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Vocabulary/Oral Language/Comprehension: Some research findings (updated July 2018)

Vocabulary/Oral Language/Comprehension: Some research findings

Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

My blogs can be viewed on-line or downloaded as a Word file or PDF at https://www.dropbox.com/sh/olxpifutwcgvg8j/AABU8YNr4ZxiXPXzvHrrirR8a?dl=0

How does the research assist us in ensuring that students are able to maximise their understanding of what they read? Though it may appear intuitively that the answer is obvious, the research provides a few surprises. It also highlights how influences on vocabulary and comprehension can vary significantly over a student's school career.

"Vocabulary refers to the words children need to know to comprehend and communicate. Oral vocabulary is the words children recognise or use in listening and speaking. Reading vocabulary is the words children recognise or use in reading and writing."

Carnine, D, Silbert, J., Kame’enui, E.J., Tarver, S.G., & Jungjohann, K. (2006). Teaching reading to struggling and at-risk readers. Pearson Prentice Hall, New Jersey.

“The process of acquiring and using words in oral and written contexts is a life-long learning process that begins quite critically during the early years. Knowledge of vocabulary meanings affects children’s abilities to understand and use words appropriately during the language acts of listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Such knowledge influences the complexities and nuances of children’s thinking, how they communicate in the oral and written languages, and how well they will understand printed texts. …Unless children develop strong vocabularies early in life and continue to deepen and broaden their vocabulary knowledge throughout the schooling years, they will predictably face difficulty in understanding what they read, will not use advanced and mature words in their writing, will have problems with academic subjects, will perform poorly on national achievement tests, and will fall steadily behind their more vocabulary-proficient peers” (p. 333-4).

Sinatra, R., Zygouris-Coe, V., & Dasinger, S. (2011). Preventing a vocabulary lag: What lessons are learned from research. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 28(4), 333-357.

"In addition to the NRP report, six reviews and two meta-analyses of vocabulary instruction were published between 1998 and 2009 (Baker et al., 1998; Baumann, Kame’enui et al., 2003; Elleman et al., 2009; Harmon et al., 2005; Jitendra et al., 2004; Kuhn & Stahl, 1998; Read, 2004; Swanborn & de Glopper, 1999). The most recent meta-analysis, by Elleman et al., included 37 studies in prekindergarten to twelfth grade. Among the findings was that students with reading difficulties who were exposed to vocabulary instruction benefited three times as much as those who were not. The meta-analysis conducted by Swanborn and de Glopper examined incidental word learning. Kuhn and Stahl synthesized the research of learning words from context, whereas Baker et al. identified advances in the research on vocabulary development for diverse learners. Baumann, Kame’enui et al. categorized vocabulary strategies by their use: strategies for teaching specific words and strategies to learn words independently. The other vocabulary reviews focused on more restrictive populations or topics. For example, Read examined studies in second language learners’ vocabulary instruction since 1999, and Harmon et al. identified several effective strategies for students struggling with content-area texts. Jitendra et al. highlighted the importance of choosing an instructional method based on instructional goals and the needs of individual students. However, none of these reviews highlighted the methodologies of the studies cited" (p.254-55).

Hairrell, A., Rupley, W., & Simmons, D. (2011). The state of vocabulary research. Literacy Research and Instruction, 50(4), 253-271.

What about the early years prior to school?

The vital role for parents in vocabulary acquisition has been known for at least 20 years. Even when students begin attending school, they spend five times as long at home and in the community as they do in class (Berliner, 2006). Home-based language intervention has enormous potential, but has yet to have a major national impact.

“Educational experiences in preschool cannot completely compensate for the educational deprivation that can occur during the first 3 years. Early vocabulary development is particularly critical. Parents with professional jobs spoke about 2,000 words an hour to toddlers. For working-class parents it was 1,200 words an hour, and for those on welfare only 600 words an hour”. … It may be that all that is required to improve the intellectual functioning and academic success of children in low SES areas is for their parents to interact with them differently: Talk to them more, Ask more questions, Explain things more fully, and Make more positive comments on their child’s behavior. The problem is to help all parents provide the kinds of educational experiences that many professional parents routinely provide”.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

“Between 1986 and 1996, Farkas & Beron collected data on the vocabulary skills of about 7,000 children, ages 3 to 14. The study found: Preschool children who live in poverty and are not developing their vocabularies are at a significant risk of struggling academically throughout elementary and middle school specific reading instruction for preschoolers—such as letter, sound, and word recognition—can help close the learning gap between disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers.”

Farkas, G., & Beron, K. (2001). Family linguistic culture and social reproduction: Verbal skill from parent to child in the preschool and school years. Presentation at the session on Consequences of Child Poverty and Deprivation, at the Annual Meetings of the Population Association of America, Washington, D.C., March 31. http://www.pop.psu.edu/general/pubs/working_papers/psu-pri/wp0105.pdf

“At 18 months children from wealthier homes could identify pictures of simple words they knew — “dog” or “ball” — much faster than children from low-income families. By age 2, the study found, affluent children had learned 30 percent more words in the intervening months than the children from low-income homes”.

Rich, M. (2013). Language-gap study bolsters a push for pre-K. NY Times, October 21, 2013. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/22/us/language-gap-study-bolsters-a-push-for-pre-k.html?ref=education&_r=0&pagewanted=print

The above article refers to a study by: Fernald, A., Marchman, V.A., & Weisleder, A. (2013). SES differences in language processing skill and vocabulary are evident at 18 months. Psychological Science, 16(2), 234-238.

“Moreover, there is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age six is the single highest correlate with later success”.

Hirsch, E.D. (2013). Primer on success: Character and knowledge make the difference. Education Next,13(1). Retrieved from http://educationnext.org/primer-on-success/

“To summarize, the evidence that differences in the language trajectories of children from low-SES and language minority homes contribute to their low levels of academic achievement argues that those differences in trajectories should be interpreted as deficits. Evidence that a major source of those differences in language trajectories is differences in language experience points to a target for intervention. Efforts should be directed toward developing and implementing interventions that will remedy those deficits in order to help all children achieve their maximum potential. The alternative interpretation—that their different trajectories are not deficits and should be embraced—will not close achievement gaps that have causes in the children’s lack of readiness for school” (p.11).

Hoff, E. (2013). Interpreting the early language trajectories of children from low-SES and language minority homes: Implications for closing achievement gaps. Developmental Psychology, 49(1), 4–14.

“Finally, the study addressed the early experiences that relate to children’s understanding of written English. Sénéchal and LeFevre, 2002 and Sénéchal et al., 1998 and Evans and colleagues (2000) showed that storybook reading relates to oral language development but not to written language development. Instead, parental coaching in printing, letter names and sounds, and reading is critical to the development of written language concepts. The current study offers clear support to these ideas. It was literacy activities in which the children actively participated with and focused on print (e.g., using letters, using alphabet books and picture dictionaries, printing, reading out loud, learning letter names) that best related to all of the emerging literacy skills, including the development of visual/orthographic skills”.

