Can Well-Designed Approaches Increase Reading Comprehension?

Study Purpose

A recent National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that 37 percent of the nation’s fourth-graders have difficulty reading. Other estimates suggest that as many as 30 percent of elementary, middle, and high school students have reading problems that severely curtail their educational progress and ultimately hurt their educational attainment. The National Reading Panel, in its most comprehensive review to date of what is known about teaching young children to read, states that our knowledge base on how to help children become better readers is inconsistent. We know a lot about improving certain aspects of reading instruction and little about others.

Mathematica’s evaluation, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, addresses critical questions for understanding the effectiveness of reading comprehension interventions, especially for children from low-income households. There are increasing cognitive demands on student knowledge in upper elementary grades where students become primarily engaged in reading to learn rather than learning to read. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds often lack general vocabulary as well as vocabulary related to academic concepts that enable them to comprehend what they are reading and which affects their ability to gain content knowledge.

The interventions were selected by a panel of reading experts after review for content, strategies, materials, and empirical evidence on effectiveness. An experimental design is yielding rigorous findings on intervention impacts and on the use and applicability of comprehension interventions with fifth-grade students.

The evaluation addresses five major questions:

  1. What is the impact of reading comprehension curricula on reading comprehension, and how do impacts of individual curricula compare to one another?

  2. How are student, teacher, and school characteristics related to effects of the curricula?

  3. Which instructional practices are related to effects of the curricula?

  4. What is the impact of the curricula on students one year after the end of the intervention implementation?

  5. Are impacts larger after schools and teachers have had one year of experience with the curricula?

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Methods

The expert panel recommended reading comprehension interventions on the basis of several criteria, including theoretical and empirical support for the intervention approach to improving reading comprehension in social studies or science; evidence of the efficacy or effectiveness of the strategies underlying the specific intervention; appropriateness for the target population, which includes children from low-income families; quality of teacher training and support materials; capacity of developers to implement the intervention in schools throughout the country; and qualifications of staff.

In the first year of the study, we identified districts and recruited 89 schools from geographically diverse areas of the country, with a focus on those serving a high percentage of low-income children. Within districts, schools were randomly assigned to one of the four interventions or to a control group. Schools in the control group provided students with the same instruction and curriculum they would usually provide in the absence of the evaluation. Reading intervention developers trained fifth-grade teachers in the intervention schools (about three teachers per school, or about 50 teachers per developer) to implement the interventions assigned to their school. All four interventions were implemented in the first year and three of the four were implemented in the second year for a new cohort of students.

To evaluate implementation, we observed classroom instruction during both study years for each teacher, whether assigned to an intervention or a control group. We also administered standardized reading comprehension tests at the beginning and end of the school year to assess students’ reading comprehension.

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