Focus on content may be even more effective than reading strategies in increasing comprehension, study says

iStock_000025474831XSmallTeaching students reading strategies to improve their comprehension has many champions including the National Reading Panel (NRP). In its landmark 2000 report, NRP wrote that the past two decades of research supported “the enthusiastic advocacy of instruction of reading strategies.”

But, in a recent study of 5th-graders published in the Reading Research Quarterly, researchers question whether strategies should be front and center in efforts to increase students’ comprehension. Focusing on content seems to be equally, if not more effective, in supporting comprehension, say the researchers who conducted a 2-year study comparing a strategies approach and a content approach in improving comprehension.

Unexpectedly, the researchers found that students in classrooms that used a content approach had a slim advantage over students in the strategy group. All students, including those in the control group, which more closely followed the basal reader, showed adequate comprehension and performed comparably on a written assessment of comprehension, the researchers report. But students in classrooms that used a content approach performed better on measures of oral recall for both narrative and expository texts; their accounts scored higher in quality than those of other groups.

Content approach offers advantages

“Our findings suggest that getting students to actively build meaning while reading does not necessitate knowledge of and focus on specific strategies, but, rather it may require attention to text content in ways that promote attending to important ideas and establishing connections between them,” write the researchers. “We acknowledge that the consensus in the field is that strategies instruction is useful.

“Even if results had indicated that strategies and content produced no differences in student outcomes, there is reason to question the productivity of strategies instruction if an equally effective approach allows students to consider text meaning directly rather than indirectly through strategies. Our results indicate that going directly for meaning is feasible and at least as effective as pursuing meaning by going through strategies,” they write.

One unresolved issue in the use of strategies instruction is exactly what strategies should be taught and how they should be taught. General claims about the benefits of strategy instruction are inadequate for guiding teachers about effective ways to teach strategies in the classroom, the researchers write.

The National Reading Panel identified 7 strategies that it said had been found to improve comprehension: Question answering, question generation, story structure, summarization, comprehension monitoring, cooperative learning, and graphic and semantic organizers.

In this study, the strategies selected were: summarizing, predicting, drawing inferences and monitoring for coherence and misunderstandings.

“Surely, no one would want to omit from the curriculum the ability to develop summaries or be aware of the need to draw inferences. Our recommendation is that such strategies be taught but that they not lead the process of building understanding of a text. Rather, we suggest concepts such as summary, inference, and prediction be introduced to students with examples using short texts,” the NRP advises.

Interspersed reading and discussion

One of the reasons that the results for the 3 groups were comparable, the authors speculate, is that under the rigorous design of the study, all teachers used scripted lessons of high-quality instruction. Each approach was based on interspersed reading and discussion, which provides a strong foundation for comprehension.

“Indeed, that format may well have been the most positively influential feature in the instructional design,” the authors write.

Interspersed reading and discussion may be a departure from how reading is typically taught in the intermediate grades, they write. One major implication of the study is that teachers alternate reading with discussion in their classroom. Students who have trouble decoding have more access to the text and to their peers’ thinking. The teacher also provides a model of the comprehension process and assists students in building meaning.

Other features of the rigorous design included using common text, scripting what the teacher said and asked students to do, providing teacher training and feedback, and conducting fidelity checks for every lesson in each approach. Lessons were built on 5 core selections within 1 theme in the school’s basal reader. Teachers taught the standardized lessons (ranging from 45-75 minutes) once a week during 1 of the daily 90-minute reading blocks; the rest of the week the teachers engaged in whatever activity they chose from the basal reader.

The researchers developed standardized instruction for the 2 experimental conditions. The format in each standardized lesson was teacher-directed, whole-class instruction in which portions of the text were read aloud, mostly by students. The format is in keeping with customary guided comprehension in basal programs. The authors write that because their expertise is in content instruction, they asked a dozen experts in the strategy approach to review and revise the lessons for the study in 2 rounds of review.

Teachers asked students questions at designated points in the text. In the content group, students’ attention was focused on the content of the text through general, meaning-based questions. Researchers developed the questions based on the Questioning the Author (QtA) approach developed by 2 of the authors of the study. At each stopping point, the teacher asked an open-ended question to call attention to an important idea in the text segment and to initiate a discussion. (“What’s going on here?””How does all this connect with what we read earlier?”) In the strategies group, students were taught to use specific methods to increase their access to the text.

At stopping points, the teacher used a prompt to initiate a discussion about a strategy and reminded students how to apply the strategy. Participating in the study was a final sample of 119 students in six classrooms in a school in a small urban district in southwestern Pennsylvania. The school was identified as “in need of improvement” by the state in 2004-2005.

Measures used to assess student outcomes from the 3 approaches include the sentence verification technique (SVT) and recall. SVT assessed how much students recognized text from their reading. Students had to indicate whether a paraphrase or inference from their text reading was true or false. SVT was used for 3 of the 5 lessons and oral recall for the 2 other lessons. The SVT was a written assessment that ranged in length from 36-60 items, depending on the lesson.

Research team members took recalls from each individual student using 4 prompts, 1 to initiate recall and the rest to encourage students to recall as much as possible. Recalls were scored for length and quality including the importance of material that was recalled.

The researchers carried out the study over 2 years with 2 cohorts of 5th-grade students. Their results were consistent from Year 1 to Year 2. In Year 2, the researchers added 3 lessons on expository texts that were developed from the book, “Bees Dance and Whales Sing,” by Margery Facklam.

“At a general level, our results lead us to conclude that all the instructional approaches provided for adequate comprehension, and a small but consistent pattern of differences occurred that favored the content approach,” the researchers write.

“Rethinking Reading Comprehension Instruction: A Comparison of Instruction for Strategies and Content Approaches,” by Margaret McKeown et al., Reading Research Quarterly, Jul-Sept. 2009, Volume 44, Number 3, pp. 218-254.

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