Using the Threads of Reading to Support Strong Readers

Teachers have heard about the “5 pillars” that are woven together to build and support strong readers. These pillars are: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension (National Literacy Panel Report, 2008).

As discussed in my book, The Threads of Reading: Strategies for Literacy Development (ASCD) I believe that there are actually 6 “pillars” that form the weave under efficient and effective readers.

I believe that the 5 foundational pillars identified by the National Literacy Panel are essential to foundational reading. However, I see a difference between basic comprehension and higher order comprehension.

As teachers, we must understand how to strengthen and weave all 6 of these threads to build strong and efficient readers.

Learning to Read as Young Children

As young children, we are surrounded by oral language that helps us build an awareness of the sounds of our mother tongue. Even while in the womb, we hear the “lilt” of our language and begin early in life to imitate the sounds we hear all around us.

As we grow, we master the various phonemes that make up the syllables and words of our language and we learn to express ourselves orally.

This is called “phonemic awareness” and it is an essential skill upon which our reading skills will begin to be woven.

As students begin school, they will learn that there is a relationship between the sounds of our language (phonemes) and special symbols or letters (graphemes) that represent those sounds.

While English is indeed a complex and often contradictory language, students can learn some basic rules (phonics) that can help them identify or decode unknown words that they encounter throughout their life.

These three foundational skills, phonemic awareness, phonics and an ever expanding vocabulary are the foundational threads of an efficient and effective reader. These foundational skills are what help children become strong readers.

toddler laying on a bed reading a book
Learning to Read Expands a Child’s Vocabulary

Supporting Strong Readers with Decoding Skills

Once an individual is able to decode the words of the text, they are able to focus more attention on the meaning being conveyed.

Just as with any other skill, reading requires abundant amount of practice. Reading is a “participation sport” that improves with practice. As we practice, our skill, fluency develops and we are able to read smoothly and accurately.

Reading also requires that we make meaning out of the words and sentences on the page. While some children are able to verbalize all of the words on the page, they do not understand what they have read.

When children are concentrating on decoding the words on the page, it is difficult for them to also attend to meaning. For this reason, in order to become a competent reader, young children must master decoding skills.

Basic comprehension is a vital thread to becoming an efficient and effective reader.

Learning to Make Deeper Levels of Meaning

When a reader is able to apply basic comprehension to a text they are reading, they are able to answer the simple questions of who, what, where, why and how.

While this is a necessary foundational skill for making meaning, it does not mean that students can analyze or reflect on the text at more complex levels. There is a 6th “pillar” or thread that must be present and that is higher order comprehension.

Even as adult readers we never truly “master” the reading of all text. We have all been stumped by unfamiliar vocabulary and content while reading material where we have little background knowledge.

For example, remember that legal document you had to sign or the stack of mortgage papers? Unless you have a strong background in either of these areas, you would lose your fluency while reading these documents.

Without background knowledge in this content, your comprehension would go down to the “basic level.” A skilled lawyer or mortgage broker, on the other hand, would have strong fluency with this content.

As a result of their prior background knowledge and familiarity with this type of text, These individuals would have the comprehension skills to assess the ideas and statements in these documents.

They could even read these documents at the analysis, synthesis or interpretive levels.

Even though a lawyer or mortgage broker might be proficient with this type of document, there would be other forms of text – say a scientific journal text – that they might struggle with when attempting to read the material.

This would be true even though they are proficient readers of complex text within their own discipline.

When background knowledge and reading comprehension interconnect, fluent and efficient reading can take place.

Supporting Strong Readers Through Reflection

It is this complex level of reading that we want our students to attain. Students must be able to analyze, synthesize and make meaning at deeper levels of understanding.

These are the skills they will need for success in college and career.

Most of a child’s school career is really focused on helping them build strong background knowledge. They need to apply their background knowledge and higher order comprehension skills in as many areas as possible.

Throughout our life, we continue to grow and expand as thoughtful and reflective readers.

As we build our own life experiences, we enrich and expand our vocabulary and background knowledge. With more knowledge, our fluency grows. We are able to process different types of text with increasing comprehension.

By continuing to read and expand our world knowledge we become more fluent and thoughtful readers.

To learn more about the 6 pillars of reading, check out The Threads of Reading: Strategies for Literacy Development at your favorite bookseller today.

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Text Complexity – Matching Reader and Task

An important factor to think about when matching readers to text is the connection between the reader, their needs and the tasks that they will be doing with the selected text(s).

Think about how motivated the student might be to read the topic of the text. Then, consider the student’s background knowledge and experience in this topic. 

I have seen many a student struggle through a book far above their reading level when their interest in the topic was high.

For example, one of my 3rd grade students loved reading mythology. She chose mythology books that were written at a middle school level from the library.

She loved the topic and had developed some background knowledge in mythology from prior reading. As a result, she persisted in reading this material even though the reading level stretched her skills.

Girl reading while sitting on a stack of books
Matching Reader Characteristics to Text is an Essential Step in Reading Instruction

Evaluating Text Structure for Matching Readers to Text

We would consider the text’s structure and organization. Is this type of structure or text organization suitable for the age and reading abilities of the student?

In general, texts written in a literal or contemporary style of discourse are easier to read.

For example, a text containing a large amount of unfamiliar dialogue, old fashioned language or unfamiliar dialects would be more difficult than text written in the type of speech with which the reader is familiar.

