dr. ralph e. reynolds, professor and chair, department of educational psychology,
university of nevada, las vegas, usa
the purpose of learning to read is to comprehend what is read. comprehension is necessary if one wishes to learn from textbooks and manuals, enjoy great literature, or simply follow directions in a cookbook. however, contrary to what one might expect given its importance, we know much less about the nature of comprehension than we know about other basic reading skills, such as decoding. this has lead us to a situation in which most teachers in elementary classrooms know a good deal about how to teach decoding skills (adams, 1990; reynolds & brown, 2001), know less about teaching research-based comprehension skills and strategies (durkin, 1979; reynolds & brown, 2001), and know almost nothing about the processes that underlie and connect these two major components of reading (reynolds, 2000). indeed, even though comprehension researchers now know that each reader’s personal and cultural background knowledge influences how well and how deeply they can comprehend given texts, this knowledge is neither widely disseminated in reading methods courses, nor is it widely known among the very school teachers who teach our children to read.
given this background, the purpose of this paper is fourfold: (1) to present data indicating why we must begin to more effectively teach comprehension skills and strategies in elementary classrooms, (2) to describe, from an historical perspective, why our theoretical grasp of the nature of comprehension is incomplete and still evolving, (3) to analyze some differences in what successful and less successful readers do differently when they comprehend text, and (4) to present some theory-based suggestions that could help children and adults become better at comprehending what they read. throughout the paper, i will refer to, and describe, relevant research to support my views. i do this because one of the main problems in the communities devoted to teaching reading and educational research is the reliance on informal, sometimes inaccurate, sources of information and research that is not connected to larger learning theories, respectively. describing the research and theoretical foundations from which i work will allow the reader a greater role in judging the integrity of the ideas that underlie my recommendations.
reading comprehension in america
data from the recent national assessment of educational progress (naep) conducted in american public schools has made it clear that many american fourth graders are not doing especially well comprehending what they read (national center for educational statistics, 1998). naep has four categories into which students’ reading achievement is classified. descriptors of these categories for fourth grade readers are:
1. below basic performance – is characterized by students’ performance indicating that they cannot totally understand a grade-level appropriate story, make even obvious connections between text ideas and their own experiences, and/or make even simple inferences.
2. basic performance — is characterized by students who are able to demonstrate an understanding of the overall meaning of what they read. when reading they are able to make relatively obvious connections between the text and their own experiences, and extend the ideas in the text by making simple inferences.
3. proficient performance — is characterized by students who are able to demonstrate an overall understanding of the text and provide inferential as well as literal information. when reading students are able to extend the ideas in the text by making inferences, drawing conclusions, and making connections with their own experiences. the connection between the text and what the student infers should be clear. this is the level of performance expected from successful fourth grade students.
4. advanced performance — is characterized by students who are able to do all of the above, plus generalize about topics in the reading selection and demonstrate an awareness of how authors compose and use literary devices. when reading, students are able to judge text critically and, in general, give thorough answers that indicate careful thought (naep report, 1998; p. 19).
looking across the last three naep assessments, only 35% (1992), 37% (1994) and 38% (1998) of american fourth graders scored at or above the proficient level. of even more concern, in each of the same three test periods, about 40% of fourth graders were rated at the below basic level – i.e., they could not comprehend well enough to do passing fourth grade work (across all subjects, not just in reading). given this information, two obvious questions emerge: why is the performance so low and what can we do as parents and professionals to increase these students’ ability to comprehend what they read?
one part of the problem appears to be the lack of a consistent theoretical base from which teachers and scholars can build a workable understanding of the nature of reading comprehension. a second aspect is that most of the materials teachers use in their reading lessons are produced by major publishing companies. the primary motivation of these companies is profit, not producing the best materials based on theory and research. a final aspect might be that many new instructional approaches to teaching comprehension are based on instructional ”race-horse” studies (kids taught to use method a do better than kids who were taught to use method b or left to their own devices) and not on a comprehensive model of the reading process.
the nature of reading comprehension
reading scholars’ understanding of the process of comprehension has changed dramatically over the past 25 years. the traditional view is best illustrated by the work of gough (1971). on this view, reading was seen as a linear, almost mechanical process that started with readers processing each letter, combining letters into words, looking up the meaning of these words in lexical memory, storing meanings briefly in short-term memory, and finally combining word meanings to form first, sentence meaning, and then meaning for larger portions of the text. stated another way, in the traditional view meaning resided in the text and all good readers had to do to comprehend it was properly identify words. reading comprehension was seen as a passive process that required the reader simply to decode quickly and accurately, and allow comprehension to arise. not surprisingly given this understanding of the comprehension process, teachers at the time focused their lessons on teaching children to decode words quickly and effortlessly. very little time was spent on teaching comprehension skills and strategies (durkin, 1979).
