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

Overview of the RfU Research Projects

As noted above, five RfU teams tackled the challenge of building and implementing curriculum and instruction materials from preK-12; the sixth team supported the others by developing and evaluating a new generation of assessments of reading comprehension skills.

The pre-K and elementary teams focused on building the language resources and related comprehension skills that are prerequisite to and supportive of reading comprehension skill development. By language we mean features such as vocabulary, grammar, and syntax that enable one to communicate in oral and written forms. These teams' main focus was never solely on decoding, though all would note the essentiality of decoding instruction during these early years. Rather, these teams highlighted the importance of language development and sought ways to develop it through forms other than print, such as class discussion and debate.

  • PreK–3. The Language and Reading Research Consortium (LARRC) studied the role of language skills in listening and reading comprehension in children ages 4 to 8. They focused on grammar, vocabulary, and narration in order to improve listening comprehension and subsequent reading comprehension. Using their findings, they developed a twenty-five-week curriculum supplement, available in Spanish and English. Results from the first cohort of the field-based randomized controlled trial (N = 766 students across grades) indicated large, consistent, and statistically significant effects on targeted skills. (See for details.)
  • PreK–5. The Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR) developed integrated multicomponent instructional interventions to support students' oral and text comprehension and reading for understanding. This team found that effective instructional practices on precursor skills increase children's skills and may shift children's growth in reading-related and reading skills, and that interventions need to target multiple components of language in order to have broad impacts on children's skills. (

The middle and high school teams each focused extensively on: using text to build knowledge across disciplines—both of content and vocabulary—and using structured discussions to facilitate learning and comprehension. The middle grades teams put additional emphasis on argument and debate, with goals of building perspective taking, reasoning, and academic language skills, which in turn were needed to facilitate deep reading comprehension. The high school teams emphasized reading and learning in the disciplines and student engagement.

  • Grades 4–8. The Strategic Education Research Project (SERP) studied the roles of perspective taking, complex reasoning, and academic language skills in reading comprehension for upper elementary and middle school students with their CCDD project. They developed two interventions that incorporate discussion and debate in order to catalyze the growth of reading comprehension skills, and included in one of them a focus on basic reading skills for the struggling adolescent reader. The project also included a professional development model for teachers to support reading comprehension and the use of discussion, with an in-depth focus in one content area—science. Results showed the importance of considering "reading" as an area of instruction that continues into middle grade for a significant number of students, and prioritizing academic literacy and practices, such as academic talk, across all disciplines in middle grades. (
  • Grades 6–12. Project READi (Reading, Evidence, and Argumentation in Disciplinary Instruction) developed instructional interventions that support middle and high school students in developing reading for understanding in three content areas—literary analysis, history, and the sciences. The project focused on the capacity to engage in evidence-based argumentation, drawing on content from multiple texts, in discipline-specific ways. The interventions include professional learning materials and experiences for teachers. A large-scale, randomized control, efficacy study of the READi approach in ninth-grade biological sciences indicated significant effects of the intervention over traditional instruction on the same content. (
  • Grades 7–12. The PACT (Promoting Adolescents' Comprehension of Text) team studied the cognitive processes associated with reading comprehension to identify malleable processes that may be targets for intervention, as well as the role of engagement and motivation in enhancing reading comprehension outcomes. The team applied its findings to the development of interventions for students with reading comprehension difficulties in grades 7–12. The What Works Clearinghouse reported that, in a randomized control trial, eighth-grade students who had one of the interventions performed significantly better than those in control classrooms. (

The ETS team worked with all of the others and developed a new generation of computer-delivered assessments that shared several key traits:

  • Scenario-based: Students are given a realistic purpose for reading a collection of diverse materials as they make decisions and solve problems.
  • Technology-rich: The materials range from traditional informational texts, fiction, and biographies to the kinds of materials that students encounter in technology-rich, multimedia environments. Students might be asked to respond to email, evaluate websites, or post to simulated blogs.
  • A focus on collaboration and communication: These skills are supported and tested through the use of simulated peers in the assessment. For example, test takers "interact" with simulated peers to identify errors, correct misconceptions, and provide feedback on products of learning.
  • Meaningful structures and sequences: Tasks and activities are structured and sequenced to help scaffold performance for less skilled readers and provide more information on potential student strengths and weaknesses. Performance moderators such as background knowledge and motivation are also measured and can be used to help interpret the reading score.
  • Component measurement: Associated component reading skill tasks (such as word recognition, decoding, and vocabulary) have also been developed to further understand or qualify the performance of students who may have basic reading skill difficulties that interfere with comprehension performance.

Scenario-based assessments (SBAs) are tests that measure, model, and support reading comprehension in a simulated, project-like environment. Students are provided with a purpose for reading a collection of thematically related materials as they are asked to evaluate and synthesize information for the purposes of making a decision, solving a problem, or applying what they learn to a new situation.

For example, in one SBA that requires about one class period to administer, students are asked to decide whether to put a community garden in an empty lot (the overarching goal). They read about what community gardens are, the pros and cons of their use, and perspectives from others in the community. They then represent this information in a flyer to inform the community about what they learned.

Component assessments are tests that measure a particular foundational subskill, such as decoding or reading fluency, that enables students to "get the words off of the page." Component assessments are useful for instructional decision making, primarily when there is reason to think that students are at risk of failing to achieve at or above grade level.