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Literacy and Reading

Realities, Reading Acquisition Research, Comprehension Research, Unsupported Assertions, Controversies

The terms literacy and reading, though related, are neither synonymous nor unambiguous. Typically reading is subsumed by literacy, with the latter term referring to reading, writing, and other modes of symbolic communication that are valued differently for social, economic, and political reasons often imposed by a dominant culture. Simply broadening the definition, however, does not alleviate the ambiguity. For instance, the assumption that literacy exists in the singular has been criticized by Brian Street in 1995 and others for ignoring the socially situated aspects of one's multiple literacies (print, nonprint, computer, scientific, numeric) and their accompanying literate practices.

A preference for literacies, as opposed to literacy in the singular, also signals a critique of the autonomous model of reading that has dominated Western thinking up to the present. It is a model that views reading largely from a cognitive perspective–as a "natural" or neutral process, one supposedly devoid of ideological positioning and the power relations inherent in such positioning. Conceiving of literacies in the plural and as ideologically embedded does not require giving up on the cognitive aspects of reading. Rather, according to Street, the ideological model subsumes the autonomous model of reading in an attempt to understand how reading is encapsulated within broader sociocultural structures (schools, governments, families, media) and the power relations that sustain them. This focus on literacies and reading as social practices within various contexts is central to untangling the "realities" (the so-called knowns), unsupported assertions, and controversies that surround the practices.


Definitive paradigm shifts since the last quarter of the twentieth century have marked transitions from behaviorist to cognitivist to sociocultural models of the reading process. Although these changing conceptions have altered how researchers and practitioners think about the reading process generally (and instruction, specifically), overall the field has remained largely focused on two major topics: reading acquisition and comprehension. This is not to say that other topics have been neglected. For instance, sufficient evidence exists for linking reading directly and inextricably to writing, such as the work of Robert Tierney and Timothy Shanahan, and Ian Wilkinson and colleagues; and other evidence connects various instructional practices to students' reading engagement and motivation to learn content, such as that of John Guthrie and Allan Wigfield. In terms of sheer quantity of research findings, however, the focus remains on reading acquisition and comprehension.

Reading Acquisition Research

Reading acquisition is no longer seen as the sole responsibility of the school; nor is it viewed as a "lockstep" process that moves from oral language development (speaking and listening) to print literacy (reading and writing). Currently, learning to read is viewed as a developmental process, one that emerges gradually from the time a child is born. The role of the family is paramount in fostering a child's growth in language and in creating a literacy-rich environment. Parents, educators, researchers, and policy-makers constantly look for ways to provide all children with access to the world of print, largely because knowing how to read and knowing what to do with information gained from reading is thought to be key to a child's future well-being.

The Report of the National Reading Panel in the year 2000, a major reference for U.S. education policymakers, is an evidence-based assessment of the experimental and quasi-experimental research literature on reading. The National Reading Panel (NRP) used strict selection criteria in analyzing a comprehensive body of research that focused primarily on early reading and reading in grades three to eight, with the research being limited to studies published in peer-reviewed journals written in the English language. One of the panel's goals was to report how instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency impacts children's early reading development and achievement in school settings.

Phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness and knowledge of the alphabetic principle (commonly known as letter recognition) are said to be the best school-entry predictors of a child's success in reading during the first two years of schooling in an alphabetic language, such as English. Phonemic awareness is not an innate skill; it can and must be taught. Children are said to be phonemically aware when they are able to manipulate phonemes (the smallest sound units of a word that impact meaning) in spoken words. The NRP found that children (regardless of socioeconomic class) who received between fifteen and eighteen hours of phonemic awareness instruction, prior to being taught how to read and/or before entering the first grade, benefited greatest from such instruction.

Phonics. Unlike phonemic awareness, which refers to the blending and pulling apart of the various sounds that make up spoken words in an alphabetic language, phonics refers to the sound-symbol correspondences in that language. Phonics is a tool for decoding words; it is not a reading program. Knowledge of phonics does not ensure that one will comprehend printed texts because reading is a far more complex process than simply sounding out words.

The NRP concluded that children (regardless of socioeconomic class) who receive systematic phonics instruction in kindergarten and first grade show greater improvement in word recognition skills than do children who receive no such instruction; however, phonics instruction after first grade does not significantly contribute to gains in children's word recognition abilities. The panel also concluded that the type of systematic phonics instruction (e.g., synthetic, analytic, analogy) children receive, either individually or in small or large group settings, does not significantly affect the contribution such instruction makes to reading achievement.

