Research into primary school children's comprehension difficulties has had a direct impact on educational practice, shaping national policy and improving the way reading comprehension is taught.

Impacts

  • Professors Jane Oakhill and Kate Cain's work on the skills required to improve reading comprehension has inspired revisions to sections of England's National Curriculum, English Programmes of Study, and Key Stages 1 and 2. Both acted as consultants to the National Curriculum (Primary English) team at the Department for Education.
  • Their work underpins two recent training programmes: Inference Training, which has 50 accredited trainers and is used in more than 600 schools nationwide; and LEE Comprensivamente, a programme used by 900 teachers in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil.
  • Oakhill and Cain's research shaped professional development for teachers of literacy through the Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (a US-based training package), their joint work as series editors on the Oxford Owl school improvement pathway for reading comprehension, and their book for teachers and educators, Understanding and teaching reading comprehension.
  • Their work informs the widely used and recognised UK and Spanish assessments of reading comprehension used throughout South America. These assessments are critical in identifying children in need of additional support.

"Professors Jane Oakhill and Kate Cain's excellent work on understanding and teaching reading comprehension has fed directly into educational policy and practice in England. The applications of their research findings to classroom practice are highly valued in our schools." (Janet Brennan, formerly one of Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools and independent educational consultant)

About the research

Up to 10 per cent of primary children experience difficulties with reading comprehension. Some children are able to read words relatively well, but without necessarily developing the equivalent levels of skill in understanding what they read.

"Comprehension is important for all children's learning, not just literacy," says Professor Kate Cain. "If you don't read with good comprehension from an early age then it's hard to understand text across the entire curriculum, and that will affect learning in a range of subject areas, beyond what we commonly think of as 'literacy'. Moreover, good comprehension is important in understanding the world more generally."

In the early 1980s, Professor Oakhill identified a group of children with poor reading comprehension. Research by Oakhill and Cain determined specific areas of difficulty experienced by this group. These include problems with making inferences or 'reading between the lines', understanding story structure and being able to monitor and appraise one's own understanding. These skills, they demonstrated, predict reading comprehension outcomes over time.

Both then set about raising awareness of the importance of learning those skills. As a result, their research has prompted recent revisions of the National Curriculum to put a greater emphasis on reading comprehension skills, as well as guidance on the specific skills that should be taught to develop good reading.

"When children are taught these skills they do significantly better in standardised assessments of reading comprehension," says Professor Oakhill. "In the past, educators didn't recognise that comprehension skills needed to be taught. Our findings show not only that this is the case, but what those specific skills are and how they can be taught effectively."