scholarly dissatisfaction with this view began to emerge almost immediately when gough’s pioneering paper was published. comprehension scholars thought gough’s view was too sequential and inflexible. it allowed for no interplay between the lower-order (word-identification based) reading processes and higher-order (comprehension-based) processes. gough’s view came under concerted attack in the late 1970s when a series of studies demonstrated that the context in which individual words occurred played a significant role in how they were comprehended (rayner & polletsek, 1989). at first, the idea of context was confined to text-based variables such as the other letters around the word (i.e., ”q” is normally followed by ”u” in the english language), the grammatical nature of surrounding words, and the meaning of surrounding words.
other researchers expanded the notion of context to include text-based events that occurred outside of the body of the text, such as story titles, illustrations, and side headings (bransford and johnson, 1972; reynolds, 1992; trathen and reynolds, 2001). non-text variables such as readers’ goals, objectives, and perspectives completed the list of relevant context variables for these scholars (reynolds, trathen, sawyer, & shepard, 1993; rothkopf and billington, 1979). shortly thereafter, it became clear that the background knowledge that each individual reader brought to the reading situation was a primary context variable involved in reading comprehension. since the effect of background knowledge is now a cornerstone concept in understanding reading comprehension, some of the research that underlies this idea will be discussed.
the first study documenting the effects of background knowledge on how readers comprehend text was entitled frameworks for comprehending discourse (anderson, reynolds, schallert and goetz, 1977). the idea behind the study was that passage meaning (and even the meanings of individual words) was not totally text-based as previously thought. instead, individuals’ background knowledge, interacting with their initial processing of words and sentences, could lead readers to completely different, but equally correct, interpretations of the same passage. the study participants were two groups of college sophomores with significantly different sets of background knowledge — 50% were female, music majors and 50% were male, physical education majors. all subjects read the following passage and then were tested on their comprehension:
rocky slowly got up from the mat, planning his escape. things were not going well. what bothered him most was being held, especially since the charge against him had been weak. he considered his present situation. the lock that held him was strong, but he thought he could break it. rocky was aware that it was because of his early roughness that he had been penalized so severely. the situation was becoming frustrating; the pressure had been grinding on him for too long. he was being ridden unmercifully. rocky was getting angry now. he felt ready to make his move. he knew his success or failure would depend on what he did in the next few seconds (p. 372).
take a moment before continuing and think about the meaning of the passage. what is rocky doing? where is he doing it? what are his goals?
the results of the study were clear-cut – 72% percent of the music majors’ responses were consistent with understanding the passage as being about a prison break. these students identified individual words from the passage in a manner consistent with this overall interpretation. for example, the word lock was understood as a lock on a prison cell; escape meant leaving prison without permission; and mat was the place on which a prisoner might sleep. for the physical education majors, 64% of their responses were consistent with understanding the passage as being about a wrestling match; hence, they interpreted these very same words differently. they understood lock to mean a hold used to restrain an opponent; escape meant breaking the lock and achieving a neutral position; and a mat was the area on which the wrestling match took place. only a few subjects even recognized that multiple interpretations of the story were possible.
in a second condition, the same subjects read a similarly written passage about four friends playing music together. for this passage, 71% percent of the music majors’ responses were consistent with understanding the passage as being about a musical evening among friends. however, 71% (ironically, the same percentage as the music majors) of the physical education majors’ responses were consistent with understanding the passage as being about a four friends getting together for an evening of playing cards (bridge). these results strongly supported the idea that reading comprehension is as much about integrating new information into what readers already know (their background knowledge) as it is about properly identifying words.
a second background knowledge study will further illustrate the generality of this notion. this study dealt with the effects of peoples’ cultural knowledge on reading comprehension, an enormously important issue in today’s highly diverse american classrooms (reynolds, taylor, steffensen, shirey, & anderson, 1982). the study was set up similarly to the first one in that two groups of children (8th graders) with different cultural backgrounds (urban african-americans and rural anglo-americans) read the same passage and were tested on their comprehension.
