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Improving Comprehension Instruction
Sebastian Wren, Ph.D.

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Book Review 
There is only one reason to read -- that is to comprehend.  Gaining insight, gathering information, learning -- that is what reading is all about.  Reading without comprehension is not reading -- it's decoding or word-calling.  And it is useless.  Many children intuitively, almost naturally develop sophisticated comprehension strategies without any explicit instruction, but most children need to be explicitly taught how to comprehend what they are reading at different levels.  

When I was teaching at the college level, I noticed that most of my students were very good at reading short passages of text and extracting from them simple, explicit factoids that they could subsequently regurgitate.  However, my students were by-and-large quite poor at reading a variety of different, substantial texts, considering the relative value of each source, and thinking deeply about the implications of what they read.  These were college students at a very well-respected university -- the cream of the crop.  Yet they had clearly never been taught that reading comprehension is much more than just collecting nuggets of information from short passages of text.  We have to expect more from our students.  Basic comprehension involves understanding information that is explicitly stated in the text, but comprehension instruction must go well beyond that to include inferential and evaluative comprehension of a wide variety of genres and resources.

-- To learn more about a particular book, or to purchase a copy of that book, just click on the image of the book cover --
Comprehension Instruction: Research-Based Best Practices
Edited by Cathy Collins Block and Michael Pressley
Published in 2002 by Guilford Press

I heard Michael Pressley speak passionately once about the need to teach children a love for great literature.  What was his definition of "great literature?"  He said that literature that can be read over and over again by a reader who gains different insights with each reading is great literature.  When he said this, he said that he was re-reading the Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis and appreciating themes in the literature that he did not appreciate when he was a child.  To a child, it is a highly engaging, enjoyable series of fantasy books, but as an adult, Pressley was appreciating the biblical themes sewn into the Chronicles.

Reading comprehension depends upon a reader connecting information from text to her background knowledge -- the stronger the connection, the better the comprehension.  A reader who knows a great deal about economics will have a much, much better understanding of the Wall Street Journal than a reader who knows little about economics.  The knowledgeable reader will draw insights and inferences, will connect current news with previous events, and will fit trends and events into a logical schema that the less knowledgeable reader does not have.

"Comprehension Instruction: Research-Based Best Practices" provides a collection of chapters authored by various experts in the field of comprehension instruction.  The topics range from more theoretical discussions of comprehension research to very specific suggestions for strategies that can be used in instruction.  I found Trabasso and Bouchard's chapter to be particularly useful as a survey of different instructional strategies that teachers can use to develop more sophisticated comprehension skills in their students.  

I also thought much wisdom was contained in the chapter by Pearson and Duke on comprehension instruction in the primary grades.  There is very little discussion or attention paid to comprehension instruction for young students, possibly because of the belief that, as Jeanne Chall put it, children first learn to read, THEN they read to learn.  The focus for young students has largely been on teaching them to read so that magically they can begin to read to learn.  Pearson and Duke point out that there is a role for elementary teachers to play in teaching good comprehension strategies explicitly to young students, and while there is a paucity of research on the topic, they summarize some key studies that show the benefits of certain types of comprehension instruction that have been shown to be effective with young students.

Gerald Duffy's chapter makes two points that I think bear highlighting.   First, good teachers are very direct and explicit about what they are teaching, even when they are teaching more abstract skills such as comprehension and self-monitoring. Second, good teachers are very good at explaining things "on the fly."  That is, they don't follow a script -- they interact with their students, come up with very creative ways to explain concepts, and monitor their students' understanding.  That kind of talent does not come in a teacher's manual, and it can not be bought in a box.  You have to cultivate that kind of talent.

Reading Comprehension Difficulties: Processes and Intervention
Edited by Cesare Cornoldi and Jane Oakhill
Published in 1996 by Lawrence Erlbaum Publishing

I have a very, very dog-eared copy of this book near my desk.  I refer to it quite often.  This is a compilation of chapters written by some of the leading reading and literacy researchers.  Most of the chapters are on the more esoteric and abstract level -- models of reading are summarized, and descriptions of research evidence for those models is provided.  One of my favorite chapters in this book is the first chapter by Gough, Hoover, and Peterson on the "Simple View of Reading" that begins with the line, "Only a fool would deny that reading is complex."  Being a student of Phil Gough's, I also found Stothard and Hulme's chapter comparing reading comprehension and decoding difficulties to be a refreshing summary of the lack of evidence (if I can say such a thing) for special reading comprehension difficulties in the presence of good decoding and language comprehension skills.  I also found the chapter by Barnes and Dennis on neurological foundations of reading difficulties to be fascinating, but it is quite technical -- I wouldn't describe it as easy reading material.

In fact, that is a good way to summarize this book.  It is quite interesting to the more wonkish individuals who want to understand research models for reading and comprehension, but it isn't a good book for the feint of heart.  There is very little in this book that can be directly applied in a classroom, but as a whole, for people who want to hone their reading-research expertise, this is a good summary of research related to the sources of comprehension difficulties.

Reading and Linguistic Development (From Reading Research to Practice Series)
by Paula Menyuk, ED.D. Paula Menyuk
Published in 1999 by Brookline Books

This book is one in a series of books that I heartily recommend (not just this book, but all of the books in this series).  The series is called "From Reading Research to Practice: A Series for Teachers." The series was edited by Jeanne Chall, and every book in the series is short, concrete, and very useful.

The "Simple View" of reading that has proven to be so robust describes two critical elements that are necessary for successful reading comprehension (See S is for Simple View of Reading).  First, the reader must possess fluent decoding skills, and second, the reader must possess adequate levels of language comprehension.  The product of these two skills is directly related to the reader's ability to read and understand text.

With that in mind, there is a lot to be said for teachers understanding language development and it's relationship to reading development.  This book succinctly describes how children build upon language comprehension skills to develop reading comprehension skills, and then describes the evolving relationship between language and reading comprehension skills throughout the grades.  Like all books in this series, explicit advice is offered to the teacher about how to address language and reading comprehension instruction in the classroom, and how that instruction should change as the student progresses through the grades.

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Last Updated 1-1-05