Special Report
Reading & Literacy From Our Research Center

Reading Comprehension Challenges and Opportunities, in Charts

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 15, 2024 6 min read
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Editor’s Note: Click on the words highlighted in this story to pull up a definition and short research summary.

Reading comprehension is a complex endeavor. It’s heavily dependent on learning new content and the vocabulary that underpins key concepts in that content. It’s correlated with students’ ability to read fluently. As students grow older and are expected to learn more through lengthier reading, they need to build the stamina to persist through harder and longer texts.

To gain more insight into the challenges and opportunities in schools, the EdWeek Research Center in late 2023 surveyed a nationally representative group of principals, teachers, and district leaders on practices related to grade 3-8 students’ reading comprehension. The results reflect those of nearly 300 respondents nationwide.

Here are some of the key insights from the exclusive data. (We’ve also linked to deeper coverage of these topics in this report and other EdWeek projects.)


Aspects of reading comprehension

When surveyed, more than half of respondents pinpointed several challenges to reading comprehension. Problems with students’ vocabulary topped the list.

Reading comprehension requires teachers to integrate the vocabulary—often domain-specific words and concepts related to the content—into their teaching of the text. (Teaching about geology, for example, might require them to embed words and concepts like magma, cataclysm, eruption, and plate tectonics.)

Over two-thirds of educators said that students who struggle with reading comprehension could not decode enough of the words in the text. Decoding is typically taught in grades K-2, as students learn to recognize sound parts and how letters represent sounds in print. However some students continue to struggle with decoding in later grades, sometimes because they haven’t received enough explicit instruction on this foundational skill.

Decoding alone is not sufficient to become a strong reader, though. Strong readers have a wide body of background knowledge that they bring to bear on texts, developed by exposure to lots of content. Nearly two-thirds of educators, 63 percent, said students often lacked the background knowledge necessary to understand texts.

That’s why, even when they are learning to decode, students should be exposed to rich content through teacher read-alouds and other methods.

Respondents also highlighted stamina and sentence structure as aspects that made reading comprehension challenging. (Printed texts tend to contain more challenging syntax than oral language.)

To get a sense of how educators approached reading comprehension, the EdWeek Research Center also asked to what degree they emphasized content, skills, and writing.

Educators largely agreed that all three elements of reading instruction were critical, roughly in the same amounts. But their very top priorities showed some differences. Nearly 4 in 10 said that teaching comprehension strategies was a top priority; that share was higher than it was for the other two choices.

While students do need to learn strategies such as inferencing, many cognitive scientists and reading researchers say such instruction should take place in the context of greater attention to content, rather than taught in isolation. That’s because of the large body of research showing the high correlation between background knowledge and the ability to understand texts.

Meanwhile, writing can be integrated as a core part of reading work, by asking students to analyze and go deeper into the content they read.

Read: Reading Comprehension Hinges on Knowledge. New Curricula Aim to Help; What Is Background Knowledge, and How Does It Fit Into the Science of Reading?; The Science of Reading ... and Writing (special report)


Materials

What should students read? To get at this age-old question, we asked educators to describe the types of texts they choose. Especially in grades 3-8, one issue is whether to select materials that prioritize complete novels, poems, news articles, and other sources, often grouped thematically. Another popular choice is traditional “basal readers,” large tomes that tend to include a bevy of texts, often excerpted.

Curriculum quality review groups have come down on different sides of this question. The Knowledge Matters campaign, for example, has exclusively endorsed curriculum that focuses on whole-text sets. Another quality-control group, EdReports, has also given good ratings to some basal reader series.

While there is little empirical evidence to suggest that using whole texts is better than excerpts at supporting students’ reading, whole texts allow students to experience complete works, and may be a better choice to prepare students for texts of increasing complexity and length as they advance through their schooling.

Read: Reading Comprehension Hinges on Knowledge. New Curricula Aim to Help; How to Build Students’ Reading Stamina


Testing reading

States’ year-end reading tests purport to measure general reading comprehension abilities.

However, only 6 percent of respondents said they completely agree that the year-end state reading tests students take are accurate gauges of their reading comprehension; another 36 percent said they partly agreed. A majority of educators disagreed that they’re sound measures.

In open-ended responses, many of them noted that students who do not have the background knowledge to make sense of the reading passages on these exams tend to score poorly.

Cognitive scientists have raised questions about the exams, too, noting that students’ performance on them reflects how much they know about the content at hand, not merely reading ability.

Read: There’s a Design Flaw in Most Reading Tests. Here’s One State’s Fix


Reading for pleasure

Sixty percent of educators said they placed at least a fair amount of emphasis on reading for pleasure in grades 3-8. A large body of evidence connects students’ interest and motivation to their academic achievement, and encouraging pleasure reading supports the goal of reading comprehension with the desire to instill a love of reading.

Pleasure reading shouldn’t be confused with the reading students do in classrooms as part of their reading lessons, or with the “leveled” or “choice” books that are used in some English/language arts curricula.

Most educators also felt that many students don’t read much for pleasure at home or during free time. More than 8 and 10 educators said that 50 percent or fewer of their students did so.

Read: How This Teacher Sparks a Love of Reading for Pleasure


Stamina

To be better readers, students need to read a lot—and they also need to persist through more challenging kinds of texts. This especially matters as the reading volume amps up beginning in the lower secondary level.

Educators said that they felt their students’ reading stamina had fallen since 2019. Although the survey didn’t query why, likely culprits include the pandemic, and the saturation of smartphones and other tech devices competing for students’ attention.

That’s why many educators say sustained attention to reading, and the discussion of increasingly complex text, needs to happen while students are at school.

Read: How to Build Students’ Reading Stamina

Words Used in Story

Reading comprehension:

The ability to understand what one reads. The skills that underlie reading comprehension, though, are complex and varied. Students need to be able to decode the words on the page, understand the vocabulary used, apply their own background knowledge to make sense of text, parse syntax and text structure, and monitor their own understanding as they read. Supporting students’ reading comprehension requires carefully planned and sequenced instruction.


Vocabulary:

The words used in a language. Best practices for vocabulary instruction include teaching words within a meaningful context (rather than the traditional list of unrelated words), offering children multiple exposures to a word and opportunities to use it, and connecting new words to related words that children already know.


Oral language:

The spoken words, knowledge of semantics, and use of syntax that people use to communicate orally with one another. Developing students’ ability to speak and listen is a key component of early-reading-comprehension instruction—important for all children but especially critical for English learners. Once students know how to decode written words, their oral language ability is predictive of their reading comprehension.


Comprehension strategies:

Routines and tools that readers can use to make sense of text. Decades of studies have shown that explicitly teaching students how to use certain strategies—such as summarizing, visualizing, inferencing, creating graphic organizers, and asking questions about their understanding—can support their reading comprehension. Advocates of knowledge-building curricula have argued that isolated strategy practice isn’t as effective as teaching these skills within the context of topically related texts that allow students to draw connections.


Reading "stamina":

The notion that students must gradually be able to read texts for sustained periods of time as they progress through school and are expected to gain knowledge from their reading. Although research has connected various features of text, including its length, diction, and syntax, to estimates of how difficult a text is to read, there is not much research on how to build stamina among students.


See the full list of words used in this special report in our glossary here.

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Data analysis for this article was provided by the EdWeek Research Center. Learn more about the center’s work.

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