Special Report
Reading & Literacy

More Than Phonics: How to Boost Comprehension for Early Readers

By Sarah Schwartz — December 03, 2019 | Corrected: December 09, 2019 10 min read
Ashley Palmer, a kindergarten teacher in Matthews, Mo., works with students on letter names using flashcards.
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Corrected: A previous version of this story misstated the university where Tanya Wright is an associate professor. She works at Michigan State University.

Matthews, Mo.

What do you do when hear a word you don’t know? In Ashley Palmer’s kindergarten class, you stop. And you talk about it.

Palmer, a teacher at Matthews Elementary School in Missouri’s New Madrid district, was telling a story about a family of toy lions during one morning lesson when she got to the word “lass.”

“That’s one of our vocabulary words,” she told the group of children sitting cross-legged on the rug. Then she led the students in clapping out its one syllable, then segmenting the sounds: /l/, /a/, /s/.

“It’s another word for ‘girl,’” Palmer said. “Sometimes when I line you up for bathroom break, instead of saying girls, or ladies, I can say, ‘If you are a—"

“Lass!” the students shouted out, as some sat up on their knees. “‘If you are a—lass—you can line up,’” Palmer finished.

The whole process is deceptively simple—it took less than 60 seconds—but this kind of embedded vocabulary instruction is a key piece of Matthews’ overhauled early reading program. Just five years ago, only about 14 percent of the school scored proficient on the state’s annual assessment. The numbers have grown steadily to the point where this year, 80 percent of the students met the standard. In 3rd grade, the numbers reached 95 percent.

In the literacy world, there’s a perennial concern that focusing on foundational skills will come at the expense of giving kids opportunities to practice language and enjoy stories. But researchers and educators say that it’s not only possible to teach useful vocabulary and meaningful content knowledge to young children—it’s necessary.

A body of research has shown that once students can decode, their reading comprehension is largely dependent on their language comprehension—or the background and vocabulary knowledge that they bring to a text, and their ability to follow the structure of a story and think about it analytically.

Before students can glean this kind of information from print, experts say, they can do it through oral language: by having conversations about the meaning of words, telling stories, and reading books aloud.

At Matthews, an explicit, systematic approach to phonics instruction has helped drive the big jumps in student achievement—but it’s only one part of the equation, said Angie Hanlin, the school’s principal. The school took on a complete restructuring of its reading program, which included changing the way teachers planned and taught vocabulary and reading comprehension.

“Putting a phonics patch on a reading program or on a school is not going to teach all students to read,” Hanlin said. “It is not going to fix it, and it’s not going to drive up the data.”

This is the premise behind the Simple View of Reading, a framework for comprehension first proposed by researchers Philip B. Gough and William E. Tunmer in 1986, and confirmed by later studies.

The simple view holds that reading comprehension is the product of decoding ability and language comprehension. Kids who can’t decode words won’t be able to read, no matter how much vocabulary they know, or how much they know about the world. But the opposite is also true: If they don’t have this background knowledge, children won’t be able to understand the words that they can read off the page.

Engaging With Rich Content

“Decoding has a really outsized role on reading comprehension in the early grades,” said Gina Cervetti, an associate professor of education at the University of Michigan, who studies the role of content-area knowledge in literacy. “But as students consolidate their decoding, very quickly that equation shifts.”

As students progress into 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades, texts become more challenging—there are bigger words, harder concepts, and more assumptions about what students already know about the world.

Kids need to start engaging with rich content early on, so that once they are expected to read it on the page, they understand what’s going on. If they haven’t developed that foundation, it’s hard to catch up quickly, said Cervetti.

“To learn words well, you need to encounter them again and again,” said Margaret McKeown, a senior scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, and an expert in vocabulary instruction. As very young children learn words, they start to form connections in the brain—links that join synonyms together, or relate words that are used in similar situations. This gives bigger, harder words a place to land when students learn them, McKeown said. “The concepts aren’t new,” she said. “They’re just more sophisticated or refined ways to describe similar things.”

At Matthews Elementary, teachers meet once a week to go through their foundational skills lessons and read-aloud books. The curriculum they use identifies vocabulary words that can be embedded in lessons. But the teachers also look for words in the text that their students specifically might struggle with.

In this week’s kindergarten class, one of those words was “living room.” Palmer had introduced the word earlier that week—a lot of her students didn’t have a space in their homes that they called by that name. In this day’s lesson, she asked students to recall it, asking questions: What kind of room has a couch? A chair?

Matthews is in a small, rural county, where the majority of students receive free and reduced-price lunch. Hanlin said that a lot of books, even for young readers, assume life experience her students don’t have. So teachers build on the knowledge that students do have. For example, Hanlin said, students might not know the word “cathedral.” But they do know the word “church.”

It’s important to do this kind of planning ahead, said Tanya Wright, an associate professor of education at Michigan State University, who studies oral language, vocabulary, and knowledge development.

Before a teacher reads a text to or with students, she needs to read it herself, Wright said. “You’re going to know where you need to stop, where you need to explain.” Ahead of time, teachers should plan child-friendly definitions, or figure out how they might use props or movements to demonstrate the word.