again, the results of the study were conclusive. urban african-american children interpreted the story in a way that was consistent with their cultural knowledge while the rural anglo-american children came to an almost opposite interpretation, but one that was totally consistent with their own cultural background knowledge. the importance of this study was crystallized by one african-american youth’s reaction when he was told how rural anglo-american 8th graders understood the story. he commented, ”what’s the matter, can’t they read?” in response, the answer to the question is ”yes,” all of the study participants could read. they comprehended differently because they had different background knowledge and experiences to which to relate the new information presented in the story. these differences were great enough to lead the two groups to entirely different interpretations of the same story. this finding takes on added importance given concerns that standardized tests of reading comprehension may be biased against children with different cultural backgrounds.
in summary, this research fundamentally changed how reading scholars viewed the reading comprehension. the process of reading comprehension was now clearly seen as active, not passive. readers must be cognitively active in order to relate new information to their own background knowledge and beliefs. reading comprehension was no longer seen as linear, step-by-step process, starting with decoding and ending with comprehension. the process of comprehending was much more flexible in that it could originate either in the readers’ mind or on the printed page. for example, even before opening a book one knows to be a fairy tale, it is possible to think that the first word will be ”once;” however, upon finding that the first letter is ”t,” it is possible to easily change that expectation to the word ”the.” of course, the initial expectation would have been different if the reader had never been exposed to fairy tales.
as this newer research began to take hold, teachers began to incorporate more background knowledge based comprehension instruction into their classrooms. they focused on instructional activities that would actively engaging students in the process of comprehension. for example, teaching children about the activation of appropriate background knowledge, making predictions about upcoming story events, and comprehension strategies were some of the instructional interventions that gained popularity at this time. unfortunately, while teachers embraced these new notions, many began to move their instruction away from teaching the basic processes of beginning reading (decoding and word identification). one reason why this may have done is that theories of basic reading processes and theories of reading comprehension had not yet been linked in a comprehensive theory of the reading process that would emphasize the mutual interdependence of the two processes. such a theory must arise before scholars and teachers will truly embrace a balanced approach to reading instruction. lack of knowledge about how these two components interact will prevent us from doing so until that time.
differences between successful and less-successful comprehenders
many studies exist detailing the positive effects on comprehension performance of teaching children comprehension strategies (pressley, woloshyn, lysynchuk, martin, and willoughby, 1990), using reciprocal teaching (hacker, dunlosky, & graesser, 1998) and questioning the author (beck, mckowen, hamilton, & kucan, 1997). however, while these studies move our thinking ahead on the instructional front, they do less to assist us in formulating a comprehensive theory of the reading process – a step that in the ideal world would precede the creation of intervention programs. the process of formulating such a theory likely must begin with a deeper understanding of naturally occurring differences between successful and less successful comprehenders across the full developmental spectrum.
fewer studies of this second type have been done, at least partly because of the difficulty getting accurate information from subjects on what they actually do when they comprehend. however, we do have some information. one major difference between successful and less successful comprehenders is that successful comprehenders tend to possess better decoding skills – i.e., they are faster and more accurate at letter and word identification than are less-successful comprehenders (stanovich, 1980).
perfetti (1985) and his colleagues have partially explained why superior decoding skills enhance comprehension by formulating verbal efficiency theory (vet). perfetti suggested that readers who had accurate, automatic, attention-efficient word identification skills were able to reserve greater attentional resources to focus on comprehension than were readers whose word identifications skills required them to spend excessive amounts of attention on the initial part of reading. recent research has supported this idea by demonstrating that more successful comprehenders focus proportionately more attention on understanding words than on decoding them. less successful comprehenders focus their attention equally on comprehension and decoding (reynolds, shepard, lapan, kreek, & goetz, 1990).
while vet suggests that successful comprehenders have more attention available for comprehension because of their efficient decoding skills, successful comprehenders also appear to use the attention they have available in different ways to enhance their comprehension. for example, successful comprehenders tend to use more sophisticated attentional allocation strategies that do their less successful counterparts. these readers use side headings and other text structures to help them determine on which words and/or text elements they should focus their attention. also, successful comprehenders allocate their attentional resources much more efficiently when they read – i.e., they focus much more on important information and much less on unimportant information. successful comprehenders tend to learn this information much better than do less successful comprehenders (lapan & reynolds, 1994; trathen & reynolds, 2001).
