December 26, 2006

Reading Comprehension

Today's reading assignment is to read Daniel Willingham's article, The Usefulness of Brief Instruction in Reading Comprehension Strategies. Here's the money graf:

We can summarize what we know from the last 25 years of research on reading comprehension strategies fairly concisely:
  • Teaching children strategies is definitely a good idea.
  • The evidence is best for strategies that have been most thoroughly studied; the evidence for the less-studied strategies is inconclusive (not negative) and, therefore, there is not evidence that one strategy is superior to another.
  • Strategies are learned quickly, and continued instruction and practice does not yield further benefits.
  • Strategy instruction is unlikely to help students before they are in the third or fourth grade.

Modern reading instruction is all about teaching reading comprehension strategies, even though these strategies are "learned quickly, and continued instruction and practice does not yield further benefits." Willingham says:

I don’t believe that students continue using these strategies into adulthood. Literate adults do not construct story maps as they read the morning paper, nor do they pose and answer questions for themselves. They do, however, understand that the goal of reading is to obtain meaning, and they monitor their own comprehension; that understanding is likely what remains with the tenth-grader who was taught a set of reading strategies in fourth grade.
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That's point three from the list above. Educators seem to stop reading after point two.

Point four is that the teaching of reading strategies shouldn't begin until after students have learned to decode fluently, i.e., after about the third grade.

Strategies require attention and space in working memory (e.g., Cain, Oakhill, and Bryant, 2004; Calvo and Castillo, 1998). Students who are still learning to decode fluently do not have enough working memory space available to implement strategies. Their working memory is occupied by decoding. A natural conclusion is that there is not much point in teaching reading strategies before students have gained that fluency—for most students, that will be in the third or fourth grade.

I'll save my commentary on the wacky decoding instruction favored by educators for another post. Suffice it to say, educators believe that decoding is quest for meaning, not word identification, and, as a result, teach decoding like it's merely another reading strategy. It's not.

So what should effective reading instruction be about?

Teaching reading strategies is worthwhile, but we should bear in mind that knowledge of strategies is only a small part of what makes an effective reader. A good reader also decodes fluently, has a broad vocabulary, and has wide-ranging background knowledge.

Formal reading instruction should be about teaching decoding skills in the early grades then briefly teaching a few reading strategies. But that's not enough to make good comprehenders.

What's also needed is the development of a broad vocabulary and wide-ranging background knowledge -- two things that aren't getting done in most schools.

The need for a broad vocabulary should be self-evident. It’s hard to understand the meaning of a sentence if you don’t know the meaning of the constituent words. There are times when you can deduce the meaning of an unknown word from the context, but you need to understand most of the text to be able to puzzle out the meaning of the unknown word. Your ability to do so drops rapidly, however, as the number of unfamiliar words increases (Laufer, 1997).

Background knowledge also has profound effects on reading comprehension. Have another look at the three classes of strategies in the table—two of them rely on or are facilitated by background knowledge. Encouraging students to relate the text they are reading to background knowledge won’t help much if the students don’t have the relevant background knowledge. Less obvious is the fact that relating sentences to one another also often requires background knowledge.

My assessment of the state of reading instruction is that the decoding piece is frequently done poorly (this alone causes failure in many students) and the reading strategy piece is greatly overemphasized (and taught too early). The other two piece of the puzzle, vocabulary and background knowledge, are underemphasized as part of the growing trend to minimize the instruction of content knowledge in school.

You can't miss two of the four pieces of the puzzle and then be surprised when you fail to create good readers.

13 comments:

rory@parentalcation said...

Amen. Our 1st grader is taught all sorts of "reading strategies" at school, but is obviously still behind in basic decoding skills.

The result is that she ends up memorizing stories without knowing how to read individual words. She commonly guesses words based on pictures or recites another part of the story than the page she is on.

We have resorted to forcing her to sound out the words and trying our best to teach her phonic sounds and patterns.

A constant battle I tell you, a constant battle.

Catherine Johnson said...

I have a question.

