Magazine article Teacher Librarian

Comprehension Instruction: Directions from Research. (Literacy Links)

Magazine article Teacher Librarian

Comprehension Instruction: Directions from Research. (Literacy Links)

Article excerpt

More than 20 years ago, Dolores Durkin's (1978-1979) landmark study of classroom reading instruction found that teachers taught comprehension less than one percent of the time, and that this instruction was more a matter of "mentioning" than actual explanation or demonstration. Those findings sparked a flurry of research and professional development initiatives on comprehension. A few years ago, Michael Pressley and his colleagues (1998) revealed that despite 20 years of attention, comprehension instruction remains inadequate in our classrooms. This column reviews the two decades of research prompted by Durkin's study and outlines how teachers can improve their students' comprehension based on what we now know about teaching reading comprehension.

Comprehension research 1975 - 2000

Two main streams of research about comprehension mark this era: a) processes used by proficient readers and b) instructional strategies that improve students' comprehension. While both foci can inform instruction, it is unfortunate that the studies were designed in isolation from each other. I will summarize major contributions of both streams.

Comprehension processes: Although it may seem obvious to us now, theorists during this time explained how readers' background or prior knowledge affects comprehension. Until then, it was assumed that the reader simply extracted information from the text and that all readers were equal. Now we acknowledge the significant role of readers' knowledge on their understanding of texts and consequently that comprehension will vary across readers.

Theorists responsible for this view are called schema and prepositional theorists. Schema (singular of schemata) refers to readers' background knowledge and how it is structured. A reader's schemata about witchcraft and sorcery, for example, will influence his/her interpretation of Harry Potter. Prepositional theory views meaning construction as being guided by chunks of key ideas (called prepositions) in the text and connecting those to a whole. Inferencing occurs when the text requires the reader to use his or her background knowledge to make connections such as between character traits and character actions or between the plot and resolution of a story.

In another group of studies that revealed readers' comprehension processes, expert or proficient readers read texts and articulated what they were doing or thinking at the same time. These studies identified the variety of processes these readers used including:

* Setting a purpose for reading (e.g., for pleasure, to find information)

* Previewing text for relevancy to reading purpose and identifying key parts

* Reading selectively

* Associating ideas in text with prior knowledge

* Making and revising predictions about the text

* Revising prior knowledge based on reading

* Figuring out meanings of new words in context

* Noting important points

* Evaluating text quality

* Reviewing the text upon completion

* Thinking about how apply new information from the text

Effective comprehension instruction: The second major body of research about comprehension instruction sparked by Durkin's alarming findings focused on effects of teaching comprehension strategies. Within this strand of research, there are three types: a) use of single instructional strategies, b) use of multi-dimensional strategies, and c) use of direct instruction to teach the strategies.

The first group of studies compared comprehension scores of children who were taught specific strategies with those who were not. Strategies that worked included:

* Activating background knowledge

* Asking questions during reading

* Constructing images during reading

* Summarizing

* Analyzing stories into their grammar or structural components, and nonfiction into relevant structures (e. …

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