ChapterPDF Available

Should the focus of literacy education be on “reading to learn” or “learning to read”?

Should the focus of
literacy education be
on “reading to learn”
or “learning to read”?
POINT: P. David Pearson, University of California, Berkeley, and
Gina Cervetti, University of Michigan
COUNTERPOINT: Marcia Invernizzi and Latisha Hayes,
University of Virginia
The sounds of “reading to learn” and “learning to read” easily slide from the
tongues of many educators—especially in reference to elementary school cur-
riculum and instruction in the United States. While these phrases are often
spoken by educators the distinction between them is not always clear. The
purpose of this chapter is to unpack what these phrases actually mean and
how the phrases have become a seemingly central axiom in much reading
education practice.
The phrase has old roots in a great divide of reading education that is marked
off between word recognition and text comprehension processes and methods.
In the late 19th century, much of the research on reading was simply about the
sounds and markings associated with written words. Gradually, some studies
gave way to the relations among oral and written language and thinking pro-
cesses. For example, in the first half of the 20th century educational psychologists
such as Edward Thorndike became interested in topics of how memory, whether
it is working memory or latent memories, might influence the comprehension of a
text. However, the continued focus during that time on word recognition in begin-
ning reading research and instruction is evidenced by the highly popular
McGuffey primer and first readers’ texts with their controlled sentenced length and
vocabulary and repetitive patterns, such as “The fat cat sat on a mat.” As the skills
Pearson, P. D. & Cervetti, G. (2012). Should the focus of literacy
education be on “reading to learn” or “learning to read”? [The point
position]. In A. J. Eakle (Ed.), Curriculum and Instruction: Debating
Issues in American Education: A SAGE Reference Set (pp. 75-81).
Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
OVERVIEW: Chapter 5
of children sharpened, they advanced to higher level texts with more complex
vocabulary and ideas, and as they reached the later elementary grades, students
read increasingly sophisticated texts, including American classics. The McGuffey
series illustrates one of the first examples of graded readers. This has evolved into
what today is frequently referred to as “reading levels,” which attempt to match
the concepts, words, and grammatical level of a text to the developmental level
of typical children at a particular time such as fourth grade.
By the 1970s, meaning-based reading research and its application reached
a zenith, partially as a result of Ken and Yetta Goodman’s seminal research on
the analyses of miscues, which, grossly put, are the errors that children voice
while reading printed texts aloud. Whether the meaning of the text is altered by
a miscue is an example they drew upon. For instance, consistently substituting
“Jan” for “Jane” will likely not change the meaning of a given text; whereas,
replacing “Job” for “Jane” would. The Goodman’s research helped to spawn
the whole language movement, which emphasized reading as a meaning-
making process. Further, insofar as text meanings and interpretations can
greatly vary, whole language methods were as much about thoughtful teaching
as about reading comprehension. As a result, whole language approaches
were viewed as cornerstones for teacher empowerment.
Related to the meaning-based notions of whole language is another one
that has been a bulwark of reading research and instruction during the past half
century: schema theory. In reading research, this perspective emphasizes the
role that past memories and experiences can have on organizing meaning
while reading texts, how much attention needs to be devoted to familiar and
unfamiliar texts, and so on. In a related way and during the same time, meaning-
based instruction and learning via the work of David Ausbel, Jerome Bruner,
Jean Piaget, and others enabled teachers and researchers to draw on con-
cepts of metacognition, which, simply put, is “thinking about thinking.” Skilled
readers, for example, are well aware of when they can breeze through a pas-
sage without great effort and when they need to pause to use “fix up” strate-
gies, such as rereading a sentence or seeking out the meaning of an unfamiliar
word. To be sure, the 1970s and 1980s could well be considered the golden
age of cognitive psychological research and instruction about reading compre-
hension, and many of the ideas of whole language, schema, and metacognitive
theories influence what is taught in much of teacher education today. However,
these approaches, although reaching beyond those of the rote memorization,
behaviorism, and so forth of a previous time, are slowly but surely giving way
to even more expansive notions of reading texts that encompass not only the
printed type but a variety of communication modes and expressions, none the
least of which are multimedia ones, such as those of digital formats, cinema,
three-dimensional objects, and spaces.
Curriculum and Instruction
Nonetheless, as the 20th century began to close, the wave of meaning-
making approaches to reading education curriculum and instruction was
challenged—in part, because it led to open-ended explorations that some-
times did not foster academic achievement for some children. Gaps persisted
among vulnerable student populations, and direct instruction of the basics of
letter sounds, memorization exercises, and controlled texts came back into
fashion in some corners of education. This was fueled by a growing body of
research that highlighted the utility of phonics, or “sounding out” words; how
the early awareness of discrete units of sounds in language or phonemes pre-
dicted the later academic success of readers; and so forth. Consequently, for
several years there raged what is known by educators as the “great debate” of
reading education, which pitted whole language advocates against those of
direct instruction of basic processes, which included, among other things,
phonics. Championing direct instruction was Jeanne Chall, whose develop-
mental stages of reading texts was misapplied as showing a neat divide
between what she referred to as “learning to read” and “reading to learn,”
which became a slogan in the ongoing polemics of liberal and conservative
education policy and practice.
