Thursday, April 17, 2014

Rethinking Reading Comprehension Strategies

Just Some Random Thoughts

A significant amount of research conducted on effective reading comprehension strategies has focused on the cognitive operations readers selectively employ when reading to construct meaning in transactions with texts. This research, based primarily on verbal protocol (self-reporting) research, has provided literacy educators with a list of approximately seven comprehension strategies that proficient readers have identified as ones they use to comprehend texts. This list generally includes; summarizing, predicting, inferring, monitoring comprehension, visualizing, asking questions, and making connections. These strategies have been referred to as “goal-directed cognitive operations” that are taught through teacher directed instruction.

With an increasing focus on reading strategy instruction, teachers need to continually monitor how the various reading strategies they are demonstrating in their reading workshops serve the primary goal of supporting readers’ construction of meaning in transactions with texts. These cognitive strategies cannot be viewed as an end in themselves, rather each strategy should be viewed as a scaffold for readers to use to make sense of the texts they read. These strategies need to be used In Service of Meaning-Making.

Reading comprehension, that is, the construction of meaning in transaction with texts, is inextricably linked to the immediate and socio-cultural contexts of the reading event. In other words, comprehension strategies must always take into account the actual reader, text, the activity, and the context of the reading event. What this means for reading teachers is that we should not teach comprehension strategies in isolation, disregarding the context of the reading event, the reader’s purpose for reading, the text being read, and what is expected of the reader after their reading is completed.

Let me make some of my theoretical assertions more concrete. I have observed classrooms where the focus of the reading curriculum was one of the above mentioned reading strategies, in particular, predicting. Students were taught to predict through a series of activities that paid little attention to the texts being read or the readers’ purposes for reading the texts. Teachers read stories, stopped periodically asking students what would happen next, then read on to see who made the best predictions based on the actual unfolding of events in the story. The problem was that the focus of the instruction was predicting, not how readers anticipate when reading, and use prediction to comprehend what was being read. Prediction became the primary goal, and the transition to how predicting can support comprehension seemed non-existent. When teachers demonstrate predicting in the context of reading mystery books or the picture books of Chris Van Allsburg, for example, they are contextualizing the strategy of predicting with a particular text, for a particular purpose. It is important for teachers to always help readers understand how the strategies they are demonstrating relate to the goal of making sense of what readers read.

Proficient readers anticipate what a particular book will be about using a variety of cues, for example, the genre of the text, the title, illustrations, and the structure of the text. Teachers can use a “think-aloud” to demonstrate how they would approach a particular text, modeling how they determine the genre, think about the title, examine the illustrations on the cover, read the book blurb and preview the text by scanning through it quickly. The difference is that one can anticipate what is coming up without having to predict what will happen. Predicting in a class setting often leads to some students being right and others being wrong. The important thing in reading is being logical, not always being right. Books can take various surprising turns and twists, which adds to, rather than detracts from, the reading experience. Just because we can’t always predict what will happen next in a story, does not mean we are not reading for comprehension.

Comprehension strategies should not become an end in themselves. We need to be sure that the strategies we demonstrate and expect students to assimilate are learned in service of making meaning when we read, that we help students understand how these strategies help them make sense of what they read, and allow them to comprehend texts more independently.

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