Research backs these 8 strategies for building reading skills in young students

Reading comprehension outcomes improve when ELA incorporates science and social studies concepts.

Developing reading comprehension skills in the early grades has, as most educators know, been long seen as one of the keys–if not the key–to students’ future academic success. What has not been as clear are the best ways for elementary school educators to build that capacity, both pre- and post-COVID. Two Harvard University researchers are trying to shed some light on the age-old literacy challenge.

Here are three things the researchers say do not work:

  • Reducing instruction time in science and social studies. This undermines efforts to improve reading comprehension outcomes for all learners.
  • The oft-repeated phrase “learning to read, then reading to learn” diverts attention from the need to build systems and curricula that continuously develop young children’s language comprehension skills, particularly for historically marginalized students.
  • A narrow focus on short-term solutions for improving grade 3 reading scores works against the broader goal of improving ELA instruction across a system.

During the pandemic, students in younger grades, as well as those from historically marginalized groups and in high-poverty schools, experienced the biggest reading declines. Beyond the impacts of COVID, most younger children struggle to comprehend texts that require substantial background knowledge. The Harvard researchers, who conducted the analysis for Brown University’s EdResearch for Recovery project, also point out that students primarily learn word recognition skills through direct teaching and repeated practice. But kids develop language comprehension through a combination of teaching and experiences outside the classroom.

“Throughout the early elementary grades, students struggle to comprehend grade-level texts that require strong word recognition skills, vocabulary and background knowledge, mastery of complex syntax, and the ability to draw inferences,” the researchers say. Of course, the researchers also have suggestions about Tier 1 curriculum and instructional approaches that will boost outcomes in kindergarten through 4th grade.

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On the content side, reading comprehension improves when ELA includes science and social studies concepts, they say. Other research-backed strategies for K-4 reading success include:

  1. Building word recognition and language comprehension skills simultaneously.
  2. Using sets of texts that contain overlapping words and related concepts.
  3. Allowing teachers to choose from a menu of evidence-backed approaches rather than making them follow a specific protocol.
  4. Designing ELA curriculum and assessments that progress toward more complex subject matter while avoiding repetition.
  5. Using formative assessments to group and regroup students by skill level.
  6. Literacy coaching and sustained PD amplify the impact of curriculum interventions and help educators translate reading research into classroom practice.
  7. Tutoring is an effective Tier 2 intervention for students who are struggling with Tier 1 core instruction.

One study of “varied practice reading,” for example, demonstrated that students who read multiple texts containing similar words developed fluency more quickly than students who read the same text repeatedly. Students also made larger gains in vocabulary and comprehension when they independently read conceptually coherent texts on a single topic for several days rather than reading a wider variety of texts. Additional research shows that using data to group students by skill level was more effective than randomized grouping.

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Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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