Today, many literacy education researchers and practitioners do not adhere
to a rigid cut between “reading to learn” and “learning to read.” The great
debate between the phonics and whole language camps was settled more
than a decade ago with truce-like logic supporting “blended approaches” to
instructing and learning from texts. Nevertheless, the divide continues in edu-
cation policy and practice and in the design of curriculum programs that are
pitched to one side of the previous divide or the other.
The following essays are written by eminent reading education scholars
who present arguments regarding the debate over “reading to learn” and
“learning to read.” The point essay in this chapter is written by P. David Pearson
of the University of California, Berkeley, and coauthor Gina Cervetti of the
University of Michigan, whose seminal work in meaning-based reading educa-
tion, including the relation of schema theory to text reading, has spanned the
decades between the golden age of reading comprehension research and the
present. Taking the counterpoint side of the issue, Marcia Invernizzi and
Latisha Hayes of the University of Virginia describe the rich word study tradition
that comes out of the University of Virginia’s McGuffey Reading Center. This
tradition has laid a foundation in constructivist processes about the relations of
spelling, word recognition, and reading in context.
A. Jonathan Eakle
The Johns Hopkins University
POINT: P. David Pearson and Gina Cervetti
POINT: P. David Pearson
University of California, Berkeley
Gina Cervetti
University of Michigan
persistent homily about reading instruction is that children first must
learn to read and only then can they read to learn. In other words, once
children have acquired “the basics”—sight words, decoding skills, literal com-
prehension of text, and a few vocabulary skills like inferring word meanings
from context—they can read to learn from text. Advocates of the traditional
learning-to-read model commonly offer one of the following arguments in
defense of content-light early reading materials:
reading materials in the primary grades should focus on simple versions
of everyday experiences, so that the unfamiliar process of acquiring the
“code” or the cipher that maps written language to oral language can be
the focus,
when students are offered meaningful materials, they use the available
context to determine the pronunciations of words, thus deflecting them
from the critical early reading task of figuring out the letter-sound
match they must acquire, or
the motivation to master the code is so compelling that content matters
little, so even the seemingly meaningless content of decodable texts such
as “Dan can fan Nan” can sustain students’ interest.
What these three rationales share is the underlying assumption that learning
more about the world around them is not something that can or should matter
to beginning readers.
We take issue with this traditional perspective on the trajectory of reading
instruction and acquisition and instead propose that reading to learn should
be a central focus from children’s very first encounters with texts. Specifically,
we suggest the following:
There should not be a time when meaningful texts should be withheld
from students.
Curriculum and Instruction
There is no stage of reading development at which readers are not also
learning to read.
There is no stage of reading development when the goal should simply
be getting words off a page.
We should regard knowledge acquisition as inseparable from reading
To develop these four points, three constructs—authenticity, motivation, and
learning—are developed in subsequent portions of the essay.
Authenticity has two faces—(a) text and (b) task. An authentic text is one writ-
ten for one or more purposes—to communicate, to inform, to persuade, to
engage, or to entertain. By contrast, an inauthentic text is one created for a
special, usually pedagogical, purpose—to teach, practice, or test some sort of
skill such as decoding words in the at word family, such as cat, mat, and fat. In
short, inauthentic texts would never be written if we had not “invented” the
instructional apparatus that defines schooling. Some people dub these special
texts instructional ones; however, our favorite label “textoids” better conveys
the notion that these types of texts lack a connection to purposeful reading.
Unlike textoids, authentic texts require students to orchestrate a range of
skills in order to make meaning from them; inauthentic texts are often
constructed in a way that focuses practice on a single skill or strategy. One
might infer from this distinction that it would be easier to read single purpose,
inauthentic texts, but that is not necessarily true, because while textoids
present fewer challenges and reduced cognitive load, they also offer fewer cues
about how to make meaning in response to them.
Tasks can also range along a continuum of authenticity. Authentic reading
tasks are the kinds of reading that we do as adults and always involve putting
reading to work in the service of a goal. We read to gather insight, gain
information, establish communicative relationships, and so forth. What makes
a task more or less authentic is whether it entails one or more of the real-world
purposes and thus invites the processes that readers use when they are engaged
in reading for a reason other than simply practice.
Some advocates of traditional learning-to-read perspectives suggest that the
consequences of failing to teach precursor skills are too grave to risk in favor of
a meaning-driven approach. They point to research suggesting that students
who are not equipped early with skills, such as sight word recognition, often
POINT: P. David Pearson and Gina Cervetti
experience reading problems later. For these educators, authenticity represents
a luxury that they believe struggling readers cannot afford. We suggest that
there is no reason that these skills cannot be acquired by students concurrently
in the context of meaningful reading; it may even be true that it is an essential
support for basic reading acquisition.
Even mature readers encounter stumbling blocks along the way and draw
on particular skills and strategies to get around those blocks. But skills and
strategies are leveraged at precisely those moments when needed, not during a
special lesson about them. Inasmuch, strategy instruction is much more
effective when situated in reading to learn, because strategies make more sense
when students have a purpose for using them—for doing things like attacking
unknown words. In other words, meaningful reading offers situations where
readers realize that they do not understand and need to do something different.
This makes sense when the goal of reading is learning but little sense when
texts do not resemble those that readers would typically read for understanding
such as a newspaper article, instruction manual, or academic article. As
Julianne Turner and Scott G. Paris (1995) pointed out, students who have few
opportunities to use reading strategies for the purpose of supporting authentic
reading might doubt the usefulness of strategies.
