Improving reading comprehension for K-4 students

As the pandemic continues, the task of supporting students in their academic and social-emotional growth and recovery is paramount to their future success. The EdResearch for Recovery Project by Annenberg Brown University taps top researchers from across the country to develop evidence-based briefs to inform recovery strategies. Tier 1 Instructional Strategies to Improve K-4 Reading Comprehension is the latest in the series.

Released in June, the brief covers how educators can improve reading comprehensive for kindergarten through fourth grade students by utilizing stronger Tier 1 English language arts instruction.

Even before the pandemic, data showed that reading scores among fourth graders were falling. And with recent interruptions, performance has fallen further with the largest declines in young students, those from historically marginalized groups and those at high-poverty schools.

In the early elementary grades, learners are struggling to comprehend grade-level text that requires “strong word recognition skills, vocabulary and background knowledge, mastery of complex syntax, and the ability to draw inferences,” according to the brief. They have a particularly hard time with nonfiction works that require background knowledge, with less than 5 percent of first- and second-grade students in the U.S. understanding complex grade-level nonfiction pieces that demand “high knowledge.”

Word recognition and language comprehension are central to how well a reader can understand a passage. Reading comprehension often depends on the reader, the reading material, the activity and context.

“Failing to read proficiently in the early elementary grades can have long-lasting negative consequences for students’ future educational and economic success,” the brief states.

Strategies educators can consider or avoid

For K-4 readers, using ELA curriculum that integrates science and social studies is promising for improving comprehension outcomes, as is adopting curriculum that builds word recognition and language comprehension at the same time.

Cost-effective and simple changes such as using reading materials that have overlapping words and corresponding concepts can help as well.

Giving teachers the power to select curriculum and interventions can also pay off as “student reading comprehension improves relative to when teachers must strictly follow a specific protocol,” the report states. “Districts can amplify the effects of curriculum interventions by offering literacy coaching and sustained teacher professional development focused on translating reading research findings into classroom practice.”

To aid with context and supports, planning the sequence of ELA curriculum and assessments from K-4 to get increasingly more complex while avoiding repetition can further reading comprehension. For those having a hard time with Tier 1 core instruction, tutoring can be effective.

Things to avoid include reducing instructional time for science and social studies and focusing on short-term solutions to increase third grade reading scores.