Sebastian Wren, Ph.D.
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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
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
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
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