Reading Comprehension, A definitive guide
3 December 2018
By Michael Cole

Do you understand what I am writing right now?

I mean, you probably understand each word, but do you comprehend the words?

The sequence, the meaning?

Silly question, you are probably saying.

But for someone struggling with reading comprehension, it is a legitimate question.

However, a reader suffering from reading comprehension difficulties, they may understand how to spell the word, and the meaning of the words, they may not be able to pull it all together and understand the meaning of what they are reading.

I know it sounds ridiculous, but it is a real problem.

Thirty-one percent of fourth-graders in the United States failed to achieve basic skills on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test. Thirty-six percent demonstrated reading skills at or above the proficient level.

 In a review of research on comprehension instruction, the significant number of students who do not understand grade-appropriate material “is all the more troubling given that we know more than ever about teaching reading effectively,” according to the National Reading Technical Assistance Center. “The importance of understanding the nature of good reading instruction in the primary grades cannot be overstated.” Research has shown a strong correlation between learning to read early and later achieving academic success.

Teachers and parents can equip beginning readers with the tools needed to help them think about and analyze text as they read. According to a guide from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), a part of the U.S. Department of Education, students in kindergarten through third grade should learn how to use strategies to improve reading comprehension.

 The panel conducted an extensive review of more than 800 relevant studies in a 20-year span. The recommendation to teach reading strategies was the only method that was labeled as having strong evidence of effectiveness. This recommendation includes six specific reading comprehension strategies, which are explained below.

 What Does Teaching Reading Strategies Involve?

Reading strategies involve intentional mental actions during reading that improve comprehension. They are also defined by the IES as deliberate efforts by readers to understand or remember what they are reading. These strategies help readers overcome difficulties in comprehension and compensate for weak textual knowledge.

 Reading strategies should not be confused with instructional activities such as completing worksheets. These activities rarely include instruction in how to mentally improve comprehension. Reading strategies should also not be confused with exercises aimed at giving students practice with other skills, like sequencing or drawing conclusions, which lack explicit instruction in how to think in these ways while reading.

Teachers and parents can implement reading strategies individually or in combination. They can also choose the approaches they feel are most effective for their students.

 List of Reading Strategies

The panel identified 10 studies demonstrating that teaching reading comprehension strategies to primary students had positive effects on comprehension when measured by standardized tests and research-created measures. The panel members believe that the following six strategies for improving reading comprehension are the most important.

Activating Prior Knowledge/Predicting

Have the reader think about what they already know and use that knowledge, along with other clues, to better understand what they read or to predict what will happen next. It is assumed that your reader will continue to read to see if their predictions are correct.

 Teachers and parents can promote this strategy by selecting a main idea from the text and asking the reader a question that relates the idea to their experience. They can predict whether a similar experience might occur in the text.

 Another option is that when the reader reaches the halfway point of a story, then have the reader predict what will happen at the end of the story. The reader can explain how they came to this prediction, which will encourage them to look at what they are reading and gain a deeper understanding of words and passages in the text.


Here the reader will develop and attempt to answer questions about the important ideas in the text while reading, using words such as “where” or “why” to develop their questions.

 Teachers can promote this strategy by putting words that are used to formulate questions (such as “where” and “why”) on index cards for students to use. Teachers can also have students form small groups and ask questions using these words.

 The National Institute for Literacy offers a number of reasons that explain why questions are effective for improving reading ability.

  • Gives the reader a purpose for reading
  • Focuses the reader’s attention on what they should be learning
  • Helps the reader think actively as they read
  • Encourages the reader to monitor their comprehension
  • Helps the reader review content and relate what they have learned to what they already know


Ask the reader develop a mental image of what is described in the text.

Explain to the reader how visualizing what is described in the text will help them remember what they read. A sample activity to promote this strategy involves students examining objects placed in front of them. Later, they look carefully at a picture that depicts a scene. Then remove the objects and picture, and then ask the reader to visualize and describe what they saw.

Monitoring, Clarifying and Fix-Up

Students are instructed to pay attention to whether they understand what they are reading, and when they do not, they re-read or use other strategies that will help.

Try and relate each strategy to a traffic sign. For instance, a stop signs for the reader to stop reading and then try to restate in their own words what is happening in the text

Drawing Inferences

Have the reader generate information that is important to constructing meaning but that is missing from, or not explicitly stated in, the text.

 Then help the student look for key words that will help in understanding the text, demonstrating how he or she can draw inferences from these words. Try to identify key words in a sample passage and then explain what students can learn about the passage from these terms.


Students briefly describe, orally or in writing, the main points of what they read.

 Teachers and parents can ask students to describe the text in their own words. If the student is still having trouble with this activity, prompt them with questions like “What comes next?” or “What else did the passage say about [subject]?”



 Developing Reading Skills in Students

Now you are probably thinking to yourself, well that sounds nice and all, but how do I do that?

What strategies work and which ones do not?

My child has a learning disability and as nice as it sounds and all, it will not be easy for me to implement that.

Hey, you are not alone. In my years in education, I dealt with students that were in the High School but were barely reading on a second-grade level. Some of this was because a child fell through the cracks in the system; others were because of a need for special education.

A student can learn to read if not on at least their age level, at least on a level that allows them to comprehend what they are reading.

Before we can tackle the problem of reading comprehension, we need to understand what the end result looks like

How Do the Reading Comprehension Skills of Good and Poor Readers Differ?

Many of the instructional practices suggested for poor readers were derived from observing, questioning, and asking good and poor readers to “think aloud” while they read (Dole et al., 1991; Jiménez, Garcia, & Pearson, 1995, 1996). Reports of how good readers understand and learn from text suggest that they coordinate a set of highly complex and well-developed skills and strategies before, during, and after reading that assist them in understanding and remembering what they read (Paris, Wasik, & Turner, 1991). Perhaps the most succinct way to characterize good readers is to say that they are more strategic than poor readers (Paris, Lipson, & Wixson, 1983). The skills and strategies that good readers use include:

  • Rapid and accurate word reading
  • Setting goals for reading
  • Noting the structure and organization of the text
  • Monitoring their understanding while reading
  • Creating mental notes and summaries
  • Making predictions about what will happen, checking them as they go along, and revising and evaluating them as needed
  • Capitalizing on what they know about the topic and integrating that with new learning
  • Making inferences
  • Using mental images such as visualization to assist them in remembering or understanding events or characters

When considering good and poor readers, it is possible to consider the subgroup of poor readers as having homogeneous instructional needs. There is increasing evidence that 3–4% of readers have adequate and accurate word reading (above a 90 standard score) but demonstrate poor comprehension (below a 90 standard score). This subgroup of students likely demonstrates significant oral language difficulties, and preliminary evidence suggests that they benefit from a language-based reading intervention program (Snowling & Hulme, 2011).

 In addition, good bilingual readers are able to draw upon their translation skills, knowledge of cognates, and ability to transfer information across languages to a much greater extent than struggling readers (Jiménez et al., 1996). These strategies appear to be unique to bilingual reading.

 In contrast to the integrated and strategic approaches to understanding text applied by good readers, poor readers use few effective strategies for understanding and remembering what they read (Pressley & Afflerbach, 1995). They are often less interested in reading, their motivation is often low, they prepare minimally, if at all, prior to reading, they use few metacognitive strategies to monitor their learning from text, and they have inadequate vocabulary and background knowledge with which to connect and link new ideas to previous learning. Furthermore, unlike good readers, poor readers lack the decoding, word reading, and fluency skills to free up cognitive functioning so that their full attention can be focused on learning from reading.

Students with learning disabilities are often the poorest readers; they demonstrate multiple problems associated with low comprehension, including poor decoding, fluency, and comprehension. Such disabilites as dyslexia, dysgraphia and others. These students also exhibit characteristics of inactive learners (Torgesen & Licht, 1983) who do not monitor their learning or use strategies effectively. Yet, students with learning disabilities can improve their reading comprehension if teachers:

  1. Teach strategies that have been documented as effective in promoting reading comprehension.
  2. Design instruction that incorporates effective principles of direct instruction and strategy instruction.
  3. Provide modeling, support, guided instruction, practice, attributional feedback, and opportunities to practice across text types.
  4. Monitor students’ progress and adjust accordingly (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 1997).

Many of the reading comprehension strategies that have been associated with the highest effect sizes for students with learning disabilities are those that teach students strategies that prompt them to monitor and reflect before, during, and after reading. These strategies ask students to (1) consider their background knowledge on the topic they are reading and use that background knowledge to integrate with text information, (2) summarize key ideas, and (3) self-question while they read (e.g., Gersten et al., 2001; Swanson, 1999; Wanzek, Wexler, Vaughn, & Ciullo, 2010)


To What Degree Do the Foundational Skills of Phonics, Fluency, and Vocabulary Influence Reading Comprehension?

