Overview of Comprehension Instruction (page 4)
Reading comprehension can be defined narrowly as instruction that promotes the ability to learn from text or more broadly as instruction that gives students access to important domains of knowledge and provides a means of pursuing affective and intellectual goals (RAND Reading Study Group, 2002). From either perspective, reading-comprehension instruction necessarily entails multiple teaching procedures designed to promote students' acquisition of numerous comprehension skills and strategies.
The critical state of reading comprehension among our nation's middle- and high-school students was captured in this description by the RAND Reading Study Group (RRSG):
One of the most vexing problems facing middle and secondary school teachers today is that many students come into their classrooms without the requisite knowledge, skills, and dispositions to read the materials placed before them. These students are, for one reason or another, poor comprehenders. Poor comprehenders are students who can neither read nor demonstrate satisfactory understanding of texts appropriate for their grade level. Many teachers are frustrated by what they see as an ever-increasing number of students who are poor comprehenders. (2002, p. 34)
In response to a charge from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement of the U.S. Department of Education to study pressing literacy issues, RRSG chose to focus on comprehension. That focus was motivated by a number of factors, including the following:
- High school graduates are facing an increased need for a high degree of literacy, but comprehension outcomes are not improving.
- Students in the United States are performing poorly in comparison with students in other countries as they enter the later years of schooling when they encounter discipline-specific content and subject-matter learning.
- Unacceptable gaps in reading performance persist between children in different demographic groups despite extensive efforts to close those gaps.
- Not enough attention has been paid to helping teachers develop skills they need to promote reading comprehension, ensure content learning through reading, and deal with the differences in comprehension skills that their students display.
Studies conducted across the last 30 years suggest that inadequate time and attention to comprehension instruction is a factor that contributes to the state of poor comprehension among our students. In the late 1970s, Delores Durkin (1978–79) found that only 2% of the time designated for reading instruction was used to actually teach students how to comprehend what they read. Recent studies by Pressley (2000) and Taylor, Pearson, Clark, and Walpole (1999a) indicate that this situation has not changed much in the last 20 years despite a growing base of knowledge supporting the value of comprehension instruction. We now know that effective comprehension instruction is complex; adequate time and attention to the details of that instruction will be required to reverse the trend of increasing numbers of poor comprehenders. It goes without saying, however, that additional time and attention to comprehension instruction is likely to accomplish little unless the instruction is in accord with what research tells us about effective comprehension instruction.
Good instruction is the most powerful means of promoting proficient comprehension and preventing comprehension problems (RRSG, 2002). What we already know about comprehension instruction was summarized by RRSG. That summary converges with NRP's research-based conclusions about comprehension instruction to produce a solid base of information on which educators can rely.
Both reports emphasize that effective comprehension instruction includes the teaching of specific comprehension strategies. Four important components of effective strategy instruction are:
- Explicit teaching in which the teacher explains the comprehension strategy clearly, models the strategy, guides the students as they learn and apply the strategy, and provides practice with the strategy until students can apply it independently.
- Explicit teaching of how to use multiple strategies in combination.
- Explicit teaching of how to apply strategies flexibly to different types of text.
- Integration of strategies into content area instruction.
Vocabulary plays a critical role in reading comprehension. We use the term vocabulary to refer to knowledge of the meanings of individual words. In the NRP report, the relationships among oral vocabulary, knowledge of letter-sound correspondences, and comprehension of printed text were described this way:
As a learner begins to read, reading vocabulary encountered in texts is mapped onto the oral vocabulary the learner brings to the task. The reader learns to translate the (relatively) unfamiliar words in print into speech, with the expectation that the speech forms will be easier to comprehend. Benefits in understanding text by applying letter-sound correspondences to printed material come about only if the target word is in the learner's oral vocabulary. When the word is not in the learner's oral vocabulary, it will not be understood when it occurs in print. (4-3)
Although children learn the meanings of many words indirectly through everyday experiences with oral and written language, there is a need for direct instruction of vocabulary items required for comprehension of a specific text (NRP, 4-4). Our recognition of the need for direct vocabulary instruction is indicated by our inclusion of vocabulary instruction. Although many students learn vocabulary indirectly through independent reading, low readers do not engage in enough independent reading to acquire the vocabulary needed to comprehend the increasingly complex materials that they encounter as they progress through school. Direct teaching of vocabulary is essential for poor comprehenders.
Knowledge of text structure also fosters comprehension. The NRP reported that instruction of story structure improves students' ability to answer questions and recall what was read. This improvement was more pronounced for less able readers; good readers may not need this kind of instruction. Archer and Gleason explain how narrative text differs from expository text and why students need to use different strategies with different types of text.
Content-area instruction is particularly important for several reasons. First, some evidence suggests that strategy instruction is most effective when it is embedded in in-depth learning of content. Second, the evidence suggests that students are more likely to learn the strategies fully and apply them in new learning situations when the strategies are closely linked with content knowledge. However, in attempting to integrate strategy instruction into content instruction, it is important that teachers keep this caveat in mind (RRSG, 2002):
Integrating strategy instruction into content domains requires a balance. The priority of instructing for reading comprehension must be balanced with the priority of teaching the content area itself…If comprehension strategies are taught with an array of content and a range of texts that are too wide, then students will not fully learn them. If strategies are taught with too narrow a base of content or text, then students do not have a chance to learn how to transfer them to new reading situations. (pp. 39–40)
Archer and Gleason describe ways of integrating strategy instruction into content instruction without sacrificing content. In so doing, they provide specific examples of how to:
- Use graphs and concept maps to organize content such that big ideas, relationships, and critical distinctions are communicated clearly.
- Teach specific strategies individually and then apply them in combination (see discussion of Reciprocal Teaching).
- Conduct guided reading activities in which the teacher models the types of self-questioning that promotes prediction, identification of important information, and summarization.
The myriad of comprehension skills and strategies contained in the Archer and Gleason chapter is organized as prereading, reading, and postreading activities. This makes the teacher's task of organizing comprehension instruction more manageable.
Prereading activities include the preteaching of difficult-to-decode words, difficult vocabulary, and how to read and interpret graphic material. It also includes constructing concept diagrams and concept maps and previewing the selection.
Reading activities begin with guided reading in which the teacher asks questions that prepare students for the reciprocal teaching, partner reading, and learning strategies instruction that follow the guided reading.
In postreading activities, students write summaries and complete written exercises. Feedback on written assignments and review of major concepts are also important postreading activities.
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