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Which approach to reading comprehension strategy instruction?

There is substantial knowledge that can inform reading comprehension strategy instruction, and a clear need for effective instruction. However, there is no agreement on the optimal means of this instruction. We noted earlier that much of the detail of reading comprehension strategy instruction derives from analyses of expert readers’ strategy use. This research has been situated in specific disciplines, or content domains, including anthropology and chemistry (Afflerbach, 1990), law (Lundeberg, 1987) and history (Wineburg, 2001). A tendency in the development of reading comprehension instruction has been to identify the strategies that are used by accomplished readers “across” disciplines. The apparent universality of a reading comprehension strategy, across readers and texts, becomes an argument for inclusion of that strategy, and it is taught. Thus, while important information about the nature of reading comprehension strategies has been gained through examination of expert readers, derivative instruction has tended to ignore the discipline-specific nature of strategy use and has focused on commonalities across disciplines.

A result is the prevalence of strategies such as prediction, summarization and inferencing—regularly used by accomplished readers, regardless of discipline—in most reading instruction programs (Dewitz, Jones, & Leahy, 2009). These strategies are assumed to be of value to students whose primary reading tasks are to learn and remember literal information from the text, and they are typically taught with a “one size fits all” approach. However, this approach may overlook what can be subtle or more obvious differences in the nature of strategies and how they are used within particular disciplines.

Students’ general reading comprehension strategies may not work in more nuanced content area reading, including history, science and literature (Goldman et al., 2016). For example, a generic strategy that serves a student well in summarizing the contents of a textbook chapter on the Revolutionary War is not sufficient when the student attempts to summarize and reconcile two opposing accounts of a related, historic event (e.g., the Boston Tea Party; the Boston Massacre; VanSledright, 2014). Rather, the accomplished student reader must be able to (among other demands) source the different texts, determine their trustworthiness, note similarities and differences in factual and rhetorical information, and render judgment on which text (if either) is more reliable.

The fact that different disciplines may demand appropriately distinctive strategies, or different “takes” on the same strategy, has prompted a focus on disciplinary approaches to promoting student understanding of text. With such an approach, comprehension strategies are viewed as tied to the reading, reasoning and culture of particular disciplines or content domains, including history, science and literature (Afflerbach & VanSledright, 2001; Kim et al., 2016; Lee, Goldman, Levine, &Magliano, 2016). Unfortunately, the discipline-based aspect of reading comprehension strategy instruction often competes for instructional time with coverage of content—say, World War Two, ecosystems, or novels and short stories. Teachers whose students may not be reading at grade level expectation are fully engaged with trying to cover curricular content and help students meet more basic reading achievement levels, so attending and teaching more complex, discipline-related reading strategies is not always possible.

A second concern with reading comprehension strategy instruction relates to the claim that strategies are given more time and instructional focus than is needed, and that content area knowledge is a more important factor than strategy use in students’ successful comprehension of texts (Willingham & Lovette, 2014). From this perspective, having students front-load considerable amounts of content area knowledge may be more effective than extended instruction and practice time with reading strategies, if comprehension of content area text is the goal. Student exposure to key ideas and concepts (and the vocabulary that represents them) is proposed as a superior means for preparing students to learn from reading (Willingham, 2017). A difficulty with this view is that the raison d’etre for school is student learning, and much of this learning emanates from reading. As noted by Goldman and colleagues (2016):

A significant challenge is that the texts they (students) will be asked to read contain unfamiliar content in complex language forms. Many school texts intentionally introduce new topics and concepts to teach new content knowledge. Precisely because the content is new, students’ familiar strategy of using their prior knowledge to make inferences and connections, effective for texts about familiar topics and situations, fails.

(p. 2)

It is not clear how students, without reading, are to gain the requisite content area knowledge that would allow them to learn the remaining, new content area knowledge. Willingham’s suggestions amount to radical change in how content area information might be learned by students—with a major emphasis on imparting knowledge by means other than student reading. This, of course, stands as able argument for reducing attention to reading strategy instruction because reading itself assumes a considerably lesser role in learning in school (Greenleaf & Valencia, 2017). However, we approach the issue with the idea that learning comprehension strategies that allow us to read independently and successfully in areas replete with new information is of utmost value.

A final concern with reading comprehension instruction is the tendency to introduce, teach and have students practice single comprehension strategies. Students are taught, in a strategy-by-strategy manner (Dewitz et al., 2009), how to make inferences and predictions, how to determine important information and summarize text, and how to set goals and monitor progress towards goals. That these important but individually taught strategies will eventually sum to successful strategic reading may be wishful thinking, because accomplished reading demands both a suitable array of strategies and the ability to carefully coordinate them in relation to the specifics of the reading situation. Consider the following account of strategic reading provided by Pressley and Aftlerbach (1995):

[s]killed readers know and use many different (strategies) in coming to terms with text: They proceed generally from front to back of documents when reading. Good readers are selectively attentive. They sometimes make notes. They predict, paraphrase, and back up when confused. They try to make inferences to fill in the gaps in text and in their understanding of what they have read. Good readers intentionally attempt to integrate across the text. They do not settle for literal meanings but rather interpret what they have read, sometimes constructing images, other times identifying categories of information in text, and on still other occasions engaging in arguments with themselves about what a reading might mean. After making their way through text, they have a variety of ways of firming up their understanding and memory of the messages in the text, from explicitly attempting to summarize to self-questioning about the text to rereading and reflecting. The many [strategies] used by skilled readers are appropriately and opportunistically coordinated, with the reader using the processes needed to meet current reading goals, confronting the demands of reading at the moment, and preparing for demands that are likely in the future (e.g., the need to recall text content for a test).

(pp. 79-80)

Successful reading strategy instruction should contribute to the development of the strategic readers described above, and such successful reading is tied to students’ opportunities to learn and practice diverse strategies as they are coordinated in realtime reading.

To summarize, there are several critiques of contemporary reading comprehension strategy instruction worthy of consideration. First, there is the claim that strategy instruction is too generic and not context specific. This is a result of choosing comprehension strategies to be taught based on their omnipresence in strategy reports from expert readers, and not necessarily in relation to the discipline-specific reading topics, tasks and contexts found in school. Second, there is the claim that reading strategies are over taught, and that the key to content area reading success lies in providing students with ample prior knowledge in the content areas, as this helps students read best. Prior knowledge is essential for comprehension, yet reliance on non-reading sources to gain knowledge can lead to further avoidance of reading and strategy development. Further, students are in school to learn, and the vast stores of information that students are expected to comprehend, learn and remember are delivered by texts. How to draw the line between the prior knowledge necessary to learn new information and the new information itself remains unspecified. A third concern is that reading comprehension strategy instruction is marked by the teaching and learning of single, often unconnected strategies, while reading comprehension demands coordinated suites of strategies to succeed. Certainly, the development of accomplished strategic reading is the result of extensive use and practice of sets of strategies.

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