BLOG – READING COMPREHENSION
Reading is a basic life skill. It is a cornerstone for a child’s success in school, and, indeed, throughout life. Without the ability to read well, opportunities for personal fulfillment and job success inevitably will be lost. –Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission on Reading.
Richard Anderson and the Commission on Reading define reading as the process of constructing meaning from written texts. Skilled reading is:
constructive: learning to reason about written material using knowledge from everyday life and from disciplined fields of study;
fluent: mastery of basic processes to the point where they are automatic so that attention is freed for the analysis of meaning;
strategic: controlling one’s reading in relation to one’s purpose, the nature of the material and whether one is comprehending;
motivated: able to sustain attention and learning that written material can be interesting and informative; and
a lifelong pursuit: continuous practices, development, and refinement.
The U.S. Department of Education has stated that children are expected to learn to read in the primary grades, kindergarten through third, when most reading instruction is given. By fourth grade, students are expected to read to learn. The Department continues “Over time, learning becomes more complex, with heightened demands on students to use reading skills to analyze or to solve problems. Good reading skills are required to study geography, do math, use computers, and conduct experiments. Even motivated, hard-working students are severely hampered in their schoolwork if they cannot read well by the end of third grade.”
Certain abilities must be developed that work together to create strong reading skills (The Little Red Reading Book). These core abilities include:
o Phonemic awareness,
o Alphabetic principle,
o Sound-spelling correspondence,
o Decoding ability,
o Spelling, vocabulary and writing skills,
o Comprehension skills.
Learners become engaged in literacy as they grow more strategic, motivated, knowledgeable and socially interactive. (Alvermann & Guthrie)
Students have extensive opportunities to read for a variety of purposes and to apply what is read every day. Students use discussion and writing to organize their thinking, and they reflect on what they read for specific purposes.
Students are taught and given opportunities to apply the following comprehension strategies for constructing meaning: making and confirming predictions, visualizing, summarizing, drawing inferences, generating questions, making connections and self-monitoring.
In the Duke and Pearson article, Effective Practices for Developing Reading Comprehension, the authors stress over and over the important of teaching students to learn to make predictions about what they are reading, every several pages. They are indicating that reading is an active process not a passive one, and that good readers make predictions about what will happen in the text. This is putting students into the mind set of thinking about what they are reading and seeking to make some sense of it rather than sitting passively digesting a gob of meaningless words.
When I first came to Korea I joined a church and every week the church minions would hand out a small four page program flyer printed in English. After lunch, one of the church elders would assemble his people below decks for an English lesson. They would all dutifully tramp downstairs with these little flyers in hand and laden down with dictionaries, computers and the like to ‘learn English.’ I was invited to sit in several times so I could ‘help’. My help consisted in reading a couple of paragraphs now and then. Basically, the class would dissect the entire sermon, word for word and translate the whole thing back into Korean so the members could understand it. They spent literally two hours poring over these little publications. After several times of sitting in on these gatherings it occurred to me that it was highly unlikely that any of the ‘students’ there had any idea of what it was they had read or what it meant. All they were doing was processing a conglomeration of words.
Later, when I was at a publisher’s book sale event I listened to a talk by a man who had written a book about, simply, metaphors. It was his contention that the English language is just stuffed full of metaphors which cannot be ‘dissected’ for meaning, they have to be understood as a whole. I had never thought of it in quite that way but as I came away from his talk, I began to see the truth in what he was saying. For example: A man is but a weak reed, the road was a ribbon of moonlight, that man is such a dog, her hair is spun gold, her look was pure ice, his handshake was a clammy fish, he’s got ants in his pants, he’s got a bad case of jumpy monkeys, etc. Are any of these things literally true;? No, of course not. These are all metaphors to explain how one thing is like another thing and there is no literal translation. It is a concept that is being stated which needs to be understood. Therefore, it follows, that translating written text word for word is frequently not going to make good sense.
With some of these stumbling blocks in mind; how are we going to teach English learners or new readers how to read for meaning?
Seven Strategies to Teach Students Text Comprehension, By: C.R. Adler – Reading Rockets.
