On reading, Part 4: research on the comprehension strategies – a closer look

In the three previous posts on reading for understanding (here, here, and here) I looked at the general question: What can we say for sure (or not) in research on comprehension in reading?

Here, I take a closer look at comprehension strategies and what the research does and doesn’t say. In general, it supports many of the blunt comments I made here and here  a few years ago: there is still a lack of clarity about what the right strategies are, how to teach them, and which ones work for older students (my focus in these current posts). Most importantly, the research reveals a very spotty record in terms of transfer of the strategies from individual lessons to a self-regulated repertoire used effectively and autonomously by the reader – the very point of my earlier post for which some took me to task (& some in nasty ad hominem ways).

Below, I provide key quotes from core reports and research summaries of the past 15 years on the strategies; first, the positive, then the negative. Then, I provide my own concise summary of what I think the key take-aways are for teachers of reading, ELA, and English from grades 4-12.

From the National Reading Panel Report of 2000:

The idea behind explicit instruction of text comprehension was that comprehension could be improved by teaching students to use specific cognitive strategies or to reason strategically when they encountered barriers to comprehension in reading. The goal of such training was the achievement of competent and self-regulated reading.

Analyses of the 203 studies on instruction of text comprehension led to the identification of 16 different kinds of effective procedures. Of the 16 types of instruction, 8 offered a firm scientific basis for concluding that they improve comprehension. The eight kinds of instruction that appear to be effective and most promising for classroom instruction are –

  1. Comprehension monitoring in which the reader learns how to be aware or conscious of his or her understanding during reading and learns procedures to deal with problems in understanding as they arise.
  2. Cooperative learning in which readers work together to learn strategies in the context of reading.
  3. Graphic and semantic organizers that allow the reader to represent graphically (write or draw) the meanings and relationships of the ideas that underlie the words in the text.
  4. Story structure from which the reader learns to ask and answer who, what, where, when, and why questions about the plot and, in some cases, maps out the time line, characters, and events in stories.
  5. Question answering in which the reader answers questions posed by the teacher and is given feedback on the correctness.
  6. Question generation in which the reader asks himself or herself what, when, where, why, what will happen, how, and who questions.
  7. Summarization in which the reader attempts to identify and write the main or most important ideas that integrate or unite the other ideas or meanings of the text into a coherent whole.
  8. Multiple-strategy teaching in which the reader uses several of the procedures in interaction with the teacher over the text. Multiple-strategy teaching is effective when the procedures are used flexibly and appropriately by the reader or the teacher in naturalistic contexts.

From the research on comprehension and metacognitive strategies, as summarized in the Reading Comprehension Handbook and the RAND report on reading:

Skilled comprehenders use metacognitive strategies significantly more often than less skilled readers. Less skilled comprehenders were significantly less likely to make inferences from text even with the equal background knowledge…[emphasis added] This supports the notion that comprehension requires flexible simultaneous consideration of multiple elements.

The extent to which children slow down their reading on encountering inconsistent information is a significant predictor of comprehension. Comprehension monitoring accounted for unique variance, once working memory and other background factors were controlled. [emphasis added]

An important aspect of strategy development is to enable students to become self-initiating… Students who spontaneously apply a strategy, such as questioning, when it is sensible will improve their comprehension. Thus, to be effective comprehenders, students must have motivation, self-efficacy, and ownership regarding their purposes for reading and their strategies. Teaching strategies integrated with content enables students to become proficient, self-regulating strategy users. [emphasis added]

HOWEVER:

From Questioning the Author:

Promoting the use of reading strategies attempts to focus on the ongoing process of reading. A potential drawback of strategy-based instruction, however, is that both teachers’ and students’ attention may be drawn too easily to the surface features of the strategies themselves rather than to the meaning of what is being read. In fact, some researchers have questioned the necessity of emphasizing specific strategies if the goal of reading as an active search for meaning was upmost in the reader’s mind.

From the Rand expert panel report on reading, 2002:

Teaching students in grades 3–6 to identify and represent story structure improves their comprehension of the story they have read. In the case of this strategy, there was no evidence that the strategy transferred to the reading of new stories and improvement was more marked for low-achieving readers. [emphasis added]

Explicit instruction generates the immediate use of comprehension strategies, but there is less evidence that students continue to use the strategies in the classroom and outside of school after instruction ends (Keeny, Cannizzo & Flavell, 1967; Ringel & Springer, 1980) or that they transfer the strategies to new situations.

