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Retooling Literacy Education for the Twenty-First Century: Key Findings of the Reading for Understanding Initiative and Their Implications

From the Earth to the Moon: Achieving Reading Literacy Proficiency for All Children

In 2010, the federal Institute for Education Sciences (IES) recognized the imperative of increasing reading literacy proficiency and issued a call to action for the development of research-based strategies for accelerating learning, likening it to President Kennedy's goal of landing a person on the moon within 10 years:

President Kennedy's goal to land an American on the moon within 10 years seemed almost unimaginable in 1961. Surely the goal of teaching our children how to read for understanding is as important to each child and to the nation as a whole as being the first country to reach the moon. The Institute believes that a tightly networked and coordinated group of social scientists can work together to accomplish the goal of rapidly increasing the nation's ability to teach children how to read for understanding.

2010 Reading for Understanding request for applications

The metaphor of landing a person on the moon is worth examining here. Let us substitute the goal of landing a person on the moon with the goal that "every able child will achieve college and career readiness by the time he or she graduates high school." We can acknowledge that some children with severe cognitive, intellectual, or other disabilities may not achieve this level, though through the good work of the special education community, even a significant proportion of the most challenged students will. We can also acknowledge that not every young adult would want or need to participate in higher education, though adult wage and earning potential is currently tightly associated with level of education and skills.11 We can even further delimit the goal to reading literacy proficiency, in other words, a high-level ability to understand and learn from postsecondary-level text documents.

The goal of universal, advanced reading literacy seems as unimaginable today as landing a person on the moon did in 1961. Presently, the United States is falling short of our national aspirations that all students achieve reading comprehension skills sufficient for today's societal and workplace demands, as documented in NAEP® results, as well as how our students and adults fare in international comparisons of literacy.12

But what would it take to move the literacy needle substantially? We derive three elements from the "race to the moon" metaphor. First, it would require a shared vision across all stakeholders that this is a worthy and achievable goal. Second, it would require a sophisticated understanding of the target, what we will refer to as a twenty-first-century construct of reading literacy proficiency. Third, it would require engineering a system to address the multiple subsystems needed to achieve the goal. Let's examine each of these elements.

Creating a shared vision of reading literacy proficiency. The goal of landing a person on the moon captured the imagination of the nation. It was also fed by Cold War national concerns inflamed by the successful Soviet Sputnik space program. But unlike the goal of raising national literacy levels, it required very little of the average citizen, as most of the scientific and technical work were in the hands of NASA and its contractors.

The goal of raising reading literacy proficiency, however, will place much wider and direct demands on most citizens. Most citizens would probably be willing to give the socially desirable response that raising reading literacy levels is a worthy goal. But there is a history of anti-intellectualism in the United States and some disdain of the overeducated, captured in terms like egghead, nerd, geek, absent-minded professor, and a favorite of one author's mother, "You are book smart but lack common sense" (personal communication heard periodically from age 7 through 45). The image of the street-savvy entrepreneur, self-made businessperson, athlete, entertainer, or celebrity rarely includes the necessity of high-quality preparation for college and careers. In fact, the success of such individuals is often ascribed to some notion of "talent" or "innate ability"13 rather than hard work, effort, and continual lifelong learning. Further, a history of racial prejudice toward African-Americans, other ethnic and language minorities, and immigrants further complicates a vision of universal literacy proficiency. These issues are made even more complex by poverty and other associated issues such as family life, childcare, and school experiences.14

Education administrators, professionals, and teachers themselves are also citizens and therefore not immune to the values and beliefs of the communities in which they live,15 so one can expect a diversity of views on this vision even within the education community. And if the adults in children's lives do not truly believe they can achieve advanced literacy levels or even truly value the quest, then those children will learn and internalize this belief, making it even harder to help them put in the effort necessary to achieve literacy proficiency.16 In today's world, achieving a shared vision of reading literacy will involve public communication, discussion, debate,17 and a willingness to compromise and make difficult changes for the common goal of a stable, democratic society. All of us—educators, business leaders, families, communities, government officials, and community leaders—are responsible for instilling values in our youth about the importance of advanced literacy levels in maintaining such a society.

