Reading comprehension is a complex process that is still imperfectly understood. But it is still possible to lay out general principles of good teaching practice based on what we know, writes Maureen McLaughlin in a recent issue of The Reading Teacher.
McLaughlin provides principles based on the nature of reading comprehension as well as on the roles of teachers and students in the comprehension process.
Below are principles you can use in the classroom to improve student comprehension:
Think social constructivism
In current thinking, reading comprehension is the construction of meaning by a student, who is the interpreter of the text. The content of that meaning is influenced by the student’s prior knowledge and experience and, in fact, consists of the student’s thinking processes and intentional problem solving.
This means that learning takes place when new information is merged with what the student already knows. The more prior knowledge and experience readers have with a particular topic, the easier it will be for them to make connections between what they are learning and what they know, writes McLaughlin.
Class discussion plays an important role in reading comprehension, according to the social constructivist perspective. Readers refine their understanding by negotiating meaning with others, i.e. through class discussion.
“Engaging students in such discussion promotes active engagement in constructing meaning from a text,” McLaughlin writes.
The good reader as model
Much of the research on comprehension is based on studies of good readers. Good readers actively participate in reading, have clear goals and constantly monitor progress toward their goals as they read. They naturally and spontaneously pose questions throughout the reading process and are problem solvers who have the ability to discover new information on their own.
Students who are good readers use a repertoire of comprehension strategies to help them construct meaning. They become metacognitive readers who can think about and monitor their own thinking while reading.
“When comprehension breaks down because of a lack of background information, difficulty of words, or unfamiliar text structure, good readers know and use a variety of “fix up” strategies,” the researcher writes. “These include rereading, changing the pace of reading, using context clues, and cross-checking cueing systems.”
Foster vocabulary development
Vocabulary development and instruction have strong ties to reading comprehension. Teacher read-alouds and exposing students to a variety of texts enhances their vocabulary development.
McLaughlin writes that teachers should balance explicit instruction of vocabulary with learning from context. The instruction should include words from students’ reading and help students develop a variety of strategies for determining the meanings of unfamiliar words.
Some suggestions for effective vocabulary development are:
- Create an environment that encourages word consciousness, the awareness of and interest in learning and using new words and becoming more skillful and precise in word usage.
- Provide vocabulary instruction throughout the day and across subject areas.
- Give students many ongoing opportunities to use highlighted words
- Strengthen students’ word-learning strategies by teaching them about roots and affixes
- Use technology to make vocabulary more rewarding
- Develop word consciousness by introducing categories or related words
Embed formative assessments
Formative assessment does not occur after learning but rather within the process of teaching and learning, McLaughlin writes. In other words, it is not an add-on, but rather one component of teaching and learning.
Formative assessments allow the teacher to capture students’ emerging abilities and can be used even in instructional situations where students are receiving teacher support. But one of the most important features of formative assessment is that it gives teachers a continuous stream of information to differentiate and modify instruction.
Examples of formative assessments include teacher observation of student reading and discussion, informal written responses and strategies such as the Bookmark Technique, the Concept of Definition Map and the K-W-L graphical organizer designed to help in learning. The letters KWL are an acronym for “what we know”, “what we want to know,” and “what we learned.”
In the Bookmark Technique, students create bookmarks during their reading for discussion. The Concept of Definition Map is an exercise that helps children understand what a word means by considering what category it belongs to, its properties and some examples and illustrations.
Teach students to comprehend at deeper levels
Teachers should help students move beyond passively accepting the text’s message to questioning, examining and disputing it. In critical literacy, readers ponder the power relationship between author and reader. They critically examine what the author wants them to believe and focus on the problem posed by the author in all its complexity.
“Reading from a critical perspective involves thinking beyond the text to understand such issues as why the author wrote about a particular topic, why he or she wrote from a particular perspective, and why some ideas about the topic were included and others were not,” the researcher writes.
The teacher should model reading from a critical stance and introduce students to a variety of texts that represent or invite critical literacy.
“Reading Comprehension What Every Teacher Needs to Know,” Maureen McLaughlin, The Reading Teacher, 2012, Volume 65, Issue 7, pps. 432-440.