Sustaining content through literacy instruction to improve reading comprehension outcomes in the early grades

Best Evidence in Brief (BEiB) from Johns Hopkins University provides a twice-monthly roundup of articles related to education research. This week one of the articles is a longitudinal randomized controlled trial (RCT) where J.S Kim and colleagues evaluated the effect of the Model of Reading Engagement (MORE) intervention on the reading comprehension of early elementary students. In essence, one can see it as a study on the effect of topic information on reading comprehension. See also this earlier article by the same authors highlighted in an earlier BEiB in 2020 that reported on a study of first-grade students’ science subject knowledge, reading engagement, and reading comprehension.

In the present study, MORE provided students in Grade 1 with 20 content literacy lessons in science, providing related nonfiction texts to read during the summer, and then building on the same thematic content with 45 additional lessons in Grade 2. The intervention was developed to expose students to increasingly complex information about a topic over time. Thus, students develop schemas, or ways of storing and retrieving knowledge, to comprehend new topics.

The impact statement from the authors reads as follows:
This study highlights the benefit of sustaining learning of related topics and aligning science content across grades so that children can read with greater comprehension. Early elementary grade students’ acquisition of domain and topic knowledge is critical to reading and understanding complex content-rich informational texts. Sustained and thematic content literacy instruction can help elementary grade students transfer their knowledge to reading texts about related topics in science and social studies. Therefore, sustained content literacy intervention efforts that gradually build thematic connections across grades and across school and home contexts may help young children connect new learning to a general schema and transfer their knowledge to related topics. Compared with students in control group classrooms, students who participated in a sustained content literacy intervention from first to second grade made larger improvements on both general reading comprehension and science content reading comprehension outcomes.

BEiB continues that the RCT was conducted over 12 months in 30 elementary schools with a sample of 1,176 students receiving the MORE intervention and 980 students assigned to business-as-usual literacy instruction. Teachers in the treatment condition received professional development and ongoing support from site-based literacy facilitators. Using audio recordings of lessons and teacher surveys, fidelity was found to be high, almost 100% among Grade 1 teachers and between 87% and 94% among Grade 2 teachers.

The study found students who received the MORE intervention outperformed the control group students on a researcher-developed science reading comprehension assessment (ES = +0.18). Findings from this study highlight the importance of using literacy instruction to provide students with thematically-connected content that becomes more complex over time. Elementary schools have become increasingly focused on English and math, limiting student access to science and social studies content. A robust vocabulary is essential to understanding texts that become more complex as students progress through elementary school. Thus, students who gain repeated exposure to related vocabulary terms within the context of science and social studies can apply their background knowledge and comprehend new topics. Teaching thematically aligned content through literacy instruction and aligning it with resources students can access at home presents a scalable approach to help students develop comprehension skills for reading nonfiction texts.

Kim, J. S., Burkhauser, M. A., Relyea, J. E., Gilbert, J. B., Scherer, E., Fitzgerald, J., Mosher, D., & McIntyre, J. (2022). A longitudinal randomized trial of a sustained content literacy intervention from first to second grade: Transfer effects on students’ reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication.

Kim, J. S., Burkhauser, M. A., Mesite, L. M., Asher, C. A., Relyea, J. E., Fitzgerald, J., & Elmore, J. (2021). Improving reading comprehension, science domain knowledge, and reading engagement through a first-grade content literacy intervention. Journal of Educational Psychology, 113(1), 3–26.