Sunday, February 4, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Reading Comprehension, Part 1

There is no reading without comprehension. We read for understanding, for enjoyment, for learning. We cannot do any of these without comprehending the text. Many students, even many who have developed automaticity in decoding text, struggle with comprehension. The good news is that research indicates that good teaching can help children improve their reading comprehension. Like reading comprehension itself, reading comprehension instruction is hard work. It demands knowledgeable, consistent, insistent effort on the part of the teacher, but the rewards in student reading growth can be great.

Comprehension instruction is a large topic and I will take three posts to address it properly, if still only in broad strokes. I take my cue from the work of literacy researchers, Nell Duke, P. David Pearson, Stephanie L. Strachan and Allison K. Billman in their outstanding article Essential Elements of Fostering and Teaching Reading Comprehension, published in What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction (2011). In Part 1, here, I will address the teacher's role in building the disciplinary and world knowledge children need to comprehend text. Part 2 will address the teaching of strategies readers can employ to improve comprehension. Part 3 will look at instructional strategies for building and extending comprehension through discussion and the integration of reading and writing.

Building the Knowledge Necessary for Reading Comprehension

Simply put, the more students know about a topic before reading about the topic, the more likely they will be to comprehend what they are reading. And this knowledge is a gift that keeps on giving, because successful reading of new material allows readers to add to the considerable knowledge they already have. And so, the knowledge rich keep getting richer. We have all seen this in our classes, when a child has a deep interest bordering on obsession in a topic like dinosaurs, and is able to read and comprehend well above supposed "level", because of this deep knowledge and interest.

We know that many of our struggling readers have a limited store of background knowledge to bring to their reading. We also know that skilled readers tend to read a lot more than unskilled readers and thus build their knowledge through more exposure to texts. So when students struggle in reading comprehension and background knowledge seems to be a contributing factor, what is the teacher to do?

Here are a few ideas.

Provide Exposure to a Large Volume and Wide Range of Texts

Research has clearly shown that the amount of time that kids interact with text, both in school and outside of school significantly correlates with overall reading success. Successful reading comprehension instruction must, therefore, include lots of opportunities for students to engage with texts. Classroom activities that support volume of reading include independent reading, book clubs, buddy reading, and read aloud.

With struggling readers, who tend to read less and be less motivated to read, teachers need to find creative ways to make sure that students are engaged in their reading. Making sure children are reading a book of high interest and a book which they can successfully read helps. So does such things as "buddy reading" where readers can share the reading and support each other. Having a "browsing box" of familiar books for these readers to re-read may be an effective way to help them find books of interest on an appropriate level. Another strategy is a poetry folder of poems that have been read in class (as part of a read aloud, shared reading, or fluency lesson) for students to read and re-read during choice reading time.

Reading at home and over the summer matters, too. Allington et al., (2010) found that increasing the volume of books that children had access to over the summer significantly improved overall reading achievement. For teachers fighting summer loss, it may be helpful to think of ways to get a variety of books into kids hands over the summer.

When it comes to the range of texts, we will want to make sure that students are exposed to narrative genres like fairy tales, realistic fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, etc., whose primary purpose is to entertain. We will also want to have students read a great deal of informational texts, whose primary purpose is to convey information about the world, as in websites, books, and articles about plants, animals, or places or that explain history or human interactions. The range of books would also include what Duke and Pearson call "hybrid books" like biography and autobiography that use a narrative structure to provide us with lessons on how people have dealt with challenges in their lives. Other informational texts include those that tell us how to do something and those that want to persuade us. Other types of reading students should experience include poetry and drama.

Texts should also vary in difficulty, from clear and straightforward to more dense and difficult, so that students can learn to employ the comprehension strategies you have taught. Readers should have texts that are easy for them and also be exposed to texts that provide a challenge, especially when the teacher is there to help them grapple with difficult text.

