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Five Areas of Instructional Improvement to Increase Academic Literacy

Center on Instruction
How can content-area, non-reading-specialist teachers contribute to academic literacy? They can incorporate these five techniques throughout their lessons: (1) provide explicit instruction and supported practice in effective comprehension techniques, (2) increase the amount and quality of reading content discussions, (3) maintain high standards for text, conversation, questions, and vocabulary, (4) increase student motivation and engagement with reading, and (5) provide essential content knowledge to support student mastery of critical concepts. Find out why these strategies and the literacy areas they represent are so important.

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The five recommendations made here are based on a review and analysis of a number of recent, more or less comprehensive documents produced by scholars and organizations as they considered the research literature on adolescent literacy. We identified areas of instructional improvement to address in this document because they were recurring themes in the instructional literature and also because they align with current understandings of the major factors that contribute to adolescents’ growth in academic literacy.

It is important to understand from the outset that the five areas of instructional improvement we identify in this document are not an exhaustive list. For example, Reading Next (Biancarosa & Snow, 2006) identifies 15 elements of effective adolescent literacy programs, of which eight specifically concern instructional recommendations for content-area teachers. Our goal was to synthesize the documents listed above and identify a limited number of high leverage improvements — those that seem most central to the goal of improving adolescent literacy and those most likely to produce significant long-term improvements if they are widely and effectively implemented.

The one recommendation consistently made in the research, but which we do not elaborate on in this document, is for a closer connection between reading and writing across the curriculum. We have not included a recommendation for explicit writing instruction, not because we don’t recognize that improvements in writing are important, and that such improvements will require explicit instruction and support, but rather because this report focuses on reading. We would recommend making close connections between reading and writing activities as one important method for implementing the core recommendations we discuss in this document.

Another important point is that although the instructional recommendations for content-area teachers are treated separately in this document, we don’t mean to imply that they should be implemented on a piecemeal, or fragmented, basis. In the interests of gradually improving literacy instruction by content-area teachers, schools or districts might need to provide professional development to support these practices in a planned, sequential way, but the goal should always be eventually to see all these practices used in every content-area classroom.

Recommendation 1:
Provide explicit instruction and supportive practice in the use of effective comprehension strategies throughout the school day

Increasing explicit instruction and support for the use of comprehension strategies is perhaps the most widely cited current recommendation for improving reading comprehension in all students (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000), particularly for those who struggle with comprehension (Gersten, Fuchs, Williams, & Baker, 2001). It is based on three kinds of evidence: (1) proficient readers monitor their comprehension more actively and effectively than less proficient readers do (Pressley, 2000); (2) proficient readers are more likely to use a variety of active cognitive strategies to enhance their comprehension and repair it when it breaks down (Nation, 2005); and (3) explicit instruction along with supported, scaffolded practice in the use of multiple comprehension strategies produce consistent improvements in students’ reading comprehension (Rosenshine & Meister, 1994; Rosenshine, Meister, & Chapman, 1996).

In fact, in the report of the National Reading Panel (2000), instruction in comprehension strategies is seen as the core idea, the essence, of comprehension instruction: “The idea behind explicit instruction of text comprehension is that comprehension can be improved by teaching students to use specific cognitive strategies or to reason strategically when they encounter barriers to comprehension when reading” (pp. 4-39). A comprehension strategy can be defined as any activity a student might engage in (including mental activities, conversations with others, or consultation of outside references) to enhance comprehension or repair it when it breaks down. Examples of effective comprehension strategies researchers have studied include:

  • active comprehension monitoring that leads to the use of fix-up strategies when comprehension fails;
  • use of graphic and semantic organizers, including story maps;
  • question generation;
  • summarization and paraphrasing; and
  • selective rereading.

Evidence for the utility of explicit instruction in comprehension strategies has been found not only in controlled experimental studies but also in benchmark studies of more and less effective schools and teachers. For example, Langer’s (2001) influential study of successful and less successful middle and high schools noted that effective teachers were much more likely than less effective teachers to explicitly teach students strategies for accomplishing their reading and writing tasks: “All of the more successful teachers overtly taught their students strategies for organizing their thoughts and completing tasks, whereas only 17% of the less successful teachers did so” (p. 868).

The reading comprehension strategies that have been studied most broadly to this point have general applicability across content areas and genres. However, an emerging consensus also identifies comprehension strategies that are content area-specific. These strategies involve particular ways of making interpretations, documenting evidence, or framing arguments that are specific to a given content area. For instance, work in science (Norris & Phillips, 1994), social studies (Mosborg, 2002; Perfetti, Britt, & Georgi, 1995), and math (Leong & Jerred, 2001) demonstrates that reading and writing in these content areas make unique demands and that instruction in strategies and knowledge specific to each content area can improve comprehension and learning.

