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Early Ed Watch

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A Key to Reading Comprehension in 3rd Grade: Oral Language Development

Published:  August 16, 2010

Anyone with an interest in how children learn to read has probably heard about the critical shift from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” To capture this idea, educators have focused on reading comprehension in addition to the importance of understanding the mechanics of language. A child may be able to decode words and even read with fluency. But does he understand what he has read? If not, what should teachers be doing differently?

A recent article in Psychological Science provides a pointed answer: Focus on vocabulary development.  

The article, “Ameliorating Children's Reading-Comprehension Difficulties: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” describes a study that examined reading improvement in 8- and 9-year-olds in 20 schools in Yorkshire, England.

The study compared three different approaches that teachers might employ to develop skills in children with reading comprehension problems. One was the use of text-comprehension strategies, such as the technique of looking back to an earlier paragraph or sentence to infer the meaning of what was not understood. A second approach focused on introducing children to new vocabulary and developing their listening comprehension, two components of oral language skills. The third combined strategies from the prior two.

Paula J. Clarke, a psychologist at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, was the study’s lead author. To start, Clarke and her colleagues identified 84 children as having difficulty in comprehending what they read. Schools employed one assistant to teach all three interventions, avoiding the potential of tainting results due to variations in teaching styles. A control group was comprised of children on a waiting list to receive intervention.  Each child was tested on reading comprehension skills four times over the 20-week period of the experiment.

Final test results showed that children who received an intervention, no matter what kind, were comprehending more of what they read than the control group. But the gains were largest for children who were taught using the oral-language approach. And when the researchers dug deeper, they found that those gains could be entirely explained by an increase in their knowledge of vocabulary words and ability to understand them when spoken.

“Our findings lend support to theories that view children’s reading-comprehension problems as one facet of a broader oral-language comprehension problem,” the researchers wrote. “We believe that one implication of this study is that researchers should be seeking to identify and remediate children’s early oral-language weaknesses, which are important in their own right and appear to be one cause of reading-comprehension difficulties.”

The study also found that vocabulary training did not simply help children with “taught” words but also with “untaught” words – a peculiar and fascinating finding that begs more research. The researchers speculate that children were developing “some enhanced metacognitive skills” that enabled them to become more engaged with learning language.

In short, the study has a lot to offer to those developing early childhood programs and literacy instruction in the early grades. There will always be questions about the necessary ingredients for a child’s reading success, but Clarke and her team have provided yet more evidence that children need to be immersed in environments where they continually hear and learn new words and are encouraged to participate in conversations about what they mean. The experiment’s teaching assistant, for example, used activities such as “word of the day” and encouraged children to create their own “spoken stories” (recorded on CD) for other children to hear and talk about .

Vocabulary development can also be fostered by, say, trips to the pumpkin patch to talk about vines, tendrils and harvests – words that may not turn up in routine speech and may be foreign to children otherwise. And it requires that teachers have easy access to well-stocked libraries of non-fiction books and high-quality children’s literature for daily readings.

Language-rich environments have been advocated by literacy experts of many stripes. For one particularly eloquent champion, be sure to read E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s seminal book, The Knowledge Deficit. Or watch cognitive scientist Dan Willingham’s videos on how teaching content is teaching reading.  These ideas go to the core of what defines a high-quality program in the early years: To scale up programs that offer children rich vocabulary experiences, we need to look carefully at the way early childhood teachers use language. At the very least, we here at Early Ed Watch believe that this study bolsters the argument that all pre-k teachers should have at least a bachelor’s degree or a similar credential signifying a robust vocabulary and the skills to use it.

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