Levy, B.A., Gong, Z., Hessels, S., Evans, M.A., & Jared, D. (2006). Understanding print: Early reading development and the contributions of home literacy experiences. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 93(1), 63-93.

“Only above average readers gained significantly in incidental (vocabulary) learning. Reading stories to children will only increase the vocabulary of above average readers”.

Nicholson, T., & Whyte, B. (1992). Matthew effect in learning new words while listening to stories. In Charles K. Kinzer and Donald J. Leu (Eds.). Literacy research: Theory and practice: Views from many perspectives. Chicago: National Reading Conference

Preschool and beginning school and vocabulary

“Evidence also indicates that a significant proportion of school-aged students experience difficulties with oral language. Recent studies have reported that oral language difficulties affect approximately 20% of students entering school, increasing to 25%–30% in low-SES communities (Hay & Fielding-Barnsley 2009; Reilly et al., 2010)” (p.1).

Oral Language Supporting Early Literacy (2011). OLSEL Research Findings Report released May 2011. Retrieved from http://www.olsel.catholic.edu.au/

“Vocabulary interventions in preschool and early elementary school can improve vocabulary skills. In a meta-analysis of vocabulary interventions in preschool and kindergarten settings (Marulis & Neuman, 2010), interventions for vocabulary skills improved vocabulary knowledge, especially those implemented by trained teachers or researchers (effects were largest for researchers), as opposed to child care providers or parents. In addition, intervention that used explicit (i.e., direct instruction) strategies or the combination of explicit and implicit strategies was more impactful, as opposed to implicit strategies alone. However, children from middle- or high-SES households benefited more than children from low-SES households, and the interventions were not powerful enough to close vocabulary gaps for children who needed it the most. The amount of vocabulary learned in some interventions (e.g., 8-10 words per week) is not enough to close vocabulary knowledge gaps with peers (Nagy, 2007).” (p.4)

Clemens, N.H., Ragan, K., & Widales-Benitez, O. (2016). Reading difficulties in young children: Beyond basic early literacy skills. Online First. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1–8. DOI: 10.1177/2372732216656640

“As early as first grade, a pattern is established whereby children with strong early reading skills engage in reading more than their less skilled peers. Through reading, they strengthen not only their reading skills but also reading-related and cognitive skills such as spelling, vocabulary, listening comprehension, and declarative knowledge. The roots for this productive habit can be seen in early exposure to print through caregiver shared reading experiences and effective early reading instruction in which strong decoding skills are established. Some researchers have conceptualized this relationship between strong reading skills, engagement in reading, and development of reading-related and cognitive abilities as a ‘‘virtuous circle’’ (Snowling & Hulme, 2011). Other researchers have described the process by which children who fail to establish early reading skills find reading to be difficult and unrewarding, avoid reading and reading-related activities, and fail to develop reading-related and cognitive abilities as a ‘‘vicious circle’’ that is disastrous for their cognitive development and school achievement (Pulido & Hambrick, 2008). An early start in learning to read is crucial for establishing a successful path that encourages a ‘‘lifetime habit of reading’’ (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997, p. 94) and for avoiding the decline in motivation for reading that can have devastating effects on reading growth and cognitive development over time” (p.209-210).

Sparks, R. L., Patton, J., & Murdoch, A. (2014). Early reading success and its relationship to reading achievement and reading volume: Replication of ‘10 years later’. Reading and Writing, 27(1), 189-211.

“Kindergarten students’ vocabulary size is a predictor of comprehension in middle school (Scarborough, 1998). Students with poor vocabulary by third grade have declining text comprehension scores in fourth and fifth grade (Chall, Jacobs, & Baldwin, 1990). Vocabulary instruction has a strong connection to comprehension (McKeown, Beck, Omanson, & Perfetti, 1983). Pre-instruction of words gave students 33 percent greater contextual understanding (Jenkins, Stein, & Wysocki, 1984).

Figurate, L. (2010). Teaching vocabulary: Intentional, explicit instruction. US Department of Education, No Child Left Behind. Retrieved from http://esu4vocabularystrategies.wikispaces.com/Teaching+Strategies

“Most theorists are agreed that the bulk of vocabulary growth during a child’s lifetime occurs indirectly through language exposure rather than through direct teaching (Miller & Gildea, 1987; Nagy & Anderson, 1984; Nagy, Herman, & Anderson, 1985; Sternberg, 1985, 1987). Furthermore, many researchers are convinced that reading volume, rather than oral language, is the prime contributor to individual differences in children’s vocabularies (Hayes, 1988; Hayes & Ahrens, 1988; Nagy & Anderson, 1984; Nagy & Herman, 1987; Stanovich, 1986)”.

Cunningham, A., & Stanovich, K. E. (1998). What reading does for the mind. American Educator, 22(1-2), 8-15. Retrieved from http://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/springsummer1998/cunningham.pdf

“The average number of new words learned in a year - about 3,000 to 4,000. The average number of new words taught directly in a year - about 300 to 500”.

Osborn, J.H. & Armbruster, B.B. (2001). Vocabulary acquisition: Direct teaching and indirect learning. Basic Education Online Edition, 46(3). Retrieved  from http://www.c-b-e.org/be/iss0111/a2osborn.htm

“Material read by high school students contain over 100,000 words (Nagy & Anderson, 1984). There is no way to teach that many. …Extensive independent reading is the primary means for increasing vocabulary knowledge (Nagy, 1998). Students who read more learn more about words and their meanings. Although direct, explicit teaching of word meanings is effective and important, it cannot produce the needed growth in students’ vocabulary knowledge that should occur in the fourth grade”.

Nagy, W. (1998). Increasing students’ reading vocabularies. Presentation at the Commissioner’s Reading Day Conference, Austin, Texas.

“Children had on average acquired about 5,200 root words in their vocabulary by the end of grade 2 and an average 3,200 additional root words in grades 3-5 and that advantaged children had acquired 6,200 root words by the end of grade 2 and an additional 2,500 thereafter. Thus, large differences in root word vocabulary had occurred by grade 2.”

Biemiller, A., & Slonim, N. (2001). Estimating root word vocabulary growth in normative and advantaged populations: Evidence for a common sequence of vocabulary acquisition. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 498-520.

“For every word a child learns, we estimate that there are an average of one to three additional related words that should also be understandable to the child, the exact number depending on how well the child is able to utilize context and morphology to induce meanings." (Nagy & Anderson, 1984, p. 304)

Labov, L. (2003). When ordinary children fail to read. Reading Research Quarterly, 38, 128-131.

“New words are learned mainly through reading. Children’s books contain 50% more "rare" words (outside the vocabulary of 9-12 yr olds) than do adult prime time television, or the conversation of college graduates. Popular magazines have roughly three times as many opportunities for new word learning as prime-time television and adult conversation”.

Stanovich, K.E. (1993). Does reading make you smarter? Literacy and the development of verbal intelligence. Advances in Child Development and Behaviour, 24, 133-180.

