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Learning and Teaching Reading

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Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Helping students become good readers is an important part of the education process. Students need to be able to gain information from a variety of texts, know how to access texts to solve problems, and be able to critically examine information presented through texts. However, providing reading instruction that develops such abilities can be a complex and challenging task. Therefore, this entry was designed to provide readers with some of the more prominent theoretical positions and instructional techniques that can be used to provide students with excellent reading instruction. This entry is meant to serve as a brief introduction and broad overview for teaching reading.

PREVALENT THEORIES IN READING INSTRUCTION

Exemplary reading teachers often have strong background knowledge in theories of reading and can apply them to their instruction (Pressley, Allington, Wharton-MacDonald, Block, & Morrow, 2001). Theoretical knowledge allows teachers to make more informed decisions about their instruction and helps them know why one technique may be better than another. Three theories are presented in this section: (a) schema theory, (b) socio-cultural theory, and (c) identity theory. Each theory offers a different way to understand the reading process and reading instruction.

Schema Theory. Schema theory states that individuals will draw on their knowledge of the world in order to help them understand what they read (Anderson, 2004). How well people can understand what they read is connected to the topic being presented and the amount of knowledge they hold about it. Different interpretations of text can result from different amounts and types of background knowledge on a given topic. Schemas exist for such areas as the content being presented in a text (people, ideas, and places), the processes for reading and comprehending (knowing how to identify words, summarize, locate the main idea), and for different genres of text (mysteries, autobiographies, web sites). Reading comprehension is likely to be limited if a person does not possess sufficient background information for the information being presented.

Socio-Cultural Theory. Socio-cultural theory suggests that people's experiences at home, at school, and in their communities can influence their reading development. Students' views of reading, and the purposes of it, are often shaped at home before they enter kindergarten. When students read books or are asked to engage in reading activities, they draw on previous social and cultural experiences to help them understand what they should do and why. Students use their knowledge about what is valued to inform how they read and comprehend texts. Students from diverse cultural backgrounds may engage with reading activities in ways that are not valued by schools and that teachers consider unacceptable. Understanding that students' different approaches to reading are connected to their social and cultural backgrounds can allow teachers to provide more personalized assistance.

Identity Theory. Identity theory suggests that how students read texts and apply reading instruction will be connected to how they identify themselves as readers and how they want to be identified by their peers, teachers, or family members (Gee, 2002). In school, teachers often communicate what it means to be identified as a good or poor reader. Students who identify themselves as poor readers may disengage from reading because they are afraid that doing so will publicly reveal their weaknesses and allow a negative identity to be assigned to them. Teachers may interpret students' decisions as a desire not to learn and may respond by limiting the personal help they provide. Students who are identified as good readers or who show they are trying to become good readers are more likely to receive additional, personalized help.

IMPORTANT GOALS IN READING INSTRUCTION

An overall goal of reading instruction is to help students learn how to create new knowledge from what they read and apply it to specific problems in every day life. Helping students reach such a goal requires instruction in many small goals throughout their school careers. The critical goals in reading instruction discussed here are to develop students' (a) concepts about print, (b) phonics knowledge, (c) vocabulary knowledge, (d) fluency, and (e) comprehension abilities.

Concepts about Print. For beginning readers, developing concepts about print is often the first step in learning how to read. Concepts about print include understanding (a) about how to hold, open, and turn pages in books,

Because students' reading levels likely vary, the type of reading instruction they need also varies.Because students' reading levels likely vary, the type of reading instruction they need also varies.RICHARD HUTCHINGS / PHOTO RESEARCHERS, INC.

(b) that text is read from left to right and top to bottom, (c)  that printed words have meaning, and (d) there is a one-to-one match between spoken and written words (Tompkins, 2006). As students develop their concepts about print they learn how to interact with texts in ways that will help them gain meaning from them as they read. Students should have developed strong concepts about print by the end of kindergarten.

Phonics Knowledge. Phonics is the correspondence between letters and sounds (Stahl, 2002). Knowing the sound that the letter s makes and that this sound is different from the letter n is an example of phonics knowledge. Reading cannot take place without understanding the sounds letters make. Readers rely on their knowledge of phonics whenever they come across an unknown word and must sound it out.

Vocabulary Knowledge. Vocabulary knowledge is critical to students' success at reading. A central goal of vocabulary knowledge is to help students develop full word knowledge (Allen, 1999). Full word knowledge means that students know multiple meanings for a given word and/or different ways a given word can be used. It is not necessary, or possible, to have full word knowledge for every word. For most words, students will have partial knowledge. They will know one definition for the word and be able to use it in a sentence. The more words students have at the partial and full knowledge level, the better their comprehension of text. Students who have limited partial and full word knowledge in the early grades often have reading difficulties later in school if their vocabulary is not fully developed.

Fluency. Fluency is the ability to read words accurately, quickly, and with expression (Rasinski, 2006). Students with poor fluency abilities read words slowly, in isolation, and often without any inflection. They tend to focus more on how to say the words and less on what the words in a sentence or paragraph mean. Students may read at faster or slower rates depending on the difficulty of the text being read, and their fluency abilities may change depending on the genre of the text being read. Most students should be able to read fluently by third grade.