The majority of students with learning disabilities are likely to demonstrate difficulties with decoding, fluency (reading words quickly and accurately), and vocabulary; however, a small subgroup of students demonstrates only difficulties with reading comprehension. This subgroup has language-based reading comprehension problems, and initial evidence suggests that they may differentially benefit from language-based reading interventions (Snowling & Hulme, 2011). Students with significant difficulties in decoding, fluency, and vocabulary will demonstrate problems with reading comprehension. One reason for this interference is that readers have only so much short-term cognitive, or thinking, capacity for a task. If too much effort is allocated to decoding, little capacity is available for focusing on comprehension.

For example:

 Myra, Laticia, and Jorge are sixth-grade students identified with learning disabilities who demonstrate significant problems understanding the text. Myra has difficulty reading multisyllabic words and still confuses basic sight words such as from, where, and laugh. Although she has difficulty with decoding, Myra is very interested in many topics related to social justice and is motivated to read and learn. Her difficulties decoding words slow down her reading and often require her to read slowly and to reread text in order to understand it. Myra’s text reading improves when key words are reviewed and taught to her prior to reading.

Laticia, though an accurate word reader, reads very slowly (about 60 correct words per minute). This slow reading negatively influences comprehension and also makes it difficult for her to read widely.

Jorge reads quickly as long as he is very familiar with the words. Jorge’s problem is that he does not know the meanings of many words that appear in his expository text for science and social studies. Because he does not enjoy reading, he does not read often, and thus his knowledge of new words and ideas is limited. His very limited vocabulary and world knowledge prevent him from fully understanding what he has read because he either lacks sufficient background knowledge or misses the meaning of so many words that comprehension on all but a superficial level is difficult.

Myra, Laticia, and Jorge provide examples of the difficulties that many students with learning disabilities have with reading comprehension and illustrate the value of teaching critical foundational skills such as word reading (decoding), fluency (accuracy and speed of reading), vocabulary (knowing what the words mean in context), and world knowledge (having sufficient background knowledge to benefit from reading text). Many students with learning disabilities have problems in more than one area that influence their text comprehension. Teachers who are aware of the many elements that contribute to comprehension are more likely to consider these when assessing students’ reading comprehension difficulties and implementing targeted instruction.

What Can Teachers Do If Older Students Have Poor Word Reading (Decoding)?

Knowing how to read, or decode, words is not a small part of the reading process—it is a critical link whose absence inhibits understanding. The common belief is that word reading, and decoding problems only occur with students in the early grades (K–2), yet, the vast majority of students with reading difficulties in grade 3 and above demonstrate difficulties reading words accurately. When students are beginning to read, they may have difficulty with such words as saw, them, and their. As Comprehension 7 students progress through reading, they may have difficulty reading such words as challenge, fascinate, and immune. The goal is to identify, prior to reading, the key words that students are likely to have challenges decoding and teaching them so that students can read these words and use them in discussions and written expression. Achieving this goal with students with learning disabilities is no easy matter.

Teachers can provide support by teaching the decoding skills students need initially to read more basic words. After students can read basic words and have the fundamental phonics principles to decode words, then teachers need to provide instruction in the decoding of more complex and multisyllabic words. A few pointers to facilitate decoding in older students include the following:

  • Practice decoding with very complicated, multisyllabic words. Break these words into syllables and then treat each syllable as a separate word type for decoding.
  • Ask students to locate words that they cannot read. Keep these words in a word bank or on a word wall and use them for activities on teaching decoding.
  • Teach students common rules for decoding and remind them to use these rules when reading multisyllabic words. Review rules using key words from the text. For example, in the word reduction, show students that there are three-word parts: re duc tion. Use the rules students know and the words they currently can read to help them decode each word part and then read the entire word.
  • Teach students common prefixes, suffixes, and affixes so that reading multisyllabic words is easier and more meaningful.
  • Demonstrate that some words are “irregular” and do not conform with the typical rules of our language. Keep a word wall of irregular words that students need to practice.
  • Indicate that proper nouns, such as the names of people, places, and things, are often difficult to read. Learning what these names refer to in the chapter before reading and connecting them, so that students know who the story is about, where it takes place, and other related issues, facilitates word reading and comprehension.
  • Teach students to read complex high-frequency words that are phonetically irregular (e.g., through) and give them many opportunities to read these words in text correctly.

Beck’s (2013) multisyllabic word strategy is highly appropriate for older readers. Students can learn to read and remember difficult words by selecting syllables from each of three columns to build multisyllabic words. For example, students can have a list of eight syllables in column 1, eight syllables in column 2, and eight syllables in column 3 and figure out how to select and combine them to make complex words. For example, the syllables fre, quent, and ly are combined to make frequently. The syllables in, fec, and tion are combined to make infection


What Can Teachers Do If Students Have Poor Fluency?

Reading words automatically and with accuracy allows students to “free up” their thinking so that they can concentrate on text meaning (Kuhn, Schwanenflugel, & Meisinger, 2010; Perfetti, 1985). Students who read by decoding too many words or with reduced accuracy also demonstrate difficulties keeping up with class expectations in reading and learning and have more difficulty remembering what they read. You can imagine how reading very slowing and laboriously might discourage students and reduce interest in reading and learning from print.

How fast should students read? Students need to read between 100 and 150 words correct per minute if they want to read at the average pace for students in the middle grades (Hasbrouck & Tindal, 1992). To achieve this goal, students need to know how to read words automatically, without a lot of pauses to decode. Teachers can provide support by teaching fluency skills students need to read for comprehension.

 A few pointers to facilitate fluency include the following:

  • Monitor students’ progress in reading by asking them to read informational passages at the grade level you are teaching. Calculate the correct words read per minute. Ask students to monitor their progress by graphing results.
  • Ask students to reread difficult passages.
  • Ask students to work with peer partners to read and reread passages.
  • Identify key words and proper nouns and teach prior to asking students to read text.
  • Students’ fluency increases when they listen to books or text on tape prior to reading independently
  • Give opportunities for students to showcase their reading by asking them to prepare a passage or dialogue to read aloud to the class. Advance preparation allows students time to read and reread material—an effective practice for improving fluency.
  • Names of people, places, and things are often difficult to read; teach these names prior to reading.


The Good Reader

As I said, before we try and tackle strategies to improve reading comprehension, we need to have an idea of what we are trying to accomplish.

Like any puzzle that someone is trying to put together, it helps to have an idea of what the finished picture will look like.


Reading is not just a simple goal to accomplish, it is a lifelong and life-changing behavior. Too many educators and parents assume that putting a few worksheets and some books will solve any problem that the student might encounter.


That is a mistake many people make. They see the end result as a sort of finished line with a checkered flag. True comprehension strategies will be a ongoing quest.


You must be committed to creating a new person in the reader. The end result should be transformative, and reinforce the habit of being “good readers”


Here is an idea of the habits to instill in your reader:

  • Good readers are active readers.
  • From the outset they have clear goals in mind for their reading. They constantly evaluate whether the text, and their reading of it, is meeting their goals.
  • Good readers typically look over the text before they read, noting such things as the structure of the text and text sections that might be most relevant to their reading goals.
  • As they read, good readers frequently make predictions about what is to come.
  • They read selectively, continually making decisions about their reading— what to read carefully, what to read quickly, what not to read, what to reread, and so on.
  • Good readers construct, revise, and question the meanings they make as they read.
  • Good readers try to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words and concepts in the text, and they deal with inconsistencies or gaps as needed.
  • They draw from, compare, and integrate their prior knowledge with material in the text.
  • They think about the authors of the text, their style, beliefs, intentions, historical milieu, and so on.
  • They monitor their understanding of the text, adjusting in their reading as necessary.
  • They evaluate the text’s quality and value and react to the text in a range of ways, both intellectually and emotionally.
  • Good readers read different kinds of text differently.
  • When reading narrative, good readers attend closely to the setting and characters.
  • When reading expository text, these readers frequently construct and revise summaries of what they have read.
  • For good readers, text processing occurs not only during “reading” as we have traditionally defined it, but also during short breaks taken during reading, even after the “reading” itself has commenced, even after the “reading” has ceased.
  • Comprehension is a consuming, continuous, and complex activity, but one that, for good readers, is both satisfying and productive


What Is Involved in Reading Comprehension?


