Teaching Reading in the 21st Century: A Glimpse at How Special Education Teachers Promote Reading Comprehension

Article excerpt

Abstract. In this study, we conducted 124 observations of 41 special education teachers teaching reading to their third- through fifth-grade students with learning disabilities to determine the extent to which and in what ways they promoted students' reading comprehension. In 42 lessons, we did not observe any comprehension instruction. In 30 lessons, the only comprehension-related activity consisted of asking students questions about what they had read by means of mostly factual, rote-level questions. In 49 lessons, teachers provided additional comprehension instruction, although this mostly consisted of prompting students to use a strategy rather than providing explicit instruction. Predicting was the most common strategy observed. We rarely saw teachers use more complex strategies, such as finding the main idea or summarizing. Most special education teachers seemed unsure of how to promote their students' reading comprehension. We noted many missed opportunities to do so. Our findings suggest implications for researchers and teacher preparation programs.

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Over 30 years ago, Durkin (1978-79) conducted an observational study of reading comprehension instruction. She found that typical comprehension instruction followed a mentioning, practicing, and assessing procedure. That is, teachers would mention to students the skill that they wanted them to use. Then they would give students opportunities to practice that skill through workbooks or skill sheets, and then they would assess whether or not students used the skill successfully. Noticeably missing from this form of comprehension instruction is instruction. Thus, in over 4,000 minutes of reading instruction observed in fourth-grade classrooms, Durkin only recorded 20 minutes of actual comprehension instruction.

Similarly, 12 years ago, Vaughn, Moody, and Schumm (1998) observed reading instruction in elementary-level special education teachers' resource rooms in South Florida. Observing 14 special education teachers three times each over the course of one year, the authors found that teachers rarely provided explicit instruction designed to promote their students' reading comprehension skills. Eleven teachers taught reading comprehension by either reading the story aloud to the students and asking questions, or having the group take turns reading the story followed by the teacher asking questions. The questions teachers asked were mostly factual and literal. Of Vaughn et al.'s 41 observations, in only one case did they record a teacher teaching students a comprehension strategy.

Since then, the National Reading Panel has published its widely disseminated report (2000) emphasizing the importance of reading comprehension as one of the "big ideas" of reading. Reading First, as part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (Public Law 107-110), mandated increased attention to reading skills instruction, including reading comprehension. As part of this initiative, teachers at participating schools received extensive professional development and reading coaches were assigned, all designed to improve teachers' reading instruction. Further, RAND published a report calling for an increased focus on reading comprehension (Snow, 2002).

Given this heightened focus on reading comprehension, how much has instruction changed since Durkin's (1978/1979) and Vaughn et al.'s (1998) studies? The purpose of the current study was to examine how special education teachers integrate reading comprehension into their reading instruction. We conducted multiple observations of special education teachers teaching reading to their third- through fifth-grade students with learning disabilities (LD).

Reading Comprehension Instruction for Students with LD

Reading comprehension instruction is helpful for all students, but it is particularly critical for students with LD (Gajria, Jitendra, Sood, & Sacks, 2007; Vaughn, Gersten, & Chard, 2000). …