Can't remember if ktm froze before I had a chance to post the glad tidings about our SAT Verbal scores: the average score is 578, which is a recentered 500.

I've been in a panic ever since, especially since Christopher had his precipitous drop on the ELA test last year. (District is stonewalling on gender & race breakdown; says subscores are "unavailable.")

fyi, I want the gender breakdown because I suspect that the new ELA test skews wildly towards girls. The test has numerous written items, and apparently the addition of writing items skews test scores toward girls. (True with the new SAT writing test.)

So....I need to know how seriously to take the decline in Christopher's score.

ANYWAY, all of that is back story.

Here's my question.

If you were in my shoes, and you wanted your child to hit 700 on SAT verbal, what would you do?

I figure I need to put together a home reading program.

And that's as far as I've gotten.

Catherine Johnson said...

I've just read the complete post.

I know a young woman who went through our school system and then went to a private college. I think her mother borrowed $20,000 (could have been as much as $40,000).

She flunked out after a semester.

She doesn't know the meaning of words like "academic," "hijacking," or "deficient." (Those are the words I remember; there are zillions of common words she's never heard, and her background knowledge is sparse).

She's working class; mom is a divorced postal worker (and is smarter than the daughter, it seems).

I take this young woman as evidence of the real education my district is providing. By the time you reach the middle school and the high school no one's paying any attention at all.

Kids are expected to "take ownership" of their "own learning" and that's the end of it.

No one's minding the shop.

KathyIggy said...

I especially love the questions after a reading book selection (4th grade) which stated something like, "Describe the reading strategies you used in reading this story." Huh?

Anonymous said...

Catherine,

I can e-mail you a website with *my* reading/literature plans for my child. But your KTM e-mail is bouncing.

-Mark Roulo

elementaryhistoryteacher said...

Interesting. I couldn't agree with you more. Too many reach me in the fourth grade with no decoding skills whatsoever. How they can they tackle the intricate social studies/science concepts they must master if they are still attempting to decode basic words?

Happy New Year!

Mike in Texas said...

A natural conclusion is that there is not much point in teaching reading strategies before students have gained that fluency—for most students, that will be in the third or fourth grade.

Then why do so many "reform" states, i.e. Texas, Florida, New York, insist on giving 3rd graders a reading comprehension tests.

I agree with you on this issue. Children should be taught to read first, then learn strategies for academic reading. However, high stakes tests developed for politicial purposes do not allow this.

SteveH said...

"However, high stakes tests developed for politicial purposes do not allow this."

Tests are not the problem. Bad teaching, assumptions, low expectations, and curricula are the problems.

Trivial state tests do not prevent schools from teaching well.

Catherine Johnson said...

Mark - I don't have your email!

I need your website!

Thanks!

I'll get a Blogger site set up and you can email me there (is that OK?)

Or maybe you could email to Ken?

THANK YOU!

Catherine Johnson said...

I especially love the questions after a reading book selection (4th grade) which stated something like, "Describe the reading strategies you used in reading this story."

speechless

Anonymous said...

Mark - I don't have your email!

I need your website!


You should have an e-mail waiting in the e-mail address the new KTM blog lists.

Glad to see that KTM is back.

[And thanks, Ken, for providing temporary parachute hosting!]

-Regards,
Mark R.

Anonymous said...

Hi! I read this article in the AFT magazine and took it to heart. As I was Googling for a specific way to teach background knowledge, I came upon this board. I think the article was right on, but I have not been able to find specific ways to enrich the background knowledge of my students. I teach K-5 students with learning disabilites. Any suggestions?
you can email me direct: zmahoney at fsu . edu
Thanks!!

literacyprof said...

I think the article brings up many compelling points that should promote rich discussions. I am a little concerned about over-generalizing--reading and reading comprehension are complex processes. We tend to run into problems when we try to oversimplify them. I think there was confusion in the article in regards to cognitive strategies and instructional techniques. Story maps and graphic organizers are not cognitive strategies--they are techniques teachers use to get their students to use cognitive strategies. Let's not make it either/or or first/then. Students need a wide array of decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension opportunities.