Reading comprehension involves much more than readers’ responses to text. Reading comprehension is a multicomponent, highly complex process that involves many interactions between readers and what they bring to the text (previous knowledge, strategy use) as well as variables related to the text itself (interest in text, understanding of text types).


Cognitive Processes


What is actually happening when we comprehend what we are reading? Irwin (1991) describes five basic comprehension processes that work together simultaneously and complement one another: microprocesses, integrative processes, macroprocesses, elaborative processes, and metacognitive processes. We describe each of these next (see also Figure 1.4). While reading about these different cognitive processes, keep in mind that the reader uses these different strategies fluidly, going back and forth from focusing on specific chunks of text, as with microprocessing, to stepping back and reflecting about what has been read, as with metacognition.




Microprocessing refers to the reader’s initial chunking of idea units within individual sentences. “Chunking” involves grouping words into phrases or clusters of words that carry meaning and requires an understanding of syntax as well as vocabulary. For example, consider the following sentence:


Michelle put the yellow roses in a vase.


The reader does not picture yellow and roses separately, but instead immediately visualizes roses that are the color yellow. The good reader processes yellow roses together. Selective recall is another aspect of microprocessing. The reader must decide which chunks of text or which details are important to remember. When reading only one sentence, it is relatively easy to recall details, but remembering becomes more difficult after reading a long passage. For example, the reader may or may not remember later that the roses were yellow. To some extent, whether this detail is remembered will depend upon its significance in the passage. In other words, does it matter in the story that the roses were yellow, or is this just an unimportant detail?


Integrative Processes


As the reader progresses through individual sentences, he or she is processing more than the individual meaning units within sentences. He or she is also actively making connections across sentences. This process of understanding and inferring the relationships among clauses is referred to as integrative processing. Subskills involved in integrative processing include being able to identify and understand pronoun referents and being able to infer causation or sequence. The following two sentences demonstrate how these subskills are applied:


Michael quickly locked the door and shut the windows. He was afraid.


To whom does he apply? Good readers seem to automatically know that he in the second sentence refers to Michael in the first sentence. And good readers infer that Michael locked the door and shut the windows because he was afraid.




Ideas are better understood and more easily remembered when the reader is able to organize them in a coherent way. The reader does this by summarizing the key ideas read. He or she may either automatically or deliberately (i.e., subconsciously or consciously) select the most important information to remember and delete relatively less important details. The skillful reader also uses a structure or organizational pattern to help him or her organize these important ideas. More proficient comprehenders know to use the same organizational pattern provided by the author to organize their ideas (e.g., a story map that includes characters and setting/problem/ solution in a narrative or a compare-and-contrast text structure for an expository passage).


 Elaborative Processes


When we read, we tap into our prior knowledge and make inferences beyond points described explicitly in the text. We make inferences that may or may not correspond with those intended by the author. For instance, in the two sentences provided above about Michael, we do not know why he was afraid. But we can predict that perhaps he was worried that someone had followed him home, or maybe a storm was brewing and he was concerned about strong winds. When making these inferences, we may draw upon information provided earlier in the text or upon our own previous experiences (e.g., perhaps at some point the reader was followed home and hurried inside and quickly shut and locked the door). This process is called elaborative processing.


Metacognitive Processes


Much has been made of the importance of metacognition, that is, thinking about thinking. Metacognition is the reader’s conscious awareness or control of cognitive processes. The metacognitive processes the reader uses are those involved in monitoring understanding, selecting what to remember, and regulating the strategies used when reading. The metacognitive strategies the reader uses include rehearsing (i.e., repeating information to enhance recall), reviewing, underlining important words or sections of a passage, note taking, and checking understanding.




A Supportive Context and the SAIL method


It is not enough just to offer good instruction. Several important features of good reading instruction also need to be present. Otherwise, the comprehension instruction will not take hold and flourish. These features include the following:

  • A great deal of time spent actually reading. As with decoding, all the explicit instruction in the world will not make students strong readers unless it is accompanied by lots of experience applying their knowledge, skills, and strategies during actual reading.
  • Experience reading real texts for real reasons. To become strong, flexible, and devoted to comprehending text, students need experience reading texts beyond those designed solely for reading instruction, as well as experience reading text with a clear and compelling purpose in mind.
  • Experience reading the range of text genres that we wish students to comprehend. Students will not learn to comprehend effectively any given type of text without substantial experience reading and writing it. For example, experience reading storybooks will not, by itself, enable a student to read, understand, and critique procedural forms of text of the sort found in how-to books, instruction manuals, and the like.
  • An environment rich in vocabulary and concept development through reading, experience, and, above all, discussion of words and their meanings. Any text comprehension depends on some relevant prior knowledge. To some degree, well-chosen texts can, in themselves, build readers’ knowledge base. At the same time, hands-on activities, excursions, conversations, and other experiences are also needed to develop vocabulary and concept knowledge required to understand a given text.
  • Substantial facility in the accurate and automatic decoding of words. In a recent review of the literature, Pressley (2000) argues compellingly that skilled decoding is necessary, although by no means sufficient, for skilled comprehension.
  • Lots of time spent writing texts for others to comprehend. Again, students should experience writing the range of genres we wish them to be able to comprehend. Their instruction should emphasize connections between reading and writing, developing students’ abilities to write like a reader and read like a writer.
  • An environment rich in high-quality talk about text. This should involve both teacher-to-student and student-to-student talk. It should include discussions of text processing at a number of levels, from clarifying basic material stated in the text to drawing interpretations of text material to relating the text to other texts, experiences, and reading goals.


Instructing Reading Comprehension

An effective strategy should be more than simply include instruction in specific comprehension strategies and opportunities to read, write, and discuss texts— it connects and integrates these different learning opportunities. Specifically, we suggest an instructional model including the following five components:

  1. An explicit description of the strategy and when and how it should be used. “Predicting is making guesses about what will come next in the text you are reading. You should make predictions a lot when you read. For now, you should stop every two pages that you read and make some predictions.”


  1. Teacher and/or student modeling of the strategy in action. “I am going to make predictions while I read this book. I will start with just the cover here. Hmm...I see a picture of an owl. It looks like he—I think it is a he—is wearing pajamas, and he is carrying a candle. I predict that this is going to be a make-believe story because owls do not really wear pajamas and carry candles. I predict it is going to be about this owl, and it is going to take place at nighttime.



“The title will give me more clues about the book; the title is Owl at Home. So this makes me think even more that this book is going to be about the owl. He will probably be the main character. And it will take place in his house.


“Okay, I have made some predictions about the book based on the cover. Now I am going to open up the book and begin reading.”



  1. Collaborative use of the strategy in action. “I have made some good predictions so far in the book. From this part on I want you to make predictions with me. Each of us should stop and think about what might happen next.... Okay, now let’s hear what you think and why....”


  1. Guided practice using the strategy with gradual release of responsibility. Early on...



“I have called the three of you together to work on making pre- dictions while you read this and other books. After every few pages I will ask each of you to stop and make a prediction. We will talk about your predictions and then read on to see if they come true.”


Later on...


“Each of you has a chart that lists different pages in your book. When you finish reading a page on the list, stop and make a pre- diction. Write the prediction in the column that says ‘Prediction.’ When you get to the next page on the list, check off whether your prediction ‘Happened,’ ‘Will not happen,’ or ‘Still might happen.’ Then make another prediction and write it down.” (This is based on the Reading Forecaster Technique from Mason and Au [1986] described and cited in Lipson and Wixson [1991].)


  1. Independent use of the strategy. “It is time for silent reading. As you read today, remember what we have been working on—making predictions while we read. Be sure to make predictions every two or three pages. Ask yourself why you made the prediction you did—what made you think that. Check as you read to see whether


Throughout these five phases, it is important that neither the teacher nor the students lose sight of the need to coordinate or orchestrate com- prehension strategies. Strategies are not to be used singly—good readers do not read a book and only make predictions. Rather, good readers use multiple strategies constantly. Although the above model foregrounds a particular strategy at a particular time, other strategies should also be referenced, modeled, and encouraged throughout the process. A way of conceptualizing the orchestration process is captured in a classic visual model from Pearson and Gallagher’s (1983) early work on comprehension instruction.


Other Teaching Considerations

Choosing well-suited texts. Another important role for the teacher in implementing this model is in choosing the texts to use. At least some of the texts used during these different phases of comprehension instruction should be chosen to be particularly well suited to application of the specific strategy being learned. Just as many have recommended using texts in decoding instruction that emphasizes the particular sound-letter relationships students are learning, we recommend linking closely the com- prehension strategy being taught to the texts to which it is initially applied and practiced. For example, a good text for learning about the prediction strategy would be one that students have not read before (hence, they would not already know what happens next), that has a sequence of events, and that provides sufficient clues about upcoming events for the reader to make informed predictions about them.

