Can reading comprehension be taught? In this blog post, I’ll suggest that the most straightforward answer is “no.” Reading comprehension strategies (1) don’t boost comprehension per se; (2) do indirectly help comprehension but; (3) don’t need to be practiced. Let me elaborate on these claims.
To start, let’s think about what goes into reading comprehension. Inyesterday’s piece, I pointed out that a critical feature of reading comprehension is the need to tie ideas together via inferences. Consider again the brief text I introduced yesterday:
“We’re not going on that vacation to Miami after all. My wife could get only get vacation time in July.”
To understand the meaning, it’s not enough to understand each sentence on its own; you must understand that the second statement is causally related to the first (time off only in July caused the cancellation of the Miami vacation) and the causal connection requires some prior knowledge of Miami (that it’s uncomfortably hot in summer) and of people’s preferences when they take vacation.
Research shows that readers, especially poor readers, often fail to tie together ideas across sentences (e.g., Cain et al, 2001). Readers notice if they can’t understand a sentence because the syntax is complex or because it contains unfamiliar vocabulary. But poor readers may not notice that sentences actually contradict one another.
Thus, we might think that an obvious route to improving reading comprehension would be (1) to get students to relate the ideas across sentences and (2) to get students to notice it’s a problem if the ideas in a text don’t hang together coherently. These approaches represent two categories of Reading Comprehension Strategies (RCS). Students are given a task to complete with a text—create a summary, for example, or draw a graphic organizer (idea web) of the text. Such tasks require coordinating the ideas across what they’ve read. Another type of RCS is an injunction to the reader to notice whether or not the text makes sense. A third type of strategy suggests that students “activate prior knowledge” in recognition of the fact that tying together the ideas in the text likely requires prior knowledge.
Here’s why I say that using these strategies doesn’t really make the child a better reader. We’re tempted to think that teaching RCS is like coaching. A baseball coach tells a batter to mimic the sort of things that an excellent hitter does: make the stance relaxed but ready, step into the ball, and so forth. The idea is that by doing what good hitters do often enough, these practices become second nature, and so the amateur’s hitting skill improves. Likewise, if we prompt the beginning reader to do what more successful readers do, in time these techniques will become second nature.
But we can’t actually tell the reader exactly what to do because comprehension depends on the particulars of the text. The sentences about vacation and Miami had to be related, but they relate in a particular way (summer, heat, vacation) that is more or less unique to this text. I can’t give a reader all-purpose instructions about how to connect sentences, other than to say “sentences must connect.”
So baseball coaching is a bad analogy for RCS. Here’s a more apt analogy. Suppose you bought a desk at Ikea which you were to assemble yourself. The instructions, in their entirety read: “Think about desks you’ve seen before. And every now and then step back and see if what you’ve got so far looks like it makes sense.” This is good advice, but it doesn’t tell you how to build your desk. For that, you need to know whether flap A goes into slot B or slot C. You need the specifics of the connections you are to make. Likewise, RCS instruction doesn’t give the specific connections to make among the ideas of a text. It can’t, because how to connect ideas depends on the specifics of the ideas.
It sounds like RCS instruction shouldn’t work, but a great deal of research shows, without a doubt, that children who receive instruction in RCSs are better able to understand texts than they were before the instruction (e.g., Suggate, 2010). Why?
I suggest that RCSs are better thought of as tricks than as skill-builders. They work because they make plain to readers that it’s a good idea to monitor whether you understand. Some students are not even clear that reading is meant to be communication—if your eyes pass over all the words, in their minds, then you’re reading. And for students who do perceive that reading is meant to convey a message, RCSs may raise the bar for comprehension. For example, a student may come to appreciate that she should understand a text well enough to be able to summarize it.
So maybe RCSs are best thought of a trick, not something that builds skill. So what? As long as it works, who cares?
The distinction matters because “skill builder” implies something worthy of extended practice. A “trick,” in contrast, is useful but quickly mastered. And in fact, there is ample research evidence that extended practice with RCS instruction is fruitless.
Gail Lovette and I (2014) found three quantitative reviews of RCS instruction in typically developing children and five reviews of studies of at-risk children or those with reading disabilities. All eight reviews reported that RCS instruction boosted reading comprehension, but NONE reported that practice of such instruction yielded further benefit. The outcome of 10 sessions was the same as the outcome of 50.
How much instructional time is devoted to RCSs in American schools? It’s hard to say, but research indicates that more than “just a little” is time that could be better spent on other things, especially (as noted yesterday) to building content knowledge.
Another way for students to build content knowledge is to read in their leisure time. Tomorrow I’ll take up the question of reading motivation.
How much of their leisure time do teenagers devote to reading? Not much. According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, teens read for pleasure, on average, just six minutes each day. Why?
Attitudes toward reading are one factor, but not the only factor. (Consider that, because we’re talking about reading the child freely chooses, she must not only like reading, she must like it more than the other available choices. I’ll have more to say about that on Friday.) Attitudes toward reading peak in early elementary years. With each passing year, students’ attitudes towards reading drop.
It’s not hard to see why that might happen. For most children, learning to read is rewarding; it’s a sign of getting older, of gaining a skill that older siblings and friends possess. The emphasis in those early years is on understanding and appreciating stories. But consider how reading changes in the mid-elementary years and beyond.
Higher expectations for comprehension: stories become longer and more complex. A page from a book for first-graders might be a picture with a sentence or two of text. By third grade, students are expected to read chapter books likeCharlotte’s Web.
Less choice: As kids get older, they are confronted with more texts they must read, and less often have the option to replace a book they aren’t enjoying with something else.
More genres: Early elementary students read mostly stories, a genre familiar to many from read-alouds, movies, and television. Later they encounter biography, news stories, and other genres with different organizations and conventions. The novelty of the genre makes comprehension harder.
Different purposes: Perhaps most important, teachers ask students to put reading to new purposes. Younger children read to comprehend and enjoy a narrative. Older children might read to locate specific facts during research. Or they read to learn and remember material for a quiz.
Curiously, attitudes towards reading drops not only for the reading that students do at school, but also for reading they do at home (McKenna et al, 1995). Why would attitudes toward leisure reading drop?
One possibility is that students don’t differentiate among different types of reading (Gallagher, 2009). They perceive that the reading they are required to do for school feels like work, not a leisure activity. And that feeling changes their attitude towards leisure reading.
If students do not make a distinction between reading for pleasure and reading that is not optional, that must be completed, and that usually has other assignments associated with it, why not make this distinction clear to them?
Obviously I’m not suggesting that teachers present assigned reading as drudgery. Rather, the message might be that reading for leisure includes more options than reading for school. You can skip parts that seem slow. You can peek at the ending. You can drop books at your whim. You can read only in the genre that pleases you, be it biography, horror, manga, or technical diagrams of heavy machinery. The litmus test for any text and any manner of reading is whether it brings you pleasure.
Teachers are well practiced in answering the querulous question “Why do we have to do this?” It may be worth emphasizing to students how much they might enjoy the reading that they don’t have to do.