What about the level of vocabulary used in the text or the point of view that the author has used? These elements might make the text more difficult for some students than for others.

Highly specialized text with a large amount of jargon or technical vocabulary would also be more difficult to read.

Matching Cultural Understandings and Background Knowledge

Another element to consider when determining the complexity of the text is what background knowledge a student will need to understand the text.

The more limited the reader’s background knowledge, the more difficulty they will have reading the text. Are there cultural references made in the text that students will need support with in order to understand the meaning of the text?

Texts containing a large amount of figurative language, irony, or ambiguity are more difficult to understand.

By considering the elements that will be new or unfamiliar to your students, you can determine whether these gaps can be supported through scaffolding or support.

Considering Purpose When Matching Readers to Text

Another factor to consider is why will the student be reading this text? What is their purpose? What will the reader be expected to do after reading the text.

If you simply said: “Read the chapter and answer the questions at the end of the chapter.” it can hardly be a surprise when students have little motivation or interest in reading the text.

In fact, this is one of the least motivating activities to do after reading a text.

Research has shown that students who understand the syntax of the English language can find the answer to literal questions without even completely reading the text at all.

How Will the Student Process or Use the Text?

Consider what the student will be doing to reflect on or think about the text.

For example, will the student be synthesizing the text to prepare for a debate?  Will they need to understand the information and be able to teach it to someone else?  Will the student have to compare and contrast various points of view?  Will the student be forming an opinion about the text or discussing it with other students in the class?

Finally, we must ask: Does the reader have the cognitive and language skills needed to understand and reflect on this text? Are there too many unknown vocabulary items that might cause the student to struggle with comprehension?

Will the topic and content hold the reader’s interest long enough for them to read the entire text?

By thinking in advance how will we use the text with our students we can build interest for students. We can also prepare scaffolds that students may need to get the most out of the texts they are reading.

By thinking about the quantitative and qualitative measures and then considering the reader and the task. we can help our students be more successful with connecting to appropriate and meaningful texts.

You can learn more about matching readers to text and deepening comprehension in my book: Literacy Strategies for Grades 4-12: Reinforcing the Threads of Reading.

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Understanding Quantitative Measures of Text Complexity

Understanding Qualitative Measures of Text Complexity

Understanding Text Complexity – Quantitative Measures

In this post, Understanding Text Complexity – Quantitative Measures, we will continue talking about another measure of text complexity that a teachers should use when selecting texts for classroom use.

The Quantitative factors refer to things about the text that can be counted or “quantified.” These include factors such as word length and frequency, sentence length, and complexity of vocabulary used in the text.

We want students to be reading text that could be called “Goldilocks text” – not too easy but not too hard either. To match students with “just right” text that challenges them but does not overwhelm them, it is important to examine the levels of complexity contained in the text.

What are Quantitative Measures of Text Complexity?

Quantitative measures are generally what publishers rely on to determine the difficulty of a text. Often the “readability” of a text is calculated by computer software and considers factors such as word length, word frequency, sentence length and text cohesion.

There are many formulas such as the Flesch Reading Ease Formula, the Flesch-Kincaid Index, Fry’s Readability Graph, The Dale-Chall Readability Formula, and the Spache Readability Formula, and the Lexile Framework for Reading.

A readability measure can just give us a sense of the difficulty of the text construct.  It cannot tell us whether the subject matter is appropriate for the reader. It also cannot tell us whether the reader has the background knowledge required to comprehend the author’s message.

Woman reading a book at a desk
Analyzing Qualitative Elements of a Text to Determine Text Complexity

Using Readability Formulas to Assess Text Complexity

Let’s look at how understanding the Lexile level of texts might help us in the classroom.  A book with a Lexile level of 1200 would be more of a book used in high school, while a book with a Lexile level of 800 might be more appropriate for a student in grades 4 or 5. 

At the lowest grade in each band, students focus on reading texts within that text complexity band.  To reach the higher bands, students must “stretch” their skills to read a certain proportion of texts that belong to the next higher text complexity band. This pattern repeats itself as students progress to higher grade levels.

This allows students to build on earlier literacy gains and then challenge themselves by reading texts at higher complexity levels. Lexile measures and ranges help to determine what text is appropriate for each grade band. It also suggests what should be considered “stretch” text.

This does not mean that if a student cannot read texts written in the “stretch” Lexile band, we push students into text that is too difficult for them. Instead, we scaffold and guide our students to help them stretch and grow their reading skills to help them close the gap between their current reading level and where we want them to be.

As students move through the grades, they apply their skills to increasingly complex texts.

Here are the suggested grade level “stretch” bands that we are striving to help our readers reach.

Text Complexity Grade BandPrevious Lexile BandsCurrent “Stretch” Lexile Reading Target Bands
Stretch Lexile Reading Targets

While a readability level can be helpful for matching readers with appropriate texts, it is only one measure of text complexity. That is where qualitative measures and reader and task measures must also be considered.

When selecting a text, you want it to be able to stretch your students but not overwhelm them. This is the secret to finding a “just right” text.

Learn more about how to match readers to text and deepen comprehension in my book: Literacy Strategies for Grades 4-12: Reinforcing the Threads of Reading.

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Learn more about matching readers to the tasks we want them to do,

Learn more about the Qualitative Measures of Text Complexity.