Also, as is recommended for decoding instruction, we recommend careful attention to the level and demands of texts used in different phases of instruction, especially the early phases. When students are first learning a comprehension strategy, they should encounter texts that do not make heavy demands in other respects, such as background knowledge, vocabulary load, or decoding. Later, of course, students must be asked to apply the strategy to the range of texts they will meet during everyday reading—in reading/ language arts, in content area classes (i.e., social studies, science, and mathematics), and on their own.

Concern with student motivation. The level of motivation students brings to a task impacts whether and how they will use comprehension strategies (Dole, Brown, & Trathen, 1996; Guthrie et al., 1996). Therefore, the model we suggest, in particular the independent practice portion, should be made as motivating to students as possible. Accompaniments to com- prehension instruction we have already noted—such as providing experience reading real texts for real reasons and creating an environment rich in high-quality talk about text—will undoubtedly help. Other strategies can be found in books, articles, and chapters devoted specifically to the topic of motivation and engagement (e.g., Guthrie & Wigfield, 1997).

Ongoing assessment. Finally, as with any good instruction, comprehension instruction should be accompanied by ongoing assessment. Teachers should monitor students’ use of comprehension strategies and their success at understanding what they read. Results of this monitoring should, in turn, inform the teacher’s instruction. When a particular strategy continues to be used ineffectively, or not at all, the teacher should respond with additional instruction or a modified instructional approach. At the same time, students should be monitoring their own use of comprehension strategies, aware of their strengths as well as their weaknesses as developing readers.


Building a Comprehension Curriculum

With this overall model for comprehension instruction as a background to be used in teaching any useful strategy, we now turn to specific com- prehension strategies that research has shown to be effective in improving students’ comprehension of text. These are the strategies we recommend explaining and modeling for students and then emphasizing in shared, guided, and independent reading. The effectiveness of these strategies is not limited to a particular age group. Age groups used in studies consulted for this review range from kindergarten through college level. Certainly not every strategy presented has been tested for this entire range of age groups, but neither is there substantial evidence to indicate that any strategy is inappropriate for any age range. First, we introduce six important strategies, and then we review some “routines” that actually integrate several strategies in a single activity.

Prediction. We have labeled the first strategy prediction, although it is better conceived as a family of strategies than a single, identifiable strategy. At its core is making predictions and then reading to see how they turned out, but it also entails activities that come with different labels, such as activating prior knowledge, previewing, and overviewing. What

all these variants have in common is encouraging students to use their existing knowledge to facilitate their understanding of new ideas encountered in text. Although these strategies have some earlier roots (e.g., Ausabel, 1968; Stauffer, 1976, 1980), these activities are most clearly the legacy of the 1980s, with its emphasis on schema theory (Anderson & Pearson, 1984) and comprehension as the bridge between the known and the new (Pearson & Johnson, 1978).

Although it might seem reasonable to expect research on prediction and prior knowledge activation to be equally distributed across narrative and expository text genres, it is decidedly biased toward narrative texts (see Pearson & Fielding, 1991). Two activities dominate the work: making predictions and activating prior knowledge about story theme, con- tent, or structure. Hansen’s work (Hansen, 1981; Hansen & Pearson, 1983) provides rich examples of prior knowledge activation. In both instances, students were encouraged to generate expectations about what characters might do based on their own experiences in similar situations. This technique led to superior comprehension of the stories in which the activity was embedded and to superior performance for younger and less able older readers on new stories that the students read without any teacher support. Working with fourth-grade students, Neuman (1988) found that when teachers presented students with oral previews of stories, which were then turned into discussions and predictions, story comprehension increased relative to “read only” previews and typical basal background-building lessons. In a creative variation of the preview theme, McGinley and Denner (1987) had students compose very short narratives based on a list of keywords from the upcoming story. For ex- ample, terms such as loose toothstringpainbaseball gametie score, and home run might serve as keywords for an upcoming story about a girl who has a loose tooth that will not come out but falls out naturally when she is engrossed in a close ballgame. Interestingly, the accuracy of their “prediction” stories proved relatively unimportant in explaining subsequent comprehension of the real stories; apparently, it was the engagement itself that triggered the deeper story comprehension.

Explicit attempts to get students to engage in prediction behaviors have proved successful in increasing interest in and memory for stories (Anderson, Wilkinson, Mason, & Shirey, 1987). Fielding, Anderson, and Pearson (1990) found that prediction activities promoted overall story understanding only if the predictions were explicitly compared to text ideas during further reading, suggesting that the verification process, in which knowledge and text are compared explicitly, may be as important as making the prediction.

These studies suggest a variety of productive ways of encouraging students to engage their knowledge and experience prior to reading. They also suggest that in nearly all cases, the impact on story under- standing is positive, at least for narrative texts in which themes and topics are likely to be highly familiar. The situation may be quite different in reading expository texts, especially if students’ existing knowledge is riddled with misconceptions about matters of science and prejudices in the realm of human experience (see, for example, Guzzetti, Snyder, Glass, & Gamas, 1993).

Think-aloud. Another proven instructional technique for improving comprehension is think-aloud. As its name implies, think-aloud involves making one’s thoughts audible and, usually, public—saying what you are thinking while you are performing a task, in this case, reading. Think- aloud has been shown to improve students’ comprehension both when students themselves engage in the practice during reading and also when teachers routinely think aloud while reading to students.

Teacher think-aloud. Teacher think-aloud is typically conceived of as a form of teacher modeling. By thinking aloud, teachers demonstrate effective comprehension strategies and, at least as importantly, when and when not to apply them. For example, in the following teacher think- aloud, the teacher demonstrates the use of visualization and prediction strategies:

That night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another.... Boy, I can really visualize Max. He’s in this monster suit and he is chasing after his dog with a fork in his hand. I think he is really starting to act crazy. I wonder what made Max act like that...Hm-m-m...I bet he was getting a little bored and wanted to go on an adventure. I think that is my prediction. (Pressley et al., 1992, p. 518)

Studies typically have not examined the effect of teacher think-aloud by itself, but rather as part of a package of reading comprehension strategies. Therefore, although we cannot infer directly that teacher think- aloud is effective, it is clear that as part of a package, teacher think-aloud has been proven effective in a number of studies. For example, teacher think-aloud is part of the Informed Strategies for Learning (ISL) program (Paris, Cross, & Lipson, 1984), the reciprocal teaching approach

, and the SAIL program (see later discussion), all of which have been shown to be effective at improving student comprehension. It is also an important part of the early modeling stages of instruction in many comprehension training routines, for example, the QAR work of Raphael and her colleagues (Raphael, Wonnacott, & Pearson, 1983) and the inference training work of Gordon and Pearson (1983). These studies suggest that teacher modeling is most effective when it is explicit, leaving the student to intuit or infer little about the strategy and its application, and flexible, adjusting strategy use to the text rather than presenting it as governed by rigid rules. Teacher think-aloud with these at- tributes is most likely to improve students’ comprehension of text.

Student think-aloud. Instruction that entails students thinking aloud themselves also has proven effective at improving comprehension (see Kucan & Beck, 1997, for a review). A classic study by Bereiter and Bird (1985) showed that students who were asked to think aloud while reading had better comprehension than students who were not taught to think aloud, according to a question-and-answer comprehension test. A compelling study by Silven and Vauras (1992) demonstrated that students who were prompted to think aloud as part of their comprehension training were better at summarizing information in a text than students whose training did not include think-aloud.

Several scholars have theorized about why student think-aloud is effective at improving comprehension. One popular theory is that getting students to think aloud decreases their impulsiveness (Meichebaum & Asnarow, 1979). Rather than jumping to conclusions about text meaning or moving ahead in the text without having sufficiently understood what had already been read, think-aloud may lead to more thoughtful, strategic reading. A study conducted with third-grade students provides some empirical support for this theory. Baumann and his colleagues found that training in think-aloud improved children’s ability to monitor their comprehension while reading (Baumann, Seifert-Kessel, & Jones, 1992). Third-grade children trained to think aloud as they used several com- prehension strategies were better than a comparison group at detecting errors in passages, responding to a questionnaire about comprehension monitoring, and completing cloze items. One student trained in think- aloud explained, “When I read I think, is this making sense? I might...ask questions about the story and reread or retell the story” (Baumann et al., p. 159). This and other student comments suggested a thoughtful, strate- gic approach to reading through think-aloud.

