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3 Things About Reading We (Still!) Need to Figure Out

Vital questions about learning to read that research can’t answer…yet.

CC0/Public Domain
Source: CC0/Public Domain

Last month we wrote about four things we really do know about learning to read, based on a comprehensive and balanced review article by Castles, Rastle, and Nation published earlier this year. Castles and her colleagues hoped that, by systematically summarizing what research over the past 50 years has shown us about reading and learning to read, we might be able to end the wasteful “Reading Wars” between advocates of "a ‘phonics’ approach in which the sounds that letters make are taught explicitly and a ‘whole language’ approach emphasizing the child’s discovery of meaning through experiences in a literacy-rich environment” (p. 5). Of course, both are necessary. Instead, they argue, we need to direct our efforts toward some important questions we don’t yet know enough to answer. Some of these questions are the focus of this month’s blog.

WHEN should we teach what?

In learning any skilled activity, there is a time and place for focusing on different kinds of practice and supports. For example, parents will often support new toddlers by holding up their hands to balance them as they take their first steps, but no one would do this with a three-year-old who can walk on his own. Learning to read also has a sequence of its own, and it seems quite likely that different types of instruction are more or less effective at different stages of reading development. Instructional time is limited at any age, so we need to focus on the type of instruction and learning activities that students at each stage are ready for, but can still benefit from (instruction within what Vygotksy would call their zone of proximal development). For example, working on prefixes, roots and suffixes (called morphological instruction) is probably most effective after readers have learned to decode basic words like he, she, going, house, cat, dog, etc.; students who lack even basic reading skills seem unlikely to benefit from more advanced morphological word identification strategies.

Similarly, it is probably most helpful for classes to focus on oral reading fluency only after students have knowledge of some sight word and phonics basics, so that practice can consolidate these. On the other hand, a child who can read aloud with a normal conversational speed and tone will probably benefit little from continued fluency practice, and we cringe when we see phonics and sight word instruction continuing long after children have accrued most of these basic skills. Yet, as Castles and her colleagues point out, we actually have very little research that can tell us “the time course of acquisition of different reading skills and how they interact with each other and with the knowledge they depend on and produce” (p. 39). Instead of assuming, and telling teachers, that certain things are “best practice” throughout elementary school, we need to find out a lot more about what instructional strategies are most helpful at which stages in children’s reading development.

HOW can we teach comprehension?

As we discussed in last month’s blog, comprehension—the ability not just to decode, but to understand, written text—is the end goal of reading instruction. It is also an incredibly complex cognitive activity, involving the coordination of multiple forms of knowledge, skill, and executive function. Research has made decent progress in identifying the various factors involved in skilled reading comprehension, but we know much less about how to help newer readers develop these skills.

For example, we know that skilled readers draw on a vast vocabulary of known words. It is estimated the average high school senior knows between 45,000 and 80,000 discrete words, and this knowledge seems more impressive when one considers that many words have multiple, sometimes unrelated, meanings (consider the word can, which in different sentences may mean “is able to” or “a metal container used to preserve food”). We also know that struggling readers can be handicapped by lack of vocabulary knowledge, but we don’t know very much about how to help them develop the level of vocabulary they need.

Assuming they start school with a vocabulary of around 5,000 words (which many don’t), the above estimate means that children need to learn at least 3,400 new words a year just to keep up. Clearly, this will not be accomplished through the traditional strategy of having them study ten new words a week, memorizing the definition and writing three sentences for each. This strategy would at best result in learning around 400 words per school year, and, as many scholars have noted, typically results in learning far fewer, since most of the words so “learned” are forgotten unless used in regular speaking or writing.

We also know that skilled readers use a variety of comprehension strategies, like monitoring their ongoing understanding, inferencing to fill in gaps in the text, visualizing images of the text, and asking questions as they read. We can directly teach students some of the simpler strategies like comprehension monitoring, but it is more difficult to teach them how and when to use them, because skilled readers adjust their use of strategies to match their goals for reading a particular text at a particular time. For example, comprehension monitoring is highly necessary if you are reading directions about how to take medication or follow job safety procedures, but it is much less essential when reading a novel for fun; if used too rigorously, it might even spoil your enjoyment of the story.

