All About Adolescent Literacy

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A Theory of Adolescent Reading: A Simple View of a Complex Process

How do adolescents move from reading words to applying knowledge learned from a text? See the adolescent reading model and the Strategic Intervention Model (SIM) clearly illustrated.

Our research uses a conceptual model of adolescent reading based on a global view of the reading process. The framework for this view is captured, in part, by the Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986; Hoover & Gough, 1990). At the core of the Simple View of Reading is the notion that while the act of reading is complex, proficient reading consists of two key components: word recognition and linguistic or language comprehension. The Word Recognition component encompasses efficient decoding, accurate sight-word recognition, fluent word reading and access to appropriate words in the reader's mental lexicon that provides semantic information at the word level. Thus, efficient word recognition allows the reader to quickly pronounce a word and triggers recognition of words acquired through language experiences (e.g., prior knowledge). Linguistic comprehension is defined as knowledge of facts and concepts, vocabulary, language and text structures, and verbal reasoning structures and strategies. Some researchers refer to linguistic comprehension as language comprehension since measures of language comprehension seem to capture that domain (e.g., Catts et al., 2005). The interaction of these two components results in reading comprehension.

The Simple View of Reading recognizes that these two overarching components are equally important and mutually inclusive. That is, both components are necessary for reading success. The interdependent nature of these key components increases as students move from the early to the later grades. For example, multiple regression studies have shown that by the time students are in the 5th and 6th grade, decoding accounts for up to 13% and linguistic comprehension for up to 35% of the variability among readers (Hoover & Gough, 1990). Further, the importance of these components shifts developmentally, which has implications for instruction. For example, word recognition accounted for 27% of the unique variance at the second grade but only 2% at the eighth grade (Catts, Hogan, & Adolf, 2005). In short, the Simple View of Reading provides a framework for thinking about reading and holds that instruction in either decoding or linguistic comprehension improves reading so long as neither component is nil (Hoover & Gough, 1990).

A closer look at word-level factors

Some reading theorists hold that if the learner cannot decode, he or she cannot comprehend text effectively and efficiently (Hoover & Gough, 1990; LeBerge & Samuels, 1974). For example, about 65% to 85% of the variance in reading comprehension is accounted for by word recognition and listening comprehension (Aaron, Joshi, & Williams, 1999; Hoover & Gough; 1990). Thus, word recognition plays a critical role in reading comprehension, and, therefore, requires attention beyond the assumption that students are proficient in recognizing words in text.

The word-level skills that seem to support comprehension include accuracy, rate, and prosody (National Reading Panel, 2000). Of those elements, reading rate seems most important; accuracy alone does not predict comprehension (Stahl & Hiebert, 2004; Torgesen, Rashotte, & Alexander, 2001). Thus, fluent reading of words matters a great deal in proficient reading, and there is a strong correlation between word recognition and comprehension (Adams, Treiman, & Pressley, 1998; Catts et al., 2004; Stahl & Hiebert, 2004; Torgesen et al., 2001). In short, "comprehension is built on a foundation of words" (Stahl & Hiebert, 2004, p. 182).

Comprehension factors

Walter Kintsch's (1994) theory of reading, while complementing the language comprehension component of the Simple View, takes reading to a deeper level. In essence, Kintsch expands the domain of language comprehension to include deep processing of textual information and prior knowledge and adds depth to the Simple View of Reading framework by defining the importance and focus of reading comprehension strategies. Kintsch suggests that these cognitive and metacognitive strategies (executive processes) can and must be taught to struggling readers, especially when they encounter unfriendly texts (i.e., poorly written or difficult vocabulary), to help them compensate for lack of prior knowledge. In what he calls Construction Integration (CI), Kintsch (1998) emphasizes the bottom-up construction of incomplete propositions followed by an activation process that moves toward coherent understanding. Thus, a balance between basic reading skill and language comprehension strategy knowledge supports learning in general.

Kintsch's model draws a clear distinction between reading for understanding and learning from text. Reading for understanding allows the reader to answer typical comprehension questions such as those found at the end of reading selections. At this level of understanding, we are able to determine if the reader remembers and can retell what he or she just read. While helpful, retelling is limited to memory for text, however. In contrast, learning from text requires the reader to draw upon information from the text and use prior knowledge to make inferences (highlighting the critical role of prior knowledge in comprehension). This, in turn, allows the reader to use the information in new and novel situations. Learning of this type is much deeper, and is referred to as situational learning (Kintsch, 1994, 1998; Kintsch, E., 2005).

Text comprehension holds that comprehension can have a text-base surface learning focus or it can be situational in focus with learning that is applicable to novel situations, and hence more useful. The challenge presented by this theory is that struggling readers who lack the word-level skills and prior knowledge necessary to make learning happen need specific strategies that account for these deficiencies, particularly when reading texts that are poorly written. Kintsch calls this gap between what the learner already knows and what is presented in text as the "learnability zone." If the learnability zone is beyond the reader's skills and knowledge, less than proficient reading results. Thus, word-level theory (e.g., Catts et al., 2004; Hoover & Gough, 1990; Torgesen et al., 2001; Stahl & Hiebert, 2004) and Kintsch's reading comprehension theory seem compatible and necessary for "deep" reading comprehension.