Text structure. Beginning in the late 1970s and extending throughout the 1980s into the early 1990s, we witnessed an explosion of research about the efficacy of teaching children to use the structure of texts, both narrative and expository, to organize their understanding and recall of important ideas. Most of the research emphasized the structural aspects of text organization rather than the substance of the ideas, the logic being that it was structure, not content, that would transfer to new texts that students would meet on their own.

Story structure. The research on story structure uses a few consistent heuristics to help students organize their story understanding and recall. Usually, these are organized into a story grammar (see Mandler, 1978; Stein & Glenn, 1979), or as it is commonly called in instructional parlance, a story map (see Pearson, 1981), which includes categories such as setting, problem, goal, action, outcome, resolution, and theme. Instruction typically consists of modeling, guided practice, and independent practice in recognizing parts of the stories under discussion that instantiate, or “fill,” each category. Although there are situations, texts, and populations in which this sort of instruction does not appear helpful, in the main, story structure instruction shows positive effects for a wide range of students, from kindergarten (Morrow, 1984a, 1984b) to the intermediate grades (Gordon & Pearson, 1983; Nolte & Singer, 1985) to high school (Singer & Donlan, 1982) to special populations (Idol, 1987), and to students identified as struggling readers (Fitzgerald & Spiegel, 1983). Regarding transfer, although the effects are complex and sometimes subtle, it appears the effects are most stable for the texts in which the instruction has been embedded (Singer & Donlan, 1982), and they do transfer to new, independently read texts (Gordon & Pearson, 1983; Greenewald & Rossing, 1986).

Informational text structure. Most of the research establishing the positive impact of helping students learn to use the structural features of in- formational texts as aides to understanding and recall has been conducted since the appearance of elaborate text analysis schemes in the late 1970s (e.g., Kintsch & Van Dijk, 1978; Meyer, 1975; see also Meyer & Rice, 1984, for a complete review of this early work). The early work documented the significance of attention to text structure, pointing out that students—for whatever reasons, including the fact that they are simply better readers— who are more knowledgeable about text structure recall more textual information than those who are less knowledgeable (Bartlett, 1978; Meyer, Brandt, & Bluth, 1980).

The work also suggested that knowledge is not enough. Students must actually follow the text’s structure in building their recall for the effect to be realized; not surprisingly, better than poor readers are inclined to do so (Bartlett, 1978; Taylor, 1980).

The approaches to teaching text structure have exhibited substantial variability, beginning with general attempts to sensitize students to structural elements (e.g., Bartlett, 1978; Davis, Lange, & Samuels, 1988; Slater, Graves, & Piche, 1985) and extending to hierarchical summaries of key ideas (e.g., Taylor & Beach, 1984) and to visual representations of key ideas, such as conceptual maps, semantic networks, charts, and graphs (e.g., Armbruster & Anderson, 1980; Armbruster, Anderson, & Ostertag, 1987; Gallagher & Pearson, 1989; Geva, 1983; Holley & Dansereau, 1984). In general, the research suggests that almost any approach to teaching the structure of informational text improves both comprehension and recall of key text information.

One plausible explanation is that systematic attention to the underlying organization, whether intended by the authors of texts or not, helps students relate ideas to one another in ways that make them more understandable and more memorable. Another plausible explanation is that it is actually knowledge of the content, not facility with text structure, that children acquire when they attend to the structural features of text. In other words, text structure is nothing more than an alias for the underlying structure of knowledge in that domain.

Only a few of the studies in this area have evaluated these competing hypotheses. The results of the Gallagher and Pearson (1989) work suggest that both content and structural features contribute to the salutary effects of “text structure” instruction. Over a series of several weeks, Gallagher and Pearson taught fourth-grade students, mainly poor readers, to apply a consistent structural framework, instantiated as a set of matrix charts and flowcharts, to their reading and discussion of short books about different social insects (ants, bees, and termites).

The outcome measures included several independently read passages, each passage successively more distant from the original social insect books. They read, in order, a passage about a fourth social insect, the paper wasp, a passage about a hu- man society, and a passage about geographic formations such as gulfs, capes, peninsulas, and the like. As the conceptual distance between the original set of books and the testing passages increased, the effect of the intervention (compared with a group who read the same texts and answered questions and with a group that only read the texts) decreased in magnitude, but was still statistically significant, suggesting that students were learning something about

(a) insect societies,

(b) social organization in general, and

(c) how to unearth the structure of an informational text.

 From a classroom teacher’s perspective, there is some comfort in knowing that content knowledge and text structure are naturally inter- twined; after all, either or both represent legitimate curricular goals.

Visual representations of text. There is an old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. When it comes to comprehension, this saying might be paraphrased, “a visual display helps readers understand, organize, and remember some of those thousand words.”


 Teaching students to summarize what they read is an- other way to improve their overall comprehension of text. Dole, Duffy, Roehler, and Pearson (1991) describe summarizing as follows:

Often confused with determining importance, summarizing is a broader, more synthetic activity for which determining importance is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition. The ability to summarize in- formation requires readers to sift through large units of text, differentiate important from unimportant ideas, and then synthesize those ideas and create a new coherent text that stands for, by substantive criteria, the original. This sounds difficult, and the research demonstrates that, in fact, it is. (p. 244)

Indeed, most people with relevant experience will agree that summarizing is a difficult task for many children. Many children require instruction and practice in summarizing before they are able to produce good oral and written summaries of text. Interestingly, research suggests that instruction and practice in summarizing not only improves students’ ability to summarize text, but also their overall comprehension of text content. Thus, instruction in summarization can be considered to meet dual purposes: to improve students’ ability to summarize text and to improve their ability to comprehend text and recall.

There are at least two major approaches to the teaching of summarization.  In rule-governed approaches, students are taught to follow a set of step-by-step procedures to develop summaries. For example, McNeil and Donant (1982) teach the following rules, which draw from the work of Brown, Campione, and Day (1981) and Kintsch and Van Dijk (1978):

  • Rule 1: Delete unnecessary material.
  • Rule 2: Delete redundant material.
  • Rule 3: Compose a word to replace a list of items.
  • Rule 4: Compose a word to replace individual parts of an action.
  • Rule 5: Select a topic sentence.
  • Rule 6: Invent a topic sentence if one is not available.

Through teacher modeling, group practice, and individual practice, students learn to apply these rules to create brief summaries of text.

Other approaches to summarizing text are more holistic. One that has been the subject of research is the GIST procedure (Cunningham, 1982). In GIST, students create summaries of 15 or fewer words for increasingly large amounts of text, beginning with single sentences and working incrementally to an entire paragraph. As Cunningham de- scribes it, GIST is conducted first as a whole class, then in small groups, and finally on an individual basis.

Working with sixth-grade students, Bean and Steenwyk (1984) studied the effectiveness of McNeil and Donant’s set of rules procedure and Cunningham’s GIST procedure. They found that versions of both ap- proaches were effective not only in improving students’ written sum- maries of text, but also in improving their comprehension of text as measured by a standardized test. Despite being markedly different, the two approaches were roughly equal in their effectiveness, and both were superior to a control technique that involved only practice in writing summaries based on the main ideas in text.

Perhaps one of the reasons why both McNeil and Donant’s and Cunningham’s summary procedures are effective is that they are both consistent with an overall model of text processing that itself has stood the test of validation: Kintsch and Van Dijk’s (1978) model of text com- prehension posits that text is understood through a series of identifiable mental operations. These operations are necessary for understanding both the local and the more global meaning of text within the constraints of working memory, the reader’s goals, and the structure of the text. Although a thorough description of these operations is beyond the scope of this chapter, they essentially involve a series of deletions, inferences, and generalizations, much like those required by the summarizing procedures later used by McNeil and Donant.

Questions/questioning. No comprehension activity has a longer or more pervasive tradition than asking students questions about their reading, whether this occurs before, during, or after the reading (see Durkin, 1978, for compelling evidence of the ubiquity of this practice). We also know much about the effect of asking different types of questions on students’ understanding and recall of text, with the overall finding that students’ understanding, and recall can be readily shaped by the types of questions to which they become accustomed (the classic review is Anderson & Biddle, 1975, but see also Levin & Pressley, 1981; Pressey, 1926; Rickards, 1976). Thus, if students receive a steady diet of factual detail questions, they tend, in future encounters with text, to focus their efforts on factual details.

If teachers desire recalls of details, this is a clear pathway to shaping that behavior. If, by contrast, more general or more inferential understanding is desired, teachers should emphasize questions that provide that focus. When students often experience questions that require them to connect information in the text to their knowledge base, they will tend to focus on this more integrative behavior in the future (e.g., Hansen, 1981).