If comprehension strategies are taught with an array of content and a range of texts that are too wide, then students will not fully learn them. If strategies are taught with too narrow a base of content or text, then students do not have a chance to learn how to transfer them to new reading situations (Rosenshine & Meister, 1994). The optimal balance enables students to learn that strategies are an important means for understanding but are not the main point of reading activities. The main purposes for reading are gaining meaning and gaining knowledge.

If students learn that strategies are tools for understanding the conceptual content of text, then the strategies become purposeful and integral to reading activities…. Unless the strategies are closely linked with knowledge and understanding in a content area, students are unlikely to learn the strategies fully, may not perceive the strategies as valuable tools, and are less likely to use them in new learning situations with new text.

From the Reading Comprehension Handbook:

Rather than teaching students how to become self regulated learners, teachers seem to expect behaviors would naturally developed through prompted questions. There is of course no evidence that such prompting leads to anything like active self-regulated use of comprehension strategies.

Improving performance is possible. However there is less evidence that comprehension-focused interventions produce either autonomous use of comprehension strategies or longer-term improvements in comprehension proficiencies.

It is difficult for many teachers to understand the necessity of keeping the content of the text at the forefront while teaching strategies… This [lack of improved comprehension of the content] occurs, for example, when teachers only ask students questions about which strategies they used and why, instead of asking questions about the content of the selection.

The lack of evidence [about when and to what extent strategy instruction transfers] stems from the heavy reliance on smaller sample sizes and shorter-term intervention designs as well as limited attention to a gold standard of transfer of training to autonomous use.

Younger readers have little awareness that they must attempt to make sense of text they think that reading is decoding – reading as word understanding. Older students were no less likely to classify their difficulties at the word level than younger students [as opposed to the sentence or paragraph level]. 3rd and 5th grade students relied almost exclusively on word-level criteria for evaluating their understanding, replicating the findings of Baker more than 20 years earlier. Similarly, Eme et al. found that third graders’ conception of a good reader was one who reads quickly without making mistakes, replicating the findings of Myers and Paris 30 years earlier. [Thus] research findings still look a great deal like they did originally which is quite troubling. Change is slow.

 My brief summary:

1. Students need to understand both the purpose of academic reading – successful meaning-making of the text – and that a skilled use of a repertoire of strategies can help that meaning-making. Current instruction unwittingly undermines both goals.

2. Many students think comprehension is “knowing what the words mean” and “what the author said”. Thus, many students do not understand the goal or nature of reading for meaning. As a result, the strategies will naturally seem pointless and/or not stick or transfer.

3. Only a few strategies are key to reading for understanding, and most have to do with self-monitoring and fix-up when understanding breaks down. The key “strategy” is metacognitive self-monitoring because without it, there is no awareness of misunderstanding and thus no need for the strategies. Far greater attention has to be placed on getting readers to feel the lack of understanding/slow down in the face of the realization that they do not get it.

4. There is very little research on use of the strategies with non-fiction texts with middle and high school students. What research does exist focuses on the need to build meaning by self-monitoring and connecting different parts of the text AND the need for coherent and meaningful texts (which textbooks are often NOT). What research does exist makes clear that self-prompted main idea/summarization is the most important strategy.

5. Transfer is rare because teachers are not designing backward from it. They are merely teaching different strategies, one at a time; that CANNOT cause transfer.

6. The strategies can only transfer i.e. be seen as useful forms of self-regulation by the learner if their use enhances understanding of challenging text; and if the teacher makes clear (through modeling and gradual release) that the strategies reflect a repertoire to be wisely selected from and used flexibly when understanding breaks down.

7. All of the successful interventions with strategies use a steady diet of formative assessments involving new appropriately challenging texts to be read cold to see if comprehension and the use of strategies autonomously and effectively is improving.

In my final comment on reading for understanding, I’ll quote from a few key studies about how instruction needs to change and offer my own thoughts on a key neglected part of this whole work: making sure that you choose the right texts and questions for developing strategic thinking while reading.

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