“For children with language challenges, little is known about effective early reading interventions, because most studies have used language scores as exclusionary criteria. We randomly assigned 78 kindergartners with poor language skills to small group reading interventions that included phonemic awareness, alphabetic understanding, and oral language. The groups began in September or mid-February. Nearly half the students were English learners. MANOVA between these groups found that earlier intervention led to significantly better outcomes than the same interventions begun later in kindergarten. We found similar rates of growth between students who were English only or English learners. Twice as many students in the immediate as in the delayed treatment scored in the average range at the end of the year. Pretests did not predict who would be a good or poor responder to the treatments; however, January scores in letter knowledge and phonemic awareness were reliably different for good and poor responders. … Several implications from this study relate directly to classroom instruction in kindergarten. First, students with poorly developed English language, whether the deficit is related to experience and exposure, to cognitive development, or to learning English as a second language, responded well to instruction very similar to what the field considers best practice in kindergarten literacy instruction. Specifically, intervention that focuses on letter knowledge, phonemic awareness, the alphabetic principle, and oral language appears to be successful for the majority of students with limited vocabulary in English.” (p.220, 233).

O’Connor, R.E., Bocian, K., Beebe-Frankenberger , M., & Linklater, D.L. (2010). Responsiveness of students with language difficulties to early intervention in reading. The Journal of Special Education, 43(4), 220-235.

“Early intervention for children with oral language difficulties is effective and can successfully support the skills, which underpin reading comprehension. … The study has shown that oral language skills can be promoted during the early school years and that this produces effects that generalize to standardized tests of oral language skills and reading comprehension. The study is one of the first to deliver language intervention during the transition from preschool to primary school … ” (p.280, 288).

Fricke, S., Bowyer-Crane, C., Haley, A.J., Hulme, C., & Snowling, M.J. (2013). Efficacy of language intervention in the early years. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 54(3), 280–290

“As Nagy explained it to children, words live in families just like children do; to learn to read and spell, children need to learn how families of sounds, families of word parts for meaning, and families of letter units work together harmoniously. Explicit instruction in word forms and their interrelationships can be embedded in instruction that also teaches vocabulary (Stahl & Nagy, 2006) and comprehension (Carlisle & Rice, 2002), as recommended by the National Reading Panel (2000) and implemented in our instructional treatment (Berninger, 2000; Berninger & Abbott, 2003; Berninger et al., 2003)” (p.581).

Richards, T., Aylward, E., Raskind, W., Abbott, R., Field, K., Parsons, A., Richards, A., Nagy, W., Eckert, M., Leonard, C., & Berninger, V. (2006). Converging evidence for Triple Word Form Theory in child dyslexics. Special issue on brain imaging in Developmental Neuropsychology, 30, 547-590.

“Early vocabulary acquisition is highly important because of the very strong relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the more words one knows and can understand while reading, the greater will be the understanding of that reading. This belief has been supported by robust research findings (Becker, 1977; Blachowicz et al., 2006; Hoyt, 2005; Just & Carpenter, 1985; Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986), with the National Reading Panel (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000) concluding based on its review of the research that vocabulary understanding plays a major role in reading comprehension. The relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension is an extension of the relationship between receptive vocabulary understanding and listening comprehension. One argument for enhancing oral language facility in the early years is that a child’s highest level of reading comprehension is tempered by the child’s highest level of listening comprehension (Biemiller, 2003a)” (p.335).

Sinatra, R., Zygouris-Coe, V., & Dasinger, S. (2011). Preventing a vocabulary lag: What lessons are learned from research. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 28(4), 333-357.

“Among the 1st-grade predictors, individual differences in growth rate in oral reading fluency in 1st grade, followed by vocabulary skills and the autoregressive effect of reading comprehension, made the most contribution to reading comprehension in 3rd grade. Among the 2nd- and 3rd-grade predictors, children’s initial status in oral reading fluency had the strongest relationships with their reading comprehension skills in 3rd grade”.

Young-Suk, K., Petscher, Y., Schatschneider, C., & Foorman, B. (2010). Does growth rate in oral reading fluency matter in predicting reading comprehension achievement? Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(3), 652–667.

“In sum, this experiment investigated the behavioral and neural consequences of different methods of reading instruction for learning to read single words in alphabetic writing systems, in the case where oral vocabulary is relatively secure. Under these circumstances, our findings suggest that interventions aiming to improve the accuracy of reading aloud and/or comprehension in the early stages of learning should focus on the systematicities present in print-to-sound relationships, rather than attempting to teach direct access to the meanings of whole written words. Alongside broader oral language teaching, this means embracing phonics-based methods of reading instruction, and rejecting multicuing or balanced literacy approaches which, our results suggest, may hinder the discovery of spelling–sound relationships essential for reading aloud and comprehension.” (p.22)

Taylor, J. S. H., Davis, M. H., & Rastle, K. (2017, April 20). Comparing and validating methods of reading instruction using behavioural and neural findings in an artificial orthography. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xge0000301

"Students who scored higher on NAEP vocabulary questions also scored higher in reading comprehension”.

National Center for Education Statistics (2012). The Nation’s Report Card: Vocabulary Results From the 2009 and 2011 NAEP Reading Assessments (NCES 2013–452). Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C.

“One intervention was the use of text-comprehension strategies, such as the technique of looking back to an earlier paragraph or sentence to infer the meaning of what was not understood. A second approach focused on introducing children to new vocabulary and developing their listening comprehension. The gains were largest for children who were taught using the second approach, and those gains could be entirely explained by an increase in their knowledge of vocabulary words and ability to understand them when spoken”.

Clarke, P., Snowling, M.J., Truelove, E., & Hulme, C. (2010). Ameliorating children's reading comprehension difficulties: A randomised controlled trial. Psychological Science, 21, 1106-1116.

“Our findings are consistent with prior research findings showing that children with lower levels of initial reading and vocabulary skill are more vulnerable to the quality and quantity of instruction they receive (Scanlon & Vellutino, 1996; Snow et al., 1998; Sweet & Snow, 2002; Vellutino et al., 2003). … Thus, our findings are consistent with the emerging response to intervention literature base showing that (a) weak oral language skills and impoverished home environments are common characteristics of children who do not respond to early literacy instruction (Al Otaiba & Fuchs, 2002; Torgesen, 2000; Torgesen et al., 1999 (b) children with strong oral language skills may be more able to compensate for other weaknesses in reading (phonological awareness, decoding, or comprehension) than are children with weaker skills (Connor et al., 2004; NICHD-Early Child Care Research Network, 2005; Shaywitz et al., 2003; Spira et al., 2005; Stanovich, 1980; & Stanovich, 1984).”

Al Otaiba, S., Connor, C., Lane, H., Kosanovich, M.L., Schatschneider, C., Dyrlund, A.K., Miller, M.S., & Wright, T.L. (2008). Reading First kindergarten classroom instruction and students' growth in phonological awareness and letter naming–decoding fluency. Journal of School Psychology, 46(3), 281-314.

