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Overview of Comprehension

Comprehension traces its meaning back tot he Greek roots of “weave” and in many ways the metaphor works. Someone must decode a text, combine the sounds and meanings with what they already know and form new understandings.

To understand comprehension means understanding humanity. No one has accomplished the task because you can not separate a culture teaching literacy and the learning of the culture. To change how a culture teaches understanding thus changes a culture. This in turn cane make changing teaching dangerous to cultural norms.

We also have to understand what we say when we mean comprehension. Do we mean the discrete ability to summarize a text or to “truly comprehend” a subject? Our schools focus on a definition of comprehension steeped in the academic language favored in Western European discourse patterns.

Throughout the History of Reading Research we can see an evolution knowledge of “reading as a process to construct meaning”*. We see reading comprehension change as differences emerge in Common Theoretical Frameworks.These elements influence our, “knowledge of reading comprehension and analysis skills.”

History of Reading Comprehension Research

Reading comprehension, in its modern form, began in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the late 1970s psychologist such as Flavel (1978) began to write about metacognition. Vygotsky, A Russian art critic, psychologist, and linguist got translated to English from Soviet Russia for the first time. These conditions combined with Influences from informational processing theories, using the computer as a metaphor for the mind.

Information Processing theory suggests we have long term memory like a hard drive, which organizes information in schemas. We have auditory and visual inputs that decode meaning into our short-term memory like RAM. Our “processes” or reading strategies combine the new information with existing schema like a computer program.

The first studies to really kick off strategy instruction research began with Palinscar and Brown in 1984. They tried to identify the general “thinking skills” involved in reading that cut across all general thinking tasks and decided on:

  • questioning
  • summarizing
  • clarifying
  • predicting

This research continued to evolve as reading comprehension was viewed as a problem solving endeavor over and above decoding. In fact starting in third grade decoding explainthe variance in reading accuracy but not comprehension.

Skills, Strategies, and Dispositions

Variables grouped under a large umbrella of “oral language skills” such as background knowledge and vocabulary explain comprehension ability.

Comprehension, unlike phonemic awareness and phonics is a often seen as a strategy and not a skill. According to Paris, Wasik, and Turner (1991) we teach skills to automaticity. Strategies take explicit monitoring of understanding and goal setting.

This line of work in reading comprehension research shares research in chess players from information processing theories studies. These chess studies compared the problem solving stategies of experts and novice players. Researchers then applied Expert Readers and Strategic Thinking to reading comprehension.

Skills and strategies turn to repeated behaviors over time. We refer to these as dispositions. Taking a critical stance, for example, is a disposition. It can involve skills such as quickly identifying an author and strategies of comparing multiple sources to verify claims. Yet you have to read with that “critical eye.” Dispositions and other affective influences are hard to measure and teach and therefore often get overlooked in curriculum.

Recent research in disciplinary literacies suggest these dispositions may actually involve more encularated practices and that “comprehension” requires learning the ways of being of a specific discipline. Not simply understanding or comprehending a science text book but knowing how a scientist would use the concepts in their every day talk in a way that signifies membership.

Role of Background Knowledge

Today researchers question the emphasis on strategic teaching versus increasing the Role of Background Knowledge. After decoding background knowledge explains the greatest variance in scores of reading comprehension. This means knowing how much someone knows about a topic predicts how well they understand a reading after controlling for their ability to decode the text.

If you know about trout fishing you understand an article about trout fishing.

In students below third grade we build background knowledge through oral language skills. This builds up skills and strategies around Vocabulary and Comprehension

Prior knowledge also includes the kind of “knowledge that learners acquire because of their social roles, such as those connected with race, class,gender, and their culture and ethnic affiliations.” (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 1999, pg 60). We know the literacy practices of many students do not reflect the learned strategies often taught in school. These practices are not less, but different (Au, 1980, 1993, 2007; Ball,1997; Moje et al., 2004). Since literacy is a cultural practice different cultures place different meanings on what it means to be literate and the process of literacy acquisition.