Fluency. According to the NRP, phonemic awareness and knowledge of phonics are tools for helping children achieve fluency in reading. Fluent readers can decode words rapidly and accurately with good comprehension. Caution needs to be exercised, however, in interpreting these findings. Possessing well-developed word recognition skills–a condition often associated with having knowledge of phonics–does not necessarily translate into fluent reading. As the NRP pointed out, fluency is thought to develop when individuals have sufficient opportunities for, and practice in, reading. Typically, such practice is associated with independent or recreational reading both in and out of school. At this point, however, only correlational data exist to support the hypothesized connection between increased reading practice and improved reading achievement.

The NRP examined research on guided repeated oral reading practice as well as on methods that attempt to increase the amount of time a child engages in independent and/or recreational reading. The panel concluded that explicit guidance during oral reading has consistent and positive effects on word recognition, fluency, and comprehension. However, researchers have yet to agree on the best approach for helping children achieve reading fluency. In sum, although many have applauded the efforts of the NRP for its concise compilation of relevant research pertaining to reading in schools, others have criticized the panel for failing to address the early learning that occurs before a child goes to school, and for failing to provide information about home support for literacy development. Still others have called attention to the fact that the studies the NRP selected for analysis did not address issues related to teaching children whose first language is other than English how to read.

Comprehension Research

Research on reading comprehension has been limited largely to print-based texts and various strategies for studying and learning from those texts. The NRP concluded that seven comprehension strategies (comprehension monitoring, cooperative learning, using graphic and semantic organizers, generating questions, answering questions, using story structure, and summarizing) are effective in helping students learn from text. Although the NRP reported trends supporting conventional wisdom that vocabulary instruction leads to improved comprehension, it offered no conclusive evidence on this point due to the limited number of studies that met its strict criteria for inclusion. Nor did the NRP draw conclusions about the most effective instructional methods for teaching vocabulary.

Caution needs to be taken in interpreting the NRP's findings. The report did not include research on second language reading and reading to learn in domain-specific areas. Nor did it include studies using qualitative research designs, the absence of which severely limits what can be known about the contexts in which instruction occurred. Moreover, six of the seven comprehension strategies that were considered effective were ones that teachers would use if they believe reading comprehension consists of students working individually to extract information from printed texts. This rather narrow view of comprehension instruction risks disenfranchising students who may learn better in more socially interactive settings or whose literacies span a broader range than those typically associated with school or assessed by traditional reading measures.

Beyond strategic knowledge, readers who possess and activate relevant prior knowledge, who demonstrate an awareness of text structure, and who apply appropriate metacognitive skills to comprehending texts are more proficient learners than those who either do not possess such skills or who lack appropriate background knowledge. That is to say, constructing meaning involves using information and experiences gained previously to interpret new information in light of the old. It also entails recognizing the various reasons that authors structure their texts as they do (e.g., to inform, to persuade, to elicit appreciation for certain literary devices). Finally, comprehension calls for monitoring the demands of a particular reading task, knowing what background knowledge and strategies are relevant to the task, evaluating the inferences one makes while reading, and applying any of a number of fix-up strategies when understanding falters or breaks down completely.

Unsupported Assertions

Intuitively appealing literacy practices are often linked to improved reading achievement without adequate support in the research literature. Although a lack of empirical evidence for their use does not make such practices wrong, it does call into question the wisdom of making curricular or programmatic decisions on the basis of custom alone or anecdotal evidence at best. A good example of this phenomenon is the widespread acceptance of the idea that encouraging students to read more will translate into improved fluency and higher reading achievement. As the Report of the National Reading Panel has shown, most of the studies that met the panel's stringent criteria for qualifying as scientifically sound research failed to find a positive relation between encouraging students to read and improved reading fluency and achievement.

Another intuitively appealing practice–using technology to improve reading instruction–has only a meager research base to date. Its overall and long-term effectiveness is simply an unknown according to the NRP. Although the panel described several trends suggesting the usefulness of computer technology for reading instruction, too little evidence presently exists to make informed recommendations. Lacking evidence as to whether or not the knowledge students gain from online instruction is superior to that gained from more traditional instruction, reading educators are likely to remain ambivalent about making drastic changes in the way instruction is delivered.