“A two-group latent variable path model shows that early language skills predict code-related skills, which in turn predict literacy skills” (p.120). … The study also extends the evidence showing that difficulties in oral language development presage deficits in code-related processes that are proximal causes of dyslexia.” (p. 133-4)

Moll, K., Thompson, P.A., Mikulajova, M., Jagercikova, Z., Kucharska, A., Franke, H., Hulme, C., & Snowling, M.J. (2016). Precursors of reading difficulties in Czech and Slovak children at-risk of dyslexia. Dyslexia 22, 120–136.

“In a recent meta-analysis examining the effect of print exposure from infancy through young adulthood, Mol and Bus (2011) found that the role of print exposure becomes stronger (additive) as children get older. Their findings showed that print exposure explained increasing amounts of variance in the oral language skills of preschoolers and kindergarteners (12 %) and students in primary school (13 %), middle school (19 %), and high school (30 %). At the postsecondary level, print exposure explained 34 % of the variance in the oral language skills of undergraduate and graduate students. Although the aforementioned evidence suggests that reading should start early to take advantage of the positive effects of print exposure, Stanovich et al. (1996) have indicated that exposure to print is helpful regardless of children’s cognitive ability or their level of reading comprehension. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure that young children are taught the word recognition skills needed for successful reading early in school so that they have the opportunity to become active and engaged readers. Likewise, it is equally important to provide broad and frequent reading experiences for older children, particularly those with low verbal abilities, because reading itself improves the language skills they need to become strong readers (Cunningham & Stanovich, 2001)” (p.190-191).

“ … like those of Cunningham and Stanovich, our findings indicate that early success in reading and early development of language skills by 2nd grade may be indicative of a predilection toward the habit of reading and more engagement in reading-related activities. Likewise, the findings suggest that children who fall behind in reading in 1st grade but catch up with their peers by 2nd or 3rd grade may have a positive prognosis for engaging in reading that will further develop both their reading and language skills” (p.208). … “The results suggest that there may be an ongoing relationship between reading volume and declarative knowledge; that is, students who read well are likely to read more and increase their store of declarative knowledge. The findings also suggest that print exposure may be important for developing a fund of general knowledge regardless of a student’s cognitive ability (Cunningham & Stanovich 1998; Stanovich & Cunningham, 1993; Stanovich, 1993) (p.209).

Sparks, R. L., Patton, J., & Murdoch, A. (2014). Early reading success and its relationship to reading achievement and reading volume: Replication of ‘10 years later’. Reading and Writing, 27(1), 189-211.

“Large differences in reading practice occur, consequent upon initially low phonological skills and failure to master the alphabetic principle. Allington (1984) in a study of Year One students noted that the number of words per week read ranged from 16 in the less skilled group to 1933 in the upper group. Nagy and Anderson (1984) estimated that, in school, struggling readers may read around 100,000 words per year while for keen mid-primary students the figure may be closer to 10,000,000, that is, a 100 fold difference. For out of school reading, Fielding, Wilson and Anderson (1986) suggested a similar ratio noting that children at the 10th percentile of reading ability in their Year Five sample read about 50,000 words per year out of school, while those at the 90th percentile read about 4,500,000 words per year”.

Hempenstall, K. (2013). What are these Matthew Effects? Jan 4, 2013. Retrieved from http://nifdi.org/news/hempenstall-blog/399-what-are-these-matthew-effects

How are listening comprehension and reading comprehension related?

“In line with the simple view of reading, listening comprehension, and word decoding, together with their interaction and curvilinear effects, explains almost all (96%) variation in early reading comprehension skills. Additionally, listening comprehension was a predictor of both the early and later growth of reading comprehension skills.” (p.1)  

“According to the augmented simple view of reading, certain component language skills (e.g., inference making and verbal working memory skills) make a direct contribution to reading comprehension in addition to any role they might play in fostering listening comprehension. In contrast, the simple view of reading posits that these component language skills only affect reading comprehension via their effects on listening comprehension. Contrary to some earlier studies using observed variables (e.g., Geva & Farnia, 2012; Oakhill & Cain, 2012), we found no support for the augmented simple view because the effects of component language skills on reading comprehension were entirely accounted for by their effects on listening comprehension. Similar findings were obtained by Kim (2015), in a concurrent study. We believe measurement error is a likely reason for the discrepancy between our study and many of the prior studies that found differentiated effects of vocabulary, grammar, verbal working memory, and inference skills on reading comprehension skills (see Cole & Preacher, 2014).” (p.14)  

“In summary, our findings indicate that multiple language-related skills are involved in listening comprehension, which in turn is a powerful influence on the development of reading comprehension. Our results give very strong support to the simple view of reading and clarify a number of theoretical issues concerning the relationship between oral language and reading comprehension skills. Our findings also have implications for how to prevent and ameliorate reading comprehension problems. First, for children with poor decoding skills, it seems decoding can be a bottleneck for the development of reading comprehension— interventions to improve decoding in those with poor skills can therefore be expected to lead directly to improvements in reading comprehension. Even fairly minimal improvements in decoding for poor decoders may have functionally important implications for reading comprehension for this group. At a more general level, our results suggest that interventions that also focus on a broad set of oral language skills, including grammar, syntax, narrative skills, and inference making are most likely to be effective in helping children to develop adequate reading comprehension skills. There are now a handful of randomized controlled trials that have examined the effects of interventions to improve language comprehension (e.g., Clarke et al., 2010; Fricke, Bowyer-Crane, Haley, Hulme, & Snowling, 2013; Rogde, Melby-Lervag, & Lervag, 2016; see also Melby-Lervag & Lervag, 2014). Several studies support the claim that interventions can improve language comprehension skills in young children (Fricke et al., 2013; Rogde et al., 2016) and improvements in oral language skills appear to lead directly to improvements in reading comprehension both in younger (Fricke et al., 2013) and older children Clarke et al., 2010). Such findings provide strong support for the simple view of reading, and for the causal theory that the development of reading comprehension is dependent on underlying oral language skills.” (p.15)

Lervag, A., Hulme, C., & Melby-Lervag, M. (2017). Unpicking the developmental relationship between oral language skills and reading comprehension: It’s simple, but complex. Child Development, 00(0), 1–18.

“Many of the processes that are involved in understanding what we read are similar to the processes involved in understanding what we hear. With both written and spoken language, general knowledge about the world is often needed in order to make sense of and elaborate on the information that is presented. When reading about a wedding, for example, it is helpful to know about the kinds of activities that usually take place on such occasions. The grammatical knowledge that is necessary to understand a sentence is also similar whether the words are read or heard. Differences do arise in some cases. In English, for example, appositional phrases (as in the sentence The wedding cake, which was made by a well-known baker, was beautiful) occur more often in written language than in spoken language. … What mainly distinguishes reading from speech, though, is the need to identify words by eye. Readers must recognize printed words accurately and automatically, linking the printed forms to the representations that are stored in the mental lexicon. This process of written word recognition has been a central focus of reading research.” (Treiman, 2017, p. 6-7)

Treiman, R. (2017). Linguistics and reading, In Mark Aronoff and Janie Rees-Miller (eds.), Blackwell handbook of linguistics (2nd ed pp. 1-26). Oxford, England: Blackwell

What sorts of activities have been employed in these research studies?

