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The not so simple view of reading assessment

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Claudia Pik-Ki Chu and Michelle Ellefson, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, UK

Conceptualisation of reading

Reading comprehension is a term that is commonly used in educational and psychological settings, but its conceptualisation and definition vary in different contexts. For instance, Cain (1999) defined ‘successful understanding of a text’ as the ‘ultimate aim of reading’ (p. 239), and the National Assessment Governing Board (2008) described reading as ‘an active and complex process that involves multiple different behaviours’ (p. 4). The lack of consensus in the definition of reading comprehension makes reading assessment challenging.

In the classroom setting, the ‘Simple View of Reading’ (Gough and Tunmer, 1986; Hoover and Gough, 1990) is often adopted as the theoretical framework of teaching and assessing reading (Tennent, 2014). This framework suggests that reading comprehension is the output of decoding (word recognition) and linguistic comprehension. According to this model, word recognition and linguistic comprehension are both necessary for proficient reading comprehension. Current classroom reading assessments are often derived from the Simple View of Reading, tapping on one or both components in reading. Examples include phonics screening check, reading fluency, vocabulary check and passage comprehension.

In spite of a given definition for the two components (word recognition and linguistic comprehension) in the Simple View of Reading, the skills to be captured by these two components remained controversial. Kendeou et al. (2009) looked at previous research and concluded that the Simple View of Reading can only explain 40 to 80 per cent of the individual differences in children’s reading comprehension performances. The results implied that there are other factors that may account for proficient reading, and such factors were not being captured in the pre-existing reading assessments.

So, what are these factors and how can they help in the design of an appropriate assessment that captures reading as a learning outcome in the curriculum?

The missing pieces

Reading is certainly a complex process: when presented with a text, we first have to fixate our eyes on the information before we can process it. After we take in the information, we have to recognise the words, understand their meanings, both alone and in the given context, and finally comprehend the whole passage. Therefore, it is almost intuitive that there must be many factors contributing to proficient reading. To mention just a few, Ellis and Smith (2017) proposed three domains in assessing reading: cultural and social capital, personal-social identity and the cognitive knowledge and skills aspect. Tennent (2014) also identified three somewhat different domains in understanding reading comprehension: linguistic process, knowledge bases and (meta)cognitive processes. These models acknowledge how reading is influenced by cognitive, social and cultural factors. In this article, we will adopt a cognitive psychological perspective and discuss two sets of higher-order processes that warrant teachers’ attention in reading assessment: executive functions and metacognition.

Executive functions are a set of domain-general skills related to decision-making processes and the controlling of behaviours. Three widely studied components of executive functions are working memory (the storage and processing of information), inhibition (the ability to suppress behaviours and thoughts) and cognitive flexibility (the ability to switch between thinking) (Diamond, 2013; Garon et al., 2008).

Working memory contributes to reading comprehension (see Carretti et al., 2009) by facilitating the construction of a mental representation in understanding a passage (Oakhill et al., 2014). With a suitable mental representation, students can integrate their own knowledge into the text and reflect on their reading strategies in trying to make sense of the passage (Oakhill et al., 2014). Those students who have a better working memory might be more proficient in reading comprehension because they have a better attentional control. In one study, mind wandering, which reflects a lack of attention, was reported to contribute to the link between working memory and reading comprehension (McVay and Kane, 2012). The results suggested a role of sustaining attention during the storage, retrieval or processing of information obtained from reading. However, despite being a well-established predictor, the role of working memory may not be as direct as it seems, and we have to take into account other cognitive skills as well. This claim is supported by recent research evidence. In particular, Cantin er al. (2016) found that all three executive function skills (working memory, inhibition and cognitive flexibility) indirectly predicted reading comprehension in seven- to 10-year-olds. Executive functions may also contribute to reading comprehension indirectly via the influences of other linguistic skills. For instance, Gooch et al. (2016) reported an association between the development of executive functions and language skills such as receptive vocabulary, expressive vocabulary and sentence structure in young students. Taken together, the better their executive functions skills, the more likely that students can excel in reading.

Comprehension monitoring, which is the ability to reflect on and evaluate one’s own reading skills, is also found to play an important role in reading comprehension (Oakhill et al., 2014). The concept of comprehension monitoring is commonly known as metacognition in cognitive psychology. Metacognition refers to one’s ability to reflect upon one’s own thinking and knowledge, and it can be divided into two components: 1) metacognitive knowledge, namely declarative, procedural and conditional knowledge; and 2) metacognitive regulation, which comprises planning, evaluation and monitoring strategies (Flavell, 1979; Fogarty, 1994; Jacobs and Paris, 1987). The role of metacognition in reading is an under-researched area, but research findings have suggested a role of such a skill in reading.

In an earlier study, Cain (1999) interviewed children aged seven to eight with poorer performances on reading comprehension (compared to their peers matched on age or reading comprehension ability) to examine the possible relationships between reading comprehension, metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive regulation. Children with poorer performances on reading comprehension had different goals in reading, and they proposed inappropriate reading strategies compared to the other two groups. The findings were supported by a later study that also reported a link between metacognitive strategies and reading comprehension in a Croatian sample (Kolié-Vehovec and Bajšanski, 2006). Performances in reading comprehension assessment may depend on the reading strategies used, where efficient and appropriate strategies facilitate the understanding of text and retrieval of information. In a more recent study, Artelt and Schneider (2015) analysed data from the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment and examined the different pattern of relationships between the two components of metacognition (metacognitive knowledge and regulation) and reading comprehension. Metacognitive knowledge was found to be a stronger predictor of reading comprehension compared to metacognitive strategies. The results indicated that being able to reflect on one’s reading process might be more important than the actual strategies when it comes to proficient reading.

Implications for assessment

How do these findings on the role of executive functions and metacognition in predicting reading translate into classroom assessment practice? The empirical results highlight the need to focus not only on the students’ linguistic capabilities, but also on their cognitive skills in reading assessment. To do so, assessments could be designed to measure the ways in which students process information when reading and their awareness of how they read. We propose three practical recommendations in assessing reading in the classroom.

Firstly, formative and summative assessment are not mutually exclusive, and they should be used together as a measure of students’ reading. Summative assessment acts as a progress check to make sure that students’ reading skills are up to standard, while formative assessment provides constructive feedback on the students’ reading strategies (Oakhill et al., 2014).

Secondly, teachers should bear in mind that no question can tap into just one component skill of reading (Oakhill et al., 2014). For instance, a question on the students’ integration skills measures not only their integration but also their background knowledge, their memory (executive functions) and their reading strategies (metacognition). As such, when setting questions in the reading assessment, teachers should be aware of the complex nature of reading and take into account how different types of question are likely to tap into various skills of reading. It would be useful to include questions of different formats and types.

Thirdly, reading does not make linear progress (Oakhill et al., 2014; Tennent, 2014) and neither does reading assessment. Students can acquire different componential skills of reading at once, and so reading assessment should adopt a dimensional approach in checking students’ progress and making corresponding feedback.


Reading assessment design should be restructured to move towards a not-so-simple view of reading in capturing the complexities in proficient reading skills. This could be achieved by addressing other factors, especially higher-order processing skills such as executive functions and metacognition, which were found to predict reading comprehension. To understand the role of higher-order processing in reading and other linguistics skills, we are currently researching the interplay between cognitive and psycholinguistic predictors in primary school students’ reading comprehension. More work still needs to be done on how psychological research can impact teaching, but we hope that our research can ultimately provide an answer to teachers in their practice and restructuring of reading assessments.


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      Author(s): Bill Lucas