Overview of Literacy Development Research

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  • 0:04 Reading Comprehension Theories
  • 2:10 Cipher Knowledge
  • 3:20 Decoding
  • 4:08 ELL Literacy Development
  • 5:33 Trends in Literacy Research
  • 6:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Susan Graziano

Susan has taught high school English and has worked as a school administrator. She has a doctorate in Educational Leadership.

In this lesson, you will learn about previous and current research in literacy development that has contributed to our understanding of both youth and adult literacy.

Reading Comprehension Theories

Watching a person learn how to read is probably one of the most awe-inspiring experiences. It often seems like there is this light bulb moment that occurs, and the student is off and reading independently. While it may appear that a person's journey to literacy is an automatic process, there are many existing theories that suggest otherwise. Countless studies have been done to identify how individuals learn to read and which strategies are helpful throughout the process. The following is an overview of past and present literacy research.

Much debate has ensued regarding reading level and comprehension. Some research suggests that developing readers should read texts that are on or close to their diagnosed reading levels. Theorists who subscribe to this school of thought include Beck and Juel (1995), and Juel and Roper-Schneider (1985). These researchers believe that developing readers should be able to recognize and understand most words within the text in order to successfully read for meaning.

Other theorists have emphasized the importance of automatic word recognition. Automatic word recognition involves the act of memorizing sight words and applying this knowledge of sight words to all other unknown words. Sight words are high frequency words that are typically introduced when children are first beginning to read (the, who, he, here, and, etc.). Chall (1996), Ehri (1995), LaBerge and Samuels (1974), and Perfetti (1985) have all stressed the importance of automatic word recognition in their studies.

Finally, researchers in literacy development have stressed the importance of explicitly teaching literacy skills and strategies to young readers. These theorists believe that reading, unlike language development, is not a natural process. Therefore, reading skills and strategies like cipher knowledge, decoding, recognizing and using context clues, phonemic awareness, and fluency must be taught through direct instruction for successful literacy development. Adams and Bruck (1993), Liberman (1992), and Perfetti (1990) have all contributed to this theory.

Cipher Knowledge

Cipher knowledge is the relationship between the way a word is spelled and the way a word is pronounced in English. While there are exceptions to every rule in the English language, knowledge of these rules will allow the reader to pronounce most words correctly. Phonemic awareness is necessary for readers to decipher words. Phonemic awareness is the ability to recognize the most minute sounds, or phonemes, in words. The deciphering involves the act of using knowledge of phonemes to pronounce, or sound out words.

Think of the English alphabet as a set of codes that represent individual sounds. Knowledge of these codes is cipher knowledge. However, as we noted, there are always exceptions to the rule. A developing reader may, for example, pronounce the word ''wear'' as a rhyming pair of ''hear.'' The reader still possesses cipher knowledge, but is not able to successfully decode the word (more on that next).

Research on cipher knowledge indicates that readers who are explicitly instructed on the relationships between letters and sounds early on are more likely to become proficient readers. On the contrary, lack of explicit instruction to develop cipher knowledge early on adversely affects students who are classified as ''at risk.''


Decoding is the process of recognizing letter and word sounds and applying this knowledge to decode new words. Think of the reader as a detective: prior knowledge of letter and word sounds are the clues to solving the mystery of the new word. Decoding is not the same as deciphering. And, to expand upon the previous example, the student who correctly pronounces the word ''wear'' is decoding the word.

Ehri (1992, 1998), and Firth (1972) are among the researchers who have studied the importance of the development of decoding skills in literacy development. This research suggests that the student's ability to correctly and quickly decode words is a significant factor in literacy development. Further, variance or differences in decoding abilities typically accounts for variance in reading ability.

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