Sinatra et al. (2011) describe some of the findings of eight studies:

“Based on the findings reported, the researchers of the eight investigations offered a number of collective suggestions with regard to young children’s language and vocabulary development, particularly for young children of limited word knowledge. In particular, the findings indicate that low vocabulary children can profit from the direct instruction activities. … Children’s storybooks provide an excellent source of new vocabulary for very young children. Read-alouds of storybooks by teachers and/or parents can be an effective activity for increasing young children’s word awareness and overall language development.

Read-alouds of storybooks accompanied by rich explanation of sophisticated words, questioning, and discussion increases the likelihood that new vocabulary words will be learned. Presentation of new words occurred before, during, and after a read-aloud across the eight studies. The before-reading introduction included such activities as the pronunciation of target words so that kindergartners could visibly acknowledge these during the oral reading (Coyne et al., 2007) and the use of prop boxes containing hands-on realia connected to words in the story (Wasik et al., 2006).

During-reading activities generally took place in the context of a second or third rereading of the story (Boling et al., 2002; Collins, 2005; Silverman, 2007; Wasik et al., 2006). In this way, questions, conversation, and retellings of story parts helped children identify word meanings in context after they had experienced the enjoyment and meaning of the whole story. After-reading activities generally focused on extending word-meaning consciousness by eliciting story reconstructions of how words were used and by eliciting children’s reactions, feelings, and judgments regarding the appropriateness of word use in oral contexts (Beck & McKeown, 2007; Coyne et al., 2007; Dickinson & Smith, 1994).

Because word learning is a difficult process requiring multiple exposures and time, Beck and McKeown (2007) showed in their second study that the addition of 3 days of direct instruction resulted in even stronger vocabulary acquisition than 3 days of instruction. Thus, more instruction after reading produces better vocabulary knowledge. Also, the Whitehurst, Arnold, et al. (1994) results indicate that training parents in a vocabulary acquisition procedure can be quite beneficial and deserves strong consideration as a follow-up to a classroom procedure. . Besides verbal interaction, the use of nonverbal means such as pictures, gestures, artifacts or concrete objects, and pointing to storybook illustrations can assist in the learning of new words (Collins, 2005; Silverman, 2007; Wasik et al., 2006).

Pronouncing and showing spellings of words allows young children to focus on words’ phonological and orthographic properties (Coyne et al., 2007; Silverman, 2007). . Computer-assisted instruction utilizing viewing, listening, typing, and reading along holds promise for the learning of new vocabulary (Boling et al., 2002). . ELLs can learn new vocabulary from storybook readings at the same or a faster rate than English-proficient children, and storybook reading is a valuable means of helping ELLs in English-language learning (Collins, 2005; Silverman, 2007). . In young children’s school settings, book-reading time focusing on new word learning can effectively occur with minor adjustments made to instructional practice and staffing patterns (Wasik et al., 2006; Whitehurst, Epstein, et al., 1994). Choosing books that contain high-frequency words and limited use of new vocabulary may not serve to enhance young children’s language and vocabulary growth (Dickinson & Smith, 1994)” (p.347-8).

Sinatra, R., Zygouris-Coe, V., & Dasinger, S. (2011). Preventing a vocabulary lag: What lessons are learned from research. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 28(4), 333-357.


It seems that vocabulary can assist not only in comprehension, but also perhaps in word identification. 

“Previous studies have provided preliminary evidence for the relation between vocabulary and word reading, both decodable and irregular words (Bishop & Snowling, 2004; Ouellette, 2006; Ricketts, Nation, & Bishop, 2007). Children’s receptive vocabulary was positively related to their decoding skills after controlling for age and nonverbal IQ. In addition, both receptive and expressive vocabulary were uniquely related to reading irregular words after accounting for age, nonverbal IQ, and decoding skills (Ouellette, 2006). Similarly, children’s expressive vocabulary was positively related to their exception word reading after accounting for decoding skills (Ricketts et al., 2007). In line with this emerging evidence, researchers recently called for a more comprehensive model to understand developmental dyslexia that includes semantic and syntactic influences in addition to phonological influences (Bishop & Snowling, 2004). In the present study we expand these previous studies, and investigated whether one aspect of semantic knowledge, vocabulary, matters for early literacy acquisition over and above code-related skills such as phonological awareness and alphabet knowledge.” (p. 240) … “The present study also revealed that children’s semantic knowledge (i.e., vocabulary) was uniquely associated with word reading and spelling after accounting for phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge fluency, and letter writing automaticity. These results add to the growing evidence that children’s semantic knowledge is positively associated with early literacy acquisition, word reading in particular (Nation & Snowling, 2004; Outllette, 2006; Ricketts et al., 2007). Although kindergarten is typically considered an early phase of literacy acquisition even for the lexical level skills such as word reading and spelling and connectionist models hypothesize the semantic pathway (i.e., connection between orthography and phonology via semantics) in the later phrase (Harm & Seidenberg, 2004), the findings of the present study suggest that children at the end of kindergarten might utilize semantic pathway in their word reading and spelling. Word reading or spelling is considered a relatively ‘‘modular’’ or decontextualized component of reading compared to connected text reading (Share & Leiken, 2003). However, words in the context-free format still do contain a semantic aspect and therefore, children’s knowledge of word’s meaning appear to facilitate word reading and spelling over and above phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge fluency, and letter writing automaticity.” (p.249-250)

Kim, Y., Otaiba, S., Puranik, C., Folsom, J., & Gruelich, L. (2014). The contributions of vocabulary and letter writing automaticity to word reading and spelling for kindergartners. Reading & Writing, 27(2), 237-253.

“Individual differences in phonological awareness are closely related, concurrently and longitudinally, to variations in reading achievement (e.g., Lonigan, Burgess, & Anthony, 2000; Muter, Hulme, Snowling, & Stevenson, 2004; Wagner et al., 1997). Evidence supporting a causal role of phonological awareness in reading development comes from studies showing that training phonological awareness improves reading (e.g., Lundberg, Frost, & Petersen, 1988; Schneider, Küspert, Roth, Visé, & Marx, 1997; but see also Castles & Coltheart, 2004; Hulme, Snowling, Caravolas, & Carroll, 2005). The relationship between semantic knowledge and learning to read words is less well understood. However, evidence suggests that semantic effects on single word reading tend to be greatest when mapping between orthography and phonology is least efficient, that is, in young or poor readers (Briggs, Austin, & Underwood, 1984; Coltheart, Laxon, & Keating, 1988; Nation & Snowling, 1998) and for inconsistent or infrequent words (Juel, 1980; Stanovich & West, 1983; Strain, Patterson, & Seidenberg, 2002). (p.505)

Duff, F.J., & Hulme, C. (2012). The role of children's phonological and semantic knowledge in learning to read words. Scientific Studies of Reading, 16(6), 504-525.