Combine Literacy Instruction with Content Instruction

Many school curriculum directors and schedulers have responded to initiatives like No Child Left Behind and Reading First, by providing increased time for reading instruction, which often comes at the expense of time for science and social studies instruction. If the goal is to improve reading instruction this is the exact wrong way to go. Learning to read for meaning can and should be inextricably linked to learning new information. As Duke and Pearson, et al., have said, "Words are not the point of words; ideas are." By tying literacy instruction to the ideas contained in real learning situations in science and social studies, students not only improve reading ability, but also learn new concepts, which can aid their future understanding.

Several instructional designs that take an integrated approach to reading comprehension/concept development have shown promise in research. Among these are Seeds of Science/Roots of Reading, and Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction (CORI). You can read more about each of these 
by clicking on the links, but with or without a designated program, the take away for all classroom teachers here is that combining good reading strategy instruction with rich content is a more effective way to improve students knowledge base and reading comprehension.

Provide Motivating Texts and Tasks for Reading

As teachers and observers of children, we know that motivation is critical to learning. Research indicated that motivation is particularly important to reading comprehension. As Duke and Pearson, et al., put it" "we must be concerned with the will and thrill, not just the skill of comprehension."

But how do we accomplish this with struggling readers, who have had a difficult time reading and comprehending effectively and may be turned off to the whole idea of reading. Here we need to take a two fold approach, one that not only considers what text we want the student to read, but also the task we want them to accomplish as part of the reading.

Interesting Texts

Interest is individual and unique. In order to help children find texts that are interesting to them, we must know something about the reader and the reader's interests. Some teachers accomplish this by conducting interest surveys, but there is no better way to accomplish this than by getting to know the children by listening to them and observing them over time. One of the best ways I found to help a child find a text that is interesting is to hold a conversation in the classroom or school library with the child, surrounded by tons of books and lots of options.

I once had such an encounter with a struggling and reluctant reader named PJ. PJ told me he didn't like to read and rarely chose to read on his own. I asked him, "What do you like to do after school?" He responded, "Play with my dog?" From there we had a five minute discussion about his dog, about how he was responsible for the care and feeding of his dog, about what fun he had with the dog. I pulled a book off the shelf called Sinbad and Me, by Kin Platt. It is a middle reader mystery about a boy who solves crimes with the help of his trusty dog, Sinbad. I talked about the book to PJ. We looked at the front and back cover and the few illustrations. I asked him to give it try. He read it and came back to me asking for more dog stories.

When we aim for high interest in texts with children, we can worry less about the book being at the right level. Interest and appropriate prior knowledge can help to overcome some reading challenges. It worked for PJ. A number of research studies have demonstrated that comprehension is much higher when reading about topics of interest.

Interesting Tasks

Of course, we can't always provide interesting texts for every individual student in the class in all reading situations. A second factor we can consider, though, is the task we ask the students to perform as a part of the reading. Duke and Pearson et al, suggest that what we need to do is provide the students with "compelling reasons to comprehend." Compelling reasons must go well beyond grades and questions at the end of the reading. Compelling tasks might be to learn some information to teach to the rest of the class or to a group of younger children. Compelling reasons might be to read to learn how to make something to give to a friend or family member. Compelling reasons also might be to be absorbed in a great story, which you have introduced to them, perhaps even reading the first chapter to them to lure the students into the story.

To sum up then, struggling readers need teachers to plan instruction that helps them build the knowledge necessary for comprehension, instruction that exposes them to a wide variety of text types, instruction that integrates literacy learning with content learning, and instruction that helps them find interesting texts and provides motivating tasks to complete.

Next time we will look at the strategies all readers can learn to improve their comprehension as they interact with text.


References

Allington, R. et al., (2010). Addressing summer reading setback among economically disadvantaged elementary students. Reading Psychology. 31 (5), 411-427.

Duke, N., Pearson P. D., Strachan, L., and Billman, A. (2011) Essential Elements of Fostering and Teaching Reading Comprehension. In Samuels, S.J. and Farstrup, A.E. What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction. Newark, DE. IRA.