Skip over navigation
Visit the NCREL Home Page

What Does Research Say About Reading?

R.A. Knuth and B.F. Jones
NCREL, Oak Brook, 1991

In 1985, David Pearson referred to "the comprehension revolution." In essence, he was talking about the movement from traditional views of reading based on behaviorism to visions of reading and readers based on cognitive psychology.

What follows in this section are major findings from cognitive psychology regarding:

These findings were developed by NCREL in collaboration with our Content Partner, the Center for the Study of Reading, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and the participants in Program 1, "Children as Strategic Readers."

Statue at the University of Leuven (Belgium) The traditional view of the learner as an "empty" vessel to be filled with knowledge from external sources is exemplified by this statue at the University of Leuven (Belgium).


Old and New Definitions of Reading

  Traditional Views New Definition of Reading
Research Base Behaviorism Cognitive sciences
Goals of Reading Mastery of isolated facts and skills Constructing meaning and self-regulated learning
Reading as Process Mechanically decoding words;
memorizing by rote
An interaction among the reader, the text, and the context
Learner Role/Metaphor Passive; vessel receiving knowledge from external sources Active; strategic reader, good strategy user, cognitive apprentice.


Comprehension Strategies: Context, Text, Reader (Triangle)

Reprinted from the Guide to Curriculum Planning in Reading
with permission from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

Comprehension results from an interaction among the reader, the strategies the reader employs, the material being read, and the context in which reading takes place.

Important Findings from Cognitive Sciences

Most of the knowledge base on this topic comes from studies of good and poor readers. However, some of it is derived from research on expert teachers and from training studies.

  1. Meaning is not in the words on the page. The reader constructs meaning by making inferences and interpretations.

  2. Reading researchers believe that information is stored in long-term memory in organized "knowledge structures." The essence of learning is linking new information to prior knowledge about the topic, the text structure or genre, and strategies for learning.

  3. How well a reader constructs meaning depends in part on metacognition, the reader's ability to think about and control the learning process (i.e., to plan, monitor comprehension, and revise the use of strategies and comprehension); and attribution, beliefs about the relationship among performance, effort, and responsibility.

  4. Reading and writing are integrally related. That is, reading and writing have many characteristics in common. Also, readers increase their comprehension by writing, and reading about the topic improves writing performance.

  5. Collaborative learning is a powerful approach for teaching and learning. The goal of collaborative learning is to establish a community of learners in which students are able to generate questions and discuss ideas freely with the teacher and each other. Students often engage in teaching roles to help other students learn and to take responsibility for learning. This approach involves new roles for teachers.

Characteristics of Poor/Successful Readers

Characteristics of Poor Readers Characteristics of Successful Readers
Think understanding occurs form "getting the words right," rereading. Understand that they must take responsibility for construction meaning using their prior knowledge.
Use strategies such as rote memorization, rehearsal, simple categorization. Develop a repertoire of reading strategies, organizational patterns, and genre.
Are poor strategy users:
  • They do not think strategically about how to read something or solve a problem.

  • They do not have an accurate sense of when they have good comprehension readiness for assessment.
Are good strategy users:
  • They think strategically, plan , monitor their comprehension, and revise their strategies.

  • They have strategies for what to do when they do not know what to do.
Have relatively low self-esteem. Have self-confidence that they are effective learners; see themselves as agents able to actualize their potential.
See success and failure as the result of luck or teacher bias. See success as the result of hard work and efficient thinking.

Important Trends in Reading Instruction

  1. Linking new learnings to the prior knowledge and experiences of students. (In contexts where there are students from diverse backgrounds, this means valuing diversity and building on the strengths of students.)

  2. Movement from traditional skills instruction to cognitive strategy instruction, whole language approaches, and teaching strategies within the content areas.

  3. More emphasis on integrating reading, writing, and critical thinking with content instruction, wherever possible.

  4. More organization of reading instruction in phases with iterative cycles of strategies: Preparing for reading—activates prior knowledge by brainstorming or summarizing previous learnings; surveys headings and graphics; predicts topics and organizational patterns; sets goals/purpose for reading; chooses appropriate strategies.

    Reading to learn—selects important information, monitors comprehension, modifies predictions, compares new ideas with prior knowledge, withholds judgement, questions self about the meaning, connects and organizes ideas, and summarizes text segments.

    Reflecting on the information—reviews/summarizes the main ideas from the text as a whole, considers/verifies how these ideas are related; changes prior knowledge according to new learnings; assesses achievement or purpose for learning; identifies gaps in learning; generates questions and next steps.

