Improving Reading Outcomes: Getting Beyond Third Grade

Catherine E. Snow

Henry Lee Shattuck Professor

Harvard Graduate School of Education

Literacy is the cornerstone of school achievement. Improving school outcomes requires that we focus on raising literacy achievement. Indeed, the formulation of the goal ‘All children reading on grade level by grade three’ recognizes the degree to which literacy skills are a foundation for success in math, science, history, and other school subjects. In this paper, I review in the first section the progress that we have made toward the goal of ‘grade three reading for all,’ and then go on to suggest what the next literacy challenge is for U.S. education.

Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children

In 1998 the National Research Council published a report that summarized what is known about the steps needed to prevent the emergence of reading difficulties in children aged eight and under. That report built on a very high degree of consensus among researchers concerning what capacities skilled readers deploy when reading, to make recommendations concerning appropriate prevention programs for preschool-aged children, the characteristics of good reading instruction for children in 1st through 3rd grades, teacher preparation and professional development, and priorities in the funding of literacy reform efforts.

Good readers, the report concluded, convert sequences of letters into the sounds they represent rapidly and automatically, without much attentional effort, as they focus on understanding the message being carried by the text. In other words, good readers know that they are reading for some purpose–to learn something, to figure out how to do something, to enjoy a good story. They also understand the ‘alphabetic principle’ (that letters represent sounds in systematic ways) and have mastered its application–just as a good pianist both knows which key to press for each note on a page of music, and can do so rapidly enough that a recognizable melody emerges. Research findings make clear that, while many children discover the alphabetic principle on their own, others need to be taught it explicitly. Children who understand the alphabetic principle may remain poor readers unless they have extensive opportunities to practice its application, through reading books at their appropriate level. Furthermore, applying and practicing the alphabetic principle is much easier for children who are reading words they know. One of the most robust research findings is that children with large vocabularies are likely to be good readers.

Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children outlined the opportunities preschool and primary aged children need if risk of reading failure is to be minimized. These opportunities include:

  1. Opportunities to develop a motivation to read. Children who have as preschoolers had lots of experiences being read to, having print pointed out, and having their own ‘writing’ encouraged, are more likely to succeed when exposed to formal instruction. Children who have access to attractive, interesting, well written books in the primary grades are more likely to practice enough to achieve mastery of the alphabetic principle.
  1. Opportunities to develop an understanding of the uses and functions of print. Many children arrive at first grade not quite sure what reading is for. If they encounter uninspired reading instruction (the famous ‘kill and drill’ approach) in which they receive no exposure to the many forms and functions of literacy (from making shopping lists to writing one’s memoirs), they are unlikely to maintain either the motivation or the purpose to persist. Thus preschool classrooms should expose children to rich literacy experiences, and primary classrooms must provide lots of access to writing beyond that which the children can read themselves.
  1. Opportunities to develop language skills. Since vocabulary is the best single predictor of reading outcomes, it is crucial that preschool classrooms (especially those designed for high-risk children) focus on developing language skills, and that support for oral language development be continued in the primary grades. Teachers need to support oral language development while also focusing on teaching the details of letters and sounds.
  1. Opportunities to grasp and master the alphabetic principle. As noted above, in first grade some children need explicit instruction in the mapping of letters to sounds–the kind of instruction often referred to as ‘phonics instruction.’. That instruction works best if children have by the end of kindergarten learned to recognize letters, and to think about the sounds in words. Primary instruction must integrate teaching about letters and sounds with reading for meaning–reading words children know, reading texts of interest to them.
  1. Opportunities to receive appropriate prevention or intervention programs if needed. Providing rich language and literacy environments to children growing up poor, in homes where parents have little education, or at risk for other reasons would greatly decrease reading difficulties in the primary grades. Once formal reading instruction begins, it is crucial to keep track of what children are learning, and to respond immediately with appropriate instructional interventions when they fall behind.

Providing these opportunities universally will require providing preschoolers with the requisite skills and dispositions for literacy readiness, providing sensible, research-based instruction in the primary grades, assessing children regularly in order to guide instructional responses to their individual needs, and upgrading teacher preparation and support. Some efforts currently in place are designed to achieve these goals. For example, the Reading Excellence Act provided funds to support teacher professional development in the domain of literacy, and several different professional and research groups are making proposals for upgrading teacher knowledge. Early Head Start was instituted and Head Start is being redesigned to improve the school readiness of children most at risk of literacy failure. Increasingly states are adopting assessment systems that generate, not just evidence about who is failing, but analyses of why children fail and suggestions for instructional responses.

