Reading Comprehension
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What is reading comprehension?

Reading comprehension is the process of constructing meaning from text. The goal of all reading instruction is ultimately targeted at helping a reader comprehend text. Reading comprehension involves at least two people: the reader and the writer. The process of comprehending involves decoding the writer's words and then using background knowledge to construct an approximate understanding of the writer's message.

What factors affect reading comprehension?

While word identification is a process that results in a fairly exact outcome (i.e., a student either reads the word "automobile" or not) the process of comprehending text is not so exact. Different readers will interpret an author's message in different ways. Comprehension is affected by the reader's knowledge of the topic, knowledge of language structures, knowledge of text structures and genres, knowledge of cognitive and metacognitive strategies, their reasoning abilities, their motivation, and their level of engagement.

Reading comprehension is also affected by the quality of the reading material. Some writers are better writers than others, and some writers produce more complex reading material than others. Text that is well organized and clear is called "considerate text," and text that is poorly organized and difficult to understand can be called "inconsiderate text." The more inconsiderate the text, the more work will be required of a reader to comprehend the text. Readers who do not have the background, abilities, or motivation to overcome the barriers presented in inconsiderate text will have more difficulty comprehending these types of texts.

Students who had trouble learning to decode and recognize words often will have difficulty with reading comprehension. Students who struggle with decoding rarely have a chance to interact with more difficult text and often learn to dislike reading. As a result, these students do not have sufficient opportunities to develop the language skills and strategies necessary for becoming proficient readers.

Readers with poorly developed language skills and strategies will not have the tools to take advantage of the obvious structures and comprehension cues that are part of considerate text nor will they have the extra tools needed to overcome the barriers of inconsiderate text.

The type of instruction that a student receives will also affect reading comprehension. Strategies for improving reading comprehension must be taught directly by teachers. Simply providing opportunities or requiring for children to read will not teach many students the comprehension strategies they need to be proficient readers. These need to be taught directly as students learn to read simple sentences and this direct instruction needs to continue in different forms throughout a student's elementary and secondary school experience.

What are the different components of teaching reading comprehension?

There are many ways to think about reading comprehension and many factors that affect reading comprehension. Teachers should keep in mind two overriding questions about how to organize how to teach reading comprehension. These questions are, "What strategies should I teach?" and "How should I teach strategies?"

     What strategies should I teach? The most practical way of thinking about teaching reading comprehension is to organize instruction according to how you want students to think about strategies. For this reason, the most straightforward way of organizing comprehension strategies is to think about strategies that one might use before reading, duringreading, and after reading.

     Before Reading Strategies consist of those strategies that a student learns to use to get ready to read a text selection. These strategies help the student get an idea of what the author might be trying to say, how the information might be useful, and to create a mental set that might be useful for taking in and storing information. These strategies could include previewing headings, surveying pictures, reading introductions and summaries, creating a pre-reading outline, creating questions that might need to be answered, making predictions that need to be confirmed, etc. The primary question for a teacher here is: "What steps (observable as well as unobservable) should I teach students to do regularly and automatically that will prepare them in advance to get the most out of a reading selection that needs to be read more thoroughly?"

     When a teacher introduces a reading selection to students, walks students through the text, helps the students get ready to read through the use of advance organizers, or creates pre-reading outlines, he/she is ensuring content learning by compensating for the fact that students have not developed good Before-Reading Strategies. Teachers will need to continue to lead students in these types of before-reading activities to ensure content area learning occurs until students have been taught to fluently use Before-Reading Strategies. Teacher use of before-reading prompts and activities does not necessarily lead students to develop and use Before-Reading Strategies independently without direct and explicit instruction. This is why it is important to directly teach and provide practice that gradually requires students to use Before-Reading strategies.

     During Reading Strategies consist of those strategies that students learn to use while they are reading a text selection. These strategies help the student focus on how to determine what the author is actually trying to say and to match the information with what the student already knows. These strategies should be influenced by the Before Reading Strategies because students should be using or keeping in mind the previews, outlines, questions, predictions, etc. that were generated before reading and then using this information to digest what they are reading. The During Reading Strategies that help a student understand during reading include questioning, predicting, visualizing, paraphrasing, elaborating (i.e., comparing what is read to what is known), changing reading rate, rereading, etc. The primary question for a teacher is: "What steps (observable and unobservable) should I teach students to do so that they will regularly and automatically figure out the intended meaning of the text and how it connects to what they already know?"

     When a teacher develops reading guides and outlines that need to be completed during reading, requires students to ask and answer questions, creates summaries as they read, etc., they are compensating for the fact that students have not developed good During-Reading Strategies. Teachers will need to continue to lead students in these types of during-reading activities to ensure content area learning occurs until students are taught to fluently use Before-Reading Strategies. Teacher use of during-reading prompts and activities does not necessarily lead students to develop and use During-Reading Strategies independently without direct and explicit instruction. This is why it is important to directly teach and provide practice that gradually requires students to use During-Reading strategies.

     After-Reading Strategies consist of those strategies that students learn to use when they have completed reading a text selection. These strategies are used to help the student "look back" and think about the message of the text and determine the intended or possible meanings that might be important. These strategies are used to follow up and confirm what was learned (e.g., answer questions or confirm predictions) from the use of before and during reading strategies. However, After-Reading Strategies also help the reader to focus on determining what the big, critical, or overall idea of the author's message was and how it might be used before moving on to performance tasks or other learning tasks. The primary question for a teacher is: "What steps (observable and unobservable) should I teach students to do so that they will regularly and automatically stop when they are finished reading a text selection and try to figure out the intended meaning of the text to determine what is most important and how they will use it?"

