Reading & Literacy

Panel Urges Study Of Reading Comprehension

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — February 07, 2001 4 min read
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With a considerable body of research on how children acquire basic reading skills already established, more attention needs to be directed toward building a sustained and systematic study of reading comprehension, a panel of experts concludes.

The draft report from a reading study group assembled by the RAND Corp. suggests that research on how children develop skills in reading and understanding many types of texts will be one of the most urgent needs for reading researchers and teachers over the next 10 to 15 years.

For More Information

The Rand Reading Study Group provides its draft report, “Reading for Understanding: Towards an R&D Program in Reading Comprehension,” as well as reviews of the report by experts in the field and reader comment forms. (The draft report requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

“Reading for Understanding: Towards an R&D Program in Reading Comprehension” outlines a plan for finding out which curriculum and instructional practices best promote comprehension skills, as well as effective ways to assess those skills. The report was prepared for the U.S. Department of Education’s office for educational research and improvement.

‘Much To Learn’

While improving reading skills in the early grades will depend primarily on translating research findings into practice, the 73-page report says, “we still have much to learn ... about how children become good comprehenders, how to design and deliver instruction, and how to prevent comprehension failure.”

Becoming skillful readers—those who can read with ease and interest a variety of materials for pleasure, learning, and analysis—depends on students’ reading and vocabulary skills, world knowledge, motivation and purpose for reading, and awareness of the structures of various types of text, the study panel says.

Prominent research in recent years has focused on the acquisition of early literacy skills, such as phonemic awareness (the understanding that words are made up of sounds and letters), decoding (or sounding out) of words, and word recognition. Such research has led to a trend toward explicit, systematic phonics instruction in the early grades.

Reading achievement, as gauged by state and national test scores, often drops after 4th grade, when students are required to master increasingly complex subject-based material.

The performance of middle school students in particular—33 percent of 8th graders demonstrated proficiency on the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress, while 26 percent of the students lacked basic skills—has begun to focus attention on adolescent literacy. But the teaching of comprehension—a skill commonly assumed to develop merely by reading—is often minimal and ineffective, the study panel said.

“The public discourse about improving reading achievement has oversimplified the issues by suggesting that once we all have children reading at grade 3, that is it—we’re home free,” said Catherine Snow, a Harvard University education professor who headed the 14-member panel.

“But real problems emerge in middle school and later grades, even for children who it turns out are doing fine at the end of grade 3,” she said.

Ms. Snow, the current president of the American Educational Research Association, chaired the committee that in 1998 wrote the influential National Research Council report “Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children.”

Rigorous and Relevant

The RAND study group recommends that the OERI research agenda demand rigorous quantitative and qualitative studies. And, if the federal research is to have an impact on reading instruction and achievement, “the concerns of practitioners need to be incorporated from the beginning, and the work must be seen as contributing to practice, rather than being exported to schools after the papers are published,” the draft report says.

But first, the panel says, the OERI must address concerns about the quality and relevance of educational research. The report suggests forming a panel of experts with extensive experience in independent research to review future research proposals submitted to the federal office.

Some experts praised the report for focusing on comprehension and for attempting to lay out a more dynamic and meaningful research role for the OERI.

“This is trying to move OERI into setting a research agenda ... rather than responding only to congressional mandates,” or the hot topics of the day, said Gerald R. Sroufe, the director of government relations for the educational research association, a Washington-based group representing 23,000 education researchers.

But others said a more comprehensive approach to reading research is necessary to help teachers improve reading achievement.

“It’s much too timid an agenda,” said Cathy Roller, the research director for the International Reading Association in Newark, Del. “We know about a lot of [teaching strategies] that work. The question is, which ones should we use with which kids at which point in time to make sure they all learn?”

The RAND proposal would not preclude such studies, Ms. Snow said. The final report will incorporate feedback from researchers and teachers and is expected to be released this spring.

A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as Panel Urges Study Of Reading Comprehension

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