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The knowledge needed for successful reading comprehension strategy instruction and learning

In the section that follows and in relation to the above concerns, we propose that instruction can be optimized as we consider live types of knowledge related to students’ reading comprehension strategy development and use. These types of knowledge should be considered essential to successful reading comprehension strategy instruction. Reading comprehension strategy instruction typically focuses on helping students learn and use procedural knowledge. This procedural knowledge provides students with strategic approaches to reading that should yield declarative knowledge—most often the “stuff” of content area curricula, and the focus on high-stakes tests. This knowledge has a wide range and can include letter names, dictionary definitions of words, a list of genre names for memorization, events and figures in history, prey and predator in science, or distinguishing characteristics of sonnets, epic poems and haiku in literature.

However, we suggest that effective reading comprehension strategy instruction attends to five types of knowledge—declarative, procedural, conditional, epistemic and disciplinary—that support and ultimately shape students’ ongoing strategy use and development. While these types of knowledge may overlap in particular circumstances of reading (e.g., the construction of literal meaning from text involves declarative, procedural and conditional knowledge), we believe that they merit separate consideration due to their role in students’ strategy use.

Declarative Knowledge

The knowledge gained from the majority of school reading tasks is declarative knowledge. Declarative knowledge involves knowing things: that lions, cheetahs and leopards are cats, that the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia in 1776, and that haiku typically have a 5-7-5 syllable structure. Knowing that prediction is a reading strategy also qualifies as declarative knowledge. Much schooling focuses on students’ acquisition of declarative knowledge. Students are expected to read and learn, and declarative knowledge is the product of the learning processes that students employ. Most tests, local and high stakes, focus on declarative knowledge—the product (and not the processes) of comprehension. As students matriculate through school, the accumulation of declarative knowledge from reading is taken as indication that procedural knowledge (i.e., students’ comprehension strategies) is operating, and operating well.

Increased declarative knowledge is the primary result of much school reading: students learn new information in the content areas. However, declarative knowledge is also a prerequisite for comprehension itself. Student readers’ existing declarative knowledge serves as a bridge from known to new. As described by Marzano (2004), “What students already know about the content is one of the strongest indicators of how well they will learn new information relative to the content.” Readers who bring such prior knowledge to acts of reading possess the means to interpret and understand text (Anderson & Pearson, 1984). Moreover, prior knowledge provides a cognitive “place” for the new knowledge gained through reading to be stored (Bartlett, 1932).

Thus, successful reading strategy instruction will be based on a foundation of requisite declarative knowledge that helps students construct meaning. For example, students learning about predators and prey in a savannah environment need a rudimentary understanding of ecosystems for comprehension to occur and have a meaningful afterlife. As meaning is constructed, a readers existing declarative (or “prior”) knowledge serves as the bridge between prior learning and newly learned material. Thus, declarative knowledge is a prerequisite for, and result of, successful reading.

Procedural Knowledge

Learning and accumulating declarative knowledge through reading is enabled by readers’ procedural knowledge—including the comprehension strategies that readers use to construct meaning. Paris, Lipson, and Wixson (1983) define procedural knowledge as knowing how a “strategy operates and how to use various steps or procedures that are part of the strategy.” By making inferences, identifying and remembering important information, monitoring comprehension and summarizing texts, readers use procedural knowledge in the form of strategies to construct the model of text (or texts) that they are reading (Kintsch, 1998; Pressley & Aftlerbach, 1995; Rouet & Britt, 2011).

In relation to contemporary accounts of reading (National Assessment Governing Board, 2017) and reading standards initiatives (Common Core State Standards, 2010), successful student readers must possess two types of procedural knowledge: that which pertains to reading comprehension strategies, and that which pertains to strategies used in reading-related tasks. The former are strategies for constructing meaning; the latter for using that constructed meaning. For example, establishing literal understanding of a content area text is a universal reading demand, one regularly met by many students using reading comprehension strategies. Related, identifying a claim-evidence structure in that same text, and determining whether or not the text is trustworthy, is an important reading task strategy. Both rely on students’ procedural knowledge.

With reading, procedural knowledge in the form of strategies may be assigned “reading comprehension” or “reading comprehension-related” labels. Whatever the formalities of assigning terms and labels to these related strategy groups, it is sensible to teach them in tandem. This allows students to develop strategies as they are related in the real time of reading and using what is understood from reading. Both types of strategy—to construct meaning and to use constructed meaning—are amenable to teachers’ modeling and explaining. As noted earlier, an expected benefit of the development of students’ procedural knowledge of reading is growth in declarative knowledge—successful use of reading strategies begets the construction of meaning, which results in new knowledge in the content areas or disciplines.

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