Context for the study
The study being reported here set out to investigate how teachers of 10- to 12-year-old children (Years 5 to 7 in WA) teach and assess reading comprehension cognitive strategies (RCCS) and how confident they feel about their teaching and assessment practices in this important area. Although the study primarily aimed to find out about assessment practices, it was also necessary to ask about teaching, since the two are inextricably linked. In this article, the emphasis is on the participating teachers' perceptions and self-reported practices in the assessment of RCCS.
For the purposes of the present study, reading comprehension is defined as 'the ability to derive meaning from text' (Rathvon, 2004, p. 156) and is deemed to be the ultimate aim of most reading activity. Some 30 years ago, Durkin (1978) found that comprehension was rarely taught explicitly, if at all, in classrooms. Since then, researchers have put considerable effort into investigating how reading comprehension processes and strategies might be taught, and research evidence indicates that the teaching and learning of cognitive strategies is highly beneficial in improving reading outcomes (e.g. Pressley, 2000). In recent years, the importance of cognitive and metacognitive comprehension processes and strategies has been foregrounded (Block, Rodgers & Johnson, 2004), with the US National Reading Panel (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000) acknowledging their centrality by conceptualising reading as an active process that is directed by intentional thinking. According to this view, readers need to make meaningful connections between their thinking processes, the text, and their own prior knowledge. Thus, in order to comprehend texts efficiently, they need to not only be able to identify the words (graphophonic skills and sight word knowledge), have knowledge of grammar and syntax, have an appropriately developed spoken vocabulary, knowledge of text structures, and some relevant background knowledge to bring to the text, but they also need to be able to choose, use and evaluate a range of RCCS, such as inferring, creating mental imagery, self-monitoring for meaning, clarifying, summarising and predicting (Duke & Pearson, 2002; Irwin, 1991; Keene & Zimmerman, 2007; Palincsar & Brown, 1984; Pressley, 1999, 2002; Williams, 2002; Zimmerman & Keene, 1997). These strategies are essentially ways of thinking, and their effective use involves metacognition, or the ability to think about thinking. Much is now known about teaching RCCS, although it has been suggested that research findings have not necessarily been successfully transferred to classroom teaching contexts (Allen & Hancock, 2008).
The importance of readers' ability to select and use RCCS has, in recent years, been recognised through its inclusion in literacy curricula, both in Australia and internationally. For example, in WA, teachers must teach a 'processes and strategies' aspect in reading (Curriculum Council, 1998), and the Draft National Curriculum (English) (ACARA, 2010) includes comprehension strategies as essential areas of achievement. Clearly, in order to effectively teach these strategies, teachers need to be able to assess them, since it is impossible to target teaching without good assessment data (assessment for learning). However, because RCCS are not directly observable, they can be difficult to assess. Often the teacher can only infer the cognitive processes being used by children through the analysis of comprehension products or representations, such as written work, role plays, conversation, and so on. In other words, students' thinking somehow needs to be made tangible or visible so that teachers can attempt to assess it. Unfortunately, there is relatively little direction available in the literature on how teachers might best assess RCCS in real classroom contexts.
What does the literature say?
The literature indicates that reading comprehension assessment needs to involve more than comprehension-check questions as in standardised testing, since such assessments will not provide a teacher with a full continuum of a student's comprehension capabilities and areas of need, and will thus fail to inform instruction (Fiene & McMahon, 2007; Wade, 1990; Oakley & Barratt-Pugh, 2007). On the other hand, effective ongoing classroom-based assessment can result in a series of assessments that show progress over a period of time and over multiple contexts as opposed to a snapshot on a particular day. This type of assessment is more likely to allow teachers insights into the processes or strategies that children use to make and check meaning.
As noted above, finding effective ways to assess children's RCCS can be a difficult and frustrating task for teachers (Israel, Bauserman, & Block, 2005). Yet it is essential to attempt do so in order to inform instruction and provide useful feedback to children. Sometimes children can misuse strategies, for example by making images and inferences that are tangential to the text (Block & Pressley, 2007), and it is important for teachers to find out if this is happening in order to remedy it.
In teaching and assessing RCCS, it is necessary to also teach and assess metacognition, as this is what enables children to choose and evaluate appropriate cognitive processes. Almasi (2004) summarises that children need to learn declarative, procedural and conditional knowledge about comprehension strategies, and all three categories of knowledge need to be assessed. Declarative knowledge is essentially what knowledge, or knowledge about the strategy and what it is. Procedural knowledge concerns how to carry out the strategy, and declarative knowledge concerns when and why to use the strategy, and this involves a high degree of metacognition. …