By Karen Douglas, NCER Program Officer
Improving students’ capacity to understand what they read in all subject areas is a primary focus of educators and policymakers. Educators and researchers have been focused on interventions to improve reading for decades, and a great deal of attention has been given to improving word level skills (such as phonemic awareness and decoding). In part, this focus can be traced to the ‘Simple View of Reading,’ a theoretical framework developed by Gough and Tunmer almost 30 years ago.
The Simple View states that readers need to both understand language and decode the symbols on the page in order to comprehend written text. The influential role of decoding on reading outcomes has been well studied, and many interventions have been developed that show good results in improving these skills for many students. But improvement in decoding skills, while necessary, has not generally been sufficient to improve reading comprehension.
In recent years, researchers have begun exploring the other part of the equation -- language. Most often, researchers use vocabulary knowledge as a proxy for language skills and a great deal of research is focused on improving vocabulary skills. Efforts to improve vocabulary generally show that students learn the new words they are taught, but generalized effects on vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension are elusive. It seems likely that in addition to understanding the meanings of individual words, students also need to know how words are constructed (morphology), how they are used in text (syntax and grammar), and how to make inferences from text in order to make sense of the wide variety of materials they must read.
The Reading for Understanding Research Initiative (RfU), funded in 2010 by IES, is addressing a broader conception of language in trying to improve reading comprehension. RfU provided funding for six research teams to study the basic processes that undergird reading comprehension, develop and test new curricula and instructional programs to improve it, and develop new assessments to provide a better measure of students’ capacity to read in authentic scenarios. Collectively, RfU researchers are studying the development of reading for understanding from prekindergarten through high school with the goal of creating new knowledge about what matters at each developmental stage in order for students to finish high school with sufficient reading skills for college and career. Each of these six teams has incorporated attention to aspects of language beyond vocabulary knowledge and several teams have published results that provide evidence of the potential of improved language skills for building reading comprehension. Abstracts for studies and publications to date can be found on the IES website.
In a recent article in Educational Psychology Review, my co-author Elizabeth Albro and I describe the purpose of the RfU Research Initiative, the goals of the six teams funded under the initiative, and progress made through 2014. As the work of the RfU Research Initiative comes to completion, the RfU researchers are positioned to make important contributions to what we know about the development of reading for understanding and how we can best improve it for all students. Expanded knowledge about the language skills that support reading for understanding and how to improve them will be a key component of this contribution. Stay tuned to Inside IES Research to learn more about what the teams are finding.