The relevance of a shared vision to this policy paper stems from the RfU research teams operating on their own shared vision of what a high standard of reading literacy means and consequently having to convince administrators, teachers, and students within participating schools to also consider that vision worthy and attainable. If teachers or students do not share the vision, think it conflicts or interferes with other achievement goals (such as covering curriculum standards or preparing for a state-mandated test), or do not believe it is attainable, then the intervention or innovation is doomed at the start.

Whether on a community, state, or national level, we think that creating a shared vision is more than simply stating a goal of college and career readiness, or even implementing a common core of curriculum standards. Building a shared vision requires leadership backed up by changes in policy that are understood and supported by parents and communities, not just the education establishment. We believe that a necessary step in building this vision is understanding the goal itself, which we turn to next.

Understanding the target: The construct of reading literacy in the twenty-first century. In order to send an astronaut from the earth to the moon first requires an understanding of where the moon is in space, and the conditions one will find there. (For this metaphor, we can ignore the return journey to earth.) In fact, the moon is a moving target in space, so one must aim for where it will be upon arrival, not where it is when the rocket is launched. Also, the moon has no atmosphere, so an artificial environment must be engineered to keep astronauts alive throughout the journey. Before engineering a solution for transporting a person safely to the moon, precise knowledge of how far away it is, its trajectory, and the conditions relevant to sustaining life all needed to be specified in minute, exhaustive detail.

Reading literacy proficiency is also a moving target, except in time instead of space. The reading literacy proficiency of a high school graduate is twelve years removed from the kindergarten child. Further, given the rate of technological and social change of the digital age, we should anticipate that the nature of reading literacy twelve years from today may be substantially different from now.18 In fact, part of the urgency to take action stems from the rapid change in the construct of reading literacy in recent decades.19 We must act now to address current and projected needs while monitoring shifting societal demands and making adjustments over time as needed.

We are well into the twenty-first century. The digital revolution that began in earnest in the 1970s with the widespread production of affordable, personal computers has since transformed the personal, home, social, and commercial activities of societies across the globe. Many think of this revolution as being about technologies used for processing information and mediating communications. A sometimes overlooked side consequence, however, is how the digital revolution has radically and irreversibly altered the nature and processes of reading and literacy20deconstructing a landscape of printed text forms and genres that had evolved only rather modestly over the past five hundred or so years since the invention of the printing press. Published books, newspapers, magazines, personal letters, technical documents, and forms have been supplemented or largely replaced by search engines, websites, email, and other social media. Traditional sources had a modicum of trustworthiness and credibility one could infer from their authorship and publishing origins. However, digital sources largely must be evaluated critically and cross-checked factually before they are trusted as credible sources.21 The problem is magnified as the volume of online printed sources has grown exponentially in the past decade, with no foreseeable change in the rate of growth. For instance, in 1997 there were only about 1.1 million websites, but that number grew to over 121 million by 2007, and as of October 2017, there were over 1.264 billion. These changes require us to rethink what it means to read, comprehend, and be literate in the twenty-first century and how our schools are preparing our children for the future.22

We refer to the environment of reading literacy and the nature of the skills and processes required to use literacy to learn, make decisions, and solve problems as the construct of reading literacy. The acquisition or development of reading literacy proficiency necessary for college or career readiness is a twelve-year project. It entails developing one's cognitive, language, and social knowledge and skills. One's rate of growth will be mediated by individual differences.

How has reading literacy changed in the twenty-first century? And what skills should be measured in the next generation of assessments? It is beyond the scope of this policy report to describe in detail the rich reading and learning science literature on the topic. But we do summarize some of the key points of the assessment team's framework.

We propose six aspects of the reading construct that might extend beyond what is traditionally measured on a typical summative reading assessment.

First, we argue that people read with specific goals in mind and that these goals affect how they read. Therefore, all reading activities should include an overarching purpose that defines what sources and information are important.23 For instance, if the goal of reading is to simply find a date, then one only has to scan a text and not read the entire source.

Second, complex reading goals require the use of multiple sources; reading activities should require students to integrate information from multiple sources. Reading comprehension often requires people to read, integrate, and synthesize multiple sources of information.24 Reading goals can be complex, and the answers to one's question might not be found in a single source. For example, if the goal of reading is to decide which is the best green energy source for your home, one might consult a source on wind power, another on solar energy, and others on installations and costs. Modern reading activities should require such integration of information.

