Improving Reading - Research Summary

From OER in Education


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Summary of research

Recent research into reading comprehension (or making meaning from texts)

Over the last few years there has been a renewed research interest (Pressley 2000, Kintsch 1998) into what is called, in the USA, ‘reading comprehension’. This renewed research interest is not, however, a return to the concept of comprehension current in the period from 1945 to 1980. At that time the research was characterised by attempts to identify the sub-skills of comprehension, then to establish some sort of hierarchy and then to teach these identified skills to pupils in progressive order. (Such an approach is still to be found in some reading comprehension exercises.) Rather, the renewed research focus is based on seeing the child as actively engaging with the text to create meaning. It emphasises the acquisition of strategies whilst engaged in authentic reading, rather than being taught as a separate suite of skills; it has broadened the range of strategies to include both cognitive and interpretive strategies and it uses a problem-solving approach. It also recognises the impact of reader differences and the wider socio- cultural context within which any act of reading takes place.

Pressley (2000) has undertaken a major research review in this field and he offers a list of approaches to reading development, and particularly comprehension development, which represent an up-to-date synthesis of all the major strands of research-derived strategies for improving reading. Some of it is particular to Key Stages 1 and 2, but much of it is directly relevant to Key Stage 3.

Pressley’s list of strategies places considerable emphasis on various forms of vocabulary work. The importance of vocabulary development is also stressed in the US government’s National Reading Panel Report (NRP 2000), which has undertaken a review of the research evidence regarding effective teaching of reading. In looking at reading comprehension it examined 230 research studies and noted three main themes in the research on the development of reading comprehension skills.

First, reading comprehension is a complex cognitive process that cannot be understood without a clear description of the role that vocabulary development and vocabulary instruction play in the understanding of what has been read.

Second, comprehension is an active process that requires an intentional and thoughtful interaction between the reader and the text.

Third, the preparation of teachers to better equip students to develop and apply reading comprehension strategies to enhance understanding is intimately linked to students’ achievement in this area.

Extract from the US government’s National Reading Panel Report 2000, National Reading Panel. Used with permission.

The second element (intentional and thoughtful engagement between the reader and the text) is also stressed in Pressley’s list which puts emphasis on a number of ways in which the student’s comprehension might be enhanced through making connections and considering responses. Such activities are characterised as being cognitive and social, and are also active (for example rehearsing prior knowledge, generating mental images, activating knowledge about text structure) and interactive (for example asking ‘why’ questions, engaging in reciprocal teaching, working with the teacher and peers).

This emphasis on collaborative and/or interactive approaches to reading comprehension has been a characteristic of research in the field over the past 10 years and draws on theoretical perspectives from the cognitive sciences (for example from schema theory and story grammar) and socio-cultural perspectives (for example the ‘teaching models’ of Vygotsky and Bruner). The model of teaching advocated by Pressley and the NRPR is therefore a balance of direct instruction along with teacher modelling and guided practice, leading to independent practice and autonomy. This model is one which is reflected in KS3 training.

Both Pressley and the NRPR research overview on comprehension emphasise the crucial role of the teacher in explicitly encouraging the use of comprehension strategies. The NRPR cites evidence to show that the pupils of teachers who consciously included reading comprehension strategies within their reading programmes made better progress in their reading. It seems that comprehension improves when teachers provide explicit instruction in comprehension strategies and when teachers design and implement activities that support understanding (Tharp 1992). Explicitly planning to include such strategies within shared and guided reading would therefore seem to be an essential part of a successful reading programme.

The importance of having a range of learning strategies

It seems from the research quoted above that there is a growing consensus about the kinds of experiences pupils need in order to develop their reading comprehension, in the teaching model and in the range of strategies that might be helpful. The NRPR drew attention to the importance of pupils having a range of reading comprehension strategies. Work in cognitive psychology has shown that pupils need to have access to a range of strategies to enable development to take place. Siegler (2000) in a recent overview into learning and development makes the point that learners need a range of ‘production strategies’ (ways of doing things) and that having a wide range of production strategies is important for development to take place. Learners, he claims, add to their repertoire of strategies by

  • observation (watching someone do it);
  • discovery/invention (finding out for themselves);
  • direct instruction (explain, show, tell, practise, feed back);
  • analogy (if this works for X it might also work for Y).

They then go on to refine these strategies by

  • automation (practising it until it becomes habitual);
  • reflection (doing something and then thinking about it);
  • examination (i.e. social examination, comparing and contrasting with others). Access to a range of strategies is important for development but also to accommodate pupils’ different learning styles. Research into brain function has shown that different areas of the brain are used when different kinds of thinking and learning are required. Some pupils show a marked preference for strategies that require a particular type of learning to be used. Using a range of strategies ensures that pupils can use not only those strategies that they prefer but also those that require other types of learning to be stimulated. Howard Gardner (1993) has identified seven different aspects of learning. These are
  • linguistic or verbal;
  • visual/spatial;
  • logical/mathematical;
  • physical/kinaesthetic;
  • musical;
  • interpersonal;
  • metacognitive.

