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

Part Two: The Reading for Understanding Initiative

It is in this context of national challenge that a five-year initiative was launched by the U.S. Department of Education in 2010 to "aggressively attack and derive solutions for enabling students to understand what they read."34 The RfU initiative was the first of its kind to tackle the problem of increasing reading comprehension proficiency over a wide span of student development. Previous research initiatives had led to insights and subsequent instructional programs that proved to be effective in helping young children become adequate decoders of texts—translating text into sounds and words. But that same energy and focus had not yet been applied with rigor to the problem of comprehension—the complex process that allows one to gain meaning and construct new knowledge from texts.

The goals of RfU were to:

  • conduct basic research on the development of reading comprehension and learning across the school years from preK-12;
  • apply these research results to the development and evaluation of instructional approaches, curricula, technology, teacher professional development programs, and assessments to improve reading comprehension; and
  • evaluate those programs in comparison to current practices in schools to determine whether learning had been improved.

A network of over 160 researchers, across six research teams, worked on these issues for over five years. Two teams tackled pre-K and elementary school populations, one addressed the middle grades (4-8), and two teams focused on older adolescents across middle and high schools. A sixth team focused entirely on assessment across the complete developmental span from preK‑12.35The RfU research teams carried out much of their work with and in schools. They developed instructional programs, materials, and classroom-based assessments, and worked with teachers and other education professionals to implement them. Some teams co-developed content and programs with educators; others developed and delivered training and professional development programs. All teams provided guidance regarding adaptation of the instructional programs they designed as well as how assessments could be used to foster learning aims. However, it is not as if pre-existing school curriculum, instruction, and accountability responsibilities simply were suspended. The research teams worked with (and sometimes around) the constraints of the day-to-day practices, policies, and social norms of schooling.

This research initiative, an ambitious and innovative endeavor designed to tackle the subject domain of reading comprehension from preK-12 simultaneously, was the first of its kind funded by the IES. Neither the researchers nor the federal sponsors entered this initiative with naïve expectations that the solutions for raising national reading achievement that have persisted across decades could be solved in five years of focused research. A more tempered measure of success was sought, more specifically, insights into:

  • the characteristics of interventions, at each grade band, that accelerate development of reading comprehension skills, particularly for struggling readers;
  • the barriers that impede the use of effective approaches and interventions; and
  • a more nuanced understanding of the reading comprehension challenges that should be the focus of future research.

In the remainder of this report, we review key findings and draw implications and recommendations for policy and practice aimed at redirecting our nation toward a path to reading proficiency for all students. We apply a lens focused on actionable policy and practice implications that could be enacted in the near term.

It should be noted, however, that there is still much to learn. Scientific evidence should be accumulated cautiously, giving ample time for weighing and synthesizing findings, replicating key results, and critically evaluating them. Each of the six research teams (including our own) is continuing a process of sifting, sorting, analyzing, and publishing in peer review journals and disseminating the core findings of their efforts. This process may well take a decade of scholarly work. We encourage you to visit their websites and read their current and forthcoming research products. However, we see continued urgency and several takeaways that can be initiated in the near term. Before presenting these recommendations, we present a brief overview of the RfU research projects.


34 Ibid.

35 The six teams included Educational Testing Service (preK-12 assessment); Ohio State University (preK-3); Florida State University (preK-4); Strategic Education Research Partnership (4-8); the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois (6-12); and the University of Texas at Austin (7-12).