Third, in learning and assessment situations, students should be given both reliable and unreliable sources so that students have the opportunity to exercise critical thinking and evaluation skills. Not every source is trustworthy, and today's reader needs to evaluate whether the source is relevant for their goals, whether the author is credible, whether the claims made are supported by evidence, and whether the claims are consistent or disparate across sources. In cases where the claims are different across sources, people need to be able to resolve discrepancies. Thus, modern reading tasks should encourage critical thinking and source evaluation.

Fourth, reading in the twenty-first century necessarily requires an ability to handle technology-rich environments with a variety of source types, so modern assessments of reading should reflect this. People of all ages today need to be able to utilize not only traditional print materials that are written by a single author at a single point in time, but also websites, emails, blogs, chats, video, and audio that may occur in real time (synchronous) or at some point in history (asynchronous). While access to technology is not evenly distributed across many populations, policy changes need to be implemented so that traditionally underserved students have access to technology and can gain the key skills needed to succeed in technology-rich environments.

Fifth, today's instructional and assessment situations should include tasks that determine whether students can recognize mistakes, learn from them, and effectively correct them. Reading is a strategic activity25 that involves monitoring one's understanding and regulating behavior to achieve coherence.26 Rarely do people develop a deep understanding by skimming through a text once. Skilled readers may reread text, ask relevant questions, summarize what they know, or make connections to their background knowledge to draw appropriate inferences. These strategic actions may strengthen a person's understanding and enable deeper comprehension. When individuals do not understand what they have read, they have to recognize there is a problem and then take action to rectify their misunderstanding. In short, we believe there is value in having students recognize and correct errors in their understanding as well as the understandings of others. The "resilience" of learning from mistakes is a key element of twenty-first-century reading and collaborative learning environments.

Sixth, reading activities should require social interaction to elicit perspective-taking skills and an appreciation for diverse viewpoints. Independent reading involves understanding and navigating people's perspectives.27 The perspectives may include characters in a story or an author. In twenty-first-century reading and work environments, people then discuss and debate ideas and develop shared understandings. In some cases, these shared understandings are mediated through disciplinary expectations such as the value placed on primary sources in history or the amount and type of evidence required in the sciences.28 In short, reading in the twenty-first century is a social activity that may be guided by the communities of practice or disciplinary expectations of the participants involved.

In addition to these six aspects of the reading construct addressed by the Educational Testing Service assessment team, many of the RfU research teams have developed their own definitions, models, and frameworks for changing elements of the reading construct, along with specific recommendations on how instruction may need to change to meet these needs.29 For instance, the Reading, Evidence, and Argumentation in Disciplinary Instruction (READi) team stressed the importance of disciplinary learning with multiple sources,30 while the Catalyzing Comprehension through Discussion and Debate (CCDD) intervention from the Strategic Educational Research Partnership (SERP) organization stressed the importance of complex reasoning, academic vocabulary, and perspective-taking skills as students engaged in active discussions and debates.31 We infer some of these recommendations from their research in later sections. But first, we examine how prepared our educational system is for engineering a solution to the challenge of achieving this reading literacy goal.

Engineering a solution. The Apollo rocket that eventually was engineered to take astronauts to the moon in 1969 used different rocket stages to address the different conditions across their trajectory, jettisoning the first two stages after they served their purpose. The first stage was a high-power, high-thrust rocket to achieve liftoff and travel through the greatest gravity and air resistance; the second was for the lower gravity and thinner air of the upper atmosphere; and the final one was a lighter rocket designed for outer-space travel.

In engineering a trajectory toward literacy proficiency, we may have a differential system for launching young elementary children into the world of literacy, advancing their skills through the middle grades, and for adapting to the challenges of secondary school content and learning. Each stage of schooling should be engineered to be conducive to surviving and thriving in the journey toward reading proficiency. We also note that just as the conditions at liftoff for a space launch may be variable (different earth locations, weather conditions, or cargo), so too may early childhood education need to be adaptable to individual differences in children as they start school. The properties of an effective educational system include having reliable, consistent, developmentally tuned systems that produce the desired effects across children and across time.

