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Reading Unraveled: Word Recognition vs. Language Conceptualization

The ultimate goal of reading really is what we do with the information and ideas that we take in through the written word. This is high order cognitive engagement and is impacted by many factors including saliency determination, verbal conceptualization, critical thinking, creativity, and reasoning. However, without prolonged practice with the foundational processes of reading, this goal becomes inaccessible to most students even when we work to cultivate these higher order functions. Building an awareness of the many underlying factors that impact reading competency is essential for effective instructional design at any grade level. This is the first of a series of short articles that will endeavor to unpack these factors in response to real questions asked by teachers.

Question 1

Why are my 9th graders (or any grade) not understanding what they read as well as I would expect them to? Well, the answer to this question is more complicated than we would wish, but in that complexity lies the answers to what we can do practically for that one child to reach their reading potential in any grade.

Identifying the problem

As their teacher, we need to figure out whether the issue is one of word recognition or of broader language conceptualization and use. These are some of the possible areas we can explore to gain a helpful understanding of the reading profile of the student in front of us.

  1. Limitations in phonological awareness is by far the greatest predictor of reading challenges with at least 80 percent of all poor readers estimated to demonstrate a weakness in phonological awareness and/or phonological memory. Readers with phonological processing weaknesses also tend to be the poorest spellers (Cassar, Treiman, Moats, Pollo, & Kessler, 2005).
  2. Poor phonics skills caused by early instruction that prioritizes alternative “cues” for reading words, such as predicting the word based on the first letter or the picture. (Report of the National Reading Panel : Teaching Children to Read, 2000). Note: This is an issue of attention to the wrong thing and a lack of practice focusing effort on what really matters. Intervention for this issue can be reasonably short and quite successful for older students.
  3. Problems with automatic word recognition can contribute to difficulties with fluency, and in turn, often cause problems with comprehension. Fluent reading is necessary for comprehension, because attention required for effortful reading draws resources away from comprehension (Perfetti, 1985).
  4. A reader’s prior knowledge of a topic is a chief determinant of whether they will understand the passage (Anderson & Pearson, 1984). Children familiar with the topic of a text will comprehend it more fully, including making more inferences (Oakhill, Cain & Elbro, 2015). Any child who lacks familiarity with the topic of a text will struggle to comprehend it fully. 
  5. Academic language refers to the vocabulary and language patterns used in texts and concepts in school and the workplace, and which are especially critical for reading comprehension (Lesaux and Russ Harris, 2015; Ricketts, Nation, & Bishop, 2007). Lack of exposure to the language used in academic settings can translate to issues of comprehension.
  6. Even if one or more of the above problems are identified for the student, there may also exist a core problem with processing speed/orthographic processing which affects speed and accuracy of printed word recognition (Moats & Tolman, 2019). This issue will likely show up across subject areas and extend beyond reading comprehension.
  7. Weaknesses with working memory is another core capacity that can impact reading comprehension (Oakhill, Cain, & Elbro, 2015). In particular, the use of what is understood from reading in a task designed to illustrate comprehension of meaning. (Oakhill, Cain, & Elbro, 2015)
  8. Executive function weaknesses, especially monitoring for meaning and saliency determination. There is a central role of strategic planning in reading comprehension. Children with reading comprehension challenges often also perform poorly in the area of general strategic planning. Baddeley’s model of an executive system modulated by phonological input. (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974)

Possible Solutions

A student may show a need for reteaching and practice in any one of the above areas, but may also show a need for work in several areas. Many of the following instructional responses can be for the whole class and would benefit all readers by lifting everyone’s reading comprehension skills. For some students, a specialist tutor may be needed in the short term to target the area of need – but that is the exception, not the rule. We must be teachers of reading no matter what our area of content expertise is.