Milestones in Reading Research

  1. Evidence that meaning is not in the words, but constructed by the reader.

  2. Documentation that instruction in the vast majority of classrooms is text driven and that most teachers do not provide comprehension instruction.

  3. Documentation that textbooks were very poorly written, making information in them difficult to learn; subsequent response of the textbook industry to include real literature, longer selections, more open-ended questions, less fragmented skills, and "more considerate" text.

  4. Changes in reading research designs from narrowly conceived and well-controlled laboratory experiments with college students to (1) broadly conceived training studies using experimenters and real teachers in real classrooms and (2) studies involving teachers as researchers and colleagues in preservice and inservice contexts.

  5. Publication of A Nation of Readers reaching out to parents, policymakers, and community members as legitimate audiences for direct dissemination of research information.

  6. Involvement of state education agencies in textbook selection, promoting "the new definition of reading," and developing statewide assessment programs that are research based; especially important are programs in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois which have longer passages, more focus on comprehension, more than one right answer, strategy use, and assessment of prior knowledge.

  7. Increasing dissatisfaction with standardized methods of assessing reading. (Consequently, there has been a movement to develop alternative assessment strategies including miscue analysis, portfolios, and projects in the classroom.)

Issues of Equity and Excellence

  1. Although many students at risk come to school lacking in prior knowledge that is relevant to school achievement, teachers and schools do make a substantial difference. That is, providing students at risk with high quality instruction can drastically alter their academic performance.

  2. Although pullout programs and tracking may be well intended, reading researchers increasingly argue that such programs may actually create or extend inequities by segregating students at risk in poor quality programs. Indeed, some researchers contend that the learned helplessness that may characterize students at risk is a functional response to the demands of a dysfunctional situation.

  3. An increasing amount of research indicates that student access to functional adult role models is vital for the development of self-esteem and metacognitive abilities. This can come from adult tutors or opportunities for students to participate in the world of work through work/study, shadowing, and apprenticeship programs.

The Social Organization of the School

  1. Approaches that teach reading as thinking (strategic reading) need time to develop so that teachers can adopt new beliefs, experiment with research-based methods, and refine new practices. This suggests that schools need to provide (a) sustained staff development programs which provide mentoring and coaching, and (b) environments that support experimentation and risk-taking.

  2. Reading performance is enhanced when schools have semipermeable boundaries. That is, when:


Activities for Teachers

The examples of excellence in this program clearly show that in world class schools teaching is a multidimensional activity. One of the most powerful of these dimensions is that of "teacher as researcher." Not only do teachers need to use research in their practice, they need to participate in "action" research in which they are always engaging in investigation and striving for improved learning. The key to action research is to pose a question or goal, and then design and implement actions and evaluate progress in a systematic, cyclical fashion as the means are carried out. Below are four major ways that you can become involved as an action researcher.

  1. Use the checklist found at the end of this section to evaluate your school and teaching approaches.

  2. Implement the models of excellence presented in this program. Ask yourself:

  3. Form a team and initiate a research project. A research project can be designed to generate working solutions to a problem. The issues for your research group to address are:

  4. Investigate community needs and integrate solutions within your class activities. Relevant questions include:

  5. Establish "Community of Learners" support groups consisting of school personnel and community members. The goals of these groups are to:

Activities for Schools, Parents, and Community Members

The following are activities that groups such as your PTA, church, and local Chamber of Commerce can do together with your schools.

  1. Visit your school informally for discussions using the checklist below.

  2. Consider the types of contributions community groups could offer:

  3. Consider ways that schools and community members can work together to provide:

  4. Promote school and community forums to debate the national goals:

    Some of the important questions and issues to discuss in your forums are:

  5. What assumptions are we making about the future in terms of Knowledge, Technology and Science, Humanities, Family, Change, Population, Minority Groups, Ecology, Jobs, Global Society, Social Responsibility? Discuss in terms of each of the goal areas.

  6. Consider ways to use "Children as Strategic Readers" to promote understanding and commitment from school staff, parents, and community members for strategic reading.

Checklist for Excellence in Reading Instruction

The items below are based on the best practices of the teachers and researchers in Program 1. The checklist can be used to look at current practices in your school and to jointly set new goals with parents and community groups.