But are schools adapting their environments to prepare children adequately for twenty-first-century literacy demands? We see evidence everywhere that the construct of reading literacy has changed rapidly in the past decades, transforming how we interact with information, learn, and communicate with each other. When the environment of adult society changes, we rely on our education systems to transmit these changes to our youth. When a society fails to do so, it puts its citizens at risk, a risk compounded when other societies surpass them by doing a better job of rising to the challenge.

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that the U.S. education system has not been adapting rapidly enough to face the challenges of twenty-first-century literacy. In fact, education may be the slowest sector of the U.S. economy to adopt the transformative digital technologies that are commonplace throughout other sectors. Those without the skills to use the internet and digital devices to conduct basic self-sufficiency tasks such as applying for a job, buying a car part, looking up a phone number, or learning how to repair a faucet are increasingly disadvantaged. The pace at which the construct of reading literacy has changed over the past several decades has, quite simply, outstripped many schools' capability to adapt curriculum, instruction, resources, and social processes to meet changing needs.

This state of affairs in education is both no one's and everyone's fault. Anticipating change and reforming institutions is a challenging, slow, and uncertain endeavor under the best of conditions. Paraphrasing former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, all education is local. Local school boards composed of people from the community bring both stability and inertia to school districts. When teachers and administrators live in or near the community where they work and are often raised nearby, it also reflects and stabilizes their community's values and prosperity. Funding of schools through local taxes (supplemented with state and national investments) creates differentiation across the system that reproduces to a great extent the socioeconomic conditions of communities where schools and districts are located.32 Symbiotic relationships between school boards and administrators and suppliers to the education marketplace, especially textbook publishers, further stabilize past practices and processes.33

In sum, U.S. schooling serves a vital function by linking new generations to their ancestors. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is risky when the institution responsible for preparing our children for that changing, uncertain future is too strongly bound to practices of the past. And if schools are not keeping pace as engines of transformation and preparation for a future that may be very different than the past, there are larger consequences, not only for the society at large, but especially for vulnerable, historically underserved populations who rely most on education to create opportunities for social and economic advance—an issue we address in the next section.

Before we leave the moon launch metaphor, we note that the Apollo program launched its first successful manned flight in 1967, six years after initiation of the program. The funding cycle of the RfU initiative is officially over, and its impact is not as clearly visible as the moon landing, but we see multiple steps that policymakers can take toward creating a context and environment conducive to enhancing the impact of research-based innovations in curriculum, instruction, and assessment.


11 Kirsch et al., America's Perfect Storm; Andrew Sum, Irwin Kirsch, and Kentaro Yamamoto, Pathways to Labor Market Success: The Literacy Proficiency of U.S. Adults (Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 2004).

12 Dana Kelly, Holly Xie, Christine Winquist Nord, Frank Jenkins, Jessica Ying Chan, and David Kastberg, Performance of U.S. 15-Year-Old Students in Mathematics, Science, and Reading Literacy in an International Context: First Look at PISA 2012 (Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, 2013),; OECD, OECD Skills Outlook 2013.

13 Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).

14 Margaret Burchinal, Kathleen McCartney, Laurence Steinberg, Robert Crosnoe, Sarah L. Friedman, Vonnie McLoyd, and Robert Pianta, "Examining the Black–White Achievement Gap among Low‐ Income Children Using the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development," Child Development 82, no. 5 (2011): 1404-1420, doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01620.x; Glenn W. McGee, "Closing the Achievement Gap: Lessons from Illinois' Golden Spike High-Poverty High-Performing Schools, Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk 9, no. 2 (2004): 97-125.

15 James Ainsworth, "Why Does It Take a Village? The Mediation of Neighborhood Effects on Educational Achievement," Social Forces 81, no.1 (2002): 117-152, doi:10.1353/sof.2002.0038.

16 Duane F. Shell, Carolyn Colvin, and Roger H. Bruning, "Self-Efficacy, Attribution, and Outcome Expectancy Mechanisms in Reading and Writing Achievement: Grade-Level and Achievement-Level Differences," Journal of Educational Psychology 87, no. 3 (1995): 386, doi:10.1037/0022-0663.87.3.386; Judith Solheim, "The Impact of Reading Self-Efficacy and Task Value on Reading Comprehension Scores in Different Item Formats," Reading Psychology 32, no. 1 (2011): 1-27, doi:10.1080/02702710903256601; Pina Filippello, Luana Sorrenti, Caterina Buzzai, and Sebastiano Costa, "Perceived Parental Psychological Control and Learned Helplessness: The Role of School Self-Efficacy," School Mental Health 7, no. 4 (2015): 298-310.