  1. Poetry, rhyming, singing, rapping, nonsense words, and verbal word-play all build phonological awareness in those who have not yet established connections to the unique sounds used in a language. (1)
  2. Intentionally integrating knowledge-building into literacy instruction positively impacts reading comprehension outcomes (Cabell & Hwang, 2020). (4,5,7)
  3. Direct, systematic, cumulative phonics instruction for older students. (2)
  4. Instructional strategies that provide explicit instruction in definition and contextual information, and encourage children to use vocabulary expressively have been proven effective with students who have difficulty building a robust lexicon (Jitendra et al., 2004). (4,5,7)
  5. Studies also conclude that small groups are best for most vocabulary interventions because most vocabulary learning occurs through discussion (Steele & Mills, 2011). (4,5)
  6. Incidental word learning during independent reading is important for vocabulary development, but children with reading comprehension or oral language difficulties will not gain the same benefits as others (Steele & Watkins, 2010). Implicit vocabulary learning (a conversation and reading rich environment) is helpful (Iowa Center for Reading Research, 2017), but must be supported by explicit instruction for maximum effectiveness (Marulis & Neuman, 2010). (4,5,6)
  7. Explicitly teaching children reading strategies such as inferring and comprehension monitoring is effective with relatively brief instruction (Elleman, 2017). We cannot assume our students arrive at our lessons transferring these strategies from one grade to the next, or one class to another. Take a deep breath and teach them again. Reciprocal Teaching has been shown to be a highly effective approach. (4,7,8)
  8. For some of our students, speech articulation and dialectic differences can limit comprehension. For this, specialist oral language instruction and enrichment may be useful (Snow et al.,1998; Landi & Ryherd, 2017).  (1,2,3)
  9. Dialogic reading (Zucker et al., 2010) continues to be a robust approach to the development of reading comprehension throughout school. (1,3,4,5,6,7,8)
  10. For positive reading comprehension across content areas, the use of visual representations such as story maps, graphic organizers, and emphasis on expository text to support understanding of text structure has been shown to increase outcomes (Hogan, Bridges, Justice, & Cain, 2011). (8)
  11. Again, explicit instruction in non-fiction comprehension strategies and text structures has been shown to lead to higher reading comprehension scores across content areas (Landi & Ryherd, 2017; Catts, Adlof & Weismer, 2006; Piasta, 2015). (5, 8)
  12. Even our best readers still need us to model summarizing, ask them to summarize at various points in a text, and teach them to generate questions to support comprehension monitoring skills (Hogan, Bridges, Justice, & Cain, 2011). Note: see Reciprocal Teaching above. (8)

Name it to tame it

Designing or finding formative assessments with the different areas of reading in mind will give you a great deal of information about what is supporting reading comprehension and what is hindering it for the students in your class at any age. This does not need to take a lot of time and arguably will buy you back time once you begin targeting the real issues getting in the way of student success at any grade.

Reading comprehension is complex and is not the desired final outcome. What our students do with their comprehension is the true measure of mastery. There is no magic pill. Instead, there are several small targeted strategies that will work in concert to build capacity, while scaffolding areas of weakness over time to establish a robust student toolkit for drawing meaning from the written word.

More resources:

  1. Gough, P. Tumner, W. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability, Remedial and Special Education, Vol. 7 Issue 1 January/February  p.6-10. 
  2. Hua, Anh & Keenan, Janice. (2017). Interpreting Reading Comprehension Test Results: Quantile Regression Shows that Explanatory Factors Can Vary with Performance Level. Scientific Studies of Reading. 21. 1-14. 10.1080/10888438.2017.1280675. 


About the author

Christine Lewis is the Lower School Teaching and Learning Strategist at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and the CTTL Lower School Research Lead. Over the past 18 years, she has taught in every grade from kindergarten through fourth grade. Since 2020, Chris has led the early childhood and elementary faculty investigation of research-informed, evidence-driven instructional design for academic growth and student well-being. She is a constant learner with a background in science and a passion for poetry; using both in the service of our youngest learners by taking research into the classroom where the magic happens.