Although the impact of questions on comprehension is important, for our purposes, the more interesting questions are (a) whether students can learn to generate their own questions about text and (b) what impact this more generative behavior might have on subsequent comprehension. The research on engaging students in the process of generating

222Duke and Pearson

questions about the texts they read, although not definitive, is generally positive and encouraging (see Rosenshine, Meister, & Chapman, 1996, for a review). Raphael and her colleagues (Raphael & McKinney, 1983; Raphael & Pearson, 1985; Raphael & Wonnacott, 1985) carried out perhaps the most elaborate line of work on question generation in the mid-1980s. Using a technique called QARs (Question-Answer-Relationships), Raphael and her colleagues modeled and engaged stu- dents in the process of differentiating the types of questions they could ask of text. Students learned to distinguish among three types of questions:

  • Right There QARs were those in which the question and the answer were explicitly stated in the text,
  • Think and Search QARs had questions and answers in the text, but some searching and inferential text connections were required to make the link, and
  • On My Own QARs were those in which the question was motivated by some text element or item of information, but the answer had to be generated from the students’ prior knowledge. Through a model of giving students ever- increasing responsibility for the question generation, Raphael and her colleagues were able to help students develop a sense of efficacy and confidence in their ability to differentiate strategies in both responding to and generating their own questions for text.

Later research by Yopp (1988) indicated that when students learn to generate questions for text, their overall comprehension improves. In a variation that wedded the logic of QARs with the work on story schemas (e.g., Singer & Donlan, 1982), Yopp studied three different groups that varied in terms of who was taking the responsibility for question generation. In the first group, the teacher asked the questions; in the second, the students generated their own; in the third, the students generated their own and were provided with a metacognitive routine (in the manner of QAR) for answering their own questions.

The second and third groups performed better on posttests given during instruction and after the instruction had ended, suggesting that student control of the questioning process is a desirable instructional goal. Furthermore, al- though it did not translate into higher performance on the comprehension assessments, the third group, those who received the additional metacognitive routine, were better at explaining the processes they used to answer questions.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence for the efficacy of teaching students to generate their own questions while reading comes from the research cited in the subsequent section in which we move from

individual strategies to comprehension routines. The three routines described—reciprocal teaching, transactional strategies instruction, and Questioning the Author—are all research-based approaches to teaching comprehension that, as a part of their overall approach, teach students how to ask questions about text. That the question-generation strategy works so well as part of a larger and more comprehensive routine suggests that when it is implemented in classrooms, it is probably better to use it not as a steady routine repeated for every text encountered, but as an activity that is regularly but intermittently scheduled into guided or shared reading.

Summary of the six individual comprehension strategies. To summarize, we have identified six individual comprehension strategies that research suggests are beneficial to teach to developing readers: prediction/prior knowledge, think-aloud, text structure, visual representations, summarization, and questions/questioning. Although somewhat different terminology is used, these strategies were also identified by the recent National Reading Panel (NRP) report (2000), commissioned by the U.S. Congress to evaluate research in the area of beginning reading.

The NRP report also identified “Comprehension Monitoring” and “Cooperative Learning” as effective comprehension strategies. We address comprehension monitoring to some degree in the section covering think-aloud. We view cooperative learning as an instructional medium rather than a comprehension strategy, and therefore have not included it in our analysis. However, the assumption of collaborative work among students and between the teacher and students is implicit in the overall approach to comprehension we recommend in the first section of this chapter, as well as in the comprehension routines discussed later.

A great deal of research suggests that vocabulary and comprehension are inextricably linked. Thus, strategies related to ascertaining the meaning of unknown words, as well as general vocabulary building, are also essential to a strong program in comprehension instruction.

Effective Comprehension Routines

In this section we move from individual strategies—highly specific processes that might be embedded into essentially any discussion of text and combined with other strategies—to what we have termed com- prehension routines. By using the term routine, we mean to capture the idea of an integrated set of practices that could be applied regularly to one text after another, and in the process, provide students with two benefits:

  • better understanding of the texts to which the routines are ap- plied, and
  • the development of an infrastructure of processes that will benefit encounters with future text, especially texts that students must negotiate on their own.

One of these routines, transactional strategies instruction, borders on being a complete comprehension curriculum. We have chosen to focus on three routines—reciprocal teaching, transactional strategies instruction, and Questioning the Author (QtA)— although there are other research-tested practices that might be characterized also as routines, such as the Directed Reading-Thinking Activity (DR-TA) (e.g., Baumann et al., 1992) and Informed Strategies for Learning (Paris, Cross, & Lipson, 1984).

Reciprocal teaching. Four comprehension strategies—predicting, questioning, seeking clarification, and summarizing—are the focus of the reciprocal teaching approach. Originally developed by Annemarie Palincsar (1982; also Brown & Palincsar, 1985; Palincsar & Brown, 1984), reciprocal teaching involves a gradual release of responsibility from teacher to student for carrying out each part of the routine. In the early stages of the reciprocal teaching, the teacher does much modeling of the target com- prehension strategies. In some versions of reciprocal teaching, this includes direct teaching of each individual strategy and the use of worksheets for practice strategies (e.g., Palincsar, Brown, & Martin, 1987). As time goes on, students assume increasing control over strategy use, eventually using the strategies with little or no teacher support.

A typical reciprocal teaching session begins with a review of the main points from the previous session’s reading, or if the reading is new, pre- dictions about the text based on the title and perhaps other information. Following this, all students read the first paragraph of the text silently to themselves. A student assigned to act as teacher then (a) asks a question about the paragraph, (b) summarizes the paragraph, (c) asks for clarification if needed, and (d) predicts what might be in the next paragraph. During the process, the teacher prompts the student/teacher as needed, and at the end provides feedback about the student/teacher’s work.

Reciprocal teaching sessions are intended to take approximately 30 minutes, and they can include more than one student in the role of teacher each session. Although typically conducted in small groups, reciprocal teaching has been conducted in one-to-one and whole-group formats. The approach has been used with both good and struggling readers. The following dialogues come from reciprocal teaching sessions with students struggling with the technique:

T: What would be a good question about pit vipers that starts with the word why?

S: (No response)

T: How about, “Why are the snakes called pit vipers?”


S: How do spinner’s mate is smaller than.... How am I going to say that?

T: Take your time with it. You want to ask a question about the spinner’s mate and what he does, beginning with the word how.

S: How do they spend most of his time sitting?

T: You’re very close. The question would be “How does the spinner’s mate spend most of his time?” Now you ask it.


T: That was a fine job, Ken, but I think there might be something to add to our summary. There is more information that I think we need to include. This paragraph is mostly about what?

S: The third method of artificial evaporation. (Palincsar & Brown, 1984, p. 138)

This next dialogue comes from a first-grade class employing reciprocal teaching.

S1: My question is, what does the aquanaut need when he goes under water?

S2: A watch.

S3: Flippers.

S4: A belt.

S1: Those are all good answers.

T: ` Nice job! I have a question too. Why does the aquanaut wear a belt? What is so special about it?

S3: It’s a heavy belt and keeps him from floating up to the top again.

T: Good for you.

S1: For my summary now: This paragraph was about what aquanauts need to take when they go under the water.

S5: And also, about why they need those things.

S3: I think we need to clarify gear.

S6: That’s the special things they need.

T: Another word for gear in this story might be equipment, the equip- ment that makes it easier for the aquanauts to do their job.

S1: I don’t think I have a prediction to make.

T: Well, in the story they tell us that there are “many strange and won- derful creatures” that the aquanauts see as they do their work. My prediction is that they’ll describe some of these creatures. What are some of the strange creatures you already know about that live in the ocean?

S6: Octopuses.

S3: Whales?

S5: Sharks!

T: Let’s listen and find out. Who’ll be our teacher? (Palincsar & Brown, 1986, p. 771)

The important role of the teacher as guide is evident throughout the dialogues. In addition to the modeling and scaffolding represented here, the teacher routinely reminds students of why these strategies are important and how they will help students in their reading.

Many studies have investigated the effectiveness of reciprocal teaching. Rosenshine and Meister (1994) reviewed 16 studies of the technique and concluded that reciprocal teaching is effective at improving comprehension of text. This was evident from both experimenter-developed comprehension tests and, to a lesser extent, from standardized tests of comprehension.

