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Research Reveals Key Hurdles Students Must Overcome to Become Good Readers

Focus on R&D

Issue 16

April 2020

By: Hans Sandberg

With much of our life and work taking place in digital domains, reading is crucial to success, whether as a student in school or as an adult navigating our modern world. This makes the current state of reading in the United States troubling. In fact, an alarming two-thirds of fourth- and eighth-graders score below the proficient level in reading, according to standards set by the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), better known as the Nation's Report Card. Focus on ETS R&D asked two experts in The ETS Center for Research on Human Capital and Education to share some of their insights about the reading process and the importance of measuring foundational reading skills.

How can a teacher quickly find out if a student is a weak reader?

Photo of Zuowei Wang Zuowei Wang: The easiest way is simply to ask a student to read aloud from a grade-level passage and see whether he or she is fluent. We know from our paper about reading comprehension and oral reading skills that almost all fourth-graders who read slower than 85 words per minute also tested below NAEP's level for proficient readers. Poor readers make more errors when they read a text aloud. The ability to read aloud fluently is one of the key indicators of adequate foundational reading skills.

Photo of Tenaha O'Reilly Tenaha O'Reilly: Let me point out that when we say "foundational" reading skills, we mean the print-related skills that enable students to "get the words" off the page. They are foundational because higher-level comprehension processes depend upon them; you can't get to the meaning of the words if the symbols on the page are not recognized as words. It's important to be clear about this because "foundational" can be misconstrued to mean these skills are simple, and that they have been mastered by all students in the early grades.

Why is it a problem if a fourth-grade student can't read?

Photo of Tenaha O'Reilly Tenaha O'Reilly: Before the fourth grade, students are focused on learning how to read printed text. Learning to read involves decoding text and recognizing words. With proper instruction and practice, these processes become automatic in a skilled reader. However, after fourth grade, reading instruction switches from learning to read to reading to learn content. Now students must focus their attention on reading comprehension. If foundational reading skills such as decoding are weak, they take up resources from comprehension and the process breaks down.

Photo of Zuowei Wang Zuowei Wang: After grade 4, instructional activities focusing on foundational reading skills fade out. If students do not have adequate foundational reading skills by this time, they miss the train of normal reading comprehension development, and as a result it becomes very difficult for them to catch up.

Won't the poor readers catch up over time?

Photo of Zuowei Wang Zuowei Wang: Poor readers can become better readers over time, but students who already are good readers will likely become even better, leading to a growing gap in reading comprehension. We showed in our paper Decoding and Reading Comprehension that students with normal decoding skills improved faster than students with poor decoding skills. We tracked students' reading comprehension performance for several years and found that students with normal decoding skills improved about six times faster than students with poor decoding skills.

Photo of Tenaha O'Reilly Tenaha O'Reilly: It is often assumed that kids have mastered foundational skills by fourth or fifth grade; however, the paper Zuowei just mentioned suggests that some students in fifth through tenth grade may have such a low level of decoding ability that it limits their reading comprehension and prevents them from catching up. These results are important because inadequate reading and comprehension skills are tied to a wide range of life outcomes. In today's era of fake news and deception, adequate reading and critical-thinking skills are necessary for the very survival of our democracy.

Why do some students not understand what they read? What is a decoding threshold?

Photo of Zuowei Wang Zuowei Wang: People do two things to understand what they read. The first thing is to recognize individual words in a process that reading experts call decoding. The second thing is to try to understand the meaning of a continuous text. Many students have problems with decoding, which can lead them to devote too much mental resources toward recognizing each word. This makes it hard for them to follow the text as it goes on. Our research has shown that students almost never achieve satisfactory comprehension if their decoding skill is below a certain threshold — and this will not get better with time. That's why we talk about a decoding threshold. Students must cross this hurdle if they are to read and understand what they are asked to read. If they can't reach this threshold, they may not be able to develop their reading comprehension as well as other students.

Photo of Tenaha O'Reilly Tenaha O'Reilly: The decoding threshold is critical for several reasons. Primarily, it provides a mechanism to detect who is likely to have a comprehension problem, and which students are less likely to improve over time.

How can research and assessments help address the reading crisis?

Photo of Zuowei Wang Zuowei Wang: Understanding why a student did poorly on reading measures helps teachers decide which instructional strategies to use; for example, we demonstrated in our paper When Slower is Faster that it can be better for students to slow down in their reading activities. The paper suggests that teachers should encourage students to be more persistent in trying to pronounce (decode) words that are not familiar to them, because this kind of practice is highly predictive of decoding development.

Photo of Tenaha O'Reilly Tenaha O'Reilly: You can't treat what you don't measure. Having access to solid measures of foundational reading skills provides a way to identify students at risk so that the appropriate intervention is given. If you know that you have a broken foot, why would you put a cast on your arm? Similarly, if students have inadequate decoding skills, they need instruction and practice in these areas. However, if only a comprehension assessment was administered, inefficiencies in foundational skills may be overlooked. Foundational reading skills are measured in the early grades but are typically not measured after grade 5, since those skills are assumed to have been developed and fall outside of the scope of the Common Core State Standards. When reading comprehension scores are low, we suggest testing students for foundational reading skill problems. Foundational skill assessment can help to identify whether decoding skills have been sufficiently developed, so as not to interfere with the development of good comprehension strategies and skills.

What happens to students who don't reach the threshold?

Photo of Tenaha O'Reilly Tenaha O'Reilly: They will probably not understand what they read, and their reading skills are not likely to grow over time unless they get the right help and ample practice.

Tenaha O'Reilly is a Managing Principal Research Scientist in the Center for Research on Human Capital and Education at ETS. Zuowei Wang is a Research Scientist in the Center for Research on Human Capital and Education at ETS.

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