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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Assessing Reading Comprehension: Probing Instead of Questioning

When working in my role as a reading consultant, I often hear teachers lament their students lack of reading comprehension. The conversation often goes something like this:

Teacher: Most of my kids seem to be able to read the text fluently enough, but many don't understand what they read.
Me: How do you know they are not understanding?
Teacher: They can't answer the comprehension questions I ask them after they read.
Me: Have you considered that the questions are the problem and not the kid's reading comprehension?

I want to suggest that we disadvantage students when we employ a list of post-reading comprehension questions  (whether teacher constructed or taken from the teacher's guide) as our primary way to assess comprehension, or worse, when we send them off to a computer to complete an Accelerated Reader quiz. What we should be doing is helping kids build on what they have comprehended (and if they are reading with reasonable fluency, they have comprehended something) through probes rather than "comprehension questions."

Reading comprehension is, of course, a highly complex cognitive activity.  It is best understood as a dynamic transaction between the reader and the text. It is dependent upon the prior knowledge of the reader, the reader's vocabulary, the level of engagement of the reader, the skill and craft of the author of the text in communicating meaning, and the social context (place, situation, purpose) in which the reading happens.

Given this complexity, it is important to understand that every child will have a unique comprehension of the text. When a student cannot answer our "comprehension questions", one explanation could be that that child's construction of the meaning did not cause him/her to attend to the information that would allow for a correct answer.

What if we took a different approach to post reading comprehension assessment that built on what kids did comprehend and perhaps helped them extend their understanding? This is where my idea of "probes" comes in. These probes are similar to what Beck and McGowan call "queries" in their outstanding book Improving Comprehension with Questioning the Author, NY: Scholastic. I like the word "probe" because it gets at the concept of getting into the kids brains to help them build understanding.

So, how can we probe for understanding rather than test for comprehension? Here is the first probe I use at the end of any group reading activity. The great literacy teacher, Cynthia Mershon, taught me to use this many years ago.

What stood out for you?

Every member of the group can answer that question and the variety of responses gives all the readers a chance to reflect on what others found interesting or important. I often follow up the first probe with the following:

Can you say more about that? or What made you choose that?

After this start there are any number of probes we might use to both assess student comprehension and build their understanding.

What were some other things you found interesting?
What is something you learned that you did not know before?
What did you find confusing?
What did you read that made you think that?
What does the author mostly want us to know about this topic?
What do you think the author is trying to say here?
Who might like to read this book? Why?
What questions do you still have after reading this?

Probes can drill down into the text as well.

Look at page 7, what does the author focus on here? Why do you think this is important?
What is a new idea that the author introduces on page 9?
Why do you think the author included the graph on page 11?

Some probes lend themselves better to narrative texts.

What is going on in the story now?
What did a character do that you would never do? like to do?
What is the problem here?
How have things changed for the lead character?
How does the author tell us about what the main character is like?
Did you like how the story ended? Why or why not?

I tried a simple application of the probing strategy with a group of fourth grade students yesterday. We were reading an informational text entitled The Story of the Statue by Heather Lynn Banks, about the Statue of Liberty. I began the reading by asking the students to tell me what they already knew about the Statue of Liberty and these ideas were recorded on chart paper in blue marker. After introducing some vocabulary and previewing the text, the students read the story silently. After the reading I asked, "What stood out for you?" As the students responded, I recorded the new information on the chart in red marker. The red demonstrated graphically for the students that their reading had led to new learning.

When students offered brief responses to the probe, I followed with, "Say more about that." I continued by asking the students to share other things they had learned about the Statue of Liberty.  We gathered a good deal of information from the text about the history and significance of the Statue of Liberty.

I ended the discussion by trying to guide the students toward the author's purpose for writing the article with this probe: "The author says that the Statue of Liberty is not just a statue, but also a symbol. What do you think she means?" The students demonstrated clearly that they had understood the main idea of the text was that the Statue of Liberty was a symbol of freedom. By probing with "What do you think this means?", I hoped I was inviting the students to talk and for the group to construct their understanding together.

As we think about a concept as complex as reading comprehension, I think we need to move beyond an assessment based on questions after reading and move towards an assessment based on how students uniquely construct meaning. By using probing "queries" we can find out what we need about student understanding and at the same time help them develop strategies that lead to deeper understanding.

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