Teaching young children to read fluently by the end of third grade is fast becoming a national priority, now even more urgent given Covid learning losses made vivid by the latest NAEP results. Compelling recent evidence has put another nail in the coffin of low-quality early-reading models like Balanced Literacy and whole language. Finally catching on is the importance of good old-fashioned phonics paired with rich content in order to deepen background knowledge as students learn to decode. A recent working paper from a trio of Harvard researchers examines the implementation and impacts of a literacy intervention program on students’ reading comprehension that reflects these tenets.
The program is called Model of Reading Engagement (MORE), and the researchers term it a “spiraled series of lessons” rather than a curriculum, since it doesn’t cover a full year’s worth of learning. Instead, it’s multi-year but part-time. Using MORE, students learn about a topic across grades and build upon a schema—defined as “generalizable features of situations to apply new knowledge.” In first grade, for instance, children learn about how animals survive in their habitat, potentially with a concrete example of polar bears. Then, second grade, to build on this larger schema of animal survival, they would learn how paleontologists use fossil evidence to develop theories about dinosaur traits. And in third grade, they would study how sub-systems in the human body, like our muscular and nervous systems, function to keep us alive. Other practices to build domain and content knowledge include interactive read-alouds of thematically-related informational texts and using concept maps with kids to show how ideas are related.
The small-scale project occurred in one large district in North Carolina and utilized random assignment of elementary schools. Fifteen schools entered the treatment group and fifteen the control group (which meant business as usual). Over three years, the treatment group students participated in spring first grade thematic content literacy lessons in science and social studies, fall-to-spring second grade thematic lessons in science, remotely-delivered third grade lessons in science (more below), plus ample reading of thematically-related informational texts in the summer months following first and second grade. During the third-grade school year (2020–21), the pandemic required remote schooling. As a consequence, the third grade MORE program was provided to both treatment and control students, thus turning what had been a fully randomized control trial into a dosage study. The researchers examined the longer-term effects on third graders’ outcomes, comparing a treatment group that received the first, second, and third grade MORE treatment to a control condition that received the third grade MORE treatment only. Treatment students had thirty hours of MORE programming in first and second grade, while the control students had business as usual, but both groups received ten hours of MORE instruction in third grade.
Teacher survey data reveal that educators in both groups spent about the same amount of time teaching reading/English language arts and math, but treatment teachers spent more time on science and social studies over the three years, which could have impacted the results. Researchers developed a domain-specific science vocabulary test to be administered after third grade, whereby students had to say which taught words went together with untaught words. Like “fracture” [taught] relates to the word “skeletal” [untaught]. They also developed a science-specific reading comprehension test that required them to transfer knowledge, meaning some of the passages were related but would not include taught words. Analysts also had access to end-of-grade state test data.
Results show generally small effects, considering the magnitude of the intervention. Specifically, students randomly assigned to the treatment condition outperformed the control students in reading comprehension (effect size = 0.11) and mathematics (ES = 0.14) on third grade state standardized assessments. They also outperformed on domain-specific science vocabulary. Subgroup analyses revealed positive impacts for students living in low- to moderate-socioeconomic-status neighborhoods on both reading comprehension (ES = 0.13) and mathematics (ES = 0.20) That some impact transferred to math was interesting. The researchers hypothesize that similar cognitive processes like nonverbal reasoning are involved in math, too. (Other studies have shown similar connections, but more research is required to pin down the mechanisms.)
A couple of caveats need noting. The study is small in scale and uses self-reported teacher data for time allocations versus more direct measures of instruction. Additionally, the researchers both developed and evaluated their own intervention model, which is generally frowned upon. Still, these are promising results that continue the essential work of building a body of empirical evidence for content-rich literacy interventions.
SOURCE: James S. Kim, Patrick Rich, and Ethan Scherer, “Long-Term Effects of a Sustained Content Literacy Intervention on Third Graders’ Reading Comprehension Outcomes,” Annenberg Institute at Brown University (July 2022).