Beyond Cognition. Culture and Meaning Making

Beginning in the early eighties the cultural context of literacy. We know we utilize literacy practices for more than summarizing but as tools to mediate every day solutions to commerce, religion, war, and every aspect of humanity (Cole, 1996; Lee & Smagorinsky, 2000). Our definition of reading has long focused on the psychological processes involved (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998).

Anthropologists and ethnographers began to push for an expanded definition of literacy (Au, 1981, Heath, 1983; Street, 2000) that accepted multiple literacies (New London Group, 1996). We acquire literacy practices culturally and cultures assume that the literacy practices of school “get learned” (Gee, 1996).

For many students reading curriculum gets “done” to them and they do not “do literacy”. This in turns creates negative images of their identities as readers and writers which will haunt performance (Alvermann, 1996). Basically every student comes to school loving reading and writing, but the majority leave hating it. Why?


Scholars have suggested that culturally proactive curriculum (Gay, 2000; Garcia & O'Donnell-Allen) will improve not just test scores but the literate lives of students.

In the Classroom

Strategy Instruction

The teaching of Comprehension and Strategy Instruction is still central in many classrooms. We know from meta-analysis (Rosenshine, 1994) that strategy instruction has moderate to strong effects. This means that the teaching intervention moved scores of comprehension measures further from a mean score without an intervention.

In strategy instruction students are taught to apply specif procedural steps when encountering a text such as skimming a text before reading the book. Overtime an agreed set of 8-10 comprehension strategies has emerged.

Yet people note that the interventions have a low ceiling. Meaning additional practices in strategies may not yield future improvement. Once you know how to summarize a paragraph more practice will not make you better. In other words you “hit the ceiling.”The strategies also suffered from transfer issue. This means making predictions in a novel may not transfer to a science textbook. The studies also relied often on researcher created instruments measuring very discrete skills.

Yet at the same time special education literacy experts stress the importance of strategy instruction. The additional focus on general comprehension skills rooted in Palinscar and Brown's reciprocal teaching may explain why students with language goals in their Individual Education Plan have higher effect sizes in comprehension strategy instruction research,

Levels of Comprehension

We can never truly know what someone understands about a text. Instead we build comprehension through text based analysis and text-based discussions. The quality of teacher talk matters more in younger grades but as students age more and more of the discussion time revolving what is read should happen with students.

As teachers we plan to increase the cognitive complexity through three Levels of Reading Comprehension: literal, inferential, and evaluative questions. In early grades we accomplish this through interactive read-alouds and dialogical reading.

As a teacher you want to focus students written responses, annotations, and discussions around these levels.

Close Reading

The Common Core State Standards put a greater emphasis on a specific school of literary critique that focuses on Close Reading. The focus is on multiple readings that focus on meaning, structure and author's craft without “leaving the four corners of the page.”

Text Based Analysis

Text based analysis requires one to interrogate a text to determine the literal meaning of what the text says, analyzing the text structure to see how a text works, and evaluating what a text means or wants you to do (Kurland, 1995).

Often we teach children and students alike to annotate the text as a form of analysis.

Text Based Discussion

Students must interact and collaborate with peers and teachers using argumentation skills, reasoning, textual evidence and academic language when discussing texts. Classroom discussions of sustained dialogue, elaboration, and open ended questions improve comprehension ((Nystrand & Gamoran, 1991).

The text based discussions lead to increased cogntivite complexity through explicit interaction with source material.

Text Based Response

As teachers we often use writing activities to promote and measure comprehension. In fact you have to be careful to make sure you are measuring comprehension and not conflating a writing measure. In other words does the paragraph measure as student's ability to write or the understanding of the texts.

There are multiple Literary Response and Analysis Skills with Narrative Texts that we can use in writing activities to promote literary response and analysis.

Literary Response Skills with Informational Texts are also greatly stressed in the Common Core State Standards. These writing activities promote reading comprehension.

Multimodal Texts

Multimodal Texts

FORT Objective: knowledge of reading as a process to construct meaning

English Language Learners

comprehension.txt · Last modified: 2022/03/15 16:06 by