Why have we not moved faster in implementing the changes suggested by Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children? Moving forward requires a fairly high level of agreement about the direction in which to move–a level of agreement that has only recently emerged in the field of reading. While the field was still subject to deep ideological splits, unhealed by recourse to research findings, it was hard to achieve improvements in the design of preschool education, primary reading instruction, or of teacher education. Efforts such as the Reading Excellence Act are possible now because a robust knowledge base has developed to support them, resting on the last 50 years of research on reading development. Coordinated research efforts, supported by significant funding through the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development as well as by the Department of Education and private foundations, have provided a knowledge base strong enough that researchers and policy makers now know what to expect of practice, what skills children should display in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades, what instructional techniques and materials teachers should have available, what teacher knowledge should consist of, and how schools should be organized to promote reading success. Of course, we do not know everything we need to know about early reading–but we know enough massively to improve practice if the current knowledge base is implemented.

Beyond Grade Three

These many efforts, though, are focused on early literacy development–ensuring that children read on grade level by grade three. Indeed, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children addressed the age range 0 to 8 precisely because it was felt that the knowledge base was sufficient for consensus about appropriate practice in that range. The thesis of the rest of this paper is that, while reading on grade level in grade 3 is a noble goal, and one on which we still need to work hard, it is not ambitious enough. I argue that, while we continue to implement available research knowledge to ensure improvements in literacy outcomes for children in kindergarten through third grade, we need to be thinking about the literacy-education needs of older children as well.

Reading well at grade three level does not ensure school success. Children still have a lot to learn about reading in the middle school and secondary grades. They need to learn to process the much more challenging texts they will encounter, with their denser grammar, unfamiliar words, and complex ideas. They need to learn how to learn from reading–as well as how to be critical of what they read. Unfortunately, the knowledge base for how to teach children the comprehension and analysis skills they will need to read their social science, math, and science texts is inadequate. Many children read pretty well at the end of grade three, but encounter real difficulties in the higher grades because the task of reading to learn is so different from the task of learning to read.

This paper summarizes the argument for a substantial research agenda focused on skillful reading, and for simultaneous changes in practice and policy. 'Skillful reading' is used here to refer to reading with comprehension across the full array of topics that an educated citizenry needs to be familiar with, reading strategically to select needed information and use it appropriately despite the flood of information available, and reading critically. Some children manage to develop these high level reading skills, though they are systematically taught by too few teachers. Research has only limited help to offer those teachers dealing with children who can read well at the third grade level but have not made the transition to successful reading at later grades. I will briefly sketch a) an argument for focusing on ‘skillful reading’ (reading comprehension) as a national educational priority, b) what we know about reading comprehension from past research, and c) the changes in practice, research planning, and research policy that are called for.

Issues Motivating a Focus on Reading Comprehension

The demand for literacy skills is high and increasing. The U.S. economy demands a universally higher level of literacy achievement than at any prior point in history, and it is reasonable to believe that literacy demands will increase in the future. A society with few blue-collar but many service-related and information-based jobs demands high school graduation as a minimum credential for employment. Moreover, advanced vocational or academic training is a requirement now for a wide variety of positions which previously might have gone to high school dropouts. Thus, ensuring advanced literacy achievement for all students is no longer a luxury but an economic necessity. Utilizing computers and gaining access to the internet make high demands on literacy skills, and in some cases demands for novel literacy skills (e.g., using hypertext) that we do not yet understand how to teach.

The level of reading skills is remaining stagnant. Reading scores of high school students, as reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, have not improved over the last thirty years. While math scores have improved, reading remains stubbornly flat. In fact, grade 12 students recently decreased significantly in reading achievement. Furthermore, in international comparisons of performance on reading assessments, U.S. 11th graders perform very close to the bottom, behind students from The Philippines, Indonesia, Brazil, and other third world nations. This poor performance contrasts with rankings in grade 4, when U.S. students perform close to the top in international comparisons. These findings confirm the impressions of teachers that many students who read well enough in the primary grades confront difficulties with reading thereafter.