perhaps of most importance, successful comprehenders use their greater attention reserves to employ higher-level metacognitive comprehension strategies such as comprehension monitoring. they are much better at monitoring what they need to do to meet the task demands of their current reading situation. also, they are much better at adjusting their attention allocation strategies appropriately when the task demands change. recent research has shown that the ability to adjust attention allocation priorities explains a significant amount of the variance in comprehension performance between successful and less successful comprehenders at the college level (reynolds, 2000).
reading scholars are now beginning to take these findings further and have begun to suggest that understanding how attentional resources are allocated is a key to understanding the interactive relationship between the two components of the reading process: decoding and comprehension (reynolds, 2000). stated tentatively, it might be that the decoding and comprehension aspects of reading are similar in that both systems work best when initial, lower-level processes are automated to conserve attention for later-occurring, higher-level processes. perfetti’s vet explicitly supports this notion for basic reading process stating that they must be accomplished with minimal attention use so the adequate attention remains for comprehension. extending this reasoning to comprehension, perhaps lower-level comprehension processes such as using external tasks to cue text element importance, using text structures to make text processing more efficient, selectively attending to important text information, relating new information to background knowledge, making simple, text-based inferences, establishing anaphoric references, and monitoring local and global coherence (bargh & chartrand, 1999) must be automated, or at least become very attention efficient. that way, it would increase the chances that adequate attention would remain to focus on higher-level comprehension processes such as comprehension monitoring, strategy effectiveness monitoring, using more sophisticated text processing strategies, comprehension fix-up strategies, and explicitly making high-level connections between new information and background knowledge (reynolds, 2000). ,
considerable research must be done before this proposal can be seen as more than a suggestion, however, the idea that it is necessary to automate lower-level reading processes in order to emancipate attention for use on higher-level processes would explain all of the established differences between successful and less successful comprehenders. more-successful comprehenders use sophisticated text processing strategies, are more efficient text processors, and use more higher-level metacognitive strategies because their more automatic, attention-efficient decoding skills and lower-level comprehension skills conserve enough of their attentional resources to allow them to do so. based on this idea, i will conclude the paper by briefly listing several instructional implications of the proposed approach to understanding the nature of reading comprehension.
1. make sure that beginning readers become fast, accurate, and attention-efficient decoders. this will ensure that adequate attention remains for use on higher-level comprehension processes. a significant majority of extant instructional research suggests that the best way to teach these types of decoding skills is through explicit, systematic phonics instruction (adams, 1990).
2. beginning readers should learn to activate appropriate background knowledge quickly and efficiently. this will allow young readers to make inferences, check global coherence, make connections between new and existing information. teachers should supply appropriate background knowledge when children do not posses it.
3. ensure that young readers are properly trained perform lower-level comprehension skills as quickly and efficiently as possible. these lower-level processes likely include: relating incoming information to background knowledge, identifying important text elements and processing them differently, identifying anaphoric references, using text structures as learning aids, and many more. this should continue to conserve attention for use on higher-level comprehension skills.
4. teach children to use basic comprehension strategies (duffy, roehler, & mason, 1984) and/or introduce an approach such as questioning the author (beck, mckowen, hamilton, & kucan, 1997). these approaches enhance reading comprehension by encouraging students be more strategic text processors (find the main idea, summarize important concepts, etc.) and to analyze text ideas more strategically and critically.
5. teach students higher-level comprehension strategies such as comprehension monitoring, comprehension fix-up, and strategy flexibility. this instruction should be undertaken with the understanding that readers will not likely be able to implement it if adequate attentional resources are not available.
6. teach solid text search strategies. frequently, readers do not require a deep understanding of text concepts, they simply require the answer to a specific question or access to a specific information source (guthrie, 1988). the process of text search should be considerable more efficient than normal, information seeking reading activities.
7. identify and use instructional texts that promote efficient text processing. some guidelines for identifying these texts include:
a. look for good writing as identified by strong local and global coherence of test passages.
b. text writers should provide adequate context so that reader interpretations are consistent with writer intentions.
c. identify texts that make sound use of side headings, summary paragraphs, and questions to assist students in identifying important text elements and concepts.
d. identify grade-level appropriate texts and readings. this ensures that readers will be able to quickly identify words so that they can conserve attention for comprehension.
in conclusion, the purpose of this paper was to introduce some of the theoretical and instructional issues currently being discussed in american public schools and universities. it seems unlikely that real progress in teaching children to be better comprehenders will be made until we have an adequate comprehensive model of the reading process from which to work. it is hoped that some of the ideas presented here contribute to that goal.
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