English Assessment – Can Good Readers Read Anything?

There are two conceptually distinct reader behaviours: “reading ability”, which does not depend on the text being read, and “reading comprehension” which does depend on the text being read.

– Does the Reader Comprehend the Text because The Reader is Able or Because the Text is Easy? Explanatory Models, Unit Standards, and Personalised Learning in Educational Measurement

Less-skilled comprehenders may be worse at retrieving antecedents for pronouns because they are unable both to retain sufficient of the preceding text in working memory, and to carry out the necessary integration processes.

– Pronoun Resolution in Skilled and Less-Skilled Comprehenders: Effects of Memory Load and Inferential Complexity

Can someone who is considered a proficient and skilled reader still struggle with comprehending some texts? Can a skilled reader fail to understand a text which is not particularly difficult to comprehend? Is there a way to measure reading ability objectively, independent of texts? The authors of a recent chapter on reading answer these questions and more.

Stenner and Stone (2023) begin their chapter by asking the following: When someone understands a text, can they say that they have high reading ability or should they say that the text they read was easy? The intuitive answer would be it depends on the complexity level of the text.

Yet, as Stenner and Stone (2023) point out, for years – in “approximately 3000 pages of reading theory and research spread across three volumes and two decades in the three Handbooks of Reading Research”, very little research has gone into the difficulty levels of texts. It has been assumed that if readers develop and practise the necessary skill and techniques, they should be able to access any text with a high degree of comprehension.

The answer to their main question would have implications for the way reading is taught. Stenner and Stone (2023) say that there are problems with the way we currently research, measure and teach reading. They believe that reading ability and text difficulty can be measured independent of each other. They also believe therefore, that measuring comprehension may not be the same thing as measuring reading ability.

As an example of how there are problems with reading research, they point to conclusions drawn from eye-movement experiments. Researchers who have studied how readers move their eyes (over the words in a text) have found two things. Readers who demonstrate lower levels of comprehension, move backwards across a sentence more often. Their gaze lingers on a certain phrase longer. This lingering gaze occurs for more phrases and portions of the text compared to those who demonstrate higher comprehension levels.

This gave rise to “eye movement training” (Stenner & Stone, 2023) – readers are trained to move their eyes in certain ways which mirror those of readers who demonstrate higher comprehension.

However, from both an intuitive and an informed viewpoint, the reasoning underpinning eye movement training appears flawed. Reading researchers recommend (for example, Mokhtar & Sheorey, 2002) re-reading as a problem-solving strategy. In other words, skilled readers should in fact go backwards across a sentence. They should also think about what they are reading from time to time instead of proceeding in a linear fashion regardless of the material before them.

One reason to go backwards in a text is pronouns. Researchers have found that students who demonstrate lower levels of comprehension have difficulty identifying who or what a pronoun refers to. Consider the following:

(A)

Best estimates say there are 20,000 to 30,000 polar bears in 19 different groups or populations scattered across the top of the U.S., Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia. Four of these ________ are considered to be declining.

(Leahy, 2018)

(B)

England’s larger shopping centres all said their toilets were open but many ________ customers to expect less availability.

(Murphy, 2020)

Students would necessarily have to move backwards in the text to know what these and many refer to, in (A) and (B) above, in order to get the correct answers. (On a side note, it is not uncommon for students to misinterpret what these and many refer to).

So, what appeared to eye movement researchers as characteristics of poor readers were in fact effective strategies to increase comprehension.

Stenner and Stone (2023) suggest that the reason researchers and those who design educational intervention programmes based on their research, get it wrong is because they don’t stop to consider the difference between causation and correlation. Certain eye movements are correlated to but not determinative of comprehension levels.

To do their part in clarifying causes of comprehension from effects of comprehension, Stenner and Stone (2023) suggested the following.

Causes

To improve reading ability (independent of texts), students must read texts they understand. Doing this regularly and changing to more difficult texts as their reading comprehension improves, will increase the comprehension ability (as suggested in Krashen’s I+1 theory).

To improve reading comprehension, students have to practise re-reading. They have to read texts which are not too complex for them. They suggest that text complexity turns on two main things; the vocabulary used and how words are arranged in sentences.

The following has been considered grammatical and can be considered complex:

It used to be an idea that to underline words in a letter was rather bad style than not; but now, if a writer wishes to be very emphatic, or to call particular attention to any remark, an additional stroke of the pen is not objected to; but it a liberty not to be taken when writing to those with whom one is on ceremony.

(The Correct Guide to Letter Writing, Ninth Edition)

Effects

Those who comprehend a text well will demonstrate the following effects. They will move their eyes in efficient ways. They will be able to re-tell and summarize. They will be able to infer from the text and give more accurate answers.

Stenner and Stone (2023) also suggested that the following have a Reciprocal Causation Effect or a virtuous circle effect.

Virtuous Circle

A beginning or developing reader has to read to build vocabulary. Once there is a strong vocabulary base, readers will read more and because they read more, they will be able to understand more complex texts – reading increases vocabulary; vocabulary increases reading, reading increases vocabulary and so on. Therefore, vocabulary and reading ability have a reciprocal effect on each other.

An engaged and motivated reader who is not easily distracted would demonstrate better comprehension. At the same time, someone who understands text well might be motivated and engaged precisely because he or she is able to understand the text well as reading progresses. It may be useful therefore to begin with texts on subjects which are interesting for the reader, at complexity levels suitable for the reader to kickstart a reading habit which is self-sustaining.

Finally, Stenner and Stone (2023) suggest that for a reading comprehension test to be a true and objective test of reading ability, the difficulty level of texts must be objectively quantified in terms of their vocabulary and grammatical structure. They offer a solution which measures the difficulty level of a text, comprehension level and reading ability with the same unit. They have termed this unit the Lexile (L). They propose giving every text a Lexile score. A text with more advanced, densely packed vocabulary and complex sentence structures would have a higher Lexile score. If a student is able to answer 75% of Lexile test items based on a text of say 400L, this student can be said to have a Lexile Reading ability of 400L. One possible implication of this approach is that a student should be able to choose any text of a higher Lexile level to demonstrate an improvement in ability. This way, factors which do not have to do with reading ability alone would not impact the comprehension score.

The reader comprehends because texts enable.

The Brain Dojo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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