Vision of Learning

Curriculum and Instruction

Assessment and Grouping

Staff Development

Involvement of the Community

Policies for Students at Risk


Important Reading Resources

Reading Recovery Program is a supplementary reading and writing program for first-graders who are at risk of reading failure. Reading Recovery was originally developed by New Zealand educator and psychologist Marie M. Clay. It was implemented in Ohio and is now employed in several other states. The short-term goal is to accelerate children's progress in learning to read. The long-term goal is to have children continue to progress through their regular classroom instruction and independent reading, commensurate with their average peers, after the intervention is discontinued. Success is contingent upon the intensive, individual instruction provided by a specially trained teacher for 30 minutes daily. Illinois Reading Recovery Project, Center for the Study of Reading, 51 Gerty Drive, Champaign, IL 61820 (217/333-7213).

Teaching Reading: Strategies from Successful Classrooms is a set of six videotapes and accompanying viewer's guides developed by the Center for the Study of Reading. Each tape presents in-depth analyses of successful classrooms. The programs focus on exemplary teachers and students in order to provide viewers with real access to knowledge about effective reading practices. The aim of the program is to provide simulated field experiences for use in college-level education courses for preservice teachers and inservice workshops for practicing teachers. The classrooms featured are:

Rural Wisconsin Reading Project (RWRP) was a three-year project developed by NCREL, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board that provided technology-supported staff development on strategic reading and teaching for 17 rural districts in central and west-central Wisconsin. The project's approach to develop strategic reading instruction was to treat human and organizational change as a long-term, evolutionary process rather than as a process of implementing an innovation. Two programs have arisen out of RWRP: (1) The Rural Schools Reading Project which applies what was learned from RWRP to address the access, time, and cost challenges of sustained, effective staff development for a network of rural schools (this project is on the list of programs that work from the National Diffusion Network of the U.S. Department of Education), and (2) The Strategic Reading Project which is a single school application of the RWRP principles. NCREL, 1120 Diehl Road, Naperville, IL 60563 (630/649-6500).

Reciprocal Teaching is an instructional strategy for teaching strategic reading developed by Annemarie Sullivan Palincsar that takes place in the form of a dialogue between teachers and students. In this dialogue the teacher and students take turns assuming the role of teacher in leading the dialogue about a passage of text. Four strategies are used by the group members in the dialogue: summarizing, question generating, clarifying, and predicting. At the start the adult teacher is principally responsible for initiating and sustaining the dialogue through modelling and thinking out loud. As students acquire more practice with the dialogue, the teacher consciously imparts responsibility for the dialogue to the students, while becoming a coach to provide evaluative information and to prompt for more and higher levels of participation. Annemarie Palincsar, 1360 FEB, University of Michigan, 610 East University, Ann Arbor, MI 48109.



Coaching Providing support in studying new skills, polishing old ones, and encouraging change.

Collaborative Groups A temporary grouping structure used primarily for developing attitude outcomes. Students of varying abilities work together to solve a problem or to complete a project.

Comprehension Monitoring Good comprehenders self-evaluate how well they understand while they read. If comprehension is not proceeding well, they have strategies for going back and improving their comprehension.

Constructing Meaning from Text A process in which the reader integrates what is read with his or her prior knowledge.

Cooperative Learning Students working together in small heterogeneous groups to achieve a common goal.

Heterogeneous Groups Groups composed of students who vary in several ways (for example, different reading levels).

Homogeneous Groups Groups composed of students who are alike in one or more ways.

Interactive Phase Sometimes called "guided practice" in this phase, the teacher attempts gradually to move students to a point where they can independently use strategies. It is a major part of a lesson.

Metacognition The process of thinking about and regulating one's own learning. Examples of metacognitive activities include assessing what one already knows about a given topic before reading, assessing the nature of the learning task, planning specific reading/thinking strategies, determining what needs to be learned, assessing what is comprehended or not comprehended during reading, thinking about what is important and unimportant, evaluating the effectiveness of the reading/thinking strategy, revising what is known, and revising the strategy.

Modeling Showing a student how to do a task with the expectation that the student will then emulate the model. In reading, modeling often involves talking about how one thinks through a task.

Predicting Anticipating the outcome of a situation.

Prior Knowledge The sum total of what the individual knows at any given point. Prior knowledge includes knowledge of content as well as knowledge of specific strategies and metacognitive knowledge.

Scaffolding Instruction Providing teacher support to students by modeling the thought processes in a learning episode and gradually shifting the responsibility for formulating questions and thinking aloud to the students.

