A student’s academic life is shaped by the act of reading, from the moment printed text yields meaning to the acquisition and construction of knowledge across content areas. In addition to the obvious challenges faced in ELA, struggling readers in the upper elementary grades are unable to fully access the texts that drive the curriculum in most subjects. Without evidence-based, intensive interventions for these children, the prospect of academic failure having irreversible consequences that last a lifetime grows. A recent study by Capin et al. (2021) sheds new light on the profiles of students with significant reading comprehension difficulties and casts a lantern’s glow on important considerations for reading interventions targeted toward these students.
Capin et al. (2021) researched the profiles of late elementary students with significant reading comprehension difficulties based on component reading skills. They looked at the word reading and listening (linguistic) comprehension skills of students with severe weaknesses in reading comprehension as well as areas of cognitive deficit related to these component skills. Approximately 90% of these students demonstrated deficits in both word reading and linguistic comprehension, pointing to the continued significance of decoding interventions for struggling readers in the upper elementary grades and beyond.
The Simple View of Reading
In their study, Capin et al. (2021) used the theoretical model of the Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) to define the reading profiles of students with significant reading comprehension difficulties. While there have been criticisms of the Simple View of Reading, it is a well-validated, widely accepted model that has significantly advanced the Science of Reading. It defines skilled reading as the product of two components: decoding and linguistic comprehension.
Decoding (D) x Language Comprehension (LC) = Reading Comprehension (RC)
Gough & Tunmer, 1986
In the Simple View of Reading, decoding is defined as efficient word recognition, and linguistic comprehension is the ability to understand language and interpret lexical information. Reading comprehension involves understanding linguistic information that is presented graphically through text (Hoover & Gough, 1990). “According to the simple view, reading ability can result only from the combination of decoding and comprehension. But reading disability could result in three different ways: from an inability to decode, an inability to comprehend, or both” (Gough & Tunmer, 1986). Catts et al. (2006) put forth a classification system for readers, which categorized students in relation to their weaknesses in word reading, language comprehension, or both components (mixed deficit).
Such a system, they argued, would help guide interventions to target specific deficits. Capin et al. (2021) applied this work to their study to identify the profiles of subgroups of students with significant reading comprehension difficulties in order to estimate the occurrence of each subgroup among struggling readers in the late elementary grades. They studied 446 fourth-grade students who scored below the 16th percentile on a nationally-normed assessment of reading comprehension. A significant portion of the sample qualified for free or reduced lunch, and about half of the students were categorized as English learners (ELs). Capin et al. identified three reading profiles: moderate reading learning difficulties (moderate RLD), severe word reading difficulties (severe WR), and severe listening (linguistic) comprehension difficulties (severe LC) which coincided with the classification system outlined by Catts et al. (2006). What makes this study especially interesting is that more than 90% of the students demonstrated challenges in both word reading and listening comprehension. Less than 10% of the students fell into subgroups that were based on word reading or listening comprehension as singular component deficits impacting reading comprehension. While the rate of occurrence of different reader profiles has varied across studies, “overall, research on poor reader profiles supports the idea that significant problems in word reading persist in many older poor readers” (Spear-Swerling, 2022).
As educators, researchers, and policymakers strive to identify the most efficacious interventions for struggling readers, Capin et al.’s (2021) study offers valuable insights. Results of the 2022 NAEP reading assessment, which measures students’ reading comprehension skills, have been widely reported in the news. Not only have scores decreased from 2019 to 2022, they remain consistently abysmal. In 2022, 37% of fourth-graders performed below the NAEP basic level in reading, and only 33% of fourth-grade students performed at or above the NAEP proficient level on the reading assessment (www.nationsreportcard.gov). Fourth grade has long been considered a pivotal year in a child’s reading life. It is around this time that students enter what has been referred to as the reading-to-learn phase of reading development (Chall, 1983). Texts and content become more complex, and core subjects such as social studies and science rely more heavily on reading for information. If foundational skills are not solid, learning across subjects is lost.
Applying the Research
A goal of the study by Capin et al. (2021) is to show the potential of applying the Simple View of Reading to focus interventions for students with weak comprehension. When identifying students with poor comprehension skills based on the severity of their reading deficit, adjusting the dosage of the intervention is warranted. However, when characterizing these students by area of weakness in relation to the Simple View of Reading, the focus of remediation can be tailored to the specific component skills (Capin et al., 2021).
Catts (2018, reprinted in The Beacon Spring 2021 issue) argues that the Simple View of Reading has led to false impressions about the complex nature of both language comprehension and reading comprehension. He states, “Comprehension is a multidimensional cognitive activity and one of the most complex behaviors that we engage in on a regular basis” (Catts, 2018). As such, comprehension cannot be reduced to a single skill or set of skills and requires a far more nuanced approach to intervention than discrete strategy instruction. This position is vital to understanding the limits of the Simple View of Reading in describing the complex, multifaceted nature of the reading process and important to note when considering the potential implications of Capin et al.’s (2021) research on instructional choices. However, students with weak comprehension scores are frequently assumed to have weak general comprehension at the expense of a proper assessment and intervention approach that includes decoding weaknesses (Farrell et al., 2019).