1. Monitoring comprehension
Students who are good at monitoring their comprehension know when they understand what they read and when they do not. They have strategies to “fix” problems in their understanding as the problems arise. Research shows that instruction, even in the early grades, can help students become better at monitoring their comprehension.
Comprehension monitoring instruction teaches students to:
- Be aware of what they do understand
- Identify what they do not understand
- Use appropriate strategies to resolve problems in comprehension
(Dealing with Asian students can be very difficult in this regard as it is really important for them to ‘not be wrong.’ Students will say absolutely nothing rather than risk saying it or doing it incorrectly. Losing face in class in front of classmates is also a problem. This is a problem with any low-level students who have such a track record of failure that they will consciously mask everything ‘they don’t know’ rather than admit there is something they do not understand. This is an indicator of how little confidence they have in themselves.)
Metacognition can be defined as “thinking about thinking.” Good readers use metacognitive strategies to think about and have control over their reading. Before reading, they might clarify their purpose for reading and preview the text. During reading, they might monitor their understanding, adjusting their reading speed to fit the difficulty of the text and “fixing” any comprehension problems they have. After reading, they check their understanding of what they read.
- Graphic and semantic organizers
Graphic organizers illustrate concepts and relationships between concepts in a text or using diagrams. Graphic organizers are known by different names, such as maps, webs, graphs, charts, frames, or clusters.
- Answering questions
Questions can be effective because they:
- Give students a purpose for reading
- Focus students’ attention on what they are to learn
- Help students to think actively as they read
- Encourage students to monitor their comprehension
- Help students to review content and relate what they have learned to what they already know.
Teacher’s can engage in Think Aloud by asking questions out loud about what this is or what that is in the book and thereby model for the students the need to ask questions themselves about what they are reading.
Summarizing requires students to determine what is important in what they are reading and to put it into their own words. Instruction in summarizing helps students:
- Identify or generate main ideas
- Connect the main or central ideas
- Eliminate unnecessary information
- Remember what they read
Effective comprehension strategy instruction is explicit
Research shows that explicit teaching techniques are particularly effective for comprehension strategy instruction. In explicit instruction, teachers tell readers why and when they should use strategies, what strategies to use, and how to apply them. The steps of explicit instruction typically include direct explanation, teacher modeling (“thinking aloud”), guided practice, and application.
- Direct explanation
The teacher explains to students why the strategy helps comprehension and when to apply the strategy.
- The teacher models, or demonstrates, how to apply the strategy, usually by “thinking aloud” while reading the text that the students are using. (Modeling activities work very well in the ESL classroom by giving explicit instruction to the students about how they are to do an exercise. “ Shin, ask me a question and then I will answer.” Shin “How are you today?” Answer, “I am fine, thank you. How are you?” etc.
- Guided practice
The teacher guides and assists students as they learn how and when to apply the strategy. (I stand and listen to students as they practice the activity to see if they have ‘got it.’)
The teacher helps students practice the strategy until they can apply it independently. (I monitor the class to see if I can hear errors in their speech or review their written work. Speech and written work show consistent errors in the use of personal pronouns and past tense verb conjugations.)
Effective comprehension strategy instruction can be accomplished through cooperative learning, which involves students working together as partners or in small groups on clearly defined tasks. (Research shows that Asian students prefer to work in pairs or small groups and this does in fact work for them. Usually they like doing that much more than working independently.)
Reading therefore becomes an active rather than passive process. It starts with examining the book to be read. If we are allowing students to pick their own books, they will start with the cover and see if it interests them. The question can be, what do we think the book is about based on the cover. (Example The Hobbit – shows a picture of a short, round man with hairy, bare feet. What’s that all about?) Then we read the title and perhaps the content page to see more about the book and if it looks interesting. We might even turn it over on the back and read what is on the back.
Therefore, as active readers, we will stop and ask ourselves whether or not this book holds our interest. Also, what is happening in the book? Do I understand the action, the plot? Do I need to go back and reread something again so I understand it better? I ask myself as I go along; what is happening here and am I enjoying reading this?
