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Three Skills to Improve Deep Reading Comprehension

Three key skills—academic language, perspective taking, and complex reasoning—can predict how well a student does with the kind of deep reading comprehension required in secondary school and beyond, according to a recent study.

Typically, reading comprehension has been viewed simply as "the product of decoding and oral language comprehension," according to the report, which was produced as part of the federally funded Reading for Understanding initiative and published in a recent special issue of the Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness. That is, it is widely thought that if students can understand a text that's read aloud to them, they can also understand it by reading it, as long as their decoding skills aren't getting in the way. 

For this study, the researchers focused on three factors, which they chose by analyzing deep reading tasks and looking at what historians, scientists, and literary analysts do as readers. The factors are: 

  • Academic language, defined as formal written language with features that make it harder to process text. Those include "reduction in use of subject pronouns and action verbs; increase in nominalizations, passives, and embedded relative clauses; and lexicalized discourse, stance, and epistemic markers." 
  • Perspective-taking, or the ability to "recognize that different actors have different experiences of the same events," and
  • Complex reasoning, or "the ability to think effectively about complex issues that have no single correct answer." This includes students' ability to reason about concepts such as evidence, truth, knowledge, and conflict.

"These three predictive factors have not previously been systematically attended to in curricular design or instruction," the report states. 

The study looked at results for nearly 3,000 students in grades 4 through 7 on the Global Integrated Scenario-Based Assessment, a computer-based test of deep reading skills created by the Educational Testing Service. 

The researchers found that all three factors were statistically significant predictors of deep reading comprehension. Academic language was the strongest predictor, "suggesting that this is an important area of focus to prepare students for secondary school texts with their increasingly unfamiliar and challenging language," the study says.

"Taken together, these findings on the roles of academic language, perspective taking, and complex reasoning in deep comprehension suggest that, for students in grades 4 through 7, we need to consider other models of reading comprehension beyond the SVR [i.e., simple view of reading as decoding and oral language comprehension]."

Common-Core Changes

The study notes that "the default in comprehension instruction in the United States is teaching comprehension strategies, the approach endorsed by the National Reading Panel" 16 years ago. But curricula and professional development aligned with the Common Core State Standards have put more emphasis on "close reading" and assigning complex texts, which aim to develop deep reading comprehension.

However, simply having students engage in close reading and use harder texts isn't enough, the researchers write. "Our findings suggest that these practices are unlikely by themselves to be helpful to students struggling with academic language, perspective taking, and complex reasoning, and might in fact lead to frustration and reduced motivation," the report states.

"A better understanding of the processes underlying deep reading comprehension will, we hope, generate approaches to instruction that directly address the linguistic and cognitive challenges students face."

The rest of the recent issue of JREE, published by the Society of Research on Educational Effectiveness, is devoted to reading comprehension as well. You can find three other studies here, too. 

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