In reading meaningful texts for meaningful purposes, the need to invoke a
wide array of reading strategies—from decoding to comprehension to critique—
will arise naturally because reading to learn is rich with opportunities to
encounter the kinds of struggles that invite the use of strategies. And these are
precisely the struggles that readers do, can, could, and should engage in because
reading is a meaning-making process. Another advantage of meaningful
materials is that they encourage readers to use context to monitor their reading
output to ensure that it “makes sense, a practice that is virtually impossible with
specially designed early texts—and absolutely essential for reading to learn.
Unfortunately, strategy instruction—in the ways in which it has been put
into practice as reflected through basal series and kits—is in need of reform. In
these cases, strategies are taught as content-free routines that can be applied to
any text. Instead, strategies should be taught as tools that help readers unlock
the meanings of texts (McKeown, Beck, & Blake, 2009). Otherwise it can breed
an excessive reliance on abstract, content-free, metacognitive introspection
about strategy use (Pearson & Fielding, 1991). The same could be said of
phonics instruction—phonics rules are only a means to an end, which is for
understanding and gaining new knowledge.
This is not an admonition against the direct instruction of strategies.
Pedagogically, a teacher might pull a strategy, such as decoding a particular
pattern or finding a main idea or inferring the motive for a character’s action,
Curriculum and Instruction
out of context to conduct an explicit lesson on it—to deal with the strategy as
an object of instruction. But then, she should put that strategy in a meaningful
context and guide students in learning how it can be applied to overcome a
hurdle with a text in the interest of making meaning of it. Moreover, good
strategy instruction can sometimes be provided on the fly at the point of
contact at which a hurdle is encountered—and always on the way to meaning
making. So all other things being equal, the more strategy instruction can be
contextualized and in the moment, the sooner we are likely to convince novice
readers that these tools really do help them to derive meaning from texts.
Motivation is critically important for learning to read. Curiosity and individual
interests through reading are powerful factors in sustained engagement with
texts (Wigfield & Guthrie, 1997). Meaningful reading invites students to asso-
ciate reading with their lives off the page in ways that make reading relevant.
These factors influence students’ willingness to exert the effort required to
persist through challenging aspects of the texts that they select, and as a result,
they take more ownership and personal responsibility in relation to their work.
It is this very willingness to exert the effort that allows readers to marshal all of
their cognitive resources, including attention and discrimination required for
accurate decoding on the road to making meaning.
Additionally, involvement in purposeful reading activities supports both
positive attitudes toward reading and reading achievement. Using reading to
learn something about the world nurtures a sense of personal mastery. This is
not only inherently desirable but it is also a foundation for students to come to
understand the purposes of reading, and it seems to play a role in students’
decisions about whether to engage in reading in the future. It is not surprising,
then, that the simple act of giving students reasons to read and write—reading
to learn or investigate or writing to record and communicate—supports their
literacy development.
Advocates of the traditional model of beginning reading often suggest that
meaning is less important in the early stages of instruction because children
are caught up in the joy of making words come alive and mapping printed
words onto their oral language. They suggest that involvement in text is
enough to sustain children even if the texts are not inherently meaningful.
While it may be true that decoding words is exciting for some children, there
is little evidence to suggest that this form of involvement is sustaining. In fact,
tasks that emphasize practice in applying discrete reading skills may be
associated with a decreased motivation for students to learn. On the other
POINT: P. David Pearson and Gina Cervetti
hand, when reading is associated with learning meaningful content and
involves personal interests and sensible purposes, students (especially those
who struggle) can come to see reading as a way of seeking information, insight,
and enjoyment.
While advocates of the traditional learning-to-read perspective point to the
gap in reading achievement that exists between the educational haves and
have-nots as justification for an early focus on emergent literacy skills, equally
harmful and enduring gaps may develop as a result of an exclusive focus on
those skills. In fact, the gap in useful content knowledge may be as perilous and
persistent as the reading achievement gap. Susan Neuman (2006) called the
failure to address differences among children in content knowledge a “critical
oversight. Moving beyond the basics, students can learn much from text,
including the following:
Understandings about and investigations of phenomena in the natural
The human condition, including the insights that literature can offer
about interpersonal relationships, the relationship of humans to the
world around them, and the social and internal lives of people living in
different cultural and historical contexts
Disciplinary ways of knowing and investigating the world, such as how
a biologist thinks about ecology or how an historian understands con-
flicts among nations
The nature of text and of language, including understandings about
form–function relationships across different text genres
Their identities, as when readers see themselves such as their gender,
ethnicity, or familial situation reflected in a story
Metacognitive and metalinguistic knowledge of how language works
Further, learning, operationalized as the acquisition of knowledge, is more
than a convenient by-product of reading; it is fuel for reading comprehension
(Anderson & Pearson, 1984). Today’s new knowledge is, quite literally,
tomorrow’s prior knowledge. And learning is more than only fuel of
comprehension; it is also an agent of motivation, aptitude, positive attitudes,
and even the development/refinement of specific skills and strategies. There is
Curriculum and Instruction
much to learn from research that focuses on reading and writing as tools for
acquiring knowledge. It appears that situating reading as a tool for learning
supports students’ motivation to read, as the feedback young readers receive
from the thrill of acquiring knowledge goes a long way to sustain them in
further reading and learning activities. It also appears that learning goals
support students’ progress on a range of reading aptitudes—from word
recognition to comprehension.