Again, the reading becomes an active exercise with many stops in between times to assess and reassess the book. While working with students; they need to write about what they have read to reinforce understanding and to clarify their thoughts about the book and seek to express their understanding of what exactly is going on in the book.
Checking for comprehension becomes a multi-level task for the teacher with little stops all the way along the process.
Authors Peter Dewitz, Jennifer Jones and Susan Leahy discuss the impact and effectiveness of publisher’s core textbook programs in their article Comprehension Strategy Instruction in Core Reading Programs.
We chose to review the top five best-selling basal
reading programs in the country, as identified by the
Educational Market Research Group (www.ed-market
research.com). We studied and evaluated McGraw-
Hill Reading, SR A Open Court, Harcourt Trophies,
Houghton Mifflin Reading, and Scott Foresman
Core programs provide the methods and the content
of reading instruction for large numbers of classrooms
in the United States. As such, they may be the most
influential textbook series in the country (Chambliss &
Calfee, 1998). An extensive review of effective schools
in California found that although the use of core reading
programs may have had a significant impact on student
achievement, the programs’ influence is tempered by
leadership, achievement expectation, a regular assessment
system, and staff development (EdSource, 2006).
McGill-Franzen et al. (2006) found little evidence that
the use of a core program had any impact on improving
the reading achievement of at-risk students. The
structure of core reading programs and the methods of
instruction may contribute to their negligible impact on
Our analysis of comprehension instruction in core
reading programs demonstrates several shortcomings
that may undermine their efficacy. First, the comprehension
skills and strategies curricula are wide but not
terribly deep. The structure of the curricula is often
incoherent so that students and teachers do not know
how skills and strategies relate to one another or how
acquiring these sets of skills leads to becoming a better
I have used the Open Court books as a substitute teacher in California. These are massive and intimidating volumes that really cannot be used by the teacher without comprehensive instruction first. If I was a kid in those classes, just the size of these books would scare me. My feeling in using the books is that is probably easy for the low-level or ESL student to become confused shuffling through these pages for their relevancy and the relatedness of one thing to another. Although the publisher is certainly working on an agenda of purposefulness, that purpose is not always readily apparent.
I am currently working out of Smart Choice, 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press that is combined with classroom video and audio download. It is all very fancy once you figure out how to work the systems. However; on pg. 38, the grammar lesson is Suggestion vs. Obligation or what I should do versus what I have to do. Guess how many students in my classes (college sophomores) knew what an obligation was? Try not one. We had to go to the hand-held dictionaries to look that word up for understanding. Previously on pg. 16 they studied bungee jumping, driving a racecar, rock climbing, parasailing, windsurfing, riding a motorcycle , flying a plane and skydiving.
Most students had no idea what bungee jumping is, they have never seen a racecar except maybe once on TV, very few are familiar with rock climbing, none of them knew what parasailing was; most have never been in an airplane and wouldn’t even consider skydiving. They all knew what motorcycles were. On the next page the book discusses hang gliding which most students are not familiar with and skiing which most of them have never done. There was a discussion of riding bicycles. Boys here ride bicycles and very few girls know how to; it just becoming more popular for girls.
There are many pages that discuss different locations around the planet. I have students who barely know their continents or what’s the capital of Japan. I feel good about reviewing geography because that is something they do need to know; but, parasailing? Relevant in what way? Their idea of a big vacation is taking a ferry to Jeju, the closest island to Korea.
At my last school, my co-teachers spent a lot of time on complicated grammar lessons regarding the present, past and future continuous. I discovered that most of my students didn’t truly know simple past tense and simple future. I pulled a chart from the Internet that was a listing of common verbs. The present was on the left; then the student could run their finger to the immediate right and find the column with past tense and the next column for future tense. If they had the chart immediately in front of them and I then asked them to find the proper verb tense, they could do it. Otherwise, they could get about as far as I am, she is, he is, we are, I did, she did, so on.
There is a real and significant question, in particular where I teach, which is: what is the effectiveness of teaching random grammar exercises which are then unrelated to anything else the student is learning at that time?