Recommendation 2:
Increase the amount and quality of open, sustained discussion of reading content

This recommendation focuses on using both teacher-guided methods and small-group methods to increase all students’ opportunities to engage in high-quality, continuing discussions of the meaning of text. The idea is that participation in such discussions is a direct way to increase students’ ability to think about and learn from text (Beck & McKeown, 2006). During discussions, students can be directly led to engage in thoughtful analysis of text in ways that support their comprehension when they are reading on their own. In addition to its impact on reading comprehension, increasing the amount of high-quality discussion of reading content is frequently cited as a way to increase engagement in reading and reading-based assignments (Guthrie & Humenick, 2004).

In a review of both qualitative and quantitative research on the impact of discussion-oriented teaching on understanding and comprehension, Applebee, Langer, Nystrand, & Gamoran (2003) concluded:

These lines of research overlap significantly in both the form and the focus of the particular interventions advocated. The results converge to suggest that comprehension of difficult text can be significantly enhanced by replacing traditional I-R-E (Initiation-Response-Evaluation) patterns of instruction with discussion-based activities in which students are invited to make predictions, summarize, link texts with one another, and with background knowledge, generate and answer text-related questions, clarify understanding, muster relevant evidence to support an interpretation, and interrelate reading, writing, and discussion. (p. 693)

In the study of middle and high schools teachers mentioned earlier (Langer, 2001), effective teachers were much more likely to create situations in their classrooms that led to extended discussions of content among students. In Langer’s words:

In the higher performing schools, at least 96% of the teachers helped students engage in the thoughtful dialogue we call shared cognition. Teachers expected their students to not merely work together, but to sharpen their understandings with, against, and from each other. In comparison, teachers in the more typical classes focused on individual thinking. Even when their students worked together, the thinking was parallel as opposed to dialogic. (p. 872)

Finally, a recent meta-analysis of the research literature on the impact of discussion-oriented instruction on reading comprehension (Murphy & Edwards, 2005) examined effects from 75 studies that used students of mixed age from preadolescence through high school. The most important conclusion from this study was that approaches emphasizing critical analysis of text or involving discussion (either teacher- or student-led) of specific questions about text had the most consistently positive effect on reading comprehension outcomes. The authors also noted a serious shortage of studies that examined the impact of discussion-oriented approaches that measured outcomes with standardized, general measures of reading comprehension.

There is substantial evidence that typical middle and high school classrooms in the United States, particularly those serving predominantly poor and minority students, provide little opportunity for the type of extended and open discussion of reading content recommended here (Applebee, 1993; Nystrand, Gamoran, & Heck, 1993). The importance of these findings is underlined by a statement in the recent National Association of State Boards of Education document Reading at Risk: How States Can Respond to the Crisis in Adolescent Literacy that “what has remained unchanged in too many middle and high schools and classrooms is the nature of teaching itself” (2005, 18).

Recommendation 3:
Set and maintain high standards for text, conversation, questions, and vocabulary

We are not aware of any experimental support for setting high standards, but it is consistently supported in observational studies of high-achieving classrooms and teachers. It is also a matter of common sense. If we are to improve overall levels of adolescent literacy, instruction, as broadly provided in middle and high schools, will have to be directed toward higher standards than it currently is. The recommendation to set consistently high standards for literacy outcomes for grades 4-12 also appears regularly in recent comprehensive documents on improving levels of adolescent literacy. For example, Reading at Risk: How States Can Respond to the Crises in Adolescent Literacy, published by the National Association of State Boards of Education, has the following as its first recommendation for state-level policy:

Set state literacy goals and standards, ensuring alignment with curricula and assessments, and raising literacy expectations across the curriculum for all students in all grades. (2005, p. 30)

Another comprehensive document, recently published by the National Governors Association for Best Practices, Reading to Achieve: A Governor’s Guide to Adolescent Literacy, also contains research-based recommendations for improving literacy among students in grades 4-12. The first recommendation is that governors should build support for a state focus on adolescent literacy. The second is that:

Governors can help accomplish the goal of preparing students to meet the literacy expectations of employers and postsecondary institutions by assessing real-world demands and raising state standards, accordingly, and by revising state standards to include explicit expectations for literacy instruction across grade levels and content areas. (2005, p. 15)

Although these recommendations are phrased in state-level policy language, their ultimate impact must be at the classroom level: unless individual teachers raise their own expectations of literacy for all of their students, state-level policies will have little impact.

Recommendation 4:
Increase students’ motivation and engagement with reading

In a previous section, we described the factors that contribute to strong reading comprehension in adolescents and discussed the role of motivation and engagement in fostering higher levels of literacy attainment and performance. Simply put, deep comprehension of complex text is an effortful process that requires active use of background knowledge, active use of appropriate reading strategies, and an actively thoughtful response. Both while learning to coordinate these complex processes and when executing them to accomplish specific tasks requiring deep comprehension, the more students are motivated to comprehend and the more they are engaged with the text, the more successful they will be (RAND, 2002).

