An decades-old report on reading instruction has led to serious misunderstandings about comprehension.
I'd make two comments:
- I think the NRP report does in part takes vocabulary as a proxy for the type of background knowledge you present ('knowledge' is a slippy term in research - given there are so many different types!). It is quite common for them to be used interchangeably, though it is fair to say vocabulary may be a narrow conception of background knowledge.
- The key issue is that the NRP had to include high quality experimental studies on knowledge building curricula leading to reading comprehension gains, but it is an area that doesn't have a lot of good empirical evidence. Cabell and Hwang (2020) put it really well: "Well-established theoretical models and a body of empirical research elucidate the critical role of content knowledge in comprehending texts. However, the potential of supporting knowledge in service of enhancing linguistic and reading comprehension has been a relatively neglected topic in the science of reading."
Of course, any significant research finding from two decades ago should be updated and our views and insights should evolve. I suspect a systematic review today would throw up similar challenges re: 'knowledge building/knowledge rich' curricula and instruction. We still don't know a great deal how operationalise knowledge building in the curriculum to consistently improve reading outcomes, though we recognise the vital role of declarative knowledge and vocabulary to comprehension.
It takes a model or, to me, a heuristic to be able to reduce complex bodies of knowledge and/or theories in a way to be understood or at least serve as an entry point to a profession--or at least serve as an argument or counter argument. I believe the rope and/or the simple view served such a purpose. To reduce some (but not all) of the findings of the NRC and the NRP into something that could serve to (a) counteract the widespread cult so to speak of whole language at the time--which indeed morphed into balanced as a result, and (b) serve as an organizer for persons trying to articulate a more scientific perspective. Of course, the positive organizing/communicative features of models/heuristics also have negatives, like oversimplification and deification, which we all have seen as well. The so call "strands" are not at all "separate" and are highly correlated. As a measurement person and as an early contributor to DIBELS I cringed at efforts to develop measures to fit into each strand and thus into a "box" for each. I also cringed at instructional efforts to develop interventions to fit into a box for each strand, and as noted, "comprehension" is not one that fits easily into a box. Notably, neither does "fluency." Fluency is NOT the same as "automaticity." Still, to me, it is not worth SMASHING a heuristic, but instead to promote a richer one for comprehension. Joe Torgesen hit me with his long ago that was so RICH in communicating the complexity, that includes factors like Reading Skills, Language Skills, Knowledge, and Meta-Cognitive, all with subcomponents like...motivation and interest! Life experience! Fix up skills! Vocabulary. That heuristic, to me, is one that should be promoted (or a similar one) when one talks about comprehension because it identifies the things that can be taught--and the things that maybe can't be taught. How does a teacher get a 9th grader interested in the Odyssey? Doug Fisher knows some strategies I'll bet! Sorry for the long posting. I do believe past models/heuristics have/are served their purposes, but we need to know the advantages and disadvantages and not deify them and be aware of the dangers.
I take your point about the limitations of infographics, but a powerful one might be an archway where the keystone is knowledge. It’s indispensable and locks the other pieces in place.
I agree that knowledge should be added as a critical building block to reading. But the challenge is “what knowledge”? How do we prioritize knowledge and age-gate it, especially in our rapidly evolving world. It’s relatively straightforward to curate vocabulary. There is data to do this. But knowledge? How do we avoid teaching knowledge strategies?
Let’s use the example in Willingham’s video. He presents the statement that the “brain scan was fuzzy so the patient must have been wearing makeup”. The background knowledge required to understand the link between brain scans and makeup: 1) metal makes brain scans fuzzy and 2) make up has traces of metal. I consider myself a well read person and this feels very specific.
How do we curate the teaching of knowledge in this day and age? Even Hirsch’s wonderful Core Knowledge seems limited or lacks modern context.
Nathalie I am curious your thoughts on this. Sofia
Hoover & Tunmer (2018) make the point: “...the SVR does not claim that reading is simple. Both word recognition and language comprehension are highly complex, and because of that, reading is complex. The SVR simply separates the complexity of reading into two component parts.”
Rather than thinking of the comprehension side of the SVR model as **spoken language** it helps to think of it as **listening comprehension** (e.g., listening to the material read aloud). That helps deal with the considerable complexity differences between written and spoken discourse.
Graphic models of any complex phenomenon can be misunderstood. We need to find ways to communicate more effectively about the essential components and how they interact. But without such models we lack a common framework. See for example: Hoover, W. A. and Tunmer, W.E. (2021). The Primacy of Science in Communicating Advances in the Science of Reading, Reading Research Quarterly First published online: https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.446
While I completely agree with all your points about the NRP model I am curious about why you didn't contrast the old NRP model with the more current Simple View of Reading Model.
The Simple View of Reading (SVR) is an academic paper and a theoretical model in which the authors, Wesley Hoover and Philip Gough, propose two critical components involved in learning to read:
1) understanding the printed word (decoding and spelling)
2) understanding spoken language (listening comprehension).
These two components must work individually and together. Difficulties with either component causes reading comprehension problems.
The essential nature of (background) knowledge and vocabulary is much clearer in the SVR model than in the NRP's model. In the SVR reading comprehension is explained as a **product** of the two components, emphasizing their complex and powerful interconnections.
The SVR model has been largely supported in hundreds of research students and has a strong consensus among reading scientists. Why not replace the Five Pillars with the Simple View?
So does it boil down to how we can best increase kids' background knowledge and understanding of complex syntax? The simple answer it seems is making available lots of read aloud stories. My iOS app Read Me A Story tries to help do this outside the classroom, where kids spend 80% of their time. I would love to see a controlled study to test this hypothesis. Any takers out there?