The science of reading looks a little different for older students
The science of reading is everywhere nowadays in classrooms and policy, and rightfully so. It is grounded in what we know about cognitive science. It works. However, trends—even the evidence-based ones—often come with extremes.
The science of reading is a complex area of research. It is often simplified to just phonics and decoding, but this overlooks its other three pillars: fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Phonics and decoding are, of course, vital pieces of teaching kids how to read. But for older students, phonics and decoding aren't sufficient for the more difficult texts they'll face.
They and their younger counterparts need the other pillars of the science of reading. As the texts get more complex, our secondary students are still learning how to read. They are learning how to read more complex texts, even if they came in with grade-level proficiency (which they often do not).
The crucial role of background knowledge
While comprehension is a pillar of science-based reading instruction, it is often mistaken for reading comprehension skills that enable someone to comprehend any text they come across. However, individuals cannot reliably apply comprehension skills as single abilities across any and all texts or contexts. The reader, the text itself, and the purpose for reading all play roles in how well someone can apply their comprehension skills.
A student might be able to determine the central idea of an article about the atomic bomb. However, they may struggle to grasp a speech on the impact of public policy on poverty. What might account for such a gap? Background knowledge.
We have a vast network of knowledge that we all bring to the chair when we sit down to read. When we come across a new word or idea, our brain tries to link it to what we already know. When it can’t, it has some serious building to do to create a brand new branch.
When it can make a connection, it ignites the branches that already exist, lighting up complex webs of knowledge and experiences. For example, certain things come to mind when you read the words, “Star Wars.” You have a knowledge network that very quickly associates many ideas and individuals with that phrase.
But what if I asked about the actual star war in star system HD101584? You probably run out of connections quickly. It’s a cognitive dead-end. This is what happens when we put complex texts in front of students without developing their background knowledge.
Reading comprehension strategies, of course, are helpful and need to be taught explicitly. However, in order for them to be rooted in what we know about cognitive science, they need to be integrated with background knowledge and vocabulary.
Here are four reading comprehension strategies that build and utilize background knowledge and vocabulary that you can use with your middle and high school ELA students.
Strategy 1: explicit comprehension monitoring during the first read of a text
Start with comprehension monitoring.
Comprehension monitoring is the ability to check your own understanding of a text as you read it. Like all metacognitive skills, comprehension monitoring requires teaching, practicing, and developing; regular reading does not teach you how to monitor your own comprehension. If it did, our students would never misunderstand a text.
The PNQR Annotation Strategy is a comprehension monitoring strategy that teaches students how to read a text for the first time. It presupposes two things: multiple reads of a text and no frontloaded background knowledge. That may seem to contradict everything about the importance of background knowledge in reading comprehension, but it is only the first step in this sequence of strategies.
First, explicitly teach students how to use the strategy. PNQR stands for Pause, Notice, Question, React. Read the first section of a text and think aloud while modeling how to annotate the text: “I am noticing ______; I wonder ______; I think ______.”
Release students to do the same with the remaining text. This is their first time reading the text, so they may notice, question, or react to anything.
And that’s it. That’s the first strategy. After reading, students can discuss in pairs, small groups, or as a whole group. The main goal is to help students develop the ability to actively respond to a text while reading it, including identifying where they have gaps in their understanding.
Reading a text with this framework helps readers notice and wonder about a text using their existing knowledge networks. The best part is that it sets them up to monitor how their comprehension deepens once their knowledge network expands.
Strategy 2: building knowledge networks through informational texts and vocabulary
The more knowledge students have of the world, the more branches and webs exist in their knowledge network. The more branches and webs, the more tendrils are out there just waiting to bind to new words and ideas.
Texts with historical, cultural, biographical, or social context for students' reading are not just optional, but necessary. Students need to understand the world that shapes the texts they read, even if they haven't read them yet. They gain this knowledge from informational texts.
First, consider what knowledge will help students grasp the complexities and nuances of the text. Then locate authentic informational texts “in the wild” that will help grow those branches of their knowledge networks. After students have completed their PNQR reading of the text, provide them with these informational texts and apply the informational reading standards.
Most important about this strategy is to use the standards to build knowledge. Sure, ask students how the text is structured. But then ask them what knowledge they are building over the course of the text. How is their knowledge network actively expanding as they read?
Additionally, teach domain-specific vocabulary even if it isn’t in the text. Every word in the knowledge network connects to other pieces of knowledge, experiences, and concepts. By teaching vocabulary related to the content and topics of a text, you are expanding your students’ knowledge networks. This gives them more branches that can connect to the words in the text itself.
For example, if you are reading Ray Bradbury’s short story The Veldt, teaching the term family dynamics achieves two things:
Strategy 3: language comprehension
Language comprehension is the overarching ability to make meaning from spoken or written language. A person can phonetically read the word “winooze,” but it's not a real word. Therefore, they can't comprehend it because it has no meaning.
Students often sound out real words without comprehending them. How can you help readers kick this habit and build language comprehension? Sharing knowledge with each other through speaking and listening.
Research has found that discussion strategies can be highly effective in promoting students’ literal and inferential comprehension of texts. In fact, they have been shown to be especially helpful to lower-performing students in improving their comprehension. Including these regular conversations in the classroom can help narrow the reading gap between them and higher-performing students.
Be warned, however, that more student talk itself does not necessarily result in improved comprehension. It must be structured and intentional. One strategy shown to be effective is Questioning the Author (QtA):
QtA discussions help students practice new words. They also help students share and apply new knowledge. Additionally, students can learn from others' perspectives and language styles. This helps in expanding their knowledge networks and language comprehension.
Strategy 4: revisiting the text with new knowledge
These strategies work in sequence. After reading, learning, and discussing, it's time to read the text again and deepen understanding.
Have students look back at their PNQR annotations and examine how their comprehension of the text has developed. This shows the students themselves how important background knowledge is to fully understanding a text. They can now move from monitoring their comprehension during a first read of the text to monitoring how their understanding of how a text is connected to their knowledge of words and the world.
Reading strategies to deepen learning
Reading is hard, and it only gets harder as texts get more complex. Reading strategies are essential tools students can use to monitor understanding and construct meaning from what they read. However, they need to work together with knowledge-building in order to achieve their higher purpose: opening doors to the world that only words can open.
Larisa is a former ELA and social studies teacher. She has a master’s degree in teaching secondary English as well as one in learning and instruction. She taught and led I.B. language and literature programs for middle and high school before moving into curriculum development for one of the largest school districts in the U.S. She now works designing, developing, and workshopping literacy curriculum at Carnegie Learning. She lives in Seattle with a 1-year-old, three dogs, and a cat.Explore more related to this author
Our secondary students are still learning how to read. They are learning how to read more complex texts, even if they came in with grade-level proficiency.
Larisa Merriman-Raban, Senior Instructional Designer