
The Science of Reading is a literacy instruction approach that draws on research from cognitive psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, and education to understand how we learn to read and how reading instruction can be improved. Spoiler alert, it’s not new! It is a popular collection of research for helping educators understand how students learn to read, and how to improve reading with evidence-based pedagogy, strategies, and practices. It refers extensively to components and strategies within several research-based reading frameworks like the Simple View of Reading and Scarborough’s Reading Rope.The Science of Reading research includes practices that address the acquisition of language, phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics and spelling, fluency, vocabulary, oral language, and comprehension that can be differentiated to meet the needs of individual students. These Science of Reading components have been translated to a literacy model called Structured Literacy.
Structured Literacy represents reading instruction that applies the Science of Reading to classroom practice. It teaches all the components that evidence has found to be foremost in ensuring reading success. The Simple View of Reading and Scarborough's Reading Rope Model serve as frameworks for understanding and identifying Structured Literacy. These frameworks expanded with the emergence of the Active View of Reading, which introduced strategies to connect decoding and language comprehension in literacy teaching.Effective Structured Literacy instruction is explicit, scaffolded, and differentiated, with a carefully planned scope and sequence. Structured Literacy is not just about phonics; it puts a heavy emphasis on systematic and explicit decoding of words. This approach is also endorsed by the International Dyslexia Association because of its significant impact on students with dyslexia.
Multiple research studies have found that prior knowledge is a critical factor for reading. Activating baseline and background knowledge helps learners know how to make inferences and better understand text they are reading. Solutions that only focus only on word recognition or don’t rely on prior knowledge to activate reading aren’t as effective. Research points to the value of multimodal content and resources because students need to engage with text in meaningful ways. This notion certainly has implications around equity and access to a variety of text types because more exposure to reading opportunities leads to higher reading levels.
Research shows that teaching subjects like science or social studies are critical for building background and content knowledge and vocabulary, and is shown to improve reading and literacy. Unfortunately, limited time is spent on subjects outside of English Language Arts and Math in elementary grades. On average, grades K-3 spend just 18 minutes a day for science and 16 minutes a day for social studies, while grades 4-6 spend 24 minutes a day on science and 21 minutes on social studies. If social studies and science offer further opportunities to encounter new vocabulary and practice reading skills, they can be viewed as extra remediation time. Overall, developing disciplinary literacy skills across core subjects can make a significant difference in the success of students and should be an integral part of how a district approaches literacy instruction.
Research also indicates that a wide vocabulary and high level of background knowledge add more to reading comprehension over time, and early vocabulary levels are a strong predictor of early reading comprehension. Word knowledge also has an impact on thinking, speaking, and writing throughout life. What this has led to is educators realizing that literacy is not just for English Language Arts classes!
Science of Reading isn’t a program, but rather an approach. So, what it looks like in practice can vary from state to state, district to district, and classroom to classroom. What education leaders are looking for is professional learning support on how to use technology to bring evidence-based strategies into their schools, and a way to bring a culture of literacy leadership into their district and schools.
A recent report on teacher preparation found that for the first time, more than half of teacher preparation programs in the country were adequately teaching key elements of the Science of Reading to students. But as the “best practices” of literacy instruction change, educators are being asked to adapt their teaching practice to meet these new standards. To make these changes, teachers are looking for:
Taking a practical approach to professional learning can help education leaders keep up with the changes to literacy instruction strategies as well as address those elements that teachers are looking for to be effective in the classroom. And by practical, we mean adaptive in the way teacher support can be delivered, especially in today’s age of technology.
DE’s award-winning cross-curricular solutions develop students’ background knowledge and vocabulary, provide embedded reading and language tools that support every learner, and deliver tools to help educators apply evidence-based strategies into their instruction with ease.
Reading is a cross-curricular skill, so students need opportunities to build their literacy skills in all content areas! Finding places in existing Science, Social Studies, or Math curriculum where students can practice active reading will help non-reading teachers feel prepared to offer their students opportunities to strengthen their literacy skills.
Collaboration with other teachers is a great way to open the doors between reading and non-reading classes. Allowing time for teachers to plan cross-curricular units can help make lessons that build meaningful vocabulary and background knowledge that can be applied in other lessons.
On any given day, teachers have a classroom full of 25-35 students who are walking through the door are coming in with their own personal levels of background knowledge, vocabulary, and literacy skills. Teachers need support to accommodate content and lessons to their students’ needs, whether that be through a variety of text levels, unique modalities and supports for the reading process, or ways for students to explore words they are unfamiliar with. While these supports can come from an EdTech or curriculum partner, they can also come in the form of teaching strategies and time for small-group instruction.