The ultimate goal in reading is,
of course, to make meaning from text. That is, to comprehend the information
that is conveyed in the text. What that means is that, at the least, the
reader should gain some understanding of the message that is being
conveyed by the author. Moreover, however, comprehension should go beyond
simply understanding the explicit message that is being conveyed by the
author. To truly comprehend text is to make connections between the information
in the text and the information in the reader's head, to draw inferences
about the author's meaning, to evaluate the quality of the message, and
possibly even to connect aspects of the text with other works of literature.
Reading comprehension has always
been the goal of reading instruction, but it is not a concept well understood
or easily assessed.
The Simple View of Reading that
has been described under "S
is for Simple View," states that reading comprehension is the product
of Language Comprehension skills and Decoding skills, and that view is
accurate as far as it goes. All that means is that Language Comprehension
also depends upon a person's ability to draw inferences, make evaluations,
and make connections. And research has shown that as children develop these
skills in reading comprehension, the skills generalize to language comprehension,
and vice versa.
It is important to understand that
Reading Comprehension (and Language Comprehension) has multiple facets
or constructs. It is possible for a reader to understand all of the words
in a passage of text, but still to fail to comprehend the text as a whole.
Similarly, it is possible for a reader to understand the explicit information
contained in a passage of text, but to fail to grasp the implicit message
contained "between the lines." Similarly, it is possible for a reader to
appreciate the implicit message contained in the text, but to fail to elaborate
on that message, failing to connect it to other text or background knowledge.
Consequently, there are important
implications for the assessment of Reading Comprehension. Most of the Reading
Comprehension assessments I am familiar with follow the same format: There
is a passage of text (usually narrative for younger children and expository
for older children), and there are comprehension questions that follow
the text (almost always focusing on information explicitly contained in
the text, and rarely focusing on deeper inferential or evaluative comprehension).
There have been other formats for
Reading Comprehension assessment that have been tried, the most common
being the "cloze" format assessment wherein selected words are deleted
from passages of text, and the reader has to fill in the missing words.
Cloze assessments almost always load heavily on explicit comprehension,
and often load heavily on vocabulary knowledge.
There are several troubling consequences
for our current approaches to Reading Comprehension assessment. First,
most Reading Comprehension assessments focus only on one genre of text
-- typically narrative, sometimes expository, almost never poetry or argumentative
essay. Comprehension in one genre does not guarantee comprehension
in other genres. Different text serves different purposes, and to
comprehend the text, the purpose needs to be considered.
Second, Reading Comprehension assessments
almost always contain short passages of text. It is one thing to
comprehend a 500 word passage of text, and it is something entirely different
to comprehend substantial, authentic text.
Third, Reading Comprehension assessments
are usually superficial. Comprehension instruction depends upon teachers
using deep questioning techniques, but Bloom's taxonomy has not found its
way into comprehension assessment.
Finally, Reading Comprehension assessments
typically describe the child's "reading level," and that is a very misleading
description. Reading Comprehension is multi-faceted and complicated,
and suggesting that different children are simply reading at different
"levels" ignores this complexity. Different children read at different
"levels" for very different reasons, and sometimes two different children
can be reading at the same "level" for very different reasons. Reading
Comprehension assessments should be more diagnostic than they currently
are, and children should be challenged to attack different genres of text
and critically examine the text in a variety of ways, gathering explicit
information, drawing inferences, and making evaluations.