Reading comprehension instruction is often minimal or ineffective. Teachers often assume that students will learn to comprehend merely by reading. Although some will, many others will not. Teaching comprehension to children is challenging because reading itself is a complex cognitive process. Teaching comprehension effectively requires appropriate materials, techniques to combine comprehension instruction with subject matter learning, and greatly upgraded teacher knowledge about how and when to do it. Traditional teacher preparation programs provide teachers with a beginning knowledge base about how to teach comprehension, but not in the depth needed to deal with all learners, in particular with second language speakers and students with low vocabularies and restricted world knowledge..

Reading instruction is seldom effectively integrated with content area instruction. Content area teachers presuppose adequate literacy skills among their students, and are typically not themselves well prepared to teach students with below average literacy skills. At the same time, there are specific reading comprehension tasks that must be mastered in the context of specific subject matters. Learning the vocabulary of math and biology, how ideas are presented in history versus literature, how to read the dense texts of high school English lit efficiently, and so on involves acquiring both content and reading skills simultaneously. The relatively poor performance of U.S. middle school and secondary school students in international math and science comparisons likely reflects in part their poor performance as readers.

The achievement gap between minority and mainstream children persists. Attention to reading comprehension is crucial in a society determined to minimize achievement gaps between mainstream children and those from ethnic and racial minority groups, between urban and suburban, between native English speakers and English language learners, as well as between middle and working class children. National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, for example, show that 17-year-old African-American students score at the level of 13-year-old European-American students—a gap that has decreased only minimally in the last 20 years. This large and persistent gap in reading achievement in the later elementary and secondary grades relates to differences in achievement in other content areas, and to differences in high school dropout and college entrance rates.

High stakes tests are impacting reading comprehension instruction in unknown ways. The standards-based movement in education is an effort to improve schooling for all children by establishing clear achievement standards and helping children attain them. Children are tested to provide information to parents, teachers, and schools about degree of compliance with the standards, and in the ideal case also to provide guidelines for improving instruction. Increasingly, failure to meet the standards is being associated with child-specific sanctions, such as retention in grade or withholding high school diplomas. Children may be failing these achievement tests more because of difficulties in comprehending the test items than because they have achieved insufficient knowledge in the content areas.

The preparation of teachers does not adequately address children’s needs for reading comprehension instruction. We know that child outcomes relate to the quality of the instruction received, which in turn reflects teacher preparation and ongoing teacher professional development. Yet teacher preparation and professional development programs are inadequate in the crucial domain of reading comprehension, in part because the solid, systematic research base that should undergird teacher preparation does not exist.

Making good on the federal investment in education requires more knowledge about reading comprehension. The recent implementation of the Reading Excellence Act (REA) has as a major goal the introduction of instructional practices that have a basis in research. Efforts funded through REA are currently focused on beginning reading instruction. However, explicit instruction in reading comprehension is essential for many children in ensuring the transition from beginning to skillful reading. Presently the research base necessary to inform teachers and schools about best practices for teaching reading in the postprimary grades is not adequately developed. The enormous investment ($260 million) in REA will be lost without development of our knowledge base concerning reading comprehension.

What do we know about reading comprehension?

There is a good deal we already know in addressing the practical challenges of improving reading comprehension outcomes. In particular, several of the prerequisites to successful reading comprehension have been identified. These include:

  1. successful initial reading instruction resulting in rapid and accurate word reading
  2. good oral language skills (large oral vocabularies, good listening comprehension)
  3. well developed stores of world knowledge in a variety of subject areas
  4. social interactions in homes, classrooms, and the community that motivate students to read
  5. opportunities to practice reading for various purposes
  6. lots of exposure to many different kinds of reading materials
  7. various specific instructional practices that have proven to be particularly effective in improving reading comprehension
  8. instruction based on an appropriate and well articulated alignment between curriculum and assessment

We also know that reading comprehension is massively affected by features of the texts being read, by the match of topic to individual readers’ interests, by the motivation of the reader to succeed, and by the social-cultural context in which reading takes place, as well as by the quality of instruction received. What we need to know is how to promote effective reading comprehension in cases where some or all of these facilitatory factors are absent.

