Over the past decade, there has been an increased focus nationally on the development of literacy for all students. This increased focus has spawned several important documents to assist teachers in providing effective reading instruction to prevent reading difficulties (National Research Council, 1998) and to improve overall reading performance (National Reading Panel [NRP], 2000). Each of these documents identified reading comprehension as an essential literacy outcome for students and the ultimate goal of reading instruction. However, these national panels also acknowledged a need for more research on reading comprehension. In comparison to existing research on the code-based components of reading (i.e., phonemic awareness, alphabetic understanding, automaticity with the code), research on reading comprehension, including vocabulary development, is less extensive, rigorous, and current. This conclusion was echoed by the RAND Reading Study Group (2002) which determined that “evidence-based improvements in the teaching practices of reading comprehension are sorely needed” (p. xxiii). As a result, a number of important research initiatives, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, are currently underway that could significantly add to our understanding of ways to support reading comprehension for all students.
Perfetti, Marron, and Folz (1996) divided the factors that contribute to reading comprehension into two general areas: processes and knowledge. Processes involve decoding, working memory, inference-making, and comprehension monitoring. In contrast, knowledge factors include word meanings and domain knowledge related to the content of what is being read. These factors provide a framework for thinking about current trends in reading comprehension instructional research. Much of the research over the past several years has focused on the teaching of specific comprehension strategies that reflect those used by good readers (Pressley, 2000) and this continues to be an important focus for researchers. However, there is renewed interest in other aspects of reading comprehension. For example, an area of interest in contemporary reading comprehension research relates to the importance of individual word knowledge and decoding and its contribution to text comprehension. Another current issue is how strategic processing interacts with specific domain knowledge in content area reading.
The Role of Decoding in Comprehension Development
Before children learn to read, they are dependent on oral language and pictures to make sense of the world around them (Carlisle & Rice, 2003). Once children begin to grasp the alphabetic principle, they are increasingly able to use their understanding of orthography and phonology to read words, strings of abstract symbols that represent concepts in their world. This shift from the concrete to the abstract is not abrupt. Rather it is a gradual process that occurs as students gradually acquire proficiency with the symbolic system. However, for many students, especially those who experience difficulties learning to read, the development of word recognition skills acts much like a traffic bottleneck on a highway. Regardless of students’ level of listening comprehension, they have to learn the process of word recognition, much like every car on the highway, regardless of its power or speed, must slow down and pass through the bottleneck. Once through this bottleneck, the speed and power of a car again become paramount. Similarly, once children learn how to read words, their proficiency with language comprehension once again becomes an important contributor to their understanding of texts.
Because text comprehension, in part, relies on proficient decoding, the relation between children’s listening and reading comprehension grows stronger as they grow older and more fluent. According to Carlisle and Rice (2003), reading and listening comprehension grow more similar by about fifth grade compared to earlier grades for both good and poor readers. Good word readers are able to read a lot. The consequences of reading well include maximal exposure to new words and phrases, opportunities to read different types of texts, and practice monitoring one’s understanding (Stanovich, 1986; Cunningham & Stanovich 1998). In contrast, however, poor word readers remain at the mercy of their word reading difficulties. As a result of not reading, they fail to learn many new words, do not develop proficiency in understanding texts, and often learn to dislike reading (Baker & Wigfield, 1999).
Strategy Instruction versus Content Knowledge
In the 1980s, research on comprehension focused on how proficient readers understand what they read. The combined results of these studies suggest that good readers are strategic, orchestrating multiple strategies before, during, and after reading to help make sense of what they read. More recently, some researchers have questioned whether our almost singular focus on strategy instruction has distracted us from trying to understand instructional approaches that result in enhanced content knowledge or content engagement.
In a recent international study of fourth-grade reading achievement, researchers reported that U.S. fourth graders outperformed many other countries on measures of narrative comprehension, but did relatively poorly on measures of expository text comprehension (Mullis, Martin, Gonzalez, & Kennedy, 2003). While this study did not establish the cause of this poor performance, we might infer that it is a result of insufficient content knowledge. Recent research efforts have turned to examine the relative effects of strategy instruction versus content engagement or the combined effect of strategy instruction and content engagement.
It seems reasonable that effective comprehension instruction involves both strategy instruction (NRP, 2000) and content engagement (Beck, McKeown, Sandora, Kucan, & Worthy, 1996). What we still need to understand is how best to integrate these two key instructional areas. Despite several unanswered questions about comprehension instruction, the knowledge base regarding the development of comprehension is robust.
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