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An overview of reading comprehension strategy research and instruction

The achievement of reading is considered among humankinds loftiest (Huey, 1908) and it has the potential to greatly impact individuals’ life accomplishments. Successful reading results in the comprehension of text. Over centuries, with different language systems, and across varied instructional approaches, readers have learned to comprehend text. We note that comprehension strategy instruction is a relative newcomer to reading pedagogy, and that vast numbers of readers have developed fully without the benefit of a single reading comprehension strategy lesson. Nevertheless, we propose that strategy instruction makes more efficient the process of becoming an accomplished reader, as well as the process of reading (Edmonds et al., 2009; Goldman, Snow, & Vaughn, 2016; Pressley et al., 1992).

Our understanding of reading comprehension, like the construct of reading, evolves. In parallel, reading comprehension strategy instruction should reflect these changes. Durkin (1978) investigated reading comprehension instruction in upper elementary (grades 3 through 6) social studies classrooms. A predominant finding was that instruction consisted largely of teachers asking students questions about text content—as if posing a question somehow taught students how to understand text, and to answer the question. The questioning that Durkin observed was not Socratic questioning—with which students might gain new insights, or be led to use complex, higher-order strategies by the vector of the question. Rather, the questions focused on literal recall of facts: names, dates, places and actions as stated explicitly in the text. One conclusion drawn from Durkins study was the need to rethink how reading comprehension was “taught,” and what was taught.

The determination that asking questions is not an adequate teaching approach served as impetus for research intended to inform effective reading comprehension strategy instruction. What would comprise this instruction? How might comprehension be taught? Since the late 1970s, research has provided considerable insights into the nature of expert readers’ comprehension strategies, including how, when, where, and why they are used. This has contributed detail needed to develop instruction, including the classification of reading strategies and how they are used. For example, Pressley and Afflerbach (1995) examined think-aloud studies of expert readers’ and identified three overarching categories of reading strategy: identifying and remembering important information, monitoring acts of reading, and evaluation (Table 7.1).

Afflerbach and Cho (2009) and Cho and Aftlerbach (2017) introduced a fourth category, realizing and constructing potential texts, which included the strategies used by readers as they negotiate the multiple texts, spaces and reading choices encountered in Internet and multimedia reading. Within these general groups of strategy reside specific strategies such as inferencing, summarizing and comprehension monitoring. The understanding of reading comprehension strategies gained through think-aloud protocols maps well onto detailed models of comprehension (Kintsch, 1998; Van Den Broek, Young, Tzeng, & Linderholm, 1999).

In many cases, reading comprehension strategy instruction derives from walking backwards on the path to expertise. That is, developmental trajectories and milestones

Table 7.1 A Thumbnail Sketch of Constructively Responsive Reading Strategies

• Overviewing before reading (determining what is there and deciding which parts to process).

• Looking for important information in text and paying greater attention to it than other information (e.g., adjusting reading speed and concentration depending on the perceived importance of text to reading goals).

• Attempting to relate important points in text to one another in order to understand the text as a whole.

• Activating and using prior knowledge to interpret text (generating hypotheses about text, predicting text content).

• Relating text content to prior knowledge, especially as part of constructing interpretations of text.

• Reconsidering and/or revising hypotheses about the meaning of text based on text content.

• Reconsidering and/or revising prior knowledge based on text content.

• Attempting to infer information not explicitly stated in text when the information is critical to comprehension of the text.

• Attempting to determine the meaning of words not understood or recognized, especially when a word seems critical to meaning construction.

• Using strategies to remember text (underlining, repetition, making notes, visualizing, summarizing, paraphrasing, self-questioning, etc.).

• Changing reading strategies when comprehension is perceived not to be proceeding smoothly.

• Evaluating the qualities of text, with these evaluations in part affecting whether text has an impact on reader’s knowledge, attitudes, behavior, and so on.

• Reflecting on and processing text additionally after a part of text has been read or after a reading is completed (reviewing, questioning, summarizing, attempting to interpret, evaluating, considering alternative interpretations and possibly deciding between them, considering how to process the text additionally if there is a feeling it has not been understood as much as it needs to be understood, accepting one’s understanding of the text, rejecting one’s understanding of a text).

• Carrying on responsive conversation with the author.

• Anticipating or planning for the use of knowledge gained from reading.

Source: Verbal protocols of reading: Vie nature of constructively responsive reading (p. 105), by M. Pressley and P.Afflerbach, 1995, Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum Associates. Copyright 1995 by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

for student readers’ growth are deduced from research data on experts’ reading, including think-aloud protocols and retrospective accounts of strategy use. Instruction is developed around these markers and includes strategies like previewing, clarifying, summarizing, predicting text contents (and other forms of inferencing), re-reading and varying the rate of reading dependent on the reading task. More recently, research describes the nature of reading comprehension strategies beyond the reading of a single, traditional print text, including those involved in multimedia reading (Mayer, 2014), Internet reading (Cho, 2014) and the reading of multiple documents (Rouet & Potocki, 2018).