     When a teacher reviews a reading selection, leads a discussion on what was important about the author's message, helps students summarize or "look back" at what was read, provides a post-organizer, or asks students to complete a study guide over what was learned from reading text, the teacher is compensating for the fact that students have not developed good After-Reading Strategies. Teachers will need to continue to lead students in these types of before reading-activities to ensure content area learning occurs until students have been taught to fluently use After-Reading Strategies. Teacher use of after-reading prompts and activities does not necessarily lead students to develop and use After-Reading Strategies independently without direct and explicit instruction. This is why it is important to directly teach and provide practice that gradually requires students to use After-Reading strategies.

What are some examples of specific strategies?Some examples of strategies are listed below. Some of these strategies could be used in all three categories. For example, questioning could be listed in the before, during, and after reading categories. Summarization could be listed as both during and after reading strategies. These are grouped based on where the greatest amount of instruction needs to take place.

Before-Reading Strategies
     Before Reading Self-questioning
During-Reading Strategies
     During Reading Self-questioning
     Paragraph Summarization
     Section Summarization
After-Reading Strategies
     After Reading Self-questioning
     After Reading Summarization

How do you teach comprehension strategies?

A majority of the research indicates that the most successful way to teach comprehension strategies to students with limited reading proficiency is to use very direct and explicit instruction. The stages of instruction that are most often cited as being effective in helping a student learn a strategy are: (1) orient students to key concepts, assess, and ask students to make a commitment to learn, (2) describe the purpose of the strategy, the potential benefits, and the steps of the strategy, (3) model (thinking aloud) the behavioral and cognitive steps/actions involved in using the strategy, (4) lead verbal practice and elaboration of the key information and steps related to the strategy, (5) provide for guided and controlled practice of the strategy with detailed feedback from the teacher and/or knowledgeable peers, (6) gradually move to more independent and advanced practice of the strategy with feedback from the teacher and/or knowledgeable peers, and (7) posttest application of the strategy, and help students make commitments to generalize its use. Once the strategy is learned, the teacher must then ensure that students begin to transfer or generalize the strategy to new and different situations. The eighth stage, generalization, includes four distinct phases: (1) orientation and awareness of situations in which the strategy can be used, (2) activation by preparing for and practicing strategies in content-area classes, (3) adaptation of the strategy steps for use in other tasks, and (4) maintenance of the strategy for continued application in a variety of real-life learning and work place settings.

What are the key principles of reading instruction?

  • Teach reading comprehension skills and strategies at all levels of reading development. Teachers at every grade level and every subject area should always be planning how reading assignments will help students develop and practice skills and strategies. Students need teachers to teach and draw attention to appropriate strategy use in textbooks, especially in content areas where there are many reading demands (e.g., language, social studies, and often science). A reading comprehension skill is a developed ability to construct meaning effectively, immediately, and effortlessly with little conscious attention. A reading comprehension strategy is defined as an overt process consciously selected and used by a reader to aid the process of constructing meaning more effectively and efficiently. Once a student uses a strategy effectively, immediately and effortlessly with little conscious attention to construct meaning, it becomes a reading skill. Most planning for comprehension instruction is targeted at teaching comprehension strategies and then developing practice activities that help the student become skilled in the use of the strategy so that it is unconsciously selected and used in a variety of situations.
  • Reading comprehension instruction must be responsive. Continually assess progress in learning, make specific instructional accommodations to meet individual student's needs, and provided individualized and elaborated feedback.
  • Reading comprehension instruction must be systematic. Systematic reading instruction is structured, connected, scaffolded, and informative. Structured instruction is characterized by lessons that organize and group new knowledge and skills into segments that can be sequentially presented in a clear manner. Connected instruction is characterized by lessons that show the learner connections between the segments and what is already known. Scaffolded lessons are characterized by instruction in which the teacher provides to students, early in the learning process, a significant amount of support in the form of modeling, prompts, direct explanations, and targeted questions. Then as students begin to acquire the targeted objective, direct teacher supports are reduced, and the major responsibilities for learning is transferred to the student. Informative instruction is characterized by lessons in which the teacher explains the purposes and expected outcomes and requirements for learning and when and how that newly learned information will be useful.
  • Reading comprehension instruction must be intensive. Intensive reading instruction means that sufficient time, used wisely and with high student engagement, is provided direct instruction for students to master the reading skills and strategies they need.
  • Reading comprehension instruction should involve authentic reading at all stages. Authentic reading involves incorporating a variety of "real" reading materials, such as books, magazines, and newspapers into the instructional process.
  • Reading comprehension instruction involves providing opportunities to read for pleasure. Struggling readers don't read as often or as much as their peers. Reading for enjoyment should be modeled and encouraged at all grade levels. This requires providing ample materials to read at their independent reading level.
  • Reading comprehension instruction requires collaboration with other professionals and shared responsibility for student success. All teachers play either a primary or secondary role in teaching students to read. All classroom teachers who expect students to learn the content of specific subjects need to be teaching reading. Studies have shown that one of the most damaging practices affecting struggling readers is the lack of coordination among educators that are responsible for literacy development. Building staff must work together to plan and implement effective instruction in reading comprehension.

 
Developed by: Keith Lenz, Ph.D., University of Kansas


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