“There is clear evidence that phonics-based instruction (with a focus on print-to-sound mappings) is highly effective in the teaching of early reading (McArthur et al., 2012). Going beyond this, our review of the evidence from multiple research traditions leads us to propose that learners who possess knowledge of the semantics of words will fare better when they come to the task of learning to read them. Practically, this suggests that explicit teaching of oral vocabulary (sound-to-meaning mappings) should precede and accompany phonics instruction. This proposal needs to be rigorously tested in educationally realistic studies.” (p.326)

Taylor, J. S. H., Duff, F.J., Woollams, A.M., Monaghan, P., & Ricketts, J. (2015). How word meaning influences word reading. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(4), 322–328.

“A less widely canvassed possibility is that the presence of a word in oral vocabulary assists the orthographic learning process even before a child has seen the word in its printed form. That is, a child who is orally familiar with a word, and who has an adequate knowledge of sound-letter mappings, may form an expectation as to how that word might be spelled, a suggestion first made but not tested by Stuart and Coltheart (1988). Indeed, children may, without intention, establish an initial orthographic representation of the word, which we refer to here as an orthographic skeleton (see Figure 1). This would aid reading when the word was first seen in print, particularly for words with highly predictable spellings. … These findings are compatible with the view that oral vocabulary knowledge benefits reading at an item level (Duff & Hulme, 2012; McKague et al., 2001; Nation & Cocksey, 2009)” (p. 2, 6)

Wegene, S., Wang, H.C., de Lissa, P., Robidoux, S., Nation, K., & Castles A. (2018). Children reading spoken words: interactions between vocabulary and orthographic expectancy. Developmental Science, 21(3), 1-9.

What about vocabulary and older students?

"Comprehension strategies assume greater significance as the texts students are required to read become increasingly demanding. Without the capacity for rapid context-free decoding, significant reading comprehension advances are unlikely to occur. When the orthographic stage has been achieved, students are at least able to employ in the reading task those oral language comprehension skills they have developed thus far (Crowley, Shrager, & Siegler, 1997). In the earlier stages, their oral comprehension far exceeded their reading comprehension because of the decoding constraints. Their comprehension skills should continue to develop if teachers have incorporated plenty of age appropriate oral language activities into their program (Clarke, Snowling, Truelove, & Hulme, 2010).

Of course, as the volume and complexity of reading increases so, one expects, does the sophistication of their reading comprehension strategies. This process is not guaranteed, however. For some students with earlier decoding problems, reduced exposure to text has hampered overall reading progress, leaving lingering hurdles, such as vocabulary gaps or even chasms (Nagy, 1998). Whereas, good readers continuously increase their vocabulary and understanding of the world through their reading (Nagy & Anderson, 1984; Osborn & Armbruster, 2001), struggling students may read as little as one hundredth of that devoured by good readers thus compromising their vocabulary development and hence comprehension (Lyon, 2001). Such vocabulary development is vitally dependent on the amount of reading, as conversation and television have much less impact on vocabulary growth than does reading (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998), and vocabulary and reading comprehension are strongly related (National Center for Education Statistics, 2012)".

Hempenstall, K. (2013). Pages and pages on stages (reading stages, that is). June 15, 2013.

“Based on the research reviews and meta-analyses on adolescent literacy instruction, recommendations can be organized into five general areas: word study, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and motivation (Boardman et al., 2008; Kamil et al., 2008; Roberts et al., 2008; Scammacca et al., 2007; Torgesen et al., 2007)” (p.167).

Marchand-Martella, N.E., Martella, R.C., Modderman, S.L., Petersen, H.M., & Pan, S. (2013). Key areas of effective adolescent literacy programs. Education and Treatment of Children, 36(1), 161-184.

“Roberts et al. (2008) suggest the five areas recognised by the NRP as key ingredients for early reading intervention should be adapted for older readers to include: (i) word study, (ii) fluency, (iii) vocabulary, (iv) comprehension and (v) motivation. Low levels of motivation are a common barrier to learning (Guthrie & Davis, 2003) and a predictor of response to intervention (RTI: Duff, 2008), particularly in older pupils. Reduced reading experience following a long-lasting reading difficulty may also impact on a pupil’s spoken and written vocabulary, reading fluency and effective comprehension strategies. Hence, careful assessment and diagnosis of older pupils is essential to ensure the appropriate programme of intervention is provided.” (p.100).

Griffiths, Y., & Stuart, M. (2013). Reviewing evidence-based practice for pupils with dyslexia and literacy difficulties. Journal of Research in Reading, 36(1), 96-116.

“Older students demonstrate a broad and complex range of difficulties related to reading. These include problems in recognizing words, understanding word meanings, and understanding and connecting with text; students often lack background knowledge required for reading comprehension (Biancarosa & Snow, 2004). We examined several syntheses on interventions for secondary students with reading difficulties to identify effective interventions to meet this range of reading difficulties. Edmonds et al. (2009) conducted a meta-analysis examining the effects of adolescent reading interventions (Grades 6 through 12) that included instruction in decoding, fluency, vocabulary, or comprehension on reading comprehension outcomes. Analyses revealed a mean weighted effect size in the moderate range in favor of treatment students over comparison students. Promising approaches were those that provided targeted reading intervention in comprehension, multiple reading components, or word-recognition strategies” (p.392).

Vaughn, S., Wexler, J., Roberts, G., Barth, A.A., Cirino, P.T., Romain, M.A., Francis, D., Fletcher, J., & Denton, C.A. (2011). Effects of individualized and standardized interventions on middle school students with reading disabilities. Exceptional Children, 77(4), 391-407.

“Older students with reading difficulties benefit from interventions focused both at the word level and at the text level. Identifying need and intervening accordingly in the appropriate areas (e.g., vocabulary, word reading, comprehension strategies, and so on) is associated with improved outcomes for older students with reading difficulties”.

Scammacca, N., Roberts, G., Vaughn. S., Edmonds, M., Wexler, J., Reutebuch, C. K., & Torgesen, J. K. (2007). Interventions for adolescent struggling readers: A meta-analysis with implications for practice. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction. Retrieved from http://www.centeroninstruction.org/interventions-for-adolescent-struggling-readers-a-meta-analysis-with-implications-for-practice

“Effect sizes for all outcomes except oral reading fluency met criteria for substantive importance; however, many of the students in the intervention continued to struggle. An evaluation of cognitive profiles of adequate and inadequate responders was consistent with a continuum of severity (as opposed to qualitative differences), showing greater language and reading impairment prior to the intervention in students who were inadequate responders (p.1). … the results are consistent with prior studies of the cognitive attributes of Tier 2 adequate and inadequate responders, suggesting a continuum of severity corresponding with the level of reading ability at baseline. These results show little evidence of qualitative differences that might suggest differences in the type of intervention or alternative approaches to intervention other than a more intense focus on oral language development” (p.12).

