Improving children’s memory and comprehension of texts

Kindergarten teacher helping student with reading skillsStrategies for helping students improve their learning of content material abound in research literature. However, many strategies lack adequate research evidence to demonstrate conclusively that they can be used to increase children’s understanding or memory of what they read. Although educational researchers are gaining an understanding of the strategies that good students use, in most cases they have not been able to show conclusively that other children can successfully be taught these strategies (see ERN May/June 1989 “Are We Ready To Teach Thinking Skills?”).

There are two strategies, however, on which there has been extensive research. Summarization and ‘question-answering’ have been commonly used in classrooms and supportable conclusions can be drawn about the effectiveness of these two techniques. Michael Pressley, Carla J. Johnson, Sonya Symons, Jacqueline A. McGoldrick and Janice A. Kurita, at the University of Western Ontario, analyzed the research available of these and other strategies used to improve recall and comprehension.

Children benefit less from answering questions

By the middle school years, most students are expected to understand and remember material covered in science and social studies textbooks. The most frequently used method of helping students learn this material is to have them answer questions at the end of each chapter. But, though answering questions increases learning in adults, research indicates that the results with children are much less certain. Analyzing children’s responses to questions has revealed that young students may not benefit from this strategy as much as adult students because children do not tend to look back at the text to find answers.

This appears to be especially true for lower elementary students and for poor readers in upper elementary grades. Those students in the upper elementary grades who do look back into the text for answer, who focus on the sections where the answer is most likely to be found, and who integrate information from different sections of the text, benefit the most from answering questions after reading.

Pressley et al. recommend that if the purpose of answering questions is to improve memory and understanding of textbook material, then students must be taught how to look back to find answers.

First, students need to be taught to analyze the question in order to determine what type of information the student needs to find: facts, an interpretation of facts, or information implied in the text. Students should be directed in the use of headings, subheadings, bold face print and cues in the margins so they can locate quickly the information they seek.

This type of training appears to take more time and practice than we normally provide our students. It is recommended that teachers model this strategy by talking aloud about questions and explaining how they determine where to locate information. It is important for students to understand the reason for the strategy if they are to be motivated to master it and use it without teacher prompting.

Teaching students how to summarize

Summarization of text material is the strategy that has probably the best empirical support for improving students’ memory of text. However, research shows that children do not summarize well or often unless they are given direct instruction in how to construct summaries. While there are many ways to construct summaries, the simplest involves designing one sentence that captures the meaning of each paragraph. Research shows, however, that more complex forms of summarization can produce greater gains in learning. Pressley et al. recommend using the following rules when summarizing:

1. delete trivial information

2. delete redundant information

3. substitute superordinate (all encompassing) terms for lists of items

4. integrate a series of events with a superordinate action term

5. select a topic sentence or invent one if there is none in the text

They further recommend that teachers model the process while explaining what they are doing and then give the students several practice sessions in which the teacher monitors their efforts, stressing the importance of finding the most significant supporting ideas for each main topic. Some students may benefit from making a graphic summary or a kind of map that shows the hierarchy and relationship between ideas.

Research studies on summarization have consistently shown that this method can significantly improve a student’s learning. Importantly, once children have been carefully taught and have practiced summarization, they tend to demonstrate improved recall of text material, even when they are not asked to make a summary of it. Apparently, summarization training changes how students think about what they are reading. It is important to note that no summarization research has been conducted with regular education students younger than 10 years (5th grade).

Training students how to answer questions

Although students trained in summarization demonstrate increased and more accurate recall of factual information, some research indicates that their ability to answer comprehension questions does not necessarily improve concurrently. Direct instruction in question answering appears to be needed for this and, therefore, students benefit most from learning both strategies.

When teachers train students in these strategies, they find that some students need considerably more training than others to master these techniques. Individual feedback and explanation to students during strategy practice is helpful. Teachers who have successfully trained students in these strategies recommend monitoring students as they practice them, asking individual students to explain what they are doing and why, and offering suggestions.

Other strategies

Pressley et al. report on research with other strategies that they judge to have been responsible for increased learning among elementary students. These strategies include mental imagery, use of mnemonic devices, story grammar, question-generation and prior knowledge activation. Although these strategies have not been used as extensively in regular elementary classrooms as have summarization and question-answering, research indicates that they show promise for some students.

In general, the use of comprehension and recall strategies have been most successful with poorer readers who appear less likely to discover and utilize these kinds of strategies on their own. Pressley et al. emphasize that successful strategy training must be taught in context; all techniques should be practiced and mastered within the framework of regular science, social studies or other content area instruction.

The teaching of any learning strategy must be explicit and extensive if students are to master the technique and use it independently. A great deal of student practice, including teacher feedback, is recommended. After mastery, teachers need to continue guiding students as to how and when strategies can be used. Obviously, practice with lower level materials or using material with which the students are already familiar, should precede practice with more difficult or unfamiliar material. Generalized use of a strategy can be encouraged by varying the types of material used to practice the strategy.

“Strategies That Improve Children’s Memory & Comprehension of Text” The Elementary School Journal September 1989 Volume 90 Number 1 pp. 3-32.

Published in ERN March/April 1990 Volume 3 Number 2

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