17Maria LaRusso, Hay Yeon Kim, Robert Selman, Paolo Uccelli, Theo Dawson, Stephanie Jones, Suzanne Donovan, and Catherine Snow, "Contributions of Academic Language, Perspective Taking, and Complex Reasoning to Deep Reading Comprehension," Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness 9, no. 2 (2016): 201-222, doi:10.1080/19345747.2015.1116035.

18 Donald Leu, Charles K. Kinzer, Julie Coiro, Jill Castek, and Laurie A. Henry, "New Literacies: A Dual-Level Theory of the Changing Nature of Literacy, Instruction, and Assessment," in Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading, eds. Donna Alvermann, Norman Unrau, and Robert Ruddell (Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 2013), 1150–1181.

19Julie Coiro, "Rethinking Online Reading Assessment," Educational Leadership 66, no. 6 (2009): 59-63.

20 Leu et al., "New Literacies," 1150-1181.

21Susan R. Goldman, Jason L. G. Braasch, Jennifer Wiley, Arthur C. Graesser, and Kamila Brodowinska, "Comprehending and Learning from Internet Sources: Processing Patterns of Better and Poorer Learners," Reading Research Quarterly 47, no. 4 (2012): 356-381, doi:10.1002/RRQ.027; Susan Goldman, Kimberly Lawless, and Flori Manning, "Research and Development of Multiple Source Comprehension Assessment," in Reading: From Words to Multiple Texts, eds. Anne Britt, Susan Goldman, and Jean-Francois Rouet (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2013), 180–199; Brent Steffens, M. Anne Britt, Jason L. Braasch, Helge Strömsö, and Ivar Bråten, "Memory for Scientific Arguments and Their Sources: Claim–Evidence Consistency Matters," Discourse Processes 51, nos. 1-2 (2014): 117-142, doi:10.1080/0163853X.2013.855868; Susan R. Goldman, M. Anne Britt, Willard Brown, Gayle Cribb, MariAnne George, Cynthia Greenleaf, Carol D. Lee, Cynthia Shanahan, and Project READI, "Disciplinary Literacies and Learning to Read for Understanding: A Conceptual Framework for Disciplinary Literacy," Educational Psychologist 51, no. 2 (2016): 219-246, doi:10.1080/00461520.2016.1168741.

22Anne Britt, Jean-Francois Rouet, and Amanda Durik, Literacy beyond Text Comprehension: A Theory of Purposeful Reading (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2017).

23 Paul van den Broek, Robert F. Lorch, Tracy Linderholm, and Mary Gustafson, "The Effects of Readers' Goals on Inference Generation and Memory for Texts," Memory & Cognition 29, no. 8 (2001): 1081–1087, doi:10.3758/BF03206376.

24 Anne Britt and Jean-Francois Rouet, "Learning with Multiple Documents: Component Skills and Their Acquisition," in Enhancing the Quality of Learning: Dispositions, Instruction, and Learning Processes, eds. John Kirby and Michael Lawson (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 276-314.

25Danielle McNamara, ed., Reading Comprehension Strategies: Theories, Interventions, and Technologies (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2007).

26Douglas Hacker, John Dunlosky, and Arthur Graesser, eds., Handbook of Metacognition in Education (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2009); Arthur Graesser, Murray Singer, and Tom Trabasso, "Constructing Inferences during Narrative Text Comprehension," Psychological Review 101, no. 3 (1994): 371.

27LaRusso et al., "Contributions of Academic Language," 201-222.

28 Susan Goldman, "Adolescent Literacy: Learning and Understanding Content," The Future of Children 22, no. 2 (2012): 89-116.

29 Goldman et al., "Multiple Source Comprehension Assessment," 180–199.

30 Goldman et al., "Disciplinary Literacies," 219-246.

31 LaRusso et al., "Contributions of Academic Language," 201-222.

32 Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, Reading for Understanding Research Initiative grant description,

33 Ibid.