Supporting Reading Comprehension Development from Research to Practice

By Oakhill, Jane; Cain, Kate | Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Supporting Reading Comprehension Development from Research to Practice


Oakhill, Jane, Cain, Kate, Perspectives on Language and Literacy


There is broad consensus that both word recognition skills and oral language comprehension skills predict reading comprehension outcomes (Gough, Hoover, & Peterson, 1996; Language and Reading Research Consortium, 2015). As a result, reading comprehension difficulties can arise because of deficits in the former (e.g., dyslexia), the latter (e.g., comprehension-specific reading disability), or both (Catts, Adlof, & Weismer, 2006). There is now a broad base of research on the difficulties underlying poor word recognition, such as weak phonological processing (Catts et al., 2006), and how best to teach these skills and intervene for children who struggle in the acquisition of this component of reading ability (Bus & van Ijzendoorn, 1999; Elbro & Petersen, 2004; Hatcher, Hulme, & Ellis, 1994). This research has also translated into practice: For example, in the UK, schools are required to use systematic phonics to teach word-reading skills (Department for Education and Standards and Testing Agency, 2014). In contrast, our understanding of how best to teach the skills to support successful reading comprehension development and how best to intervene to mitigate the consequences of reading comprehension failure is less advanced. We believe that we now have the research base to properly inform such teaching and intervention and in this article we suggest critical skills that should form the core of both literacy curricula and interventions to support poor reading comprehension.

Successful reading comprehenders have good word-reading skills, robust vocabulary knowledge, an understanding of the grammatical rules that govern their language, and the integrativeand inference-making skills that enable them to construct a mental model of what they read. There is strong empirical support for the view that, over and above word-reading ability, word-, sentence-, and passage-level language skills each contribute to reading comprehension outcomes: Vocabulary, grammar, and integrative and inference skills explain unique variance in the longitudinal prediction of reading comprehension in the beginning stages of reading development (Muter, Hulme, Snowling, & Stevenson, 2004; Oakhill & Cain, 2012; Silva & Cain, 2015). Further, we know that these skills, and also cognitive processes such as executive function and specifically working memory, are weak in children with poor reading comprehension (Cain & Oakhill, 2006; Carretti, Borella, Cornoldi, & De Beni, 2009; Locascio, Mahone, Eason, & Cutting, 2010). On this basis, effective curricula and interventions for poor comprehenders should include a focus on these skills. We provide an overview of the evidence to support the teaching and development of these skills in our review.

Intervention Studies

Intervention studies typically include instruction in skills, knowledge, and/or strategies associated with skilled performance. Theoretically, these studies can be used to test hypotheses about reading development and causal explanations for reading difficulties. Such studies also have wider implications in that they can identify the skills that provide a foundation for reading development, can determine the skills that should be taught to young readers and, ultimately, can indicate ways to prevent (rather than remediate) some types of reading failure. Our discussion will focus on the language skills and strategic knowledge that are important for passage-level comprehension (see the article by Cutting and colleagues for a discussion of the role of working memory and executive function in reading comprehension). We divide the review into three sections: interventions that focus on the foundational skills of vocabulary and grammar; interventions that focus on higher-level skills important for passage comprehension (inference, text structure); and interventions that focus more broadly on teaching strategies to support the construction of meaning from text. …

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