In a meta-analysis of studies investigating instructional practices that enhanced motivation for and engagement in reading, Guthrie and Humenick (2004) identified four instructional practices with significant effect sizes: (1) content goals for instruction, meaning that students had interesting learning goals to achieve through their reading activities; (2) choice and autonomy support, which meant that students were allowed a reasonable range of choices of reading materials and activities; (3) interesting texts, which, depending on the range of reading skills in the class, also usually meant having books written at multiple levels; and (4) opportunities to collaborate with other students in discussion and assignment groups to achieve their learning goals.

While it is clearly true that teachers can influence students’ motivation to read by how they structure assignments, organize their classrooms, and interact with their students, Moje (2006) has also pointed out that the actual texts adolescent students read can be either motivating or demotivating. As one means of supporting student motivation for reading, she advocates paying careful attention to text difficulty. In many content-area classrooms, students (particularly struggling readers) are expected to spend a lot of time reading texts that are very difficult for them. As Beers (2003) has noted, one obvious and effective method for increasing both student motivation for reading classroom materials and students’ ability to learn from what they read is to have texts at different levels of difficulty that address similar content or themes. The availability of texts at multiple levels of difficulty is also an important part of the motivational context of Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction (Guthrie, Wigfield, & Perencevich, 2004).

Recommendation 5:
Teach essential content knowledge so that all students master critical concepts

Several years ago, three researchers in West Germany conducted an interesting study of third-, fifth-, and seventh-grade students with different knowledge of the game of soccer (Schneider, Korkel, & Weinert, 1989). Researchers divided the students into groups with high and low knowledge about soccer and high and low general verbal ability. All the children listened to a story about a young player’s experiences during an important soccer match. The story was well written except that in a few places important information was left out so that students had to make inferences; it also contained several contradictions. The story was taped and presented twice to all students. After students listened to the story, the researchers assessed their comprehension in three ways: (1) memory for story details; (2) ability to detect the contradictions in the story; and (3) ability to draw correct inferences. In all three cases, students’ specific knowledge of the game of soccer had a greater influence on their performance than their general verbal ability. The authors’ most important conclusion was that students with lower general verbal ability can comprehend and remember text as well as students of high general ability if they are equally familiar and knowledgeable about the material they are listening to or reading.

This study is a concrete example of findings from a larger array of studies that consistently document the influence of background knowledge on reading comprehension and complex intellectual performance (Hirsh, 2006). One powerful line of research illustrating how prior knowledge influences comprehension comes from work in schema theory (Anderson & Pearson, 1984; Anderson, Reynolds, Schallert, & Goetz, 1977). A central idea in schema theory is that much of human knowledge is stored in schemata that contain organized relational information. Thus, an “eating at a restaurant” schema might contain organized knowledge about typical participants (diners, waiters, chefs), typical elements of the setting (tables, chairs, menus, utensils, napkins), and typical sequences of events (ordering, eating, paying the bill). As in the example of students who were knowledgeable about soccer, a person with a well-developed restaurant schema will be much more able to make inferences or supply unstated information when reading about an event taking place in a restaurant than would someone who had never eaten in a restaurant. How much students already know about the topic of the text they are reading exercises a powerful influence on their ability to comprehend, think about, and remember new information on the topic that they encounter as they read.

One type of knowledge that has an increasingly important impact on reading comprehension as students move from late elementary school to middle and high school is vocabulary knowledge (Stanovich, Cunningham, & Feeman, 1984). Both knowledge of the meanings of general, widely used words and knowledge of words more closely tied to specific domains, such as scientific words, are important for reading comprehension. Most estimates place the number of words average students are likely to learn in grades 3 through 12 at about 3,000 a year if they read between a half million and a million words of text (Anderson & Nagy, 1992). It does not take complex math to determine that if teachers were to teach this number of words directly, they would need to teach a large number of words every day during a 180-day school year.

Thus most current recommendations for vocabulary instruction suggest that strong vocabulary development is best supported through a combination of (1) wide reading; (2) direct teaching of individual, high-utility words; (3) instruction in how to learn words independently during reading; and (4) instruction and activities that increase word consciousness (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002; Graves, 2000; Johnson, 1999). We explicitly include the recommendation to improve the efficiency of vocabulary instruction in our recommendations for more powerful teaching of essential content for all students.

Both long-term general improvements in levels of adolescent literacy and the acceleration of literacy development in students performing below grade level will depend critically on improvements in how content-area teachers teach the vocabulary, concepts, and facts that are essential content-area knowledge.

Excerpted with permission from Torgesen, J. K., Houston, D. D., Rissman, L. M., Decker, S. M., Roberts, G., Vaughn, S., Wexler, J. Francis, D. J, Rivera, M. O., Lesaux, N. (2007). Academic literacy instruction for adolescents: A guidance document from the Center on Instruction. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction. Full report available online.