Denton, C. A., Tolar, T. D., Fletcher, J. M., Barth, A. E., Vaughn, S., & Francis, D. J. (2013). Effects of Tier 3 Intervention for students with persistent reading difficulties and characteristics of inadequate responders. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(1), 1-16.

So, for older students, should all emphasis be upon vocabulary/comprehension/oral language?

“Phonological decoding made a significant unique contribution to reading comprehension for the eighth/ninth-grade group, to spelling for the fourth/fifth- and eighth/ninth-grade groups, and to the decoding rate and accuracy measures for all three groups, with only three exceptions”.

Nagy, W., Berninger, V.W., & Abbott, R.D. (2006). Contributions of morphology beyond phonology to literacy outcomes of upper elementary and middle-school students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1), 134-147.

“The pattern of results was clear across nine cohorts and three grades, totalling more than 425,000 students in all. Well under 1 percent of first- through third-grade students were poor at reading comprehension yet adequate at both decoding and vocabulary. … “Our results are consistent with the simple view of reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986; Hoover & Gough, 1990) in that nearly all cases of poor reading comprehension were associated with inadequate decoding, oral language (i.e., vocabulary), or both. Our results also support Catts et al.’s (2006) recommendation to use a framework based on the simple view (see Table 1) when assessing and intervening with poor readers. When assessing poor readers, it is important to target oral language and decoding in addition to reading connected text for meaning because students’ poor reading comprehension scores alone are not sufficiently informative for the purposes of remediation. It would be important to identify how much of the poor reading comprehension is attributable to poor decoding and to poor oral language skills such as limited vocabulary knowledge” (p.7, 8).”

Spencer, M., Quinn, J. M., & Wagner, R. K. (2014). Specific reading comprehension disability: Major problem, myth, or misnomer? Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 29(1), 3-9. doi: 10.1111/ldrp.12024. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ldrp.12024/pdf

"This emphasis on decoding is not to say that difficulties at the level of comprehension do not occur, but rather, that for many students they occur as a consequence of a failure to develop early fluent, context-free decoding ability. The capacity to actively transact with the text develops with reading experience, that is, it is partly developed by the very act of reading. Students who read little struggle to develop the knowledge of the world and a vocabulary necessary as a foundation for comprehension (Nagy & Anderson, 1984; Stanovich, 1986, 1993b). Research has indicated that the problems begin early, are predictable and have broad and predictable consequences. “ … the phonological processing problem reduces opportunities to learn from exposure to printed words and, hence, has a powerful effect on the acquisition of knowledge about printed words, including word-specific spellings and orthographic regularities” (Manis, Doi, & Bhadha, 2000, p.325)".

Hempenstall, K. (2001). School-based reading assessment: Looking for vital signs. Australian Journal of Learning Disabilities, 6, 26-35.

“Overall, the results indicate that dyslexic reading and spelling problems are not generally associated with lower levels of metacognitive knowledge, metacognitive strategies or sensitivity to metacognitive experiences in reading situations.” (p.273)

Furnes, B., & Norman, E. (2015). Metacognition and reading: Comparing three forms of metacognition in normally developing readers and readers with dyslexia. Dyslexia, 21, 273–284.

Time and resources are tight in secondary education. Can't we just use computer aided instruction with older students?

“Slavin, Lake, Davis, and Madden (2009) in reviewing approaches for struggling readers in grades K-5, concluded that CAI generally had few effects on reading. Furthermore, Khan and Gorard (2012) reported that previous studies have failed to demonstrate the effectiveness of computer based instruction as a means of improving reading skills. Taken together the evidence suggests that CAI should not be relied on to produce gains in reading ability in secondary school aged students and that in some circumstances using these programmes may have a negative impact on student’s progress (Gorard & Taylor, 2004).” (p. 124)

Paul, S-A.S., & Clarke, P.J. (2016). A systematic review of reading interventions for secondary school students. International Journal of Educational Research, 79, 116 – 112.

A final comment about reading volume – it appears to depend on what you read!

 “With regard to reading classical print media, time spent reading narrative texts or books was the most influential predictor for the development of reading comprehension and vocabulary. Furthermore, the relationship between time spent reading narrative texts and reading comprehension as well as vocabulary remained significantly positive even after controlling for several covariates or third variables, including prior achievement level. Therefore, although any statements on causality are only preliminary, it seems highly plausible that reading fiction books positively influences the development of reading achievement. This result is consistent with the prevalent literature, especially the meta-analytic findings reported by Mol and Bus (2011) who found relatively strong correlations between measures of print exposure (ART, TRT) and reading achievement. Contrary to reading narrative texts, however, the amount of reading of newspapers and magazines, comics, and nonfiction books was of only minor importance for the development of reading comprehension and vocabulary. It seems that narrative texts, possibly due to their language specifics (Gehrer & Artelt, 2013; Graesser, McNamara, & Louwerse, 2003), provide different, unique learning conditions not found in reading newspaper, comics, and nonfiction books. Therefore, our results once more confirm the exceptional status narrative texts have for the development of students' reading competencies (cf., Anderson et al., 1988; Spear-Swerling et al., 2010). Nevertheless, the effects of online media consumption on the development of reading comprehension and vocabulary reveal quite a different story. In addition, effects seem to differ within online media. We found that the amount of time spent reading e-mails, weblogs, online forums, and chats had a negative influence on the development of reading comprehension and, at least partially, of vocabulary. The use of online encyclopedias was not related to either reading comprehension or vocabulary. These results are, nevertheless, consistent with the PISA 2009 findings: Whereas online reading activities in general were associated with better reading performance in all PISA participating countries (OECD, 2010), analyses focusing on the relationship of online social activities and digital reading performance report an inverted U-shaped dose-effect curve: Students who frequently read e-mails and chatted online performed worse than students who engaged only moderately in these online social activities (OECD, 2011)” (p.99).

Pfost, M., Dörfler, T. & Artelt, C. (2013). Students' extracurricular reading behavior and the development of vocabulary and reading comprehension. Learning and Individual Differences, 26, 89-102.

 Comprehension strategies

Some of the techniques that show promise in enhancing comprehension include learning how to monitor and query one’s own comprehension, to organise the text information in a meaningful manner, or employ visualisation techniques (Mastropieri, Leinart, & Scruggs, 1999). A task once common in schools was instruction in how to produce a précis – a summary of what has just been read. Directly teaching the strategies involved in précis production, along with the active processing of information required by the task have also been shown to improve comprehension.

Active comprehension strategies. Good readers are extremely active as they read, as is apparent whenever excellent adult readers are asked to think aloud as they go through text (Pressley & Afflerbach, 1995). Good readers are aware of why they are reading a text, gain an overview of the text before reading, make predictions about the upcoming text, read selectively based on their overview, associate ideas in text to what they already know, note whether their predictions and expectations about text content are being met, revise their prior knowledge when compelling new ideas conflicting with prior knowledge are encountered, figure out the meanings of unfamiliar vocabulary based on context clues, underline and reread and make notes and paraphrase to remember important points, interpret the text, evaluate its quality, review important points as they conclude reading, and think about how ideas encountered in the text might be used in the future. Young and less skilled readers, in contrast, exhibit a lack of such activity (e.g., Cordón & Day, 1996) (Pressley, 2000, p.548).