But this kind of planned vocabulary instruction may not be happening in most schools. In a study published in 2014, Wright and her colleagues observed the way teachers discussed vocabulary in 55 kindergarten classrooms. They found a general lack of planned and purposeful instruction—most teachers weren’t talking about a word more than once or selecting words in any systematic way.

There are ways to draw out more conversation about vocabulary words, McKeown said. One strategy comes from an unlikely place: improv comedy groups.

In improv, comedians are taught to say, “Yes, and … " to build off of the scenario that their fellow performers create. The same framework can help kids build related vocabulary. Take the word “cautious,” McKeown said.

A student asked to use the word might say that he had to be cautious, because someone was riding a bike fast near him. The teacher can agree, and then expand on that same idea: “You had to be careful because it might be dangerous if someone hit you with their bike.”

“You’re always adding more words that are associated with the [main] word, demonstrating a greater context for words,” McKeown said.

Ava Newton, a student in Ashley Palmer’s kindergarten class, points at the projector screen during a reading comprehension lesson.

In a read-aloud that afternoon, Palmer’s kindergarten class heard another story about a lion—this time, one that had escaped from the zoo and befriended a little girl. As the lion curled up for a nap in the girl’s house, Palmer paused on the words “lions sleep a lot.” She turned to give the students on the rug a puzzled look.

“Is that true?” she asked. She referenced a nonfiction book the class had read the day before, about lions in the wild. “They like to sleep and lie around 20 out of the 24 hours!” Palmer said.

As she continued to read, she made more links back to the nonfiction text, explaining as she went what was real and what was make-believe, adding in extra details that the nonfiction book hadn’t covered. She made these implicit connections explicit for her students.

Building Knowledge

Still other schools are turning to curricula that are purposefully structured to build knowledge—diving deeply into specific content areas, even in the very early grades. These curricula are based on the theory that all students need a similar foundation in core domains—like literature, the arts, science, social studies, and history—so that they have the knowledge base to support comprehension.

Educational theorist E.D. Hirsch is widely credited as the originator of this idea. His 1987 book, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, argued that schools need to expose students to the body of knowledge that authors and speakers will expect them to have. This idea has seen a resurgence in popular conversation more recently through author Natalie Wexler’s 2019 book, The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System—and How to Fix It, which criticizes U.S. schools for prioritizing skills-based instruction over the teaching of content.

The notion that background knowledge informs understanding isn’t very controversial. But proposals about exactly what knowledge schools should prioritize definitely are. Many teachers reject the idea of a shared literary canon, for example, arguing that it upholds a Eurocentric approach to American education that privileges the knowledge and histories of white Westerners at the expense of people of color.

But Jared Myracle, the chief academic officer in Jackson-Madison County schools in Tennessee, sees providing this kind of background knowledge as an equity issue.

Students from low-income families often don’t come into school with the same depth of academic language that students from higher-income families do, limiting their ability to make meaning from what they read, he said. In Jackson-Madison county, the data bore out this divide: Schools where the vast majority of students received free and reduced-price lunch were trailing the district when Myracle started there in 2017.

Now, students spend an hour every day doing basic skills instruction—like naming and writing letters, practicing phonological awareness, and learning phonics—and an hour on what’s called “listening and learning.” These lessons teach topics through conversation and read-alouds—in kindergarten, they learn about plants, 1st grade is early civilizations, and 2nd graders cover systems of the human body.

Kristin Peachey, an instructional coach at Pope Elementary School in the district, said that talking about complex topics lets students engage at a higher level than they would through text at this early age.

A coherent unit of study also provides opportunities for teaching comprehension, said Cervetti, the University of Michigan professor. “You can’t really reason about things in very sophisticated ways unless you know something about them,” she said.

Students should have the opportunity to discuss questions that are open-ended, without a single answer, during read-alouds, said Wright. “If we’re telling kids to think quietly and only be listeners and not participants in the read-aloud, then that’s not optimal for their learning.”

At Pope Elementary, teachers plan and talk through the questions they’ll ask during read-alouds, said Peachey. Take a recent 2nd grade lesson about Greek mythology, she said. After teachers read the story “Atalanta and the Golden Apples,” students were asked to reflect on characters’ motivations: Why would Atalanta only marry someone who could beat her in a footrace?

Imparting a deep understanding of subject matter, and teaching children to think analytically—that takes time, said Myracle. “It’s pretty easy to see gains on the foundational skills side, once you implement a systematic [phonics] program,” he said. Knowledge-building is a longer process.

Myracle believes that the payoff will be worth it. But he worries that some districts will try on a content knowledge focus like a passing fad, dismissing it before they have the opportunity to see any effects.

“My biggest fear is that districts that are starting to do some of this work to build knowledge in early grades, that they won’t stick with it,” Myracle said. “The gains are going to be longer in coming.”

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.
A version of this article appeared in the December 04, 2019 edition of Education Week as The Keys to Comprehension? Vocabulary and Knowledge


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