Instruction or Assessment?

During the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, reading comprehension was largely taught by asking students questions following reading or by assigning skill sheets as practice for reading comprehension skills such as getting the main idea, determining the sequence, following directions, noting details, and cause and effect relationships. In 1978, Dolores Durkin reported findings from reading comprehension studies conducted in public school classrooms. After observing a variety of “expert” teachers engaged in reading instruction in both reading and social studies classrooms, Durkin concluded that these teachers spent very little time actually teaching children how to understand texts. In fact, less than 1% of total reading or social studies instructional time was devoted to the teaching of reading comprehension. Unfortunately, many researchers conclude that the situation in today’s schools has not improved appreciably over the last 25 years (Collins-Block et al., 2003).

So, what is happening in America’s classrooms with respect to comprehension instruction? Durkin (1978) provided insights into that question as well. Teachers, she said, do not teach comprehension skills, but only “mention” or “question.” Durkin defined a mentioner as a teacher who says “just enough about a topic [e.g., unstated conclusions] to allow for a written assignment to be given” (Durkin, 1981a, p. 516). Furthermore, attention to new vocabulary words was often brief, even “skimpy” (p. 524). Basal reader teacher’s manuals were usually consulted for only two purposes: (a) to study the list of new vocabulary words and (b) to ask the comprehension questions following the reading of a selection. Worksheets, in reality nothing more than informal tests, dominated classroom reading comprehension instruction.

Durkin conducted a second study (1981b) in which she investigated the comprehension instruction found in five nationally published basal reading series. Her conclusions in this study essentially supported her earlier study: Publishers, like teachers, failed to understand the differences between teaching and testing reading comprehension. Basal reader teachers’ manuals offered little or no help for teachers about how to teach children to comprehend text. Instead, the main resources were reading comprehension worksheets mislabeled as instruction. Durkin concluded that teachers often have difficulty telling the difference between teaching and testing when it comes to reading comprehension.

If mentioning and questioning are not the qualities of effective comprehension instruction, then what is? Durkin (1978) suggested that effective comprehension instruction includes helping, assisting, defining, demonstrating, modeling, describing, explaining, providing feedback, thinking aloud, and guiding students through learning activities. Simply asking students to respond to a worksheet or to answer a list of comprehension questions does nothing to develop new comprehension skills. Research has shown that reading comprehension improves when teachers provide explicit comprehension strategy instruction (Bauman & Bergeron, 1993; Brown, Pressley, Van Meter, & Schuder, 1996; Dole, Brown, & Trathen, 1996; Morrow, 1985) and when they provide instructional activities that support students’ understanding of the texts they will read (Dowhower, 1987; Eldredge, Reutzel, & Hollingsworth, 1996; Hansen, 1981; Reutzel, Hollingsworth, & Eldredge, 1994; Tharp, 1982).