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Skilled reading requires both constrained & unconstrained abilities.
Skilled reading requires both constrained & unconstrained abilities.
Literacyhow
Vol. 5, No. 3
February 2017
Teaching Constrained and Unconstrained Literacy Skills
Stahl, K.A.D. (2011).
Constrained versus Unconstrained Skills
Constrained skills theory (Paris, 2005) conceptualizes reading development as a progression or continuum of two spheres of literacy skills.  Constrained skills are finite (e.g., 26 letter names; 44 phonemes), can be mastered in a relatively short window of time, and are easy to assess. These pre-decoding and "word recognition" skills include concepts of print, phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics, decoding, spelling, sight word recognition, and morphology. Name writing, for example, is a highly constrained activity; most learners accomplish it between the ages of three and five.  
Unconstrained skills or "meaning-based" skills, on the other hand, are never fully mastered. These large domains of knowledge are more challenging to teach and to quantify because they are acquired gradually and continue to develop incrementally over a lifetime. Unconstrained skills are also more strongly predicted by children's socio-economic status and parents' education. Vocabulary, background knowledge, and comprehension are unconstrained skills that typically require higher level critical thinking abilities.
Skilled reading requires both constrained and unconstrained abilities.  If a would-be reader lacks or has limited "word recognition" and/or "meaning-based" skills, s/he will struggle.   
Implications for Instruction
Constrained skills are limited conceptually, so they can be effectively taught to small groups of students through brief, intense, systematic, data-driven, targeted instruction. Teachers must be cautious, however, that the instruction of constrained abilities does not dominate classroom instruction to the detriment of unconstrained or meaning-making skills. This is especially true for English learners who need the most exposure to language. Since many schools now use curriculum-based measures of constrained skills as part of a universal screening and progress-monitoring process, teachers need to be aware of this risk. "Teaching constrained skills explicitly and systematically and matching instruction to students' developmental needs should ensure that the largest portion of the literacy block can be allocated to the more complex unconstrained abilities throughout the elementary years" (Stahl, 2011). 
Unconstrained skills are important in predicting long-term literacy outcomes (i.e., those measured after third grade).  Therefore, it's important that early childhood and primary classrooms devote sufficient time to these "meaning-making" skills. "Considerable evidence suggests that the quality of teachers' talk influences students' opportunities to learn—in particular, to learn the unconstrained language and content skills relevant to literacy" (Snow and Matthews, 2016).  
For older students who have mastered basic decoding skills, having relevant background and vocabulary knowledge become the strongest predictors of good comprehension. 
Students with SLD/Dyslexia
Students who have received comprehensive, systematic, evidence-based instruction—but still struggle with constrained skills—may have a specific learning disability (SLD) or dyslexia.  If students with SLD/Dyslexia aren't reading, the secondary consequences of poor decoding and word recognition can impact unconstrained skills.
Further Reading
Snow, C.E. and Matthews, T.J. (Fall 2016) Reading and language in the early grades. Starting Early: Education from Prekindergarten to Third Grade 26 (2), 57-74.
Stahl, K.A.D. (2011).  Applying new visions of reading development in today's classroomThe Reading Teacher 65: 52-56.
P.S. The February 9th Connecticut Literacy Forum was postponed due to inclement weather.  Stay tuned for the new date!
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