Strategic Learner A learner who analyzes the reading task, establishes a purpose for reading, and then selects strategies for this purpose.

Strategies Any mental operations that the individual uses, either consciously or unconsciously, to help him- or herself learn. Strategies are goal oriented; that is, the individual initiates them to learn something, to solve a problem, or to comprehend something. Strategies include, but are not limited to, what have traditionally been referred to as study skills such as underlining, note taking, and summarizing, as well as predicting, reviewing prior knowledge, and generating questions.

Text Any segment of organized information. Text could be a few sentence or an entire section of a chapter. Typically, text refers to a few paragraphs.



Allington, R.L. (1991). How policy and regulation influence instruction for at-risk learners: Why poor readers rarely comprehend well and probably never will. In L. Idol, & B.F. Jones (Eds.), Educational Values and Cognitive Instruction: Implications for Reform (pp. 273-296). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Anderson, R.C., Osborn, J., & Tierney, R.J. (Eds.). (1984). Learning to read in American schools: Basal readers and content texts. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Anderson, R.C., Spiro, R.J., & Montague, W.E. (Eds.). (1977). Schooling and the acquisition of knowledge. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Anderson, R.C., Hiebert, E.H., Scott, J.A., & Wilkinson, I.A.G. (1985). Becoming a nation of readers: The report of the Commission on Reading. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois.

Banathy, B.H. (1990). Systems design of education: A journey to create the future. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Borkowski, J.G., Carr, M., Rellinger, E., & Pressley, M. (1990). Self-regulated cognition: Interdependence of metacognition, attributions, and self-esteem. In B.F. Jones (Ed.), Dimensions of thinking: Review of research (pp.53-92). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Brown, A.L., Palincsar, A.S., & Purcell, L. (1986). Poor readers: Teach, don't label. In U. Neisser (Ed.), The academic performance of minority children: New perspectives (pp. 105-143). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Collins, A., Brown, J.S., & Newman, S. (1989). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching students the craft of reading, writing, and mathematics. In L.B. Resnick (Ed.), Knowing, learning, and instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaser. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Durkin, D. (1984). Do basal manuals teach reading comprehension? In R.C. Anderson, J. Osborn, & J. Tierney (Eds.), Learning to read in American schools: Basal readers and content texts (pp. 39-38). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Durkin, D. (1978-79). What classroom observations reveal about reading comprehension instruction. Reading Research Quarterly,15, 481-533.

Herber, H.L. (1985). Developing reading and thinking skills in content areas. In J.W. Segal, S.F. Chipman, & R. Glaser (Eds.), Thinking and learning skills: Vol. I. Relating instruction to research (pp. 297-316). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Jones, B.F., Palincsar, A.S., Ogle, D.S., & Carr, E.G. (1987). Strategic teaching and learning: Cognitive instruction in the content areas. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Jones, B.F. & Pierce, J. (in press). Students at risk vs the Board of Education. In A. Costa & J. Bell (Eds.), Mind Matters: Vol. I. Educating for the 21st century. Palatine, IL: Skylight Publishing.

Palincsar, A. (1987, April). Collaborating for collaborative learning of text comprehension. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Washington, DC.

Paris, S.G., & Winograd, P. (1990). How metacognition can promote academic learning and instruction. In B.F. Jones, & L. Idol (Eds.), Dimensions of thinking and cognitive instruction (pp. 15-52). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Pearson, P.D. (1985). Changing the face of reading comprehension instruction. The Reading Teacher, 39, 724-737.

Pressley, M., Borkowski, J.G., & Schneider, W. (1987). Good strategy users coordinate metacognition, strategy use and knowledge. In R. Basta & G. Whitehurst (Eds.), Annals of Child Development, 4, 89-129.

Resnick, L.B. (1987). Learning in school and out. Educational Researcher, 16(9), 13-20.

Strickland, D.S. (1987). Using computers in the teaching of reading. New York: Teachers College Press.

Tierney, R.J., & Cunningham, J.W. (1984). Research on teaching reading comprehension. In P.D. Pearson (Ed.), Handbook of reading research (pp. 609-656). New York: Longman.

Weinstein, C.E., Goetz, E., & Alexander, P. (1988). Learning and study strategies: Issues in assessment, instruction, and evaluation. New York: Academic Press.

Wiggins, G. (1989). A true test: Toward more authentic and equitable assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 70, 703-714.
Copyright © North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. All rights reserved.
Disclaimer and copyright information.