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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

What Does Listening Capacity Tell Us About Reading?

December 14, 2017

Teacher question:

I was wondering if you are able to provide me with a clearer understanding of what a “silent reading and listening capacity test” is all about. 

Shanahan's response:

The whole idea of administering silent reading and listening capacity tests is two-fold. A silent reading test would be used to determine how well a student can comprehend text when reading silently. Typically, such a test would be administered using graded or leveled passages. Thus, if the student could read the fourth-grade passages with 75% or higher comprehension, but could only read the fifth-grade passages with 50% comprehension, we might say something like, “Henry can read at a fourth-grade level.”

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

That depends. It depends on, for instance, on what grade Henry is in. If he is in third-grade but reads like a fourth-grader, you might be impressed and pleased by that performance. But what if Henry is in high school? The inability to handle fourth-grade text would likely be discouraging.

Or, what if Henry is in fifth-grade, and is a student with some intellectual disability? We might conclude that he is doing great — perhaps not reading quite as well as his classmates, but better than we might have expected.

That’s where a listening capacity test comes in. Such a test is supposed to allow us to evaluate Henry’s capacity to understand — with reading taken out of the equation. Thus, a listening test usually will look like a silent reading comprehension test — a series of graded text passages with some questions about the texts. However, in this case, the teacher reads the material to the student and the student only has to listen (that way, decoding problems can’t disrupt comprehension).

Since Henry was able to read and answer questions at the fourth-grade level quite well, there is no reason to test his listening capacity there … we already know he comprehends fourth-grade material just fine, even when he has the task of reading that material himself.

So let’s try his listening at a fifth-grade level. If Henry can understand the fifth-grade texts well (the kinds of texts he wasn’t able to read well), then it seems safe to conclude that Henry’s intellectual capacity to interpret text is higher than his reading ability. And, that means that if you can increase his decoding skills sufficiently, there should be no barrier to his reading more complex texts.

However, while that is kind of reasonable, you must be careful to avoid the opposite inference.

Let’s say, Henry is in fifth-grade and he reads at a fourth-grade level and his listening capacity is that of a fourth grader. That would seem to mean that Henry is doing as well as possible — he reads as well as he listens — so improving his reading skills wouldn’t be expected to help very much.

However, that puts an awful lot of trust in that listening test and it neglects the fact that there are things that you could teach Henry that may improve both his listening and his reading comprehension (things like vocabulary or text structure).

This idea of testing capacity through listening is an old one. We know more about comprehension tests than we did then.

Comprehension is certainly impacted by decoding skills and language (vocabulary, grammar, cohesion), but it also is linked to knowledge. I’ve used terms like fourth- and fifth-grade passages, but what content is appropriate for such tests? If I test reading comprehension with a passage on Adelie penguins and I test listening comprehension with a passage on a story about boys playing basketball, do students do better with one than another because of the skills differences or because they are more familiar with one topic than another?

Comprehension tests — listening or reading — usually employ multiple passages on multiple topics to balance out knowledge differences, but let’s face it, it would be rare that there would be enough passages to truly balance out. That means that when a student’s listening capacity is higher than his/her reading comprehension, it could mean that improvements in decoding skill will lead to the ability to comprehend harder texts. But it also could simply mean that the student was more familiar with the topics of the listening texts than the reading texts.

This comparison of listening and reading is an interesting one, but don’t read (or listen) too much into it.

Hope that helps.

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"I feel the need of reading. It is a loss to a man not to have grown up among books." —

Abraham Lincoln