Further, these theories support interventions that teach students a series of rules or cognitive and metacognitive strategies to apply as they process text and learn from reading (Adams et al., 1998). Kintsch (1994) recognizes the importance of executive process in his situational model and describes the strategic action required on the part of the learner to learn from reading. Strategic readers use executive process to self monitor their reading success and deploy repair strategies when necessary (Hacker, 2004). These executive process, while complementary to the language comprehension component of the Simple View, move beyond background knowledge, syntax and semantics, vocabulary, and text structures and may be considered a separate and important theoretical element (Kamhi, 2005; Kintsch, 2004, Pressley, 2000; Pressley & Hilden, 2004).

A theory-based adolescent reading model

The reading interventions developed as part of the Strategic Instruction Model (SIM) target the key reading components and theory discussed above. We believe that a balanced combination of word-level, comprehension, and executive process theories should define the nature of adolescent reading interventions and the process of reading to learn.

The Adolescent Reading Model depicted in Figure 2 provides the conceptual framework that guides the design and implementation of reading interventions. This model recognizes and builds upon, in part, the significant body of reading research conducted on younger populations under the auspices of the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) (e.g., Lyon, Alexander, & Yafee, 1997; McCardle & Chhabara, 2004). As a result of this work, a growing convergence of research findings has been outlined with regard to how to improve reading instruction for younger children, including those with disabilities (NICHD, 2000; Swanson & Hoskyn, 1999; Vaughn, Gersten, & Chard, 2000). The Adolescent Reading Model is a framework for testing the generalizability of the findings for younger readers with an adolescent population and seeks to determine the unique power of specific components of reading for older learners.

An initial assumption underlying the model is that although most adolescents have acquired the foundational word recognition and decoding skills associated with early reading instruction depicted in the left portion of Figure 2 (i.e., phonemic awareness, decoding, sight word reading, and fluency) in materials written at the 3rd-grade level, some struggling readers still need intervention in this area. Thus, instruction for adolescents should include a "Bridging Strategy" that provides explicit instruction and scaffolded support to help struggling readers with word-level interventions that improve word recognition and fluency. At the same time, and in conjunction with word-level interventions, explicit instruction in language comprehension and reasoning (background knowledge, syntax, vocabulary) should be provided. This is depicted in the middle portion of Figure 2. Since the role of self-regulating or executive processes is considered a key component of language comprehension in Kintsch's situational learning model, we have included a third component in our reading theory (see the right side of Figure 2) that highlights this important element. Integration of cognitive and metacognitive strategies requires that the reader take strategic action and put forth effort to make meaning of the integration of text material and prior knowledge. Thus, reading is an active process requiring word level, language comprehension, and the conscious use of executive processes associated with reading for meaning and learning. The intended outcome of this balanced, interactive model is a significant increase in the reader's ability to integrate and fuse his or her understanding of text with prior knowledge and apply that new knowledge to novel learning situations (see the bottom portion of Figure 2).

Figure 2. Adolescent reading model

The SIM Reading Program (see Figure 3) are directly tied to the Adolescent Reading Model (Catts et al., 2004; Hoover & Gough, 1990; Kintsch, 1998; Stahl & Hiebert, 2004; Torgesen et al., 2001). At the heart of this program is reading instruction. The reading core (shown in the box on the left side of Figure 3) includes decoding, sight word reading, and fluency instruction. Instruction in these areas provides the reader access to accurate word recognition and increased reading accuracy, rate, and prosody. The other major component of the model is language comprehension instruction, which provides the reader with the skills, strategies, and executive processes necessary to integrate text information with prior knowledge, monitor understanding, and bring meaning to what is being read.

Figure 3. SIM reading program

Comprehension instruction also includes vocabulary instruction and instruction in the strategic processes involved in comprehending a variety of written text structures. As depicted in Figure 3, the interaction of the word-level reading and language comprehension instruction creates a synergistic or additive effect that results in learning outcomes that are greater than those that can be generated by either word-level reading or comprehension instruction alone.

Also, as depicted in Figure 3, reading instruction is surrounded by an environment that promotes and motivates learning. For example, personal reflection and goal setting and highly engaging literature are used to enhance student motivation. A final instructional element designed to increase motivation and engagement in learning is structuring classroom activities around the principles of positive classroom management techniques and cooperative learning experiences (Sprick, 2005).

The SIM Reading Program is designed to result in enhanced outcomes. Specifically, students learn the reading skills that enable them to succeed in challenging courses, to become proficient on state AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) measures and graduate from high school, and to enroll and succeed in future education and training situations.

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