What is reading comprehension? Most teachers, and most reading tests, define comprehension as the process of being able to summarize the text read, or perhaps to answer some recall and inference questions about it. We argue, though, that ‘getting the gist’ or ‘acquiring new knowledge’ is too limited a definition of successful comprehension. In some cases, successful comprehension involves scanning quickly to find the bit of information one wants (as in using the internet), or reading so as to apply the information immediately but then forget it (as in programming a VCR). Surely we want to include in our thinking about comprehension the capacity to get absorbed and involved in the text (as when reading a page-turner), as well as reacting critically (as when disagreeing with an editorial). Good readers can do all of these, and can choose when each of these approaches to reading is appropriate.

Just as the term ‘reading comprehension’ encompasses many different activities, the success of comprehension is also influenced by a wide variety of factors. Each reader brings unique resources of knowledge and strategies for interacting with text. Many good readers would struggle with a physics text, others would stumble over poetry, and lots would find the Congressional Record hard going. Children whose tested reading level is 2nd grade may well work their way through the Harry Potter series if all their friends are talking about it, and adults with limited reading skills may manage to understand the convoluted wording of ballot propositions if the issues are of sufficient interest to them. Immigrants who may be excellent readers in their native language find too many unfamiliar words in texts they read in English, and thus fail to comprehend them. Children are often given history texts that have been made ‘easy to read,’ but that in fact are impossible to understand because all the explicit links among sentences have been eliminated. All of us read better when reading about something familiar to us from our own backgrounds. A multitude of factors, including the home, school, and community context in which reading occurs, imposes meaning on what is read, why it is read, and how it is to be interpreted.

So What Do We Do Next?

Addressing the educational needs of children beyond grade three requires that we think about three initiatives: putting what we now know about improving reading comprehension into practice, building the knowledge base for improving reading comprehension, and developing policies to support improvements in practice and in research.

Improving Practice

Initiatives to improve practice operate most effectively through teacher education and professional development programs. While the knowledge base available to improve practice in literacy instruction focused on comprehension is not as extensive, as coherent, or as well developed as for early reading, we do know a good deal, as discussed above. For example, a number of practices designed to improve comprehension and vocabulary have been demonstrated to be effective in experimental studies; these include prereading discussions, Reciprocal Reading, Questioning the Author, Word Wizard, teaching comprehension strategies explicitly, previewing material in the native language with English language learners, and so forth. Now we need to figure out how to get practices like these implemented more widely, and to support teachers who wish to use them. Many excellent practitioners have developed ways of teaching comprehension and content simultaneously; their knowledge could also be built upon. We also know that students need to continue to read a lot, and to be guided to read books of an appropriate level, so that they have opportunities to practice reading skills, to learn new vocabulary items, and to be exposed to a variety of text.

These examples are meant to suggest that a more systematic focus on improving the teaching of post-third grade reading skills could be initiated immediately, even as we work to extend and systematize the knowledge base for more significant improvements of teaching practice.

A Research Agenda for Reading Comprehension

There are many domains within which more research is needed if we are to make sweeping improvements in practice. A few of these are listed here.

Assessment. Advances in understanding the factors affecting reading comprehension presuppose adequate methods for assessing reading comprehension. Most of us think that the reading tests we currently use accurately and effectively measure how well our students read. But this is not so. While many tests that purport to reflect comprehension exist, no comprehensive assessment system that reflects the full array of reading outcomes is currently available. The tests that exist are limited in scope, variable in quality, and of little help either to policy makers in charting progress in achievement or to teachers in improving and individualizing instruction. Thus developing an assessment system that is tied to benchmarks for reading capacities to be expected of children at different ages and grades is key.

Instruction. Reading instruction too often is thought of as teaching the principles underlying word recognition, whereas in fact children also need to be taught how to comprehend text at deeper levels. Researchers have identified a number of instructional techniques that improve reading comprehension outcomes. But the vast majority of work done so far has been ‘laboratory work’–work carried out with small groups of (typically volunteer) teachers. Going to scale with instructional improvement necessitates a systematic research effort that is designed to expand the repertoire of instructional practices demonstrated to be effective, but also to understand how teachers can learn to use those practices reliably despite the complexities of real classrooms in real schools, and to explore how they can be improved by input from practitioners.

