Determining and supporting the reading comprehension and metalinguistic abilities of undergraduate pre-service teachers.
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
Pre-service teachers have a large role to play in initiatives to raise children’s literacy achievement. There is growing concern about the disparity of reading abilities of children, particularly in New Zealand, prompting a greater need to examine the skills and knowledge of the adults who provide reading instruction to these children. Adults engaged in higher education are typically expected to possess strong and proficient literacy skills, yet research examining the literacy skills of the broader adult population reports adult literacy levels to be much lower than assumed. Well over a third of adults in countries including the United States of America and New Zealand do not possess basic literacy skills. There is a paucity of research identifying and addressing the literacy needs of the adult population. Further, there have been limited studies investigating the literacy abilities of adults with relatively higher levels of literacy skill (e.g., those in higher education). Such research is particularly pertinent in the education context due to the influence that teaching professionals have on future generations of readers.
The research reported in this thesis investigated the reading comprehension and metalinguistic abilities of pre-service teachers, and conducted two interventions within this population. The first intervention focussed on improving the reading comprehension of individuals who presented with difficulties understanding written text relative to their peers. The second intervention provided explicit instruction in building students’ language structure knowledge within general coursework completed by a whole cohort of pre-service teachers. The findings from this thesis have implications for the provision of support for pre-service teachers with literacy needs in higher education, as well as for augmenting the skills of the broader pre-service teacher population to prepare them to deliver evidence-based reading instruction.
The first study (presented in Chapter Four) assessed selected cognitive and literacy skills of a cohort of undergraduate pre-service teachers in their initial year of higher education. One-hundred and thirty-one students completed an assessment battery comprising tasks of spelling, reading comprehension, inferencing, working memory, and knowledge of language structure. Analysis of results demonstrated a wide range of abilities across each of the measures, reflecting the large variance in skill with which these individuals enter into higher education. Spelling, inferencing, and working memory were each found to make significant unique contributions to reading comprehension. Furthermore, the elements contributing towards reading comprehension were found to be highly interactive, thus demonstrating the complex interactive nature of the skills that contribute to the reading comprehension process in these individuals.
In the second study (presented in Chapter Five) individuals with difficulties understanding written text were identified using the reading comprehension measure from the first study. Individuals who performed more than one standard deviation below the group mean were identified for inclusion in a reading comprehension intervention. Seventeen individuals met the criteria for inclusion in the intervention and consented to participate (referred to as the IN group). Two control groups were also identified to allow for comparisons to be made pre- and post-intervention. The first control group, referred to as the NT group (n = 6), comprised of six participants who qualified for the intervention but who opted not to participate. The second control group, referred to as the CN group (n = 83), comprised of the remaining students from the large cohort. Four different strategies designed to assist with reading comprehension were modelled and practiced with each participant in the IN group over four sessions. Each intervention session focussed on one strategy alone and the intervention was administered on an individual basis. Reading comprehension and summarising assessments were completed following every session to ascertain the effectiveness of each strategy. Results showed that the first strategy (text-to-speech) was detrimental to the participants’ reading comprehension scores, while a further strategy (highlighting and summarising) was beneficial for almost all participants. There was a significant gain in reading comprehension score by the IN group after completing the intervention. Neither the NT nor the CN group, however, made any improvement in reading comprehension over this time period. The results also demonstrated that the improvement made by the IN participants increased their mean reading comprehension score to within range of the CN group (i.e., their peers identified with typical ability at the outset of the study).
A third study (presented in Chapter Six) examined the responsiveness of the intervention participants to the reading comprehension intervention at a subgroup and individual level. Four subgroups of participants were identified based on their underlying literacy profile at the outset of the intervention. The first group (n = 2) comprised individuals with poor spelling; the second (n = 4), individuals with poor listening comprehension; the third (n = 1), those with poor spelling and listening comprehension; and the fourth (n = 10), individuals who did not demonstrate poor spelling or listening comprehension. There were no differences in the responsiveness of these groups to the four different strategies. There was also no association between an individual’s literacy profile and their response to the various strategies. Furthermore, closer examination of four case studies (one from each of the four subgroups) did not demonstrate any clear relationship between the responsiveness to the four different reading comprehension strategies, and their literacy profile.
Finally, the fourth study (presented in Chapter Seven) examined the responsiveness of the whole cohort (n = 121) to a teaching intervention targeting metalinguistic knowledge. Two subgroups were identified within the larger cohort based on participants’ word-level skill (determined by spelling ability): good spellers (n = 24), and poor spellers (n = 24). Two subgroups were also identified based on participants’ comprehension-level skills (determined by reading comprehension): individuals with difficulties understanding written text (n = 22), and individuals with typical reading comprehension (n = 99). The metalinguistic intervention was integrated into an existing literacy course and delivered over seven weeks. The intervention focussed on raising phoneme, morpheme, and orthotactic knowledge amongst the participants in a pre-test / post-test study design. The whole cohort demonstrated significant gains in knowledge in each of the constructs targeted, after just seven hours of teaching integrated into an existing course. Analysis of subgroups of participants demonstrated that individuals with stronger spelling skills responded more favourably to the intervention than their peers with weaker spelling skills. The between-groups differences identified in the subgroups determined by reading comprehension were not as significant as those of the spelling subgroups. Thus, the results suggest the need for differentiated teaching of metalinguistic constructs based on the underlying word-level skills of each individual to ensure that pre-service teachers acquire adequate language structure knowledge within their teacher preparation programme.
The findings from this thesis refute the assumption that individuals who meet the criteria required to enter into higher education present with strong or adequate literacy skills. The pre-service teachers in the reported studies demonstrated a wide range of literacy ability. The results of this assessment identified spelling, inferencing, and working memory as significant predictors of reading comprehension. The appropriateness of the Simple View of Reading framework for this population was also investigated. Individuals who demonstrated lower reading comprehension showed significant increases in their reading comprehension scores when using a strategy that incorporated highlighting and summarising techniques. This strategy was highly effective across the whole intervention group, in spite of the vast differences in the literacy profiles of these individuals. Findings from a whole-cohort teaching intervention to raise metalinguistic knowledge provide support for the inclusion of differentiated, explicit teaching of these constructs within pre-service teaching programmes. The results reported in this thesis show that by providing targeted intervention to raise the reading comprehension and metalinguistic abilities of pre-service teachers, they become better equipped to provide effective reading instruction for children, and address the disparity in children’s literacy achievement.