Teacher Reader Responses, Vol. 1: On Literacy

We’re sharing the insightful, detailed, emotional, or otherwise compelling reader responses in some intermittent pattern.


Teacher Reader Responses, Vol. 1: On Literacy

by TeachThought Staff

In an effort to increase the visibility of increasingly insightful, detailed, emotional, or otherwise compelling reader comments, we’re going to give a shot sharing these thoughts in a semi-regular post of some intermittent pattern. A few of some of the better recent comments appear below, in a “Volume 1” form.

We’ll be expanding this “teacher voices” effort in other ways soon.

First, for our top comment of the week. In “When Students Read But Don’t Understand,” Annette Ong left a fantastic summary of Grant’s post on literacy while offering counter-research that supported another view.

“Wiggins’ argues that educators can improve reading comprehension by understanding the strategies that unsuccessful readers employ and by generating personalized strategies based on that information. According to Willingham and Lovette (2014), text comprehension is all about connecting sentences and content. Reading comprehension strategies (RCS) are simply a “bag of tricks” that although are useful to teach because they are quick and easy to learn, do not provide specific guidelines on how to connect sentences. As a result, Wiggins’ proposed solution of using RCS does not directly result in improved understanding of text.

Wiggins also suggests that teachers should administer more ungraded self-reporting and comprehension assessments in order to provide the students with more useful and applicable feedback. A prominent weakness in Wiggins’ suggestion is that student introspection, especially in the lower grades, can be highly inaccurate, and many students experience difficulty in articulating
the challenges of reading. Younger students also have limited metacognition and often incorrectly assess their understanding.

While Wiggins’ suggestions on reading comprehension improvements are tenuous and unlikely to result in much progress, researchers Verhoeven and Leeuwe (2008) have generated more concrete techniques that can be employed in the classroom. In the Verhoeven and Leeuwe (2008) study, the researchers investigated the validity of two possible hypotheses regarding reading comprehension. The lexical quality hypothesis states that vocabulary knowledge and word decoding largely determine reading comprehension, while the simple reading view states that word decoding and listening comprehension are the determinants of understanding text. Word decoding is the retrieval of the phonological code, while listening comprehension is defined as the linguistic processes that allow individuals to form connections between sentences. Vocabulary decoding is the knowledge of word meanings, and studies have reliably demonstrated that there is a positive correlation between vocabulary skill and reading comprehension.

In the experiment, the researchers tested 2384 elementary school children on word decoding, listening comprehension, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. Verhoeven and Leeuwe (2008) found that the results supported both the lexical quality hypothesis and the simple reading view. The former hypothesis was supported by the data because limited knowledge on word meanings restricted the student’s ability to understand the text. The researchers also found that there was a two-way relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension because increased reading results in improved word meaning deduction, and greater vocabulary knowledge improves understanding of text. Moreover, while listening comprehension predicted reading comprehension in the lower grades, in higher grades, the two factors were reciprocal, such that the improvement in one leads to the progress of the other.

Due to the reciprocal relationships between vocabulary knowledge/listening comprehension and reading comprehension, respectively, Verhoeven and Leeuwe (2008) suggest that teachers should be aware that some children do not share equal knowledge about the content of the text, and should account for this disparity by enhancing the students’ understanding of the topic-specific
vocabulary. Educators should use pre-reading activities to provide background information and discuss the topic of study. Additionally, educators and administrators should begin vocabulary training early in education. The researchers also advise teachers to select texts that are well organized to facilitate the students’ understanding of the reading.

Rather than employing self-assessments and comprehension tests to generate strategies for reading comprehension, educators should not only engage the students in generative word exercises to enhance vocabulary knowledge, but teachers should also employ activities that allows students to make inferences by integrating information from different sentences.”


Verhoeven, Ludo, and Jan Van Leeuwe. “Prediction of the Development of Reading Comprehension: A Longitudinal Study.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 22.3 (2008): 407-23. Web.

Willingham, Daniel T., and Gail Lovette. “Can Reading Comprehension Be Taught?” Teachers College Record, 26 Sept. 2014. Web. 14 Feb. 2015.

Juliana Meehan commented on the same post:

“Thank you…these points you make about struggling readers and questions you ask are the ones I struggle with daily. I absolutely agree that taking away the stress of grades by giving formative assessments helps students get on board. I’ve explained what “formative” is to my sixth graders, and I try to get them involved in the process… Generally, anecdotally, they see the logic of it (as far as that goes with sixth graders!).

We also need to ask questions and really listen. Last week, I assigned an article on different species of penguins to my sixth graders, and their assignment was to write a response comparing/contrasting Antarctic penguins with penguins that live in temperate regions. I pre-taught the vocabulary; I gave them a “tophat” graphic organizer and showed them how to use it; and then I set them loose to read, take notes, and write a response. On day 2 (they ran out of time on day 1), we reviewed what we were doing in order to continue, and I elicited questions. One student raised her hand and said, “I can’t find anything on ‘Antarctic’ penguins, only on ‘penguins who live in the Antarctic.'” I took a deep breath and kept my expression under control and asked whether anyone else had the same problem. Four out of fifteen hands went up… I had not the remotest idea that that would be a stumbling block to them. How many more misconceptions are swirling around in kids’ brains and we have no idea? Without a climate of trust, freedom from fear of grades, and inquiry on the part of teachers, we won’t get at the problems, I fear. Incidentally, this particular class is pass/fail, so on day 1 I tell them, “You all pass. Now, let’s get down to work.” I like to think that makes a difference.

The first question I asked when I started my reading masters degree was, “How to people learn to read?” I have never gotten an answer…and as your post shows, we still all do not know. I am grateful for the work you–and all reading teachers–are doing. Hopefully, we will learn how to help our struggling readers.

In Homeschool 2.0, Leah Stewart lamented the lack of autonomy for many teachers, but sees light at the end of the tunnel.

“I went through the normal schooling and the whole time thought; this can’t be the best thing for us, don’t they understand? The saddest part was when I realized that many teachers do understand, but they’re tied to the syllabus and their job contract so can’t really do much for us. They can’t risk their jobs by being too ‘real’ because they have a mortgage to pay and a family to support. So they must register us at 8.45am, they must check our uniforms, they must set a certain level of homework, they must prepare us for exams in the subject they teach, and on and on. So much is wasted within normal schooling because teachers and students aren’t trusted by the system. I’m excited for the future because I’m certain this situation can’t hold forever.”

Learning Models, Theories, and Technology: A Dictionary For 21st Century Teachers, Amy Burns applauds the idea of a “common language” to improve our craft. “If we can all speak the same 21st Century language, we would have to increase understanding.”