Sources of poor reading comprehension. We need to devote special attention to students who show poor comprehension. Particular subclasses of poor comprehenders are of great interest–e.g., those who read words well but find it hard to construct meaning across longer texts, second language speakers, children who show good comprehension for some topics but not for others. Ultimately ensuring progress in school, participation in citizenship, and employability will require that all the various groups of poor comprehenders are provided with opportunities to develop reading comprehension skill.

Teacher education and professional growth. Systematic investigation of what teachers need to know about reading comprehension, as well as what clinical training and ongoing mentoring and professional support they need to make that knowledge useful, is key if advances in knowledge about optimal instruction are to be translated into improved classroom practice. One of the recurrent findings in the field of student achievement is that teacher preparation makes a difference. The issue is to determine what kind of preparation teachers need to be effective reading teachers, even while also attending to the need to teach math, history, science, and so on.

Institutional structures and policies. In order for the changes we envision to occur, institutional structures and policies must change. For example, teachers, especially at the middle and secondary grades, are used to working on their own, often with little help and assistance from their peers. They are also typically focused on their own content areas, and do not think of themselves as teachers of reading. But teamwork, shared goals, intraschool mentoring, strong instructional leadership from principals, and opportunities to develop a shared sense of responsibility for good outcomes are prerequisite to good outcomes. We know little about precisely how to bring such institutional change about while incorporating mechanisms for the infusion of change with new research knowledge.

Research Policies

Significant advances are possible only if some issues of the infrastructure for educational research are addressed.

Focus and priority setting. I have argued that providing a research base for improving the practice of teaching reading comprehension should be a major focus of research funding. The research agenda sketched here constitutes one set of proposals for high priority items; it emerged from a committee process and reactions to it from the field are being solicited (see Ultimately, the Department of Education, the National Institutes of Health, and other funding bodies will be able to use this document as input to their own planning process.

Long-term programmatic perspective. The research basis that made possible current improvements in early reading outcomes derived from 50 years’ accumulation of knowledge. We need to project a strategic, cumulative array of projects that add up, over the next 10-20 years, to a broad improvement of knowledge and practice in the field of reading comprehension. A long-term programmatic perspective will also support the development of a strong community of researchers, so that the degree of progress that took 50 years in the field of early reading can perhaps occur a little more quickly and efficiently in the field of comprehension comprehension.

Reflection and ongoing review. Research is by its very nature dynamic, and thus neither conclusions from research nor priorities for further research can be expected to remain unchanged over lengthy periods. Because of limited funding for educational research, sufficient resources have not been devoted to programmatic planning. New institutions need to be developed to ensure that research proposals are well reviewed and that knowledge can accumulate optimally.

Openness to various methods. Since the process of reading comprehension is multifaceted and complex, and since the research agenda identified spans a wide variety of issues, a variety of research methods will need to be brought to bear. Education research is problem-focused rather than disciplinary, though it encompasses research from a variety of disciplines. For certain questions, the methods of the biomedical research community are appropriate. For others, the methods of linguists, anthropologists, or even historians may be appropriate. Ensuring high quality research requires letting researchers decide about the appropriateness of methods selected to address the questions posed.

Adequate resources. The task of understanding and improving reading comprehension is a large and challenging one. Token efforts will not improve outcomes in major ways. Nor will larger efforts if resources are distributed, in unsystematic ways, over unrelated research undertakings. Coordinated, programmatic, cumulative research is needed, and that means that funding should be focused on a limited number of research domains, so that sufficient concentration of effort, of funding, and of attention to those domains can be assured, and coordination across various research efforts is possible. Furthermore, researching the many questions about reading comprehension requires recruiting to the field experts in the many relevant domains – a recruitment effort that will succeed only if the available funding is substantial.

Restored faith in educational research. Much public rhetoric these days dismisses educational research as of low quality and/or little relevance. If the Department of Education is to recruit funding partners to launch and oversee an effort of the type sketched here, its credibility as an institution that can manage a high-level research effort must be enhanced. It must establish external peer review, create a division that can serve research management functions without interference from other functions, and become an active player in making research programmatic. The mission of the research arm of the Department of Education is as crucial to the nation’s future as are the research missions of NIH, NASA, and NSF. It must have the capacity to function as effectively as those agencies.


Sources Cited

Snow, C., Burns., S., & Griffin, P. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press