Comprehension. Comprehending texts involves extracting meaning as well as creating it (Snow & Sweet, 2003). Students must be able to locate main ideas and facts within a text and use that information to further their understanding of a concept or idea. Comprehension strategies can be taught that assist students in making meaning from texts. Examples of comprehension strategies include visualizing, asking questions, and summarizing what was read.

CHALLENGES IN CREATING EFFECTIVE READING INSTRUCTION

Helping students meet the above goals requires providing them with effective reading instruction. Effective reading instruction, however, is not solely about teaching students a specific set of skills and providing opportunities for them to apply what they have learned. Teachers must often be responsive to numerous challenges, including (a) instructing students with a variety of reading abilities, (b) being able to differentiate instruction, and (c) finding appropriate texts.

In any classroom, teachers may have students reading on grade level as well as several years above or below. By fourth grade, many students are likely to be classified as struggling readers (Curtis, 2004). Struggling readers read one or more years below grade level but do not have an identified learning disability. They need additional comprehension instruction and texts on their current reading level (Allington, 2007; Duke & Pearson, 2002).

Because students' reading levels likely vary, the type of reading instruction they need also varies. Teachers need to assess students' strengths and weaknesses as readers and then create a plan of instruction that is appropriate for their needs. Not all students need the same type of instruction, read the same texts, or participate in the same activities. Such instruction requires a great deal of organization as well as detailed knowledge about assessment, cognitive reading processes, and reading instruction.

As teachers attempt to differentiate their instruction, they typically find that the textbooks they want students to read are too difficult for most of their students to comprehend, even those reading on grade level. Difficult texts can hinder students' abilities to learn content and improve as readers (Fordham, 2006). Teachers need to seek out additional texts that students can read and learn from with limited support.

EFFECTIVE TECHNIQUES IN READING INSTRUCTION

In teaching reading teachers can use a number of effective techniques. The techniques discussed here serve as an introduction to some of the more popular methods used in the early 2000s.

Word Walls. Word walls (Cunningham, 2000) are alphabetical lists of high-frequency words that are posted in the classroom. They help students develop their word recognition and fluency abilities. Walls are added to on a regular basis as new words are introduced. Examples of words that might be found on word walls are a, no, of, she, has, and when.

Repeated Readings. Repeated readings help to develop students' fluency, word recognition, concepts of print, and comprehension abilities (Topping, 2006). Students read texts or have texts read to them multiple times. When teachers read aloud, students can follow along, read aloud, or echo the teachers' words. Teachers may wish to point to the words as they read aloud. Students can also engage in repeated readings by reading with a partner or listening to a book on tape.

Centers. Centers allow students to practice previously taught reading skills on their own or with peers. Effective centers require students to read, write, and discuss what they are doing. For example, students might be asked to read a story on their own, create a written response, and then share and explain their response with a peer.

Guided Reading. Guided reading allows students to apply reading strategies they have been taught while reading texts that are an appropriate difficulty for them (Fountas & Pinnell, 1996). Teachers work with four to six students who need similar types of reading instruction. Teachers first introduce a text that students can read on their own with little support. Teachers may provide a brief lesson that focuses on one or two strategies they want students to apply when reading. Teachers observe the students reading and provide additional assistance as needed. As students progress, they read more difficult books and use more strategies.

Authentic Instruction. Authentic instruction (Duke, Purcell-Gates, Hall, & Tower, 2006) can improve students' comprehension of non-fiction texts and increase their understanding of text features such as headings, indexes, and table of contents as early as second grade. Students read and use non-fiction texts in ways that mirror how texts are used outside school. For example, students might choose to read non-fiction texts in order to answer their own questions about the world. Authentic instruction helps students learn how (a) to generate their own questions about a topic being studied and then (b) use a variety of texts to locate their answers.

Literature Circles. In literature circles, students come together in small groups to read and discuss a common text (Daniels, 2001). Students read a selected portion of the text, complete a written response, and engage in a discussion with group members. Students' responses can include: (a) summarizing, (b) creating a picture, (c) making connections to other texts or experiences, or (d) developing meanings for new vocabulary.

Literature circles help students learn basic reading skills such as how to summarize and locate main ideas in texts. They also help students learn more complex skills, including how (a) to discuss how they made sense of a text, (b) support their interpretations of text, and (c) make connections across multiple texts.

ASSESSING READING ABILITIES

Assessing students' reading abilities allows teachers to understand their strengths and weaknesses as readers and can be used to inform reading instruction. The assessments presented here are ones that teachers can do on their own and with few materials. Each provides information about students' abilities as it pertains to one or more of the five goals discussed earlier.

