Sunday, February 11, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Reading Comprehension, Part 2

In part one of this discussion of reading comprehension, I discussed the teacher's role in building the disciplinary and world knowledge necessary for students to comprehend text. In Part 2, I would like to address strategies that all students can use to comprehend better, even when their background knowledge may fall a bit short. My bias here is that if students have difficulty comprehending a text, it is the teacher's responsibility to help make the text accessible for the reader. One way to make text accessible is by teaching strategies that are useful for students.

Research has reached a general consensus on what strategies are worth teaching.
  • Setting purposes for reading
  • Previewing and predicting
  • Activating prior knowledge
  • Monitoring, clarifying, and fixing
  • Visualizing
  • Drawing inferences
  • Self-questioning and thinking aloud
  • Summarizing and retelling
Other possible strategies worth teaching include story elements for narrative text and skimming and scanning for informational text. 

While many students come to the use of these strategies more or less intuitively, many do not, hence the need for specific instruction. What does that instruction look like? Again research would support a model that has been around for more than 30 years, the gradual release of responsibility (Pearson and Gallagher, 1983). Gradual release of responsibility instruction follows five steps.
  1. An explicit description of the strategy including when and how it should be used.
  2. The teacher modeling the strategy in action.
  3. Collaborative (teacher/student) use of the strategy.
  4. Guided practice of the strategy with gradual release of responsibility.
  5. Independent use of the strategy.
The Think Aloud

The best way to model what good readers do to comprehend text is the think aloud. A think aloud allows the teacher to demonstrate exactly what a skilled reader does when trying to comprehend a text. As the teacher reads a text to the class, she takes the opportunity to stop and say aloud to the students the thought processes she is using to help her understand the text. The teacher models activating prior knowledge, monitoring for understanding, rereading, figuring-out vocabulary in context, predicting, confirming, summarizing, retelling, and drawing inferences. A good think aloud requires thoughtful and thorough planning. We are fortunate that a new book is available to help with that. Think Big with Think Alouds, by Molly Ness, has just been released by Corwin Press. Ness prescribes a three step process to planning a think aloud.
  1. Read Once: Identifying Juicy Stopping Points
  2. Read Twice: Determining Where and When to Think Aloud
  3. Read Three Times: Writing the Scripts on Sticky Notes
Whether you are brand new to think alouds, have been using think alouds for awhile without the kind of results you would like, or you just want to add to your think aloud repertoire, I highly recommend Ness' book. The final chapter of the book also makes suggestions for having students do their own think alouds, which I have indicated above is a reading comprehension best practice. 

Reciprocal Teaching

Reciprocal teaching is an integrated strategy approach where students are taught to use several reading strategies within a small group discussion environment to process their understanding of the text. Reciprocal teaching combines several of the reading comprehension strategies cited above including summarizing, self-questioning, predicting, and clarifying. Reciprocal teaching has also, in itself, been proven to be effective in improving student use of reading strategies and improving comprehension.

Reciprocal teaching takes time to implement, but the payoff in improved student reading performance is well worth the time. Students are taught four different strategies to use when trying to comprehend text. Each strategy is taught independently and then the four strategies are combined for a reciprocal teaching session. The key concept behind reciprocal teaching is that reciprocity - students are reading to understand and helping each other to understand better with the guidance of the teacher. 

The four key strategies in reciprocal teaching are predicting, summarizing, questioning, and clarifying. Students are taught to make predictions, generate questions, summarize text and clarify the meanings of words or concepts. Students prepare for a group session by preparing their predictions, summaries, questions, etc. and then bring them to a group session to share and learn form other readers in their group. Together the group develops a cogent understanding of the texts. 

If you would like to try reciprocal teaching many resources are available. I recommend Lori Oczkus' book, Reciprocal Teaching At Work  as the best possible introduction to the strategy. For a brief overview of the strategy you may want to look here at this Reading Rockets page.  You can also find a decent introduction to the strategy on you tube here.

Teach Text Structure

Good readers use their knowledge of text structure to aid them in comprehending a text. Weaker readers can be taught to use text structure through skillful instruction. Text structure is learned through exposure to many different kinds of texts, but it can also be learned through explicit instruction in the various structures and through the use of graphic organizers that help readers create a visual representation of the text. 

Narrative texts generally have only one structure, long established and relatively easy for most students to understand because of frequent exposure to stories. 

Characters: Who is the story is about?
Setting: Where does the story takes place?
Problem/Conflict/Quest: What does the main character want to accomplish?
Plot: How does the character go about solving the problem?
Resolution: How was the problem solved?
Theme: What is the general lesson to be learned from the story?

Informational texts, however, present a special challenge because they can vary so much in structure. The chart below presents a number of these structures, clue words to help students identify them and suggested graphic organizers to use with each structure.

I have discussed other strategies for building comprehension through probes in this post: Assessing Reading Comprehension: Probing Instead of Questioning. You can also read my take on the currently fashionable close reading instruction here: The Blue Guitar: Toward a Reader Response Approach to Close Reading.

There are, of course, many other strategies we can teach children to aid their comprehension, but by focusing on what research tells us is worth teaching, by modeling through think alouds, by employing a well-documented, effective design like reciprocal teaching, and by focusing on the structure of text we can guide students to improved understanding of text.

Work Cited

Pearson, P.D. & Gallagher, M.C. (1983). The instruction of reading comprehension, Contemporary Educational Psychology. 8(3), 317-344.

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