Reading to learn also situates academic assessment in just the right position
and in context. When the focus on learning to read is associated with
assessments that break the task of reading into a series of discrete skills, such
as rapidly naming letters and manipulating phonemes, these benchmarks can
be easily mistaken for good reading (Pearson, 2006). Rather, the consequences
of participating in valid assessments that put the emphasis on orchestrating a
range of enabling skills in the quest for new learning are that students are
encouraged to use reading for meaningful, self-selected purposes; those
purposes should be the target we are always moving toward in assessment and
Suggesting that students should read meaningful texts for the purposes of
learning is not an argument against the explicit instruction of reading strate-
gies. We are not arguing that teachers should simply bathe kids in high quality
text and watch instruction take care of itself. To the contrary, sharing the
secrets of one’s success as a reader is the essence of good instruction, especially
when students are not privy to those secrets and when students find themselves
in situations where it is not obvious what strategy to use or how to use it.
However, teaching in an explicit and highly intentional manner can and should
still be embedded in the broader goal of attempting to acquire knowledge.
What we are arguing against is a steady diet of generic, decontextualized
strategy instruction for any aspect of reading pedagogy—comprehension,
vocabulary, or decoding. We should maintain vigilant awareness that explicit
instruction, as helpful as it can be in particular situations, is always irrelevant
until it is applied. It is only when we see that students can apply strategies to
the real reading of authentic texts—where acquiring knowledge and insight is
the purpose—that we can be sure that they have truly acquired those strategies
and integrated them as useful tools in their academic repertoire. It may be
helpful to think of strategies and skills as analogous to a legal precedent; in law,
principles are anchored by cases that give specificity and meaning—and
teeth—to the principles. In a similar way, we can imagine abstract routines, but
POINT: P. David Pearson and Gina Cervetti
we will always situate those principles/routines in specific attempts to
understand specific texts for specific purposes.
We are committed to high quality strategy instruction that demonstrates the
purpose and utility of strategies at every step along the way. To do that, kids must
receive immediate feedback demonstrating to them that strategies are useful—that
pulling out just the right tool to help you over a hurdle at just the right moment
makes you a smarter, more effective and more strategic reader. In a sense, strategies
are just like phonics rules—only a means to an end. It is when either a phonics rule
or a strategy routine becomes an end unto itself that bad things happen. In these
cases, there is mock compliance from students but no real uptake. Instead, they
keep the strategies tucked away in a special “school talk” box that is hauled out only
when the assignment requires it and then put back into that box well out of reach
of everyday reading. The only way to block such mock compliance is for educators
to provide guided apprenticeships that help students learn how, when, and why to
apply strategies so that they can see their transparent benefit to the broader goals
of making meaning and acquiring knowledge from texts.
We end with the same argument we used to begin this essay—that the
commonly voiced learning to read/reading to learn dichotomy is false. First,
learning to read could, should, and does entail goals of meaning making and
acquiring knowledge at every step along the developmental continuum. Second,
there is never a step in that continuum of becoming a more skilled reader when
we are not “learning to read”; skilled readers who read to learn are also learning
to read better—and to solve new problems they encounter as they read. Third,
the contrast between explicit teaching and authentic activity is as spurious as
the dichotomy between learning to read and reading to learn is false. Explicit
teaching should be used to support authentic activity, and explicit teaching of
strategies should always begin and end in an authentic application. Fourth,
when educators lead students with the goal of knowledge acquisition, the skill
and strategy acquisition face of reading is rendered more sensible, important,
and transparent. It is clearer to students why the acquisition of a particular skill
set is important when they see the immediate payoff in their learning.
The crux of our argument is simple: We are always reading to learn, and we
are always learning to read. The one supports the other at every step along the
way. The sooner we accept that premise, the sooner we discard counterproductive
instructional programs and meaningless texts and in their stead develop
maximally effective curricula that encourage students to learn more about how
their world works as they become more facile readers.
Curriculum and Instruction
COUNTERPOINT: Marcia Invernizzi
and Latisha Hayes
University of Virginia
Should the focus of literacy education be about “reading to learn or “learn-
ing to read”? This oft-repeated phrase is an example of a broad-based sum-
mary statement of developmental shifts in the growth of literacy misapplied.
Coming from Jeanne Chall’s (1983) description of the developmental stages
through which most students progress in their journey toward mature reading,
learning to read and reading to learn aptly describes a relative shift in empha-
sis, not a dichotomous “either-or.” Unfortunately, well into the 21st century, the
field of literacy education is still prone to polarization, and learning to read
versus reading to learn has become yet another sound bite in the polemical
politics of literacy education.
It’s too bad. Scholars who study the process of learning to read have never
denied the paramount importance of reading for a good purpose, whether that
purpose is to learn what vegetable will be put on top of the pizza on the next
page, to learn where butterflies go at night, or to learn if Biscuit will find a
friend. At the same time, scholars who study the process and context of reading
to learn have never denied the importance of access to the printed word. No
one can learn to read without a reason to do so, and no one can read to learn
if they can’t read printed text.
