SharpReading BLOG

Thoughts About Teaching Reading


How about Comprehension as a focus?

Here in New Zealand (and elsewhere) the last couple of years have seen most of the oxygen available for reading PD being sucked up by Structured Literacy.

Don't get me wrong! I am an enthusiastic supporter of systematic phonics instruction in the junior school, and certainly the need to have systems in place to support students in the upper school who have slipped through the net and still have decoding deficits.

BUT I also think it is time, having got the foundation in place, to build on that body of knowledge that is now embedded in our teaching workforce and implement a similarly rigorous approach to the systematic, explicit teaching of comprehension.

For years it has all been a bit hit and miss.
I usually ask teachers at the beginning of our comprehension webinars to tell me what their instructional methodology for comprehension currently is. 

In a nutshell it comes down to these two main options.

Option 1: Ask lots of questions
Students read a text followed by a teacher-led discussion aimed at checking the students' understanding and enlightening them about the things they have missed.
Having taught this way myself for many many years, here are my concerns about this approach.

It doesn't address the core skills of comprehension!

  • Being a skilled comprehender is dependent on developing an active reading mindset - a brain that has been trained to 'extract ideas and put them together' (Snow 2002). Or to say it another way 'suck all the juice out of sentences'.

  • Answering questions will indeed help students to better understand the text they are reading - very valuable in science and social sciences lessons where you are trying to deliver content. However, it does not develop the active reading skills that we consider to be the essential foundation for good comprehension.

In fact, what we get is a dependency on questioning!

  • The student reads the text and only begins to process it after the question has been asked. 

  • The questions we ask do a lot of the thinking for the students. We are actually robbing them of the cognitive practice that is essential for becoming a good comprehender.

  • The teacher ends up talking for 60% of the lesson. Many students disengage because the focus is on passing on knowledge about reading rather than doing the business themselves.

Option 2: Teach Comprehension Strategies 
I have no problem with teaching comprehension strategies, the metacognitive actions that the reader can take to assist comprehension. The research is very clear that some strategy instruction has a significant impact on comprehension. 

My issue is with the way we teach these strategies

  • Where is the Systematic Progression?
    There are so many different strategies that have been identified but no one (apart from SharpReading) seems to provide a workable systematic progression. We end up with what I call the Comprehension Strategy Smorgasbord - a bit of this and a bit of that. Literal sentence-level strategies get mixed in with big picture critical thinking strategies and issues of cognitive overload quickly arise.
    And as one teacher said recently, 'All we seem to do is talk about the strategies we could be using.'

    But even more importantly...

  • Comprehension Strategies should not be the starting point!
    There is research (Cook & O’Brien, 2015) that says ...

'Good evidence suggests that important aspects of reading comprehension happen automatically...' 

So there are skills that are habituated in the brain from the language that we hear and the language that we read which allow for the quick 'in-the-moment' construction of meaning. That makes sense doesn't it? We all experience that automaticity to some extent.

The reality is that this skill set is dependent on the reader actively processing the meaning of what they are reading WHILE they are reading it. Many of our students (and many adults also) are very passive as they read. They just 'read the words' and nothing sticks - in one ear and out the other so to speak.

If this is the case, we should be asking ourselves...
"What are those skills?"
"How do we acquire them and how can we improve them?" 

THIS is the starting point for Comprehension Instruction!
SharpReading Stage 3: Foundational Comprehension Skills

The research then goes on to say...

'Readers CAN ALSO (my emphasis) deploy strategies to support comprehension.' 

Aha! - now, this is something different. If we have developed that in-the-moment skill set in our readers we can now move on to introducing metacognitive, stop-and-think-about-it strategies to problem-solve comprehension difficulties as they arise. (We cover this in SharpReading Stage 4: Introducing Strategies).

Are you starting to see where this is going?

We have spent 15 years working in classrooms with teachers and students to understand and formulate a simple logical methodology that facilitates this learning. We have trained hundreds and hundreds of teachers in this process and invariably their response is - 'I wouldn't go back to what I was doing before'.


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