In another review of research on the approach, Moore (1988) also found reciprocal teaching to be effective across multiple studies. Reciprocal teaching has been compared with many other approaches to comprehension instruction, including teacher modeling alone, explicit instruction and worksheets alone, daily practice at reading test passages and answering accompanying questions, and training at locating information to address different kinds of comprehension questions. In all cases, reciprocal teaching was found to be a more effective approach. (An innovation on reciprocal teaching known as Collaborative Strategic Reading [CSR] has also been shown to be effective in multiple research studies, including studies of the approach’s effectiveness with English Language Learners. For more information about this approach, see Klinger and Vaughn [1999].)

Students Achieving Independent Learning (SAIL) and other transactional strategies approaches. 

The Students Achieving Independent Learning, or SAIL, program also teaches a package of comprehension strategies. Used in Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, strategies emphasized in SAIL include predicting, visualizing, questioning, clarifying, making associations (e.g., between the text and the students’ experiences), and summarizing (Pressley et al., 1994). Use of these strategies is taught through teacher think-aloud and explicit instruction. Students practice the strategies in various settings, with an emphasis on student interpretation of text. Indeed, SAIL and a similar program used at the Benchmark School in Media, Pennsylvania, USA, have been characterized as transactional strategies instruction because of their emphasis on transactions among teacher, student, and text (Pressley et al., 1992).

In SAIL, the emphasis is on helping students learn when to use which comprehension strategies. The program uses a range of different kinds of texts that are often quite challenging for students because they are at or above grade level. Consider this summary of a SAIL lesson from a fourth-grade classroom:

  • Teacher asks students to write a prediction about what the book will be about based on its cover.
  • Teacher begins reading the book, thinking aloud as she reads (e.g., “I wonder if that is the Georgetown in Washington, D.C.”; “August must be the name of a person”).
  • Students take turns reading aloud. As students read, the teacher cues students to apply strategies as appropriate (e.g., “Tell us what has been going on here”).
  • Students spontaneously employ strategies they have learned in previous work, including seeking clarification, relating the text to their lives, and visualizing (e.g., “I can see a...”).
  • Students return to their written predictions to assess their accuracy.

As this summary suggests, there is not a predetermined sequence of strategies to use in SAIL lessons. Rather, strategy use depends on the situation; students must coordinate their repertoire of comprehension strategies. Also, more attention is given to individual interpretation of text than to “right answers.” Two features of the list are worth noting: First, it incorporates all the strategies within reciprocal teaching (on the cognitive side of the ledger). Second, the list is long enough to guarantee selective application (based on the text and the learning context) to any given text. There is no way that a teacher could ensure that each strategy was applied to every text encountered by a group of students.

Much of the research on SAIL and its intellectual cousin, transactional strategies instruction, has been qualitative, looking in detail at the ways that strategies are taught and learned. These studies suggest that SAIL and similar programs offer a promising approach to comprehension instruction, with rich, motivating interactions around text and increasing sophistication of student strategy use over time. One quasi-experimental study of SAIL has confirmed the effectiveness of the approach at improving student comprehension (Brown, Pressley, Van Meter, & Schuder, 1996).

 In the study, second-grade students in SAIL classrooms outperformed students in comparable non-SAIL classrooms on standardized measures of both reading comprehension and word attack. Students in SAIL classrooms also remembered more content from their daily lessons than students in non-SAIL classrooms. Additional evidence for the efficacy of this “family” of transactional strategy instruction routines can be found in Pressley’s (1998) recent review.

Questioning the Author. Beginning in the early 1990s, Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown, along with a group of colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh and in the surrounding schools, began work on a com- prehension routine called Questioning the Author (QtA). Inspired by their own insights (see Beck, McKeown, Sandora, & Worthy, 1996, p. 386) in revising text to make it more considerate (Beck, McKeown, & Gromoll, 1989), Beck and her colleagues bootstrapped this approach to engaging students with text. The idea was that if they, as knowledgeable adult readers, found the process of trying to figure out what authors had in mind in writing a text in a certain way helpful, perhaps students would benefit from querying the author in a similar spirit. Hence, they developed a set of “generic questions” that could be asked as a teacher and group of students made their way through a text. The essential approach is to query a text collaboratively, section by section.

he expectation is that students who receive this sort of approach to text inquiry will develop improved understanding of the texts to which the routine is applied, improved understanding of texts they meet on their own at a later time, and most important, a critical disposition to- ward texts in general. Ideally, this approach will help students to entertain the possibility that a comprehension failure may have as much to do with the author’s failure to provide a considerate message as it does with the failure of the reader to bring appropriate cognitive and affective re- sources to bear in trying to understand it.

The data on the efficacy of Questioning the Author (Beck et al., 1996) are encouraging. First, with the support of a professional community, teachers can learn to transform their text discussions from traditional recitations to these more student-centered, interpretive, and decidedly critical discussions. Second, when the routine is implemented, students assume a greater role in the overall text discussions, nearly doubling their piece of the discussion pie (compared with traditional discussions), and they initiate many more interactions. Third, and most important, students become much more successful at higher order comprehension and monitoring their comprehension as a result of participating in Questioning the Author. It is equally empowering to teachers and students. Those who wish to implement this approach should consult the works that Beck and her colleagues have written for classroom teachers (Beck, McKeown, Hamilton, & Kucan, 1997).

Where Will Comprehension Research Go? Some Challenges

There are many who believe that the kind of intense attention that has been aimed at issues of decoding, particularly in recent years, will soon turn to comprehension. Although this is desirable in terms of bringing attention to an often “quiet” literature and increasing the extent to which teachers, parents, and administrators think about how they teach (or fail to teach) comprehension, it is worrisome in light of the character of the decoding debates. Questions that worry us include the following:

  • Will comprehension be understood in all of its complexity?

Even the brief description at the beginning of the chapter of what good readers do when they read makes it clear that comprehension is complex. It has been difficult to convince many that de- coding entails more than simply letter-by-letter “sounding out.” It may also be difficult to convince many that comprehension is more than just listening to the words you decode to see if they make sense, and that it involves many different processes, that it entails a multiplicity of different strategies, and that it means different things in different contexts.

  • Will we acknowledge that comprehension-learning is different for different people?

Awareness of individual differences continues to be lacking in much discourse on decoding. Will it be lacking in discourse on comprehension? Will we come to terms with the notion that effective comprehension requires different kinds and amounts of instruction and experiences for different learners?

  • Will our definition and fundamental understanding of comprehension keep pace with the changing nature of text?

We still tend to characterize comprehension of text, and reading in general, as a linear process. This is true even though we know that good readers, whether adults or children, do not read even traditional texts linearly. Readers routinely skip ahead to sections of a text that they believe are most relevant to their reading goals or re- turn to reread sections they first encountered much earlier in the reading. Some texts, such as computer manuals, magazines, and cookbooks, are almost never read from front to back. Even novels, although often read front to back, are sometimes read nonlinearly. A reader recently described to one of us how he usually skips the descriptive parts of each chapter, but returns to them if he gets the feeling, he has missed an important detail. With the growing use of hypertext, Web links, and texts that are really webs of many loosely coupled but independently generated texts, increasingly more material will have to be read in a nonlinear style. In the future, text navigation may be linked with text comprehension.

  • Will we question long-held or favorite assumptions about effective reading comprehension instruction?

For example, we are guilty of routinely recommending that students read “real texts for real purposes” in the course of their reading comprehension instruction, although there is little or no research to support this recommendation directly. Research certainly shows that children can develop strong comprehension using authentic texts, but there is little or no research investigating whether, for example, reading comprehension skills develop better or more quickly when students are reading authentic texts rather than texts written solely for comprehension instruction. There is also little or no research investigating whether reading comprehension abilities develop better when students are reading texts for reasons that go beyond simply learning to read. We suspect (in- deed we believe) that both genuine texts and authentic purposes are important aspects of quality comprehension instruction, and in the face of missing evidence, we will continue to recommend both, but neither can be unequivocally recommended with the force of compelling empirical evidence.

  • Will we ask questions about the optimal numbers and kinds of comprehension strategies to teach?

As noted throughout this chapter, we now know of a number of effective strategies, but we also suspect that there is a point of diminishing returns. If two well-taught, well-learned strategies are better than one, are three better than two, four better than three, and so on? Again, the field could continue to focus on developing additional effective strategies, but perhaps our attention is better focused on refining and prioritizing the strategies we already have.

  • Will we ask the tough questions about reading comprehension instruction?

In 1978, Dolores Durkin published her famous (perhaps infamous) study documenting the paucity of comprehension instruction and explicit strategy explanations in elementary classrooms. As our review documents, in the last 20 years we have learned a lot about how to ameliorate the situation Durkin found. Even so, later studies in the 1980s and 1990s have suggested that there is little reading comprehension instruction in schools (e.g., Pressley & Wharton- McDonald, 1998).

