The Research Base for Read with Understanding

The EFF Read With Understanding Standard definition was developed through a broadly participatory, long-term research and development process that included input from expert instructors in adult basic literacy and ESL as well as from reading content area specialists and researchers. It is intended to characterize the application of reading proficiency to accomplish adult tasks in the real world. The ability to perform tasks conveyed through print is the focus of the definition of the EFF Standard Read With Understanding. This is why the definition of the skill process that the Standard describes begins with "determine the reading purpose" and ends with "integrate (new information) with prior knowledge to address the reading purpose." What happens between determining the reading purpose and addressing it is a complex cognitive and behavioral process that involves interactions between a reader, a text, and a reading activity. The proficient adult reader must have knowledge, skills, abilities (especially strategic abilities), and other characteristics (including motivation) to interact with print (in various formats and at various levels of complexity) to accomplish a range of reading activities, each of which is shaped by its sociocultural context.

As Amy Trawick points out in an EFF Hot Topics issue devoted to Read With Understanding (Fall, 2003) the first part of the definition of the standard states that the reader determines the reading purpose; however, a reader does not necessarily carry out the remaining components of the standard in sequential, discrete steps. Rather, the components are integrated as the reader draws on sets of underlying skills in order to accomplish his or her purposes. Recent reports that review and synthesize research on reading instruction have helped to identify the underlying skills that readers integrate during the reading process. The report Research-Based Principles for Adult Basic Education Reading Instruction (2002) by John Kruidenier discusses "emerging principles" from the relatively small base of adult reading instruction research that supports the findings from Teaching Children to Read a report by the National Reading Panel (2000) based on a much larger body of K-12 research. The reports organize these instructional principles around four elements: alphabetics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. The Reading Research Working Group of the EFF Reading Project provides definitions for these elements consistent with the definition of the EFF Standard.

Alphabetics is the whole process of using the written letters in an alphabet to represent meaningful spoken words. Alphabetics includes both phonemic awareness and word analysis. Students with good phonemic awareness know how to manipulate the individual sounds (phonemes) of spoken English.Students with good word analysis know how individual letters and combinations of letters are used to represent the sounds of spoken English.
Fluency is the ability to read with speed and ease. When readers are fluent, they read accurately, without making mistakes in pronunciation, and with appropriate speed and rhythm.
Vocabulary is a term used to refer to all of the words in a language. Our own vocabulary consists of the individual words we understand or know the meanings of.
Reading comprehension is understanding a text that is read, or the process of "constructing meaning" from a text.

As Amy Trawick points out, these elements correspond to the knowledge, skills, and strategies in the EFF performance continuum. Knowledge refers to what the reader knows about each reading element. For instance, in alphabetics, the skilled reader knows that written spellings usually systematically represent the sounds of spoken words. This knowledge can be used when trying to figure out, or decode, unknown words. In the area of comprehension, knowledge consists of such things as knowing that readers read for a purpose and that reading can break down and requires specific "fix-up" strategies. Skills refer to what the reader can do with that knowledge as he or she reads. For example, in the area of alphabetics, it is helpful to have knowledge that b says/b/, a might say /a/, and t says /t/; it is even more useful for reading purposes to be able to apply this knowledge in the skill of decoding when one encounters the word bat. In the area of comprehension, the reader must have the skill of determining a purpose for reading. Similarly, a skilled reader knows how and when to monitor comprehension. Strategies refer to intentional ways that readers perform skills. They include word segmentation, comparing an unknown word to a known word, comprehension strategies for determining the main idea and supporting details of a text, pre-reading strategies and others.

For teachers of adult basic education, the challenge of understanding the differences between teaching skills alone and integrated teaching of skills and strategies in ways that build reading proficiency is especially daunting. Marking out a clear and detailed developmental pathway (that includes all the key elements of reading proficiency discussed above) for adult readers (and their teachers) to follow is an essential first step in meeting this challenge. The Read With Understanding Performance Continuum provides such a pathway, with key developmental benchmarks of knowledge, skills, and strategies clearly described.

For a more detailed description of this research and a bibliography go to the following resources: Read With Understanding Research Summary in the EFF Assessment Resource Collection library; Volume 3, No. 1 of EFF Hot Topics (available in the EFF Special Collection); and the publication) Improving Performance, Reporting Results: The Guide to Using the EFF Read with Understanding Assessment Prototype.

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