Running Records. Running records assess students' fluency and word recognition abilities (Davenport, 2002). Teachers listen to students read a portion of text aloud. They place a check mark next to the words students read correctly and note any miscues made. Miscues are “unexpected responses that do not match the text” (Goodman, 1994, p. 1096) and are not considered to be mistakes. Miscues are based on students' current knowledge about the topic they are reading as well as how language is constructed. Teachers review their notes to examine what, if any, miscues students made when reading and look for patterns that may exist.

Retelling. Retellings provide information about how well students (a) comprehend passages, (b) can identify story elements in narratives, (c) can identify main ideas, and (d) can communicate the passage in an order that makes sense (Gredler & Johnson, 2004). Students read a text silently and then explain the text as though they were talking to someone who had never read it before. If students leave out information, teachers may ask them a question to see if they can identify a particular aspect and then note that the help was provided.

Informal Reading Inventories. Informal reading inventories (IRI) allow teachers to determine the level of text students can read on their own. They also provide teachers with information about students' fluency, word recognition, and comprehension abilities. IRIs allow teachers to develop a broader picture of students' abilities to read and comprehend text (Cooper & Kiger, 2008).

In an IRI, students read aloud a passage for which they can accurately read a minimum of 90 percent of the words. Students read individual word lists, written from a pre-primer through twelfth-grade level, to determine the level of the passage they should read. Teachers conduct a running record as the passage is read. Students then retell the passage. Finally, teachers engage students in a series of comprehension questions which range in difficulty. Students' responses to the questions can provide insight about how well they can locate basic facts in text and make inferences.

Narrative Comprehension. Narrative comprehension assessments help determine young children's abilities to comprehend narrative texts (Paris & Hoffman, 2004). The assessment can be used with children who may or may not be able to read. Students examine wordless picture books, explain what they think is taking place, and answer comprehension questions. The assessment shows how well children can recall important details from text, make inferences, and make connections across the story.

RESEARCH-BASED CURRICULUM PROGRAMS

There are numerous research-based curriculum programs teachers can use for reading instruction. The ones described here help students develop the goals described earlier and also draw on many of the effective teaching techniques. Teachers may find that these programs provide ways to address some of the instructional challenges they may encounter.

Concept-oriented Reading Instruction (CORI). CORI increases elementary students' abilities to read science texts while increasing their science knowledge and motivation (Guthrie, Wigfield, & Perencevich, 2004). Students receive instruction on how to apply comprehension strategies to science texts and learn how such skills as summarizing, asking and answering questions, and locating information. As students read and learn about science, their intrinsic motivation, or personal desire to learn, is expected to increase. In the CORI program, students participate in activities, including (a) engaging with the world outside school, (b) reading a variety of texts, and (c) working with others. The CORI program follows a consistent pattern of instruction that is intended to help students develop in each of these areas.

Four Blocks. The Four Blocks program helps beginning readers learn how to read and can also assist students in third and fourth grade who may have reading difficulties (Cunningham, Hall, & Sigmon, 2000). It is made up of four different approaches that students experience each day: (a) guided reading, (b) self-selected reading, (c) writing, and (d) working with words. The Four Blocks program was designed to help teachers work with students who vary in their reading abilities but without relying on ability grouping. The Four Blocks approach helps students develop their phonics, comprehension, and fluency abilities.

Open Court Reading. The Open Court Reading program is a commercially produced series of basals for students in grades K-6 (McGraw Hill, 2002). The reading program was based on research findings that support students' development as readers. Teachers can use a script when teaching lessons.

In kindergarten and first grade, the emphasis is on teaching decoding skills. The emphasis on decoding often results in students having strong decoding abilities and a greater understanding of sound-letter relationships. Beginning in second grade, a greater emphasis is placed on developing comprehension and fluency. The program is often criticized for failing to help students develop abilities to discuss texts and do more than comprehend at a literal level (Wilson, Martens, & Arya, 2005). However, Open Court has also been recognized for aligning its instruction with reading research.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Allen, J. (1999). Words, words, words. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Allington, R. L. (2007). Intervention all day long: New hope for struggling readers. Voices from the Middle, 14, 3–17.

Anderson, R. C. (2004). Role of the readers' schema in comprehension, learning, and memory. In R. B. Ruddell and N. J. Unrau (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (5th ed., pp. 594–606). Newark, DE: International Reading.

Cooper, J. D., & Kiger, N. D. (2008). Literacy assessment: Helping teachers plan instruction. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

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Cunningham, P. M., Hall, D. P., & Sigmon, C. M. (2000). The teachers' guide to the four blocks: A multimethod, multilevel framework for grades 1–3. Greensboro, NC: Carson-Dellosa.

Daniels, H. (2001). Literature circles: Voice and choice in book clubs and reading groups. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

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Stahl, S. (2002). Saying the “p” word: Nine guidelines for exemplary phonics instruction. In The international reading association's evidence-based reading instruction. Putting the National Reading Panel Report into practice (pp. 61–68). Newark, DE: International Reading.

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Wilson, P. G., Martens, P., & Arya, P. (2005). Accountability for reading and readers: What the numbers don't tell. The Reading Teacher, 58, 622–631.

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