Some of the techniques that show promise in enhancing comprehension include learning how to monitor and query one’s own comprehension, to organise the text information in a meaningful manner, or employ visualisation techniques (Mastropieri, Leinart, & Scruggs, 1999). A task once common in schools was instruction in how to produce a précis – a summary of what has just been read. Directly teaching the strategies involved in précis production, along with the active processing of information required by the task have also been shown to improve comprehension.

Active comprehension strategies.

Good readers are extremely active as they read, as is apparent whenever excellent adult readers are asked to think aloud as they go through text (Pressley & Afflerbach, 1995). Good readers are aware of why they are reading a text, gain an overview of the text before reading, make predictions about the upcoming text, read selectively based on their overview, associate ideas in text to what they already know, note whether their predictions and expectations about text content are being met, revise their prior knowledge when compelling new ideas conflicting with prior knowledge are encountered, figure out the meanings of unfamiliar vocabulary based on context clues, underline and reread and make notes and paraphrase to remember important points, interpret the text, evaluate its quality, review important points as they conclude reading, and think about how ideas encountered in the text might be used in the future. Young and less skilled readers, in contrast, exhibit a lack of such activity (e.g., Cordón & Day, 1996) (Pressley, 2000, p.548).

So, assisting readers to enhance their capacity to comprehend that which they read is a worthwhile activity. However, Mastropieri, Leinart, and Scruggs (1999), researchers with a long history in devising and evaluating metacognitive strategies, offer this timely caveat to those tempted to focus exclusively on comprehension strategies. “However, reading programs that do not attempt directly to enhance the reading fluency of dysfluent readers cannot be considered complete - no amount of comprehension training can compensate for a slow, labored rate of reading” (p.278). A Crowley, Shrager, and Siegler (1997) study noted that young students were best able to think metacognitively when a lower level cognitive skill, like decoding, became automated.

(From Hempenstall blog Pages and pages on stages (reading stages, that is) at http://nifdi.org/news/hempenstall-blog

“The findings from this synthesis support the use of summarization or main idea strategy instruction as a means to improve understanding of text. Providing students with self-monitoring tools or ways to record the results of their efforts related to a particular behavior also may improve comprehension outcomes. Other strategies that were found to be effective include mnemonics, mapping, and questioning. The most consistent finding across this body of studies was the use of explicit instruction including modeling, feedback, and opportunities for practice” (Solis et al., 2012, p. 338).

Solis, M., Ciullo, S., Vaughn, S., Pyle, N., Hassaram, B., & Leroux, A. (2012). Reading comprehension interventions for middle school students with learning disabilities: A synthesis of 30 years of research. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 45, 327- 340.

“Typical activities in reading comprehension interventions, involve reflection, prior knowledge, question generation, pictorial cues, identifying themes, inferential thinking, summarization, and story structure (Suggate, 2010) … Comprehension interventions … appeared particularly effective” (p.78).

Suggate, S.P. (2016). A meta-analysis of the long-term effects of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and reading comprehension interventions. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 49(1) 77–96.

  “Those students who fall behind in meeting grade level expectations, however, often fail to achieve proficiency in the underlying skills needed to read fluently. They may have localized pockets of expertise that enable them to perform some relatively advanced literacy tasks, but they cannot do so consistently (e.g., Walczyk, Marsiglia, Johns, & Bryan, 2004). At the same time, the complexity of text and task demands increases grade by grade, exacerbating the impact of underlying weaknesses. From an assessment perspective, it would be helpful to understand what kinds of complex literacy tasks a student can perform accurately and consistently, and those where performance breaks down. Those breakdowns may arise from at least two sources: lack of strategies or skills that may have been the target of the comprehension item design (e.g., analytic or evaluation skills) or inadequate component skills that facilitate performance (e.g., poor word recognition)” (p.37).

Sabatini, J.P., O’Reilly, T., Halderman, L.K., & Bruce, K. (2014). Integrating scenario-based and component reading skill measures to understand the reading behavior of struggling readers. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 29(1), 36–43.

How much strategy instruction is really needed?

“Gail Lovette and I (2014) found three quantitative reviews of RCS instruction in typically developing children and five reviews of studies of at-risk children or those with reading disabilities. All eight reviews reported that RCS instruction boosted reading comprehension, but NONE reported that practice of such instruction yielded further benefit. The outcome of 10 sessions was the same as the outcome of 50. … in fact, there is ample research evidence that extended practice with RCS instruction is fruitless.”

Willingham, D. (2015). Can reading comprehension be taught? Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/04/28/can-reading-comprehension-be-taught/

“Poor reading comprehension is not always accompanied with word recognition (i.e., decoding) difficulties. One such case is students with specific poor comprehension (SPC) whose reading difficulties are specific to the area of reading comprehension. Although the estimation of the population proportion in the previous studies has varied, studies substantiate that poor reading comprehenders, with good word recognition abilities, exist (Nation, Clarke, Marshall, & Durand, 2004; Yuill & Oakhill, 1988, 1991). Students with SPC could become more prevalent in the upper elementary grades with a well-known phenomenon of the ‘‘fourth-grade slump’’ in a literacy development (Chall & Jacobs, 2003). … their poor reading comprehension could be due to weak meaning-related spoken language abilities, poor metacognitive knowledge, and/or a lack of text structure knowledge.” (p. )

Lee, S.H. & Tsai, S.F. (2016). Experimental intervention research on students with specific poor comprehension: A systematic review of treatment outcomes. Reading & Writing, DOI 10.1007/s11145-016-9697-x

“A great deal of time in language arts is currently being spent on teaching children formal comprehension strategies like predicting, classifying, and looking for the main idea. (See “Lost Opportunity” on page 24.) In most language-arts textbooks, these exercises persist throughout the year and over many years. Every researcher believes that there is initial value in practicing these comprehension strategies. They teach children to construe a text in the same meaning-seeking way that they already construe the oral speech of adults and their peers. It helps children understand that the text, like a person, is trying to communicate something. But after an initial benefit, further conscious practice of these formal skills is a waste of time, according to Barak Rosenshine, who reviewed the research on the effects of using such methods. Rosenshine found that spending six classes on teaching these skills had the same effect on students’ reading comprehension as spending 25 classes on them. After a quick initial bump, there’s a plateau or ceiling in the positive effects, and little further benefit is derived”. (p.22)

Hirsch, E. D. (2003): Reading comprehension requires knowledge-of words and the world. American Educator, 27(1), 10-13.

So,after all that, what more can we say about the role of vocabulary in reading attainment?

It is one of the pillars of reading attainment and hence instruction - known as the Big 5: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. It is clearly important in understanding what those words on the page mean, but appears also to assist, along with phonological decoding, in aiding word identification - which is especially important in the early reading years.



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