Robert Fisher gives a useful summary of strategies to enhance these different types of learning in his book Teaching children to learn (1995).

The importance of metacognitive awareness in reading comprehension

Siegler (2000) sees the pupil as moving from acquiring strategies to being able to reflect on their usefulness and compare them with others. This implies a level of conscious decision-making by the pupil. This ‘self-awareness’ and ability to reflect is important in learning. Gardner (1993) lists metacognitive intelligence as one of the types of learning, but it is one that, until recently, was rarely actively encouraged in many classrooms. Vygotsky (1962) suggested that there are two stages in the development of knowledge: firstly there is automatic unconscious acquisition (we learn things or do things but do not know that we know these things), and secondly there is a gradual increase in active conscious control over that knowledge (we begin to know that we know and that there is more we do not know). The second of these is a metacognitive level of understanding.

Over the last decade we have become increasingly aware of the importance of metacognition in learning to read (Baker and Brown 1984). One of the characteristics distinguishing younger readers from older readers, and poorer readers from fluent readers, is that younger and poorer readers often do not recognise when they have not understood a text (Garner and Reis 1981); that is, there is evidence that they are not actively aware of their own level of understanding and are therefore not able to make an autonomous decision to use a strategy to enhance their understanding. Other readers show a greater awareness of their own level of understanding for they will stop when a text does not make sense to them. Some will then go on to select from their range of strategies that which might help overcome their problem.

In shared and guided reading sessions we can model for pupils how fluent readers monitor their understanding and use strategies to clarify their own understanding. These may range from semantic strategies to work out a troublesome word to sophisticated reflections on whether the meaning is deliberately obscure (as in a mystery) or perhaps challenging the author/text because the reader thinks they are incorrect. Such teacher modelling is an important part of the learning opportunities within reading sessions. The work of Gerry Duffy and Laura Roehler (Duffy et al. 1987; Duffy and Roehler 1989) concerning teacher demonstration and modelling is the one most often referred to.


  • Baker, L. and Brown, A. L. (1984) ‘Metacognitive skills and reading’. In D. Pearson (ed) Handbook of reading research. Longman. ISBN: 0805841504.
  • Duffy, G. G. and Roehler, L. R. (1989) ‘Why strategy instruction is so difficult and what we need to do about it’. In C. B. McCormick, G. Miller and M. Pressley (eds) Cognitive strategy research: from basic research to educational applications, pp. 133–154. Springer-Verlag. ISBN: 0837968695.
  • Duffy, G. G. et al. (1987) ‘Effects of explaining the reasoning associated with using reading strategies’. Reading Research Quarterly 22, 347–368.
  • Fisher, R. (1995) Teaching children to learn. Nelson Thornes. ISBN: 074872091X.
  • Gambrell, L. B., Morrow, L. M., Neuman, S. B. and Pressley, M. (1999) Best practices in literacy instruction. Guilford Publications. ISBN: 1572304421.
  • Gardner, H. (1993) Frames of mind: the theory of multiple intelligences. Basic Books. ISBN: 0465025102.
  • Garner, R. and Reis, R. (1981) ‘Monitoring and resolving comprehension obstacles: an investigation of spontaneous text lookbacks among upper grade good and poor comprehenders’. Reading Research Quarterly 16, 569–582.
  • Harrison, C. (2002) Roots and research. Ref. DfES 0353/2002. Available on the Key Stage 3 website
  • Harrison, C. (2002) ‘What does research tell us about how to develop comprehension?’ In R. Fisher, G. Brooks and M. Lewis (eds) Raising standards in literacy. Routledge. ISBN: 0415263506.
  • Kintsch, W. (1998) Comprehension: a paradigm for cognition. Cambridge University Press. ISBN: 0521629861.
  • National Reading Panel (2000) Report of the National Reading Panel. Government Printing Office, Washington DC. Available at
  • Pressley, M. (2000) ‘What should comprehension instruction be the instruction of?’ In M. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson and R. Barr (eds) Handbook of Reading Research 3, 545–62. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Tharp (1992) ‘The effective instruction of comprehension’. Reading Research Quarterly 17:4, 503–27.
  • Siegler, R. (2000) ‘The rebirth of pupils’ learning’. Child Development, 71:7, 26–35.
  • Voygotsky, L. (1962) Thought and language. MIT Press.