Capin et al. (2021) cite several supporting research studies including Clemens et al. (2017) and Brasseur-Hock et al. (2011), which looked at middle school and ninth-grade students with weak comprehension. Both point to weak foundational reading skills among adolescent struggling readers. According to Clemens et al., “Results suggest that for most struggling adolescent readers, problems in understanding text may be rooted in insufficient knowledge and skills that are needed to read text efficiently and free the cognitive resources to permit higher order processing, connect ideas, infer meaning, and draw conclusions” (2017). They suggest that interventions that only target specific reading comprehension skills may not be addressing the scope of difficulty, which includes efficient text reading.
Vaughn et al. (2019) showed that initial word reading, rather than listening comprehension, was the better predictor of reading comprehension performance for students with significant deficits in reading comprehension in fourth grade. While linguistic comprehension plays a greater role in reading comprehension as students progress through the grades, the study by Vaughn and colleagues shows that this shift is delayed for students with weak reading comprehension. They too concluded that word-level reading continues to play an important role in the upper elementary grades for students with reading challenges.
Implications for Intervention
As the nation’s reading scores remain deplorable, the reading wars continue, and national frustration over the state of reading remains at a persistent boil, we must be wary of narrow interventions that miss the forest for the trees. Reading is a complex process that involves a range of component skills and cognitive variables and is influenced by a host of external factors. While it is abundantly clear that there will be no quick and easy fix to the nation’s reading crisis, there is a growing body of research pointing the way toward effective interventions.
The Capin et al. (2021) study is important because it supports the need to address word reading difficulties in upper elementary school students and beyond. This does not mean that word reading should be an exclusive focus for older students with weak comprehension; these students require a multifaceted approach that addresses a range of reading skills (Cirino, 2013). In a meta-analysis of interventions, Scammacca et al. (2015) found that the body of research they reviewed supported interventions at both the word and text level for struggling readers in grades 4–12.
Although average and above-average readers may shift from learning to read to reading to learn by the upper elementary grades (Chall, 1983), results indicate that fourth graders with well below-average reading comprehension skills present deficits in word reading that will likely require remediation. This is not to discount the importance of developing vocabulary, general knowledge, inference-making, and other linguistic processes that facilitate reading for understanding. We interpret our results as highlighting the need for multicomponent intervention approaches that target linguistic comprehension as well as word reading. (Capin et al., 2021).
In the recent Institute of Education Sciences guide, “Providing Reading Interventions for Students in Grades 4-9” (2022), evidence-based recommendations for students with reading difficulties include building decoding skills and fluency, instituting comprehension-building practices, and exposing students to complex information via challenging text. The significance of accurate decoding for skilled reading of higher-level texts is emphasized in this important guide’s first recommendation, which points to the increasing frequency and level of challenge of multisyllabic words as students progress through the elementary and middle school grades.
In a recent review of intervention research for upper elementary struggling readers, Donegan and Wanzek (2022) concluded that multicomponent interventions that include instruction in foundational reading skills as well as comprehension and vocabulary instruction are positively indicated for improving reading outcomes for these students. According to Spear-Swerling, “many poor readers require multicomponent interventions. This tends to be especially true of poor readers in the upper elementary grades as opposed to the primary grades, and those with relatively severe as opposed to milder reading comprehension difficulties, as well as English learners (ELs) and children from low-socioeconomic backgrounds” (2022). Furthermore, assessing reading comprehension alone does not provide the necessary information to adequately tailor interventions for students with poor comprehension skills. In addition to the comprehension assessments (such as the NAEP) that are relied upon, assessing word-reading accuracy and fluency should be considered in order to identify component weaknesses and target the most effective interventions (Cirino, 2013).
Multicomponent interventions utilize assessments to drive, monitor, and adjust instruction. Instruction is explicit, and time on task is maximized. A multicomponent intervention plan might include elements that address decoding, spelling, fluency, text comprehension, language comprehension, vocabulary, background knowledge, and writing. Learning tasks are carefully considered to allow for integration of interventions and processes, such as texts that allow for practice with decoding patterns as well as comprehension, and which lend themselves to corresponding writing activities. By applying the Simple View of Reading and the competencies integral to each component, multicomponent instruction can be adapted to an individual student’s needs (Spear-Swerling, 2022). The significance of integrating knowledge acquisition with reading instruction through content-rich materials is essential in such a comprehensive approach (Catts, 2021).
The Simple View of Reading has pulled back the curtain on the broad components of skilled reading. Acknowledging and assessing the component skills of efficient reading remain critical for struggling readers in the upper elementary grades and beyond. Capin et al.’s (2021) research points to the need for increased awareness of the profiles of struggling readers, especially with regard to the prevalence of mixed deficit profiles with weaknesses in both word reading and linguistic comprehension. The evidence supports incorporating and integrating instructional practices that deliver multicomponent interventions for these students in the upper elementary grades. Educators must invest in evidence-based instructional approaches for these children with urgency. At fourth grade and beyond, there is truly not a single moment of instructional time to waste.