Study asks: What is best way to use extra 20 minutes/day to increase comprehension

iStock_000016678101XSmallIf you decided to devote an extra 20 minutes a day for 6 weeks to improve the reading comprehension of your elementary and middle school students, what would be the best way to spend those 20 minutes, asks a recent study in the Journal of Educational Psychology.
The researchers tested the following 6 instructional approaches:
  • Adding traditional basal reading instruction time
  • Having students spend added time on workbook practice
  • Independent reading of a book of the student’s choice with personalized mini-interventions by teacher (individualized schema-based learning)
  • Independent reading of 2 expository texts back to back on a topic of student’s choice after teacher modeling of how to resolve discrepancies between texts and do think alouds (conceptual learning)
  • Having students read 2 or more texts related to a theme followed by a class discussion (transactional learning)
  • Telling students to practice a specific comprehension strategy that they had just been taught during independent reading(situated practice)

Spending the extra 20 minutes on the traditional basal reading program or on workbook practice did not increase comprehension, the researchers report. Nor did practicing a newly learned comprehension strategy during independent reading, probably because if students focus on a specific purpose it distracts them from grasping the broader purpose of a book, the researchers note.

The 3 practices that did result in significantly better comprehension in as little as 6 weeks were conceptual learning, transactional learning and individualized schema-based learning.

“Rather, the three most successful instructional approaches shared the common features of (a) allowing student choice of books to be read for guided independent reading practice, (b) the reading of more than seven pages of continuous text from fiction or nonfiction classroom books, and (c) 15-20 min of silent reading that contained specific teacher actions,” the researchers write.

“These actions were (a) teacher-monitored silent reading periods with personalized scaffolds (PAR) to assist students in overcoming comprehension challenges when they present themselves in individual texts (individualized schema-based learning); (b) teacher-monitored selection of expository texts by requiring (and making available) two expository books on the same topic that students choose to read before being allowed to read about another expository topic (conceptual learning); or (c) teacher-provided books from which students choose that relate to one aspect of a global class theme and 5 min of the 20-min silent reading period spent in an open-ended discussion about insights that students gleaned from the reading of their selected books (transactional learning).”

Mini individualized interventions

The mini-interventions provided during individualized schema-based learning including helping students with an unknown word or a confusing concept, praising students’ efforts and helping them to use the most appropriate comprehension strategy.

A total of 660 students from Grade 2-6 participated in the study–375 were placed in experimental groups and 285 served as controls. Controls were students who spent the extra 20 minutes on basal reader instruction. The treatment period for the additional 20 minutes lasted for 6 weeks.

Students were from 4 elementary schools and one middle school in 4 varied districts in the southwestern U.S. (inner city, suburban, middle-class rural and a low socioeconomic status small town). The study took place in 30 classrooms. Most came from low to low-middle socioeconomic status schools and 38% came from middle to high socioeconomic status schools.

All students in every treatment group received 70 minutes of basal reading instruction. This 70-minute block of time consisted of a 20-minute whole-class skill-building activity from the teachers’ manual and 3 small-group teacher led meetings of 15-17 minutes in which basal story was read, analyzed and/or discussed.

Teachers in treatment groups received 40 hours of training. All volunteered to participate. The students were assessed with the Texas Assessment of Essential Knowledge and Skills Test (TAKS) Reading Subtest, Stanford Achievement Test (SAT) Reading Subtest and publisher-created story or book tests.

Another major finding of the study, the researchers report, is that teacher actions during guided or independent practice sessions can be the same for all reading levels. Rather than planning different instructional approaches, teachers just need to focus on the specific comprehension skill or strategy that students need to master.

If the goal is to increase students’ ability to better summarize, retell or retain what they read, then reading student-selected books with class discussions may be the best method whereas if the objective is to help students better identify the main idea, then reading 2 nonfiction books on the same subject back to back may be the better method.

“Instructional Approaches That Significantly Increase Reading Comprehension,” by Cathy Collins Block et al., Journal of Educational Psychology, Volume 101, Number 2, 2009, pp.. 262-281.

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