Reading comprehension instruction has assumed a prominent place in educational conversations of late, and for good reasons. With the recent release of the Rand Report on Reading Comprehension, Reading for Understanding: Toward an R & D Program in Reading Comprehension, and the increasing focus on reading instruction as a topic of national concern, we need to understand how reading comprehension is defined, taught and assessed. First, let me share the definition set forth in the Rand Report for reading comprehension; the process of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning through interaction and involvement with written language. So if we are extracting meaning, then it must reside IN the text? Though I do not agree with this, we shall move forward nonetheless. This definition focuses on meaning residing in the text, and refers to reading comprehension as “text-based thinking.” The three elements of the reading event are described as the reader, the text and the activity or purpose for reading, however the primary focus seems to be the reader and the text. Second, the researchers that wrote this report agree that reading comprehension should be taught explicitly in classrooms, and it should not be assumed that comprehension is the goal of all readers. Third, they agree that teacher development in the area of reading comprehension instruction is crucial for improving reading comprehension across grade levels. And finally, they believe that reading comprehension should be assessed at every stage of learning.
Focusing on explicit instruction of reading comprehension, I offer five (5) elements of instruction that should be part of every classroom, kindergarten through high school.
- Setting Expectations: We need to be sure that readers understand that making sense of texts is the primary goal of every reading event. We can do this by sharing our own reading processes, reading books about readers (there is a booklist on my web-site, http://serafini.nevada.edu), generating a list of characteristics of “Successful Readers” in every classroom and adopting a class slogan or motto, Reading Is Understanding, for example.
- Demonstrations of Comprehension Strategies: Readers need to hear and see how proficient readers make sense of texts. Using think alouds and other discussion techniques we can demonstrate how we make sense of texts in front of our students. The language we use is explicit and sets the expectation that understanding is the primary goal of reading texts.
- Guided Practice: Reading comprehension instruction should be based on the “Gradual Release of Responsibility Model” developed by P. David Pearson and others. In this model, the teacher demonstrates a strategy, students practice that strategy with teacher guidance and then begin using it independently. During guided practice, teachers work alongside students as they try and implement the strategies demonstrated by the teacher. One word of caution, the focus must remain on the construction of meaning, and not simply readers using more and more comprehension strategies. Strategies are a means to comprehension, not an end in themselves.
- Independent Use: Readers need many opportunities to read books and other materials and discuss these texts with other readers. The whole purpose of comprehension instruction is to help readers make sense of the texts they read. Because of this, we need to allow time in our day for readers to read.
- Reflective Opportunities: During reading workshops, or other classroom instructional frameworks, we need to allow students the opportunity to talk about and think about the strategies they have been employing, the books they have been reading and any questions or challenges that may arise during the reading event. Readers need to learn to talk about their reading processes. It has been shown that those readers that are more “meta-cognitively aware” are in general our better readers.
Demonstrating how proficient readers make sense of texts and then guiding readers to apply the same strategies helps readers develop their own strategies for making sense of texts. However, the goal is not to get better at strategies but to get better at making sense. Setting the expectation that reading should ALWAYS be a meaning making process is probably the most important thing we can do as reading teachers.