Thus, expert reader research informs our understanding of reading comprehension strategies in mature and successful form (Afflerbach & Johnston, 1984) and suggests critical foci for reading comprehension strategy instruction. Detailed accounts of successful strategy use inform approaches to comprehension instruction (Dole, Duffy, Roehler, & Pearson, 1991; Duke, Pearson, Strachan, & Billman, 2011; Wilkinson & Son, 2011). We can theorize about how these strategies develop, their relative complexity, and the timing and sequencing of comprehension instruction to best help student readers (Pressley, 1990).

In addition to providing detail on the what of reading strategy instruction, there is ample guidance on the how of this instruction which focuses on the pedagogical means to introduce, explain, think-aloud, model and scaffold ephemeral comprehensionstrategies, so that their nature and use is tangible to students (Almasi & Fullerton, 2012; Palincsar & Brown, 1984). For example, explanation and modeling are at the center of successful reading comprehension strategy instruction. Winograd and Hare (1988) proposed live elements that comprise effective teacher explanation: what the strategy is, why a strategy should be learned, how to use the strategy, when and where the strategy should be used, and how to evaluate use of the strategy. Detailed understanding of the nature of reading strategies, combined with effective instruction, improves reading comprehension (Rosenshine & Meister, 1994) and does so for both younger and older students (Edmonds et al., 2009).

Evolving Ideas about the Nature of Reading and Reading Comprehension Ongoing research contributes to continuous theory building and the evolving understanding of the reading comprehension construct. This knowledge should, ultimately, inform strategy instruction. Consider the case of the Reading Framework of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (National Assessment Governing Board, 2017). This Framework is regularly updated based on consensus, relevant research findings. Examination of current and prior NAEP conceptualizations of reading and reading comprehension illustrates this evolution. An earlier iteration of the NAEP Reading Framework (1992-2000) proposed that reading comprehension was comprised of the following “Reading Stances” for both expository and narrative texts:

  • - initial understanding, the preliminary consideration of the text as a whole
  • - developing an interpretation, discerning connections and relationships among ideas within the text
  • - personal reflection and response, relating personal knowledge to text ideas
  • - critical stance, standing apart from the text to consider it objectively.
  • (National Assessment Governing Board, 1992)

The above depiction of reading reflects the influence of research and theories from the fields of information processing, cognition (van Dijk 8< Kintsch, 1983) and literary criticism (Rosenblatt, 1938). It is notable that the reading processes and stances described above sum to a relatively constrained set of reading products. That is, acts of reading are deemed complete when comprehension of text is attained and readers reflect on their understanding, or position themselves in relation to their understanding of text. This conceptualization of reading implies that reading comprehension strategies and related instruction should focus on the construction of meaning from text.

In contrast, the current NAEP Reading Framework (2017) adds the results of recent research and theory building, and reflects the evolution of our understanding of comprehension. The Framework maintains a focus on reading comprehension as the construction of meaning with text, but adds a major new component:

Reading is an active and complex process that involves:

  • • understanding written text
  • • developing and interpreting meaning
  • using meaning as appropriate to type of text, purpose, and situation.
  • (Retrieved from publications/frameworks/reading/2017-reading-framework.pdf, italics added)

The above definition represents a significant change: reading involves not only the construction of meaning but also the use of the meaning that is constructed. Readers, including student readers, are expected to do things with the meaning that they construct. This “use of comprehension” is demonstrated as students analyze text contents (Bazerman & Prior, 2004), identify claims and supporting evidence (Wineburg, 2001), apply what they learn from the text to solve problems (Hinchman & Appleman, 2017), establish epistemic stances towards the processes and contents of reading (Brâten & Stromso, 2010), synthesize information within and across texts (Coté, Goldman, & Saul, 1998), interrogate author motive (Beck & McKeown, 2006) and critique text contents and structures (Vasquez, Harste, & Albers, 2010). Each of the above signals the use of higher order thinking strategies during reading.

The expanded notion of reading—including readers’ use of what is comprehended— has important implications for reading comprehension strategy instruction. Namely, it forces a focus on what reading comprehension “is” and what strategies are appropriately situated under the umbrellas of reading comprehension and reading comprehension instruction. If reading does not “end” with a readers establishment of understanding (i.e., constructing a situational model of text; Kintsch, 1998), then comprehension can be considered a mid-point in many acts of reading. And, the strategies involved in using the meaning that is constructed through reading become instructionally important. Determining where comprehension of text “ends” and where related, reading task strategies “begin” is important for both theory and reading comprehension strategies instruction.

To address contemporary accounts of reading, including the model of reading proposed by NAEP, we believe the traditional foci of reading comprehension strategy instruction, including prediction, summarization and comprehension monitoring, should be complemented by instruction that focuses on strategies to use that which is comprehended. Students construct meaning and then use that meaning with related strategies, such as those for analyzing claims and supporting evidence, applying what is learned from text to solve problems, establishing appropriate epistemic stances towards texts, synthesizing information from within and across texts, interrogating author motive and craft, and critiquing and evaluating texts. Instruction should be situated so that these natural counterparts of strategy instruction are taught, learned and practiced together.

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