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Mass Literacy

Higher-Level Language Skills

Reading is the act of processing text in order to derive meaning. To learn to read, children must develop both fluent word reading and language comprehension (Gough & Tunmer,1986). Language comprehension is built upon vocabulary and morphology, knowledge, syntax, and higher-level language skills.

How Higher-Level Language Skills Contribute to Reading Development

Higher-level language skills include inferencing, comprehension monitoring, and awareness of text structure. These skills are necessary to understand complex directions, stories, informational texts, and conversations (Hogan, Bridges, Justice, & Cain, 2011).

Inferencing helps one to fill in the gaps and go beyond the literal meaning of words on the page to create a comprehensive mental model of the text (Bowyer-Crane & Snowling, 2005). Early ability to make inferences to support comprehension is predictive of later reading comprehension ability (Perfetti, Landi, & Oakhill, 2005).

Comprehension monitoring involves the capacity to reflect on one's own comprehension and includes the ability to detect inconsistencies within a text (Hogan, Bridges, Justice, & Cain, 2011). Monitoring allows the reader to verify his or her understanding and to make repairs where this understanding is not sensible. Early ability to monitor comprehension is predictive of later reading comprehension ability (Perfetti, Landi, & Oakhill, 2005).

Awareness of text structure involves using how a written text is organized to guide comprehension. When students understand how the elements of a text work together, they can more easily and accurately understand the text itself (Hogan, Bridges, Justice, & Cain, 2011).

Promoting Higher-Level Language Skills in the Classroom

Teach Inferencing

Read-aloud or shared text is an opportune time to develop students' inference skills. Evidence shows that young children are capable of generating inferences when listening to texts read aloud, and can be supported to do so during shared-reading experiences (Zucker, Justice, Piasta, & Kaderavek, 2010).

Using a shared text, teachers can model inferencing as well as ask questions and prompt students to make appropriate inferences. The IES Practice Guide "Foundational Skills to Support Reading for Understanding in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade" suggests engaging students in conversations that support the use and comprehension of inferential language.

A range of questioning and discussion-based techniques have been shown to support students' ability to make inferences (Oakhill, Cain, & Elbro, 2015), Institute for Education Sciences, What Works Report .

Evidence additionally suggests that during read-aloud, inference skills can be developed through (Hogan, Bridges, Justice, & Cain, 2011):

  • predicting future events in a story
  • filling in the gaps
  • focusing on character intentions and feelings.

Teach Comprehension Monitoring

Monitoring is a comprehension strategy that students can learn using the gradual release approach in a relatively short period of time (Elleman, 2017) but may need continual practice and support to remember to use while reading. Instruction includes periodic summarizing (summarizing at various points throughout a shared reading), teacher modeling, and teacher giving corrective feedback (Hogan, Bridges, Justice, & Cain, 2011).

Teach Use of Text Structures

Teaching students to understand text structure for both narrative and expository text supports reading comprehension (Gersten, Fuchs, Williams, & Baker, 2001). According to a research review by Hogan, Bridges, Justice, & Cain (2011), understanding of text structure plays a significant role in reading comprehension.

Select Complex Text

Complex texts offer opportunities to interact with rich language and exercise higher-level language skills. Texts that are engaging, language-rich, and carefully chosen to match readers and purpose will best support young students in the development of higher-level language skills.

Considerations for Students Learning English

English learners should have equal opportunity to meaningfully participate in all literacy instruction. The WIDA Can Do Descriptors highlight what language learners can do at various stages of language development.

Taking Bilingualism into Account

"Academic language often assumes that the reader already has the context and background knowledge to access the text and concepts. Hence, academic language is often devoid of context and baffles Els" (Cummins & McNeely, 1987).

"By providing L2 readers with a set of specific strategies designed to assist them in: 1) inferring the meaning of unknown words; and 2) synthesizing meaning in larger segments of texts, lower level processing skills might be automatized to a greater degree and cognitive resources used more efficiently" (Kern, 1989).

Supports for English Learners

  • Use a graphic organizer to support English learners in predicting what a story might be about, monitoring comprehension during reading, and retelling what they can remember after reading (Pang, 2013).
  • "Introduce the text structures in order, starting with description and finishing with compare/contrast. This order is followed in most textbook readings" (Akhondi et al., 2011).
  • "Teach students an organizational pattern — identify the signal words and phrases that categorize each text structure and give students a graphic organizer for each pattern" (Tompkins, 1998).
  • Increasing ELL Student Reading Comprehension with Nonfiction Text, from Colorin Colorado ** (Resource)
  • Do's and Don'ts of EL Instruction, from English Learners Success Forum (Resource)
  • Select grade level appropriate texts that are sufficiently rich and interesting for students who might find it a stretch to understand, and then provide scaffolds to allow them to access their meaning (English Learner Success Forum).
  • The WIDA Instructional Supports provide a reference list of appropriate graphic, sensory and interactive supports to use with the WIDA Can Dos when instructing language learners.


Akhondi, M., Malayeri, F. A., & Samad, A. A. (2011). How to teach expository text structure to facilitate reading comprehension. The Reading Teacher, 64(5), 368–372.

Bowyer-Crane, C. & Snowling, M. (2005). Assessing children's inference generation: What do tests of reading comprehension measure? The British journal of educational psychology. 75. 189–201.

Cummins, J. & McNeely, S. (1987). Language Development, Academic Learning, and Empowering Minority Students. In K. Tikunoff (Ed.), Bilingual Education and Bilingual Special Education: A Guide for Administrators. Boston: College Hill.

Gersten, R., Fuch, L. S., Williams, J. P., & Baker, S. (2001). Teaching reading comprehension strategies to students with learning disabilities: A review of research. Review of Educational Research, 71, 279–320.

Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, Reading, and Reading Disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6–10.

Kern, R. G. (1989). Second language reading strategy instruction: Its effects on comprehension and word inference ability. Modern Language Journal, 73.

Langston, M. C., & Trabasso, T. (1998). Modeling causal integration and availability of information during comprehension of narrative texts. In H. van Oostendorp & S. Goldman (Eds.), The construction of mental representation during reading (pp. 29–69). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Oakhill, J., Cain, K., & Elbro, C. (2015). Understanding and teaching reading comprehension: A handbook. New York: Routledge.

Pang, Y. (2013). Graphic organizers and other visual strategies to improve young ELLs' reading comprehension. New England Reading Association Journal, 48(2), 52.

Perfetti, C.A., Landi, N., & Oakhill, J.V. (2005). The acquisition of reading comprehension skill. In M.J. Snowling & C. Hume (Eds.), The Science of Reading: Handbook of Reading Research. Oxford: Blackwell.

Tompkins, G.E. (1998). Language arts: Content and teaching strategies. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Zucker, T. A., Justice, L. M., Piasta, S. B., & Kaderavek, J. N. (2010). Preschool teachers' literal and inferential questions and children's responses during whole-class shared reading. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 25, 65–8.

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Last Updated: December 18, 2020

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