We need to understand why many teachers do not focus directly on comprehension strategies and routines, and we need to learn more about how to help teachers provide good com- prehension instruction. A central question is, how can and should teachers embed all these research-documented practices into a curriculum? It is one thing to demonstrate that if a comprehension strategy is taught systematically over, say, a 10-week period, students will benefit in terms of strategy acquisition, text comprehension, or even standardized test achievement. It is quite another to figure out how to “curricularize” that strategy, along with all the other research-proven strategies that might present themselves to a teacher or a district curriculum committee for regular inclusion into the reading program. Although each of the individual strategies and routines we have discussed represents an admirable addition to the comprehension curriculum, none could serve as the sole activity students encountered day after day, selection after selection.

Thus, providing some variety both within and among selections makes sense. We have little research, however, on optimal combinations and distributions of various strategies over time. The closest we come to any definitive research on this question is with Transitional Strategies Instruction, which is portrayed by its developers more as a menu of activities from which a teacher could select than as a subset of strategies most appropriate for a particular story, book, or selection. In terms of research, it would be useful to complement our knowledge of the effectiveness of strategies when they are taught in special units with knowledge of their value added to a comprehension curriculum. Without finding better ways of bringing effective comprehension instruction to classrooms, continued research refining particular comprehension instruction techniques will provide little or no real value.

These difficult questions must be addressed by teachers, teacher educators, and reading researchers. The stakes are too high to leave them unanswered and unaddressed. In the meantime, however, we can take some comfort in the knowledge that for the teacher who wants to work directly with students to help them develop a rich repertoire of effective comprehension strategies, the tools are available. We know a great deal about how to help students become more effective, more strategic, more self-reliant readers. It is time that we put that knowledge to work.


We have described effective individual and collective strategies for teaching comprehension of text and discussed characteristics of a balanced comprehension program into which such strategies could be embedded. We hope that this will aid readers in identifying both strengths and weaknesses in comprehension instruction as well as serving as a summary of the material presented. We hope it will not prove overwhelming, even to those who are novices at comprehension instruction. Realize that the use of even one of the techniques described in this chapter has been shown to improve students’ comprehension of text. In fact, in the previous edition of this book, Pearson suggested that comprehension instruction is best when it focuses on a few well-taught, well-learned strategies. Although we can now point to a litany of effective techniques, that does not mean that using a litany of techniques will be effective.


Strategies for students with learning disabilities

Word Study, Fluency, and Vocabulary

Instruction Word Study Reading research at the secondary-school level distinguishes basic word study instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics from advanced word study instruction in multisyllabic and morphologically derived words (Roberts et al., 2008). Many older students with LD can decode single syllable words but struggle to decode longer words. Whether older readers struggle with basic or advanced word study, they can improve. Youth with underdeveloped word study can make small to moderate gains in reading comprehension when they receive instruction that builds word study along with comprehension (Edmonds et al., 2009). Fluency Students having LD tend to read haltingly, laboring over word and sentence structures.

Fluency instruction helps students process texts automatically, freeing cognitive resources for comprehending the texts (Roberts et al., 2008). Fluency instruction is effective when it engages readers with texts that embed targeted words. Repeated exposure to such words is more useful than encounters with numerous unfamiliar words in overly difficult passages. Engaging youth with quantities of texts they can and want to read, then supporting their efforts with the texts supports fluency.

Research with older readers who struggle with fluency suggests that targeted fluency instruction, like targeted word study instruction, is most effective when it is part of a complete intervention that includes comprehension (Edmonds et al., 2009). Vocabulary Knowing the meanings of many words is crucial for success in reading and academics. Struggling readers tend to avoid reading, thus limiting their acquisition of new vocabulary.

In addition, many of the textbooks used by older students with LD offer inappropriate support for vocabulary learning (Roberts et al., 2008). The research points to direct instruction as well as to activity-based and computer-assisted methods as effective methods to improve vocabulary acquisition (Faggella-Luby & Deshler, 2008). It is important to note that students with LD may require more exposures to new words than other students in order to develop deep understandings of the words.

Along with teaching the meanings of specific words, instruction is needed to develop youth’s independent vocabulary learning strategies such as analyzing words’ contexts and morphological composition. Assessment of students’ vocabulary knowledge and progress monitoring are other important features of vocabulary instruction. Comprehension Domain and Prior Knowledge Secondary students with LD are required to read a good deal of informational and expository text, and they often struggle because they fail to link their prior knowledge to the texts’ contents (Gajria et al., 2007). Activating prior knowledge involves readers in calling up what they already know about a topic and using this knowledge to make sense of a text’s ideas and information. Key ways to help readers utilize and develop the knowledge they need include anticipatory activities such as previewing headings or discussing key concepts before reading, and review activities such as paraphrasing and summarizing after reading.

Graphic Organizers

Graphic organizers can benefit readers greatly before, during, and after reading (Roberts et al., 2008). Before reading, they serve as ways to activate prior knowledge and make predictions. During reading, they help students capture connections among ideas. After reading, they facilitate students’ consolidation of a text’s contents. Students benefit from the ability to match graphic organizers with corresponding types of text. A graphic organizer for comparing literary characters is different than one for depicting historical timelines.

Cognitive Strategies

Older readers with LD who fail to apply cognitive strategies such as determining importance and self-questioning benefit from explicit direct instruction in these strategies (Edmonds et al., 2009). These youth do especially well when they learn to apply strategies before, during, and after reading. The most effective instruction begins with a teacher explicitly modeling and explaining the use of a strategy, then gradually releasing to students the responsibility for using the strategy independently (Torgesen et al., 2007). Motivation and Engagement Interesting Texts and Goals As students move up the grade levels, their texts become more difficult and the instructional environment tends to deemphasize their motivation to read (Roberts et al, 2008).

Providing texts that students want to read is a widely known approach to improving reading motivation. Research establishes the gains readers with LD can make when engaging, relevant texts are at the core of a lesson (Faggella-Luby and Deshler, 2008). Motivation and engagement also improve when students actively define their learning goals. Instructional research supports a combination of interesting texts and goals along with instruction in reading strategies (Roberts et al., 2008). When students develop interest and control in their learning, when they take an active role in their learning, achievement improves.

Social Interactions

Struggling readers’ motivation and engagement can be increased through meaningful, collaborative learning opportunities (Roberts et al., 2008). Older students tend to o become motivated and engaged when they interact with one another, responding to texts and ideas worth talking about. Collaborative learning tasks increase student ownership of their literacy learning, generate rich thinking, and can be expected to improve reading achievement (FaggellaLuby and Deshler, 2008). and fluency, acquire academic vocabulary, and work through comprehension tasks.

The Online Coach links to the literature selections in Edge, providing immediate feedback and record keeping as students read orally and silently. Edge assessments provide progress monitoring and reteaching opportunities. These assessment for learning tools enables students and teachers to refocus and refi ne their academic efforts. Comprehension Getting readers off to a good start certainly is crucial in the early grades, but ongoing instruction in the later grades is necessary for maintaining and, in many cases, accelerating readers’ growth.

The cognitive strategy instruction found in Edge was designed with the principles of direct, explicit instruction and a show, don’t tell approach that is very appropriate for older students with LD. Traditional comprehension instruction consisted of having students read a selection then asking them questions about it. This is problematic for at least two reasons. First, the questions are passage specific. Answering a question about one passage doesn’t teach students how to answer questions about other passages. Second, in asking a question, the teacher or text has done the interpretive work by calling readers’ attention to a particular aspect of the passage. Readers need to know how to focus their attention independently. Edge takes a different approach. Each Edge unit opens with an overview of one of its seven comprehension strategies, then each unit cluster follows with explicit step-by-step explanations of how to apply the strategy to different passages and genres.

The “Big Seven” reading strategies found in Edge are

  1. Plan and Monitor
  2. Determine Importance
  3. Ask Questions
  4. Make Inferences
  5. Make Connections
  6. Synthesize
  7. Visualize

These general strategies are known to promote reading comprehension. In every instance, the explanatory steps contain model responses so students actually see an example of what is being emphasized; no step is merely mentioned. With Edge, students with LD receive the direct, explicit instruction they need to develop the cognitive strategies that will help them be better readers.

One of the great challenges of teaching older students with LD is the difficulty they often have transferring what they have learned to new situations. This is why Edge provides students plentiful opportunities to apply their strategies in a variety of reading contexts. Motivation A crucial aspect of motivation is believing that you can succeed, something that is especially important for older students who have