Back to Oxford U Press. Here is the reading which pulls in the grammar exercise. “Do you have a gym nearby? You should use it. You don’t have to exercise every day, but you should do something three times a week. Thirty minutes is enough. Remember you can review for a test and jog on a treadmill at the same time.” Then there is an additional reading about marathon runners that uses ‘should’ phrases several times. Okay, then, the writers have taken a grammar exercise they think is important and integrated that into a lesson plan about health and fitness. They also talk a lot about stress which is something students relate to and can understand.
Is this authentic reading? Are these exercises relevant? Is studying this stuff useful and are students really learning anything? Is this book actually boring?
Review of students preferences over several classes indicates that they hate workbooks and like to read ‘authentic’ materials such as newspapers, magazines and books. Are workbooks a necessary evil to get across important vocabulary and grammar points? Can we have to have the workbook plus authentic reading examples? If students pick their own reading materials how can we be sure they are getting a comprehensive set of the basics? Do we let them pick their own books for recreational reading or SSR?
I do not meet with my students every day; only twice a week for 50 minutes. I am currently trying to stuff as much homework as possible down each week so that we can have instructional time on the reading. For example; what is the meaning of suggestion? What is the meaning of an obligation? What is a daredevil (prior reading) what is a parachute and what is a disaster? Confirming that students even understand the vocabulary of what they are reading in this simple (?) workbook takes time. Then in addition to that, I am trying to check for reading comprehension as well as their listening comprehension. So, my hands are pretty full!
CONCLUSION – The publisher’s workbooks are what everyone is using in any modern ESL classroom. There is no arguing with the fact that the books are accessible to students and are reasonable in price. In addition, the publisher has cleverly devised a teacher’s manual that is interactive on the computer and has both sound bites and correct answers for the questions that will pop up on the screen. It is certainly difficult to argue with the efficiency of these programs. However; all the technologies aside, is this still the best way to teach English? Is this the best way to teach reading or writing? Are these books interesting or boring? Are these going to build life-long learners or just students who breath a huge sigh of relief when the damn required class is over and throw the hideous book in the trash the moment they are able? In the big picture, what are we teaching here?
These workbooks take a grammar lesson and then build an entire lesson around that. Why not go in reverse and take a reading lesson and build a grammar lesson about what is in the reading?
For example, take the poem: The Blind Men and the Elephant – John Saxe. (1885).
It was six men of India (where is India?)
To learning much inclined (what does inclined mean?)
Who went to see the Elephant (went is what verb form?)
That each by observation (what is observation?)
Might satisfy his mind. (what does satisfy mean?)
We go on to read the entire poem of how the blind men felt all around the elephant and all describe him completely differently. What is the significance of the poem? Then we watch a video cartoon of the poem and students do a writing exercise and retell the poem their own way.
I have personally used this poem and this technique effectively in classes many times. Students love retelling this poem in their own special way. They get a big kick out of it actually and have fun with it. How much fun is the ‘should and have to’ lesson plan? I would count that in the pretty much negative fun zone. Of course, not all learning is supposed to be ‘fun,’ but can’t some of it be fun?
Anyway, the debate, no doubt, continues.
Anderson, Richard. Reading Definitions (2014). – Retrieved from Web, http://lrs.ed.uiuc.edu/students/jblanton/read/readingdef.htm
Duke, Nell K. and Pearson, P. David. Effective Practices for Developing Reading Comprehension, Journal of Education, Vol. 189, Numbers ½. 2008-2009. Print.
Adler, C. R. – Seven Strategies to Teach Students Text Comprehension. Retrieved from Web. (2014). Reading Rockets. http://www.readingrockets.org/article/seven-strategies-teach-students-text-comprehension.
Dewitz, Peter, Jones, Jennifer, Leahy, Susan. (4/12/2008) Comprehension Strategy Instruction in Core Reading Programs. Vol. 44(2). Reading Research Quarterly. Print.
Wilson, Ken. Smart Choice, 2nd Ed., New York, NY, Oxford University Press.(2011). Print.