The ultimate goal of reading is to gain meaning, and it can be incredibly tough to do so. There are several models of reading comprehension that try to explain/simplify the process, including The Simple View of Reading, Scarborough’s Reading Rope, the Four Part Processing Model, and the recently developed Active View of Reading.
A recent Reading Comprehension Round Table was hosted by Nate Joseph with Pedagogy Non Grata: it’s a must-listen! The knights at this round table were none other than: Dr. Mitchell Brookins, Dr. Jennifer Buckingham, Dr. Hugh Catts, Dr. Nell Duke, and Dr. Timothy Shanahan. Have I mentioned that this is a must listen?!
Key Take Aways from the podcast, which are completely subject to my interpretation, are summarized below. This post, as is this entire blog, is dedicated to processing my learning; my hope is that I’ve captured the intention of the guests on the podcast accurately.
Types of Instruction with the Most Impact on Reading Comprehension
According to Dr. Timothy Shanahan, the “biggest and most important” types of instruction that impact reading comprehension include instruction centered on 1) language skills and 2) strategies or actions used during reading. Language skill instruction includes, but is not in any way limited to: vocabulary, pronouns, and text structure. Strategy or action instruction includes, but is certainly not limited to: monitoring comprehension (asking if I understood what I just read, rereading), summarizing, identifying text structure, paraphrasing, and finding the main idea… kinda’; Shanahan has much more to say about “main idea” in his latest blogpost.
Dr. Mitchell Brookins adds that placing text at the center of instruction is critical. This involves the instructor’s knowledge of the text, of the unknown vocabulary words that exist in the text, of his/her students, and knowing how to relate all that is contained in the text with the students sitting in front of him/her. I love this nod to both building teacher knowledge and to building meaningful relationships with students!
Dr. Jennifer Buckingham added that it is important to consider the task that is being asked of students. What is it that students are expected to do with the text in front of them?
Strategy Instruction Defined
It’s actually quite difficult to define strategy instruction because there are so many interpretations of it. My personal favorite (if I am interpreting her meaning correctly) comes from Nancy Hennessy in a Melissa & Lori Love Literacy podcast, where she distinguishes the difference between reading strategies and reading skills. Reading strategies are those practices that we teach readers to use so that they can gain meaning from text. Reading skills are those actions that readers take to gain meaning from text; they are skills because the reader has practiced using them over and over again across multiple texts.
Dr. Jennifer Buckingham explains that strategies and skills are often used interchangeably which is due to the fact that they are so interconnected. She goes on to explain that a strategy is thought of as something that you do consciously and deliberately, while a skill is something that you just do (because of the number of times you have practiced – it has become automatic). This (in my opinion) very much matches what Nancy Hennessy contends. Further, Dr. Buckingham cites a recent study that shows how a combination of strategies – inferencing, summarizing, using text structure – result in reading comprehension. She explains that much like decoding, strategy instruction does need to be taught systematically and explicitly.
Dr. Nell Duke adds that we want to teach reading strategies before entering a text. And the strategies that we teach are chosen because they will be most effective in getting to the meaning of the text being read. She explains that this may have been the missing point when some started to contend that knowledge building is the key and that reading strategy instruction is unnecessary. Reading strategy instruction is absolutely necessary – the research base is too strong to argue with this point. Reading strategies must be taught and applied deliberately with deliberately chosen text.
Dr. Mitchell Brookins adds that we have to do something with the text in order to get to the knowledge piece. Further, he says, “Strategy instruction would be the conduit to building knowledge.”
Dr. Hugh Catts adds that “thinking is at the heart of comprehension,” and (not his quote): “Memory is the residue of thought.” In other words, strategies are a way of thinking about the text.
Dr. Timothy Shanahan adds that we want to teach students to use strategies in way that makes sense to use the strategies. Too often, we teach strategies with text that is easily accessible, making the use of strategies unnecessary. In order to make reading strategies both useful and meaningful, we need to consider using tougher text and/or tougher tasks to complete with the text.
Host Nate Joseph summarizes the conversation by concluding that the old approach of organizing units around strategies is not as effective as placing text at the center of instruction and applying strategies that will be helpful with that text. I so appreciate Dr. Nell Duke jumping in at this point to clarify the importance of text sets over a single text. In other words, we want to be sure to have multiple texts on the same topic, and keep those text sets at the center of instruction.
Knowledge-Building Curriculums May Not Be the Ticket
Of the take-aways I’ve summarized here, this is the only one that I am wrestling with. Toward the end of the Round Table discussion, Dr. Timothy Shanahan made the point that knowledge-building curriculums (of which I am a huge proponent of, because knowledge matters and curriculum matters), may not be the magic bullet that some contend that they are. He is not confident that they are enough to ensure that knowledge and skills gained through the use of the curriculums are enough to transfer to other bodies of knowledge. For example, if you study one war deeply, is the knowledge you gain enough to read about and understand, deeply, a different war? Will the knowledge gained from reading about one topic generalize to other topics that might have some related information to that topic? There just simply isn’t enough evidence at this point to support the notion that a knowledge-building curriculum provides the transfer necessary to generalize. “We’ve got a long way to go before we know if a knowledge-based curriculum really would do what it needs to do if it’s going to give kids that generalization power.”
I’m not comfortable with this notion, but I’m learning that it’s important to be comfortable being uncomfortable. In addition, my discomfort is part of the science in the Science of Reading. This might be a good time to mention some very exciting news from the great state of Iowa: a definition of the Science of Reading has made its way onto the Iowa Department of Education’s website. In this definition, we are reminded of the following: “It is important to recognize that the Science of Reading is evolving and dependent on continued scientifically based reading research.”
The journey of learning and unlearning continues.