Other comprehension strategies are much more difficult to explain or teach explicitly. Consider the inferencing required to accurately comprehend a simple two-sentence narrative such as, “Steve’s car died suddenly so he carefully pushed it off the road. He wondered if it was the transmission again.”* To make sense of this passage, the reader has to draw on prior knowledge about cars and transmissions, and of the safety precaution that non-working cars should not be left in the middle of road, as well as the cultural understanding that died is being used here in a non-literal sense, not to mention the syntactical skill to untangle that he refers to Steve in both sentences, while it refers to the car in the first sentence, but to the cause of the problem in the second sentence, although these words do not even appear in the passage. Think about trying to explain to a new reader just how you know all these things, and how you put them all together to make sense of this simple narrative, and you will get a glimpse of the complexity of trying to teach inferencing.

Right now, our best evidence indicates that readers learn vocabulary and develop comprehension skills most often and best not through direct instruction, but through reading itself. This brings us to what is perhaps the most important question posed by Castles and her colleagues, and the one that has proven most resistant to solution throughout all the decades of the Reading Wars.

Getting to WHY: How can we motivate children to read independently and with engagement?

Remember the conclusion cited in last month’s blog: “It is children’s own extensive, varied, and rich experience in reading that undoubtedly plays the most important role in their transition from novice to expert readers” (p. 24)? The correlation between reading development and frequent, engaged reading is probably the most robust and least questioned finding in all of reading research. Put simply, children who read independently and recreationally tend to get better and better at reading, and children who rarely read outside of assigned school texts do not. Yet, reading skill and reading motivation are reciprocally intertwined: the better you read, the less reading seems like drudgery and the more fun it is, so the more you do it. Then the more you read, the better you get at it. This positive feedback loop is at the root of the often observed Matthew effect in reading, whereby the rich (in reading skill) get richer, while poor readers tend to fall further and further behind.

A common motivational strategy, used in the majority of elementary schools, is giving children extrinsic rewards for reading. Unfortunately, research suggests that this intuitive-seeming strategy is not very likely to result in long-term motivation to read. It may often, in fact, undermine children’s intrinsic desire to read because it communicates that reading itself is not enjoyable, or why would one have to be rewarded for doing it? Under such programs, most children read the minimum required, and when the rewards stop, so does the reading.

More promising motivational strategies involve enhancing the value of reading and making the choice to read easier. We can enhance value by allowing children to choose what they read and, if needed, helping them find something they will enjoy reading. This is easier to do if we make a variety of reading materials available: books of all genres, including non-fiction and biographies, but also magazines, comic books, and car repair manuals. Giving children the chance to interact around their reading and to find out what their friends are reading can also enhance value. Consider the popularity of book clubs for adults and the fun they have connecting with friends about what they are reading on Goodreads. We can make choosing to read easier by having books readily available in classrooms, expanding school library hours to draw in parents, helping families build home libraries, and perhaps most of all, by allocating significant time in school to read, time free from the competing attractions of sports, video games, and television. Stephen Krashen’s research has repeatedly shown student choice and time to read to be key factors in motivating struggling readers, who will rarely choose to read without these supports, but there is still too much we don’t know about fostering reading motivation.

Castles et al. have posed a number of other important questions for research, including some about specific processes in reading, that we didn’t have space to cover here. So, as we did last month, we encourage you to read their entire review, which is available from Sage Publishing or in authors' approved manuscript form free through Google Scholar.

*This example is adapted from Chapter 8 of our 2016 book, Psychology of Reading: Theory and Applications.


Castles, A., Rastle, K., & Nation, K. (2018) Ending the reading wars: Reading acquisition from novice to expert. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19(1), 5-51.