Equally unclear is the degree to which integrated literacy instruction fosters outcomes such as authentic reading tasks, better applicability of learning, deeper and more coherent understanding of subject matter, and greater efficiency in teaching and learning. Thought to be one of education's most elusive constructs, integrated literacy instruction generally involves organizing the curriculum is ways that promote students' use of language and literacy processes to learn school subjects (e.g., science, social studies, math). An extensive review of the research literature on integrated literacy instruction led James Gavelek and colleagues to remark in the year 2000 on the exceedingly low ratio of data-driven articles to general papers on the topic. Although they remained optimistic about integrative approaches, these researchers questioned whether or not the push toward such integration was a bit premature, or possibly illfounded.


A controversy exists in the United States about how to teach reading effectively and efficiently to students whose home or first language is not English, the language of mainstream education. The U.S. Census Bureau of 2000, relying on data from the 1990 census, reported that 6.3 million children, ages 5 through 17, speak a language other than English in the home; of these children, 4.1 million speak Spanish. Since 1990 the Hispanic population has increased by 57.9 percent in the United States, a demographic factor that accounts no doubt for people of Hispanic, Latino, and/or Spanish origin receiving the most attention in terms of educational program development. Programs developed primarily to facilitate English language learners' entry into English-speaking schools vary in the degree to which they provide support in the students' home language. Depending on the English language learners' needs and the availability of funding, children may be submersed in classrooms where English is the medium of instruction. This means they will not be offered any first-language literacy support; nor will they receive the three to six years of transitional bilingual education that has been shown to be effective. Although sheltered English language programs are becoming more popular in the United States, they do not offer opportunities for children to become bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural. Two-way bilingual programs, with their emphasis on instruction in both the home language (in many cases in the United States, Spanish) and English, provide such opportunities.

Elizabeth Bernhardt reported in 2000 three possible ways of looking at the relationship between first and second language learning experiences. She noted a transfer relationship where the knowledge and skills of the dominant language transfer to the learning of the second language; an interference relationship where the dominant language impedes the learning of the second language; and a dominance effect where the behaviors of the first language control those of second language literacy. Bernhardt pointed out that in the case of second language reading, it is unclear as to whether first language skills transfer or interfere with learning to read in a second language. Controversies surrounding the interference model show no sign of abating. In fact, literacy educators, such as Georgia Ernest García, who question the validity of such a model, often cite a well-known longitudinal study of Spanish-speaking children by J. David Ramírez and colleauges, which showed in 1991 that instruction that fosters bilingualism and biliteracy does not place youngsters at an academic disadvantage. In that study, children who were enrolled in a late-exit bilingual program scored higher on standardized tests of English language and reading proficiency than did their monolingual peers.

Another controversy surrounding reading instruction has its roots in what Harvey Graff has labeled in 1988 the "literacy myth." Part of the dominant world view of the Western world for over two centuries, the so-called literacy myth equates the ability to read with personal and individual worth, social order, and economic prosperity. Its tenets reach deep into the American psyche, and its implications for reading instruction regularly place teachers in the public eye. Evidence of the literacy myth's stranglehold on the teaching profession is the fact that educators in the United States often fall under attack by politicians, the media, and the general public for not serving students well enough to ensure that they join the U.S. workforce and compete favorably in the rigors of a world market place.

The problem deepens when the media and other information sources convince the general public that a literacy crisis exists. Word of such a crisis leads parents, teachers, administrators, and policymakers to search for a universally effective way to teach all children to read, and just as predictably, to a proliferation of commercially prepared reading programs. School districts adopt commercially prepared programs in an attempt to solve the perceived problem. For example, programs such as Success for All, Core Knowledge, Accelerated Reader, and Saxon Phonics exist side by side (and in company with many other such programs) in the current educational market. Many of these programs are intended to help teachers concentrate more of their attention on student learning and less on lesson preparation. The developers of these programs also claim they offer continuity and consistency of instruction. Individuals who are critical of commercially prepared reading programs point to their scripted nature and to the narrow focus of their academic content. Teachers, in particular, sense a loss of autonomy and professionalism when local or state mandates force them to rely on one particular kind of commercial reading program. They know that in the field of literacy instruction the concept of "one-size-fits-all" does not apply to the children they teach. Nor does this type of instruction take into account the multiple literacies children living in the twenty-first century already possess or need to develop.


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