In addition to the more global, reader characteristics I presented in the last post, there are five critical dispositions that readers need to develop if they are to become proficient, sophisticated readers. In addition, these five critical dispositions need to be adopted or understood by readers before reading comprehension instruction can be effective. These critical dispositions provide a framework for our lessons in comprehension to “hang on,” and set readers up for success by focusing their attention on reading as a meaning making process. By providing experiences and setting expectations about what is important during the act of reading, we are able to develop these critical dispositions in our novice readers.
Disposition #1: Proficient and sophisticated readers understand that reading is a process of making meaning with texts.
If readers do not understand that making sense of what they read is the goal of transacting with a text, they are simply wasting their time. Some students think fluency, oral proficiency or accurate decoding is the ultimate goal. However, these are intermediary goals that are important when working towards constructing meaning in transaction with a text. There are strong correlations between oral fluency and comprehension, however, fluency must be valued in service of making meaning, not as a primary goal in and of itself. Oral fluency and automatic decoding may be strong predictors of reading comprehension, but fluency and decoding alone do not guarantee that comprehension has occurred.
In addition, as readers progress into more complicated texts, their decoding abilities become less and less an indicator of comprehension. Let me explain. If a reader accurately decodes a simple picture book, for example Mrs. Wishy Washy by Joy Cowley, one could say with a great deal of confidence they probably understood what they read. For one reason, the book is rather literal in its presentation, without multiple layers of meaning involved. Secondly, the book includes enough illustrations to support the construction of meaning by the reader. And most importantly, the book was not written to be used for in depth literary or critical discussions.
However, when reading literature, poetry and more complex, postmodern picture books, for example, The Tunnel, Zoo, or Voices in the Park by Anthony Browne, oral fluency may not be enough to indicate that the reader was able to understand the references, metaphors, or allusions presented in these texts. When reading these more complex picture books, comprehension requires the ability to connect the text and images to the world, understand the grammars of visual design, bring relevant prior experiences to the text, and connect seemingly disparate elements in the text in order to make sense of what is being read. One of the most important aspects of this disposition is the fact that readers that read for meaning make more appropriate choices for their independent reading. Readers that make sense of what they read do not spend much time with texts they cannot understand. Disposition #2: Proficient and sophisticated readers assume responsibility for understanding what they are reading.
Readers need to understand that they are the ones responsible for making sense of what they read or hear, not the teacher or other students. During a read aloud, students need to understand that it is their responsibility to pay attention to the story being read. If readers don’t understand that it is their responsibility for making sense of texts, how would they know when to apply the reading comprehension strategies we are teaching? It’s not like we ring a bell in the classroom when it is time to read on and go back, or a press a buzzer when it is time to break a word down into chunks. That would be rather silly.
Readers that read for meaning assume responsibility for making sense of their selections. They self-correct and look for cues when meaning breaks down. They understand that reading is a meaning making process, and know that it is their responsibility for constructing meaning. They also know that if they need help, their teacher is available. What I think is important, is that readers have strategies for making meaning that go beyond “sounding-it-out,” staring at the page, or immediately asking someone for help. In order to get readers to know what strategies to use, they need to be aware that it is their responsibility to make sense of what they are reading, and not to rely immediately on help from other more capable readers.
Disposition #3: Proficient and sophisticated readers develop an awareness of reading as a “thinking” process.
As readers get older, they become aware of their thinking processes. This is often referred to as metacognitive awareness or metacognition. Metacognition is defined as “thinking about one’s thinking.” It is a developing awareness of what goes on in one’s mind as one is thinking or reading a text. According to many educational psychologists, this awareness begins to develop in children around age six or seven. Metacognitive awareness, that is, the ability to focus on one’s cognitive processes when reading, is an important factor in comprehension strategy instruction. If we are going to try and explain to novice readers how to visualize when reading, they have to become aware of their thinking, and be able to recognize and discuss what happens in their minds when they are reading. For young readers, I describe metacognition by asking them, “Is your brain listening to your mouth?” This makes more sense than asking a nine year old if they are becoming more metacognitively aware.
As teachers, we need to develop a language for talking about our thinking that makes sense to our students. I had one student that referred to reading as “watching a mind movie.” When he got bored, he fast forwarded the movie, and when he was confused, he rewound it. This explanation worked for him. We need to help readers develop their understandings about what they are doing when they read.
Disposition #4: Proficient and sophisticated readers are willing and able to recognize and acknowledge confusion.
Before readers are able to apply a reading comprehension strategy, they have to know when and why to do so. Let me give you an example. You are sitting on a beach in Fiji and you are reading a novel. You come to the end of the page and realize that you have no idea what you just read, having been distracted by the beautiful scenery surrounding you. You recognize this lack of attention and comprehension long before you decide what to do about it. As a matter of fact, if you didn’t recognize that your mind had been wandering, you would simply keep on reading. Once you become aware that you haven’t been paying attention to what you have been reading, as the reader responsible for making sense of the text, you have a decision to make. Do you go back and re-read the page because you feel that you missed something important, or do you simply turn to the next page because it’s a cheap romance novel and you are sure you will be able to catch up. The decision is based on your purposes for reading, what you are reading, and the context in which you are reading.
Readers that don’t recognize that meaning has broken down rarely apply any comprehension strategies. This is one reason that proficient and sophisticated readers make self corrections during reading. Self-correcting is a good indicator that readers are reading for meaning. If readers are self-correcting, they are usually attending to meaning and recognizing when confusion has set in.
In addition to recognizing confusion, readers also need to feel comfortable enough in our community of readers to recognize, acknowledge and share their confusion. That is, during a read aloud or independent reading I need to know when my students are confused so we can do something about it. Whether it is an issue of vocabulary, text structure, references made in the text or other factors, if my students are not able to recognize confusion, acknowledge this confusion, share their challenges, I will have a much harder time helping them become strategic readers.
Disposition #5: Proficient and sophisticated readers apply a variety of reading comprehension strategies when meaning breaks down.
Once the first four critical dispositions are in place, teaching reading comprehension strategies will make more sense to our students. In my opinion, all too often teachers try to demonstrate reading comprehension strategies before readers are ready to understand how these strategies help them in the reading process. In order to know when to apply particular comprehension strategies when meaning breaks down, readers have to understand that reading is a meaning making process, that they are the ones responsible for making sense of what they read, become aware of their thinking during the reading process, and begin to recognize and acknowledge confusion if, and when, it sets in. Then, and only then, will reading comprehension strategy instruction have a place to hang on to or become effective.