The phrase learning to read is typically associated with the “code,” the
printed words we look at when we read printed text. In this context, learning
to read is about cracking that code, decoding the orthography or spelling,
reading the words, irrespective of their meaning. In contrast, the phrase
reading to learn is typically associated with reading for meaning, reading to
learn new ideas, and so forth. This viewpoint assumes that the reader is already
facile with decoding and word recognition and there is nothing further to learn
about written words. In this essay, the argument is advanced that learning to
read includes learning to read for meaning and information and that reading
to learn includes learning more about words.
The phrases learning to read versus reading to learn hearken back to Chall’s
theory of reading development in which students progress from an acquisition
phase to more advanced reading processes. The purported shift from learning
COUNTERPOINT: Marcia Invernizzi and Latisha Hayes
to read to reading to learn typically occurs at around the fourth grade when the
elementary curriculum shifts to content area learning. Chall (1983) described
a parallel shift in how most readers approach text at about this time, moving
from an emphasis on bottom-up processes concerned with word recognition
and decoding, to an emphasis on top-down processes concerned with “getting
the message” (p. 34). For typically achieving students, this shift occurs at about
the same grade level such as fourth grade, but according to Chall’s reading-
stage theory, the processes readers adopt as they approach text depend more on
stage of development than grade.
According to Chall’s (1996) theory, emergent readers in Stage 0 use top-
down processes such as prediction, picture context, and memory to fit the
“message to the medium” because they lack the alphabetic knowledge needed
to decipher print media without prior knowledge of the story or information.
In contrast, Chall’s Stage 1 learners become preoccupied with printed media,
as they apply their newly learned decoding skills to access the message; they use
a predominantly bottom-up process in reading text, a process that continues
into Stage 2 with “increasing backup of a top-down process” when the
difficulty of the medium outstrips the word-level skills of the reader (p. 34).
Readers especially rely on top-down processes when the going gets tough,
either because the orthographic makeup of the word exceeds their ability to
decode it or because the word’s meaning is unknown to them even after
decoding. This interaction between the medium and the message continues
across the stages, though the top-down approach receives more emphasis in
Stage 3, reading to learn new ideas. Typically achieving students reach Stage 3
by Grade 4 but remain in this stage throughout the intermediate and middle
school years where reading is used to learn new information, word meanings,
and concepts.
Chall’s reading stages continue on through college and adulthood. Stage 4
readers, typically found in Grades 9 through 12, mostly rely on top-down
processes and use bottom-up processes when encountering unfamiliar
vocabulary. These readers read from a range of genres and perspectives and
learn to consider ideas from multiple viewpoints. If you are reading this essay,
you are a Stage 5 reader, according to Chall’s theory, and you read for your own
personal and professional purposes. Although your facility with orthography
is quite efficient, you too might use some bottom-up processes in reading an
extremely complex text about an unfamiliar topic.
Chall’s (1983) description of reading development provided a powerful
model for teachers to guide the content of their literacy instruction, emphasizing
phonics and decoding in the first grade (Stage 1), fluency in the second and
third grades (Stage 2), and cognitive strategies to increase comprehension and
Curriculum and Instruction
vocabulary in third grade through eighth grade when students are learning to
read new material (Stage 3). High school teachers and college instructors would
concentrate on teaching students how to deal with multiple points of view
(Stage 4) and to construct and reconstruct their own understandings through
critical thinking strategies entailing analysis, synthesis, and judgment (Stage 5).
On the surface, the shift in instructional emphasis that moves gradually
from decoding to comprehension appears to equate learning to read with
decoding in Stages 1 and 2, and reading to learn with comprehension in Stages
3 through 5. However, Chall (1983) was clear that “the process of comprehension
is practiced in all of the stages, from the earliest to the most advanced’
(p. xxiv). Further, though her stage theory called for the explicit teaching of
phonics and decoding only in Stages 1 and 2, she also called for the “systematic
study of words” in Stages 3 and 4 (p. 86). Nevertheless, a cursory reading of
Chall’s stage theory often results in the erroneous belief that decoding and
comprehension are mutually exclusive and that phonics and spelling instruction
are not necessary beyond the third grade except for struggling readers who are
below grade level in their achievement. We would argue that there are no stages
of reading development in which written word knowledge, from either a top-
down or bottom-up perspective, is not essential.
Written words are both the medium and the message. Written words have
sound or phonological attributes and meaning or semantic attributes. In addi-
tion, written words carry concepts within their word parts or morphological
attributes communicating relationships among ideas. These attributes are
germane to the argument for the central role written word knowledge plays in
both learning to read and reading to learn. Attributes of written words are
melded together through their orthography; thus, understanding the spelling
system is essential in acquiring vocabulary knowledge integral to learning.
Written word knowledge is at the crux of the learning to read versus reading
to learn debate for several reasons. First, knowledge of written words is
acquired gradually across the grades; the process of learning about them
doesn’t stop with the mastery of phonics. While it is true that an important
prerequisite for learning to read includes cracking the alphabetic code and
learning phonics, the orthographic makeup of words goes well beyond letter-
sound correspondences. Written words are composed of larger letter patterns,
which are related to both sounds such as wind-noun and wind-verb, meaning
such as palepail, syllables such as in-ter-est-ing, and morphemes such as
in-tract-able—all of which require instruction beyond the phonics traditionally
COUNTERPOINT: Marcia Invernizzi and Latisha Hayes
associated with learning to read. Word study must continue beyond phonics if
students are to progress in their written word knowledge and learn from text.
Second, capitalizing on spelling-meaning connections across derivationally
related words such as modern and modernize is an underused approach to
expanding the word knowledge that is the foundation of reading to learn.
Third, and perhaps most compelling, written word knowledge is acquired in a
stagelike progression that marches in accord with overall literacy development.
While there is a correlation between stages of written word knowledge and
grade levels, there can be a disparity between students’ stage of development
and their grade-level placement. If the developmental word knowledge of
students is ignored for the sake of curriculum coverage or grade-level
standards, existing student gaps in written word knowledge simply widen. A
literal interpretation of learning to read followed later by reading to learn can
result in negligent education practices by excluding the important role of
reading for meaning and information in the early stages of reading and the
critical role of written word knowledge in the latter stages. There is no stage at
which written knowledge and reading for meaning are not essential.
The average high school student can read over 40,000 words, but they did not
learn them overnight (Templeton, Bear, Invernizzi, & Johnston, 2010). Written
word knowledge develops gradually over time in stagelike progressions spurred
by instruction and practice. In all stages, students read to learn and learn to
read progressively more difficult words by discovering how spelling relates to
sound, pattern, and meaning.
Developmental stages of written word knowledge correspond to the
hierarchical tiers of English orthography that developed throughout history:
alphabet, pattern, and meaning. Written English is alphabetic at its Anglo-
Saxon base, so the first stage is about acquiring the alphabetic principle, or the
letters and combinations of letters used to represent the speech sounds of
English. Learning the systematic and predictable relationships between written
letters and individual speech sounds is a necessary first step toward acquiring
a beginning reading vocabulary—words that are in the spoken language of
most beginning readers (Henderson, 1990). This bottom-up process is helped
along by top-down scaffolding by supportive teachers sensitive to the
importance of reading for meaningful purposes. Nevertheless, beginning
readers must negotiate the alphabetic tier of written English if they are to move
toward greater ease in accessing information off the page and constructing
their own knowledge base.
Curriculum and Instruction
The pattern tier of English orthography was acquired during the French
occupation of England after the Norman invasion and accounts for the
multitudinous spellings associated with a single phoneme, such as the long a
vowel sound in English such as late, eight, steak, and plain. Fortunately, these
patterns fall into predicable, often rhyming, categories and are easily taught
through systematic word study of high frequency spelling patterns in conjunction
with wide reading in trade books and readers. While the reading vocabulary in
easy chapter books typically read during this second stage are still within the
oral vocabulary of most students, newer reading vocabulary is added to
the familiar base and the increase in sheer volume of word recognition fuels the
possibility of silent reading. Top-down processes interact with the bottom-up
process of decoding and results in greater fluency and more self-directed and
increasingly silent reading as students acquire patterns within words.
While words have meaning in every tier, an explosion of meaning units, or
morphemes, was layered on top of the pattern tier of written English during the
Renaissance. The proliferation of new scientific knowledge, concepts about
government, art, and culture necessitated the need for new vocabulary to express
these ideas. A sophisticated Latinate and Greco vocabulary was added to the
existing corpus of written English, which added to the language layers of
meaning units or morphemes including Latin and Greek affixes, stems, and
roots. Students who have already acquired knowledge of the alphabetic and
pattern tiers of written English are well poised to benefit from the study of these
multisyllabic words and their word parts. The generative potential of word study
in this tier is exponential because of the many spelling-meaning connections
within derivationally related word groups such as recite, recital, and recitation.
Acquiring the specific word features characteristic of each tier of English
orthography takes the average student approximately 16 years or longer.
Though Chall (1983) recommended “systematic word study” across her
reading stages, she didn’t specify the content of such word study beyond the
first two. An understanding of the more advanced stages of written word
knowledge and their correspondence to Chall’s later reading stages can help fill
this void. Systematic word study that builds on principles of sound, pattern,
and meaning can advance students’ reading vocabulary and simultaneously
enhance comprehension. Further, understanding the developmental nature of
written word knowledge can help teachers design the content and pacing of
their instruction to match their students’ needs as they learn to read and learn
to read to learn across the grades and stages.
Chall (1996) argued that the vocabulary load in children’s texts shifts at about
the fourth-grade level, moving from familiar, high frequency words that exist
COUNTERPOINT: Marcia Invernizzi and Latisha Hayes
in most children’s oral vocabulary to more abstract, lower frequency academic
and conceptually complex word meanings tied to domain-specific informa-
tion. She conjectured that lower socioeconomic status children fall behind in
their reading achievement around this point because of their lack of exposure
to information and the corresponding academic vocabulary. Without the req-
uisite background knowledge and vocabulary, top-down processes become of
limited use. Chall referred to this phenomenon as the “fourth-grade slump.
One often overlooked solution to the fourth-grade slump lies in the
generative power of vocabulary instruction that builds on spelling-meaning
connections in multisyllabic words. Words that share similar meanings often
share similar spellings even if the pronunciation changes across derivational
forms (Bear, Templeton, Invernizzi, & Johnston, 2008). Spelling-meaning
connections can be seen in word pairs such as reside–residential and confide–
confidential. In these word pairs, the i is retained in the adjectival form to signal
the meaning relationship to the base word, the verb form. The spelling remains
the same even though the sound of the i changes from a long vowel sound
in reside and confide, to a schwa sound in residential and confidential.
Morphophonemic aspects of derivational relations like this can generalize to
thousands of words that work the same way. The combinatorial aspect of
prefixes, suffixes, and Greek and Latin roots also adds generative power to the
study of spelling-meaning relationships. Insofar as over 60% of English
vocabulary and over 90% of the vocabulary of the sciences is created through
a combination of Latin and Greek roots, prefixes, and suffixes, knowing how
these Latin and Greek roots and morphemes combine to make new and related
words can significantly increase vocabulary knowledge and impact reading
comprehension through high school. Instead of teaching vocabulary one word
at a time, educators can teach the meaning system inherent in English
orthography by grouping words that share the same root. For instance, words
related to time (chron), such as chronic, chronology, chronicle, and synchronize,
can be grouped and compared to words with another root. When this kind of
word study is connected to ideas and themes in texts students read, the result
can be an exponential growth in subject area vocabulary. Word study that
capitalizes on the spelling-meaning connections empowers students to learn to
read longer, harder words and to learn more about the ideas words represent.
An exploration of spelling-meaning connections has the potential to reduce
the fourth-grade slump.
Some students in the upper elementary grades and beyond are still unable to
spell or decode words accurately and fluently, and this shortcoming has a crip-
pling effect on learning across the curriculum, destroying student motivation
Curriculum and Instruction
and a sense of self-efficacy in their ability to learn. Teachers are often caught in
a dilemma between what they are required to teach, referring to the curriculum
and what they know their students need such as reading instruction. Students
are required to read to learn content information, but many have not yet
learned to read or write well enough to do so.
Struggling readers are by no means a homogeneous group. Their background
knowledge of content-specific information varies as much as their literacy skills.
Yet, a commonality among them is their lack of written word knowledge.
Readers may be in the sixth or eighth grade, but their word knowledge may be
in stages of development associated with word patterns, or worse, alphabetics.
If the educational assumption for students past a certain grade level is that
students no longer require instruction associated with learning to read, these
students are placed in double jeopardy; they neither receive the literacy
instruction they need to move forward in development, nor access the content
in their textbooks. Until attention is paid to students’ developmental word
knowledge, regardless of their grade placement, achievement gaps will continue.
Stage theories of reading development are valuable because they provide a
framework for the timing and pacing of instruction that match the precise
needs of children. Unfortunately, stage theory is often misinterpreted and
misused in terms of learning to read and reading to learn. One major
misinterpretation is that word-level instruction is only for the primary grades
and unnecessary in later grades. A second misinterpretation is that encouraging
and teaching students how to read to learn is reserved for the upper grades. An
overemphasis on word-level skills in the early grades to the exclusion of
learning information and concepts can be as detrimental to vocabulary and
knowledge development as the exclusion of word study in the upper grades.
What some early stage theorists failed to articulate was how progressively
deeper levels of written word knowledge related to meaning or morphology
can increase vocabulary knowledge. Shane Templeton and colleagues (2010)
described a process of parallel vocabulary instruction in which teachers build
awareness of high frequency morphemes in content area study, even in the
early grades, through explorations of simple affixes and roots.
Stage theory is present in schools to assist in planning curricula, and it is also
valuable in teacher education. Students follow a predictable route of develop-
ment, and teachers must understand this continuum. Appropriate instruction
depends upon what reading procedures should be taught at particular points
in time. Linnea Ehri (2005) explained that developmental theories not only
describe the processes and skills that “emerge, change, and develop” but they
also identify causes of movement from one stage to the next. A teacher’s job is
to help students move from those stages where reading to learn is limited by
bottom-up approaches to more advanced stages where reading processes
become increasingly more interactive and top-down. At no point is reading
just about decoding or simply getting words off the page, and at all points read-
ing for self-determined purposes is paramount. The commonality across the
purported shift from learning to read to reading to learn is the written word
knowledge central to both. Instead of dichotomizing learning to read and read-
ing to learn, the field of literacy education would benefit from a new refrain:
“learning to read and learn.
Further readings and resources
Anderson, R. C., & Pearson, P. D. (1984). A schema-theoretic view of basic processes in
reading comprehension. In P. D. Pearson (Ed.), Handbook of reading research (pp.
255–291). New York: Longman.
Bear, D., Templeton, S., Invernizzi, M., & Johnston, F. (2008). Words their way: Word
study for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River,
NJ: Pearson.
Chall, J. S. (1983). Stages of reading development (1st ed.). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt
Brace College.
Chall, J. S. (1996). Learning to read: The great debate (3rd ed.). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt
Brace College.
Ehri, L. (2005). Development of sight word reading: Phases and findings. In M. J.
Snowling & C. Hulme (Eds.), The science of reading: A handbook (pp. 135–154).
Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Henderson, E. (1990). Teaching spelling (2nd ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
McKeown, M. G., Beck, I. L., & Blake, R. G. K. (2009). Rethinking comprehension
instruction: Comparing strategies and content instructional approaches. Reading
Research Quarterly, 44(3), 218–253.
Neuman, S. (2006). How we neglect knowledge—and why. American Educator, 30,
Pearson, P. D. (2006). Foreword. In K. Goodman (Ed.), The truth about DIBELS (pp.
v–xix). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Pearson, P. D., & Fielding, L. (1991). Comprehension instruction. In R. Barr, M. L.
Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, & P. D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (Vol. 2,
pp. 815–860). New York: Longman.
Templeton, S., Bear, D. R., Invernizzi, M., & Johnston, F. (2010). Vocabulary their way:
Word study with middle and secondary students. Boston: Pearson.
Turner, J., & Paris, S. G. (1995). How literacy tasks influence childrens motivation for
literacy. The Reading Teacher, 48(8), 662–673.
Wigfield, A., & Guthrie, J. T. (1997). Relations of children’s motivation for reading to the
amount and breadth of their reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 420–432.
... Researchers have clarified that the developmental shift to independently learning new content from reading does not mean that students should not be learning to read informational text at an early age (Duke & Roberts, 2010;. As Pearson and Cervetti (2012) argued, "we are always reading to learn, and we are always learning to read" (p. 81). ...
Informational reading instruction plays an important role in early literacy but has traditionally received less emphasis than literary text in elementary classrooms. This mixed‐methods study illuminates trends from observed reading instruction of 77 first‐year elementary teachers, drawing on data from 761 lesson segments scored with the Protocol for Language Arts Teaching Observations, a validated observation protocol. In descriptive analyses, we report on the prevalence of informational lessons across grade levels. Then, we integrate quantitative and qualitative data to describe the quality of informational reading instruction among first‐year teachers. Findings suggest a higher percentage of informational reading lesson segments in early elementary than has been shared in previous studies: 27% of observed reading instruction in grade 1 and 41% of observed reading instruction in grade 2. Quality of informational reading lesson segments varied within and among elements of instruction, with the majority of segments rated as low scoring for strategy use. We use qualitative case sampling to illustrate the characteristics of informational reading instruction across a range of score points. Analysis of lesson segments reveals a range of practices in text‐based instruction, strategy instruction, and representations of content, with the highest quality instruction showing a combination of all three. This study contributes to our understanding of the current landscape of informational reading instruction among first‐year teachers, identifies specific instructional practices that could be the focus of improvement efforts, and weighs in on the debate about strategy instruction versus content instruction.
Full-text available
Reports from research and the larger educational community demonstrate that too many students have limited ability to comprehend texts. The research reported here involved a two-year study in which standardized comprehension instruction for representations of two major approaches was designed and implemented. The effectiveness of the two experimental comprehension instructional approaches (content and strategies) and a control approach were compared. Content instruction focused student attention on the content of the text through open, meaning-based questions about the text. In strategies instruction, students were taught specific procedures to guide their access to text during reading of the text. Lessons for the control approach were developed using questions available in the teacher's edition of the basal reading program used in the participating classrooms. Student participants were all fifth graders in a low-performing urban district. In addition to assessments of comprehension of lesson texts and an analysis of lesson discourse, three assessments were developed to compare student ability to transfer knowledge gained. The results were consistent from Year 1 to Year 2. No differences were seen on one measure of lesson-text comprehension, the sentence verification technique. However, for narrative recall and expository learning probes, content students outperformed strategies students, and occasionally, the basal control students outperformed strategies students. For one of the transfer assessments, there was a modest effect in favor of the content students. Transcripts of the lessons were examined, and differences in amount of talk about the text and length of student response also favored the content approach.
Full-text available
The authors explored different aspects of children's reading motivation and how children's motivation related to the amount and breadth of their reading. The reading motives assessed included self-efficacy, intrinsic–extrinsic motivation and goals, and social aspects. Fourth- and 5th-grade children ( N = 105) completed a new reading motivation questionnaire twice during a school year. Children's reading amount and breadth were measured using diaries and questionnaires. Children's reading motivation was found to be multidimensional. Their motivation predicted children's reading amount and breadth even when previous amount and breadth were controlled. An intrinsic motivation composite predicted amount and breadth of reading more strongly than did an extrinsic motivation composite. Some aspects of girls' reading motivation were more positive than boys'. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
Based on the research on invented and developmental spelling, this book provides a practical way for teachers to study words with students. The framework of the book is keyed to the five stages of spelling or orthographic development so that it complements the use of any existing phonics, spelling, and vocabulary curriculums. The book presents more than 300 word study activities which are set up to follow literacy development from emergent to more mature, specialized stages. Often presented in a game-like format, these activities are actually mini-lessons that draw upon what students concurrently are learning in developmental reading and writing. Chapters in the book are (1) How Words Are Learned; (2) Words and the Development of Orthographic Knowledge; (3) Getting Started: The Assessment of Orthographic Development; (4) What Is Word Study?; (5) Word Study for Emergent Learners in the Preliterate Stage; (6) Word Study for Beginners in the Letter Name Stage; (7) Word Study for Transitional Learners in the Within Word Pattern Stage; and (8) Word Study for Intermediate and Specialized Readers and Writers in the Syllable Juncture and Derivational Constancy Stages. Contains 107 references. A 109-item glossary and a 74-item list of children's literature for word study are attached. (RS)
Development of sight word reading: Phases and findings
  • L Ehri
Ehri, L. (2005). Development of sight word reading: Phases and findings. In M. J. Snowling & C. Hulme (Eds.), The science of reading: A handbook (pp. 135-154). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
How we neglect knowledge-and why
  • S Neuman
Neuman, S. (2006). How we neglect knowledge-and why. American Educator, 30, 24-27.
The truth about DIBELS (pp. v-xix)
  • P D Pearson
Pearson, P. D. (2006). Foreword. In K. Goodman (Ed.), The truth about DIBELS (pp. v-xix). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.