As secondary leaders, you guide educators in providing explicit and systematic reading instruction that is high quality and evidence based. Students in the middle and high school grades are expected to have already mastered certain fundamental components of reading, such as decoding and fluency skills, and need to develop more advanced academic vocabularies and metacognitive skills in order to comprehend increasingly complex texts.
To achieve this, Action Step 3 asks you to implement evidence-based reading instruction, which is instruction based on rigorous experimental research that is repeatedly conducted in actual classrooms.
As educators, you and your team want to know if your investments in instructional practices (such as explicit vocabulary instruction) will pay off. Will they be effective for your students? To answer this question, leaders need a strong understanding of the fundamental components needed for literacy development. Additionally, they need to stay informed about the latest research on effective literacy instruction so they can continuously refine the campus’s literacy efforts.
Fortunately, there are resources that can guide you and your team in determining the best evidence-based practices to implement. For example, the What Works Clearinghouse provides publications on various literacy topics. The site also includes a tool to “Find What Works” on many educational topics. Some Tier I practices and reading intervention programs will describe the primary research conducted about their program. You and your team can review this primary research and can decide if it indicates how effective a program or practice is. If no research is referenced, it is possible that no research has been done on that particular program or practice. More information about using research-based guides in selecting instructional practices can be found in the To Learn More sections at the end of Parts 1 and 2.
In the following sections, you will learn more about the specific components of effective Tier I instruction in English language arts and reading, as well as across content areas. You will learn about the essential components of reading instruction and consider how language skills are interrelated to support literacy development.
The five components of reading instruction
Evidence-based reading instruction includes explicit teaching of these five critical components: phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. These five components are interrelated. Instruction in one area builds on others, supporting students’ abilities to read. Phonological awareness and phonics instruction support students’ ability to decode, or sound out, new words. Knowing what words mean (vocabulary) is necessary for comprehension, the ultimate goal of reading. Decoding and comprehension are linked together through fluency, the ability to read with ease (review Lesson SBI 3A—Reading instruction in grade levels K–5 for in-depth descriptions of each of these components).
These five instructional components are critical to reading development in the elementary grades; in secondary contexts, emphasis is on fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, as students are expected to have already mastered basic word-level skills (phonics and phonological awareness). In middle and high school, educators build on students’ fundamental reading skills, and it is important to provide students with opportunities to successfully read independently and to motivate students to engage with increasingly difficult texts. Students need fluency skills, expanded academic vocabularies, and increasingly advanced metacognitive skills to become self-directed, critical readers. Below are summaries of these three components and how they support effective reading instruction.
Fluency is the ability to read text with ease, accuracy, and proper expression and intonation. Fluency develops with repeated practice reading and the modeling of fluent reading. When students read with fluency, they can focus their attention on comprehending text rather than on decoding. Increased fluency also assists students in reading increasingly longer texts. It is important to remember that fluency is not mutually exclusive of other reading skills. Fluency is a skill that develops over time as a result and synthesis of multiple related skills.
The basic components of fluency
- Accuracy – being able to decode words correctly
- Rate – how quickly a student can read words
- Prosody – reading with correct intonation and expression
- Chunking – being able to break text into meaningful phrases or statements
State standards emphasize knowledge and skills in reading fluency up through grade 8. As students encounter diverse and increasingly complex reading texts across content areas, they are expected to adjust their fluency as appropriate. Students who continue to struggle in reading in middle and high school may need explicit, targeted instruction to develop fluency, and previous grade-level skills may need to be revisited as part of your Tiers II and III interventions.
Vocabulary knowledge refers to understanding the meaning and use of words in speaking, listening, and print. Print vocabulary knowledge enables students to understand the meaning of words they read.
Academic vocabulary refers to the key concepts and words used in academic discussions, both written and spoken. A firm grasp of academic vocabulary is necessary to acquire deeper understandings of content. In turn, academic vocabulary enables students to communicate these understandings to others. Because of this, vocabulary instruction should go beyond providing students with definitions of words (Gottlieb, Carnuccio, Ernst-Slavit, Katz, & Snow, 2006). Academic vocabulary instruction should help students understand the complexities of words and how to use them in various situations.
“It gives students the empowerment they need to be successful in academic settings. With academic language instruction, students will more likely succeed and go on to higher education.” (Reading Rockets, n.d.)
More information about effective academic vocabulary instruction can be found in Lesson SBI 2—Teaching academic language.
Academic vocabulary development is emphasized across all grade levels in the ELAR TEKS. Students need continuous high-quality, evidence-based vocabulary instruction throughout grades 6–12 in order to access meaning from grade-level content and to use academic language to demonstrate their knowledge.
Vocabulary development will likely be a critical component of supplemental support for students who are struggling, particularly English learners who need explicit and systematic vocabulary instruction to advance in their English language proficiency and to comprehend academic texts.
Comprehension is reading text and understanding what is read. Vocabulary knowledge is essential for comprehension, as is fluency. Reading comprehension can be developed through a variety of activities, including explicit instruction in comprehension strategies. It is common to assume that upper middle and high school students already know how to read; however, many of these students may especially benefit from explicit strategy instruction in reading comprehension. These comprehension strategies include
- visualizing and creating mental images;
- making connections and using background knowledge;
- asking and answering questions while reading;
- summarizing and determining importance;
- inferring and predicting information; and
- monitoring and clarifying their understanding of texts.
Research has shown that explicit instruction of comprehension strategies is particularly effective. This means teachers tell readers the purpose behind the strategies, why and when they would use them, and how to apply the strategies.
Information about explicit instruction of comprehension strategies is described in depth in the next lesson, Lesson SBI 3.B—Reading instruction.
In-depth information about teaching fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension to secondary students can be found in the Effective Instruction for Middle School Students with Reading Difficulties: The Reading Teacher’s Sourcebook.
Interrelated language skills
“Nobody but a reader ever became a writer.” – Richard Peck
Reading fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension also connect to students’ writing, speaking, and listening skills. Effective readers are more likely to be effective writers, speakers, and listeners. Each of these skills requires knowledge of vocabulary and sentence structure. In academic tasks, reading also requires reasoning, critical thinking, and drawing on background knowledge. Finally, each of these sets of skills draws on the effective use of strategies that are outlined in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) and should be explicitly taught and purposefully practiced in class.
Effective standards-based language arts and reading instruction uses texts as vehicles for teaching the skills outlined in the ELAR standards. Although teachers—and students—may love the content of what they read, it is important to keep the curricular lens on the reading and language arts skills that students practice and master as they read, discuss, and write about these beloved texts.
Finally, when it comes to struggling students, the integration of reading and writing instruction does not preclude the need to provide support that is targeted to students’ specific needs. Struggling students should receive both: instruction that integrates the four language skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing) as well as support in particular areas of need within any of these skills, such as reading or writing. Part 2 provides more information about addressing the needs of struggling students through Tiers II and III interventions.
Literacy across content areas
Although critical components of literacy development receive the most instructional emphasis through the English language arts and reading curriculum, students need to be taught how to comprehend texts in each content area. Content-area teachers will most likely need support in providing explicit instruction in reading disciplinary texts such as those in science, social studies, and math. The next lesson, SBI 3.B, provides more information about teaching comprehension across subject areas. Resources are also included in the To Learn More section below.
TO LEARN MORE: To learn more about the five components of evidence-based reading instruction, you and your staff may find these resources helpful:
Academic Literacy Instruction for Adolescents: A Guidance Document from the Center on Instruction provides comprehensive recommendations for improving literacy instruction in grades 4–12. It includes sections such as explicit instruction, increasing student motivation and engagement, working with English language learners, and content-based literacy instruction.
Online Course: Bringing Literacy Strategies into Content Instruction: Professional Learning for Secondary-Level Teachers helps participants learn more about evidence-based practices for improving literacy instruction in the content areas. Module 2 focuses on general discussion of research-based vocabulary instruction, and Module 3 contains a general discussion of research-based comprehension instruction.
Improving Adolescent Literacy: Effective Classroom and Intervention Practices is a practice guide developed by the Institute of Education Sciences. It presents specific and coherent evidence-based recommendations that educators can use to improve literacy levels among secondary students.
Improving Literacy Instruction in Middle and High Schools: A Guide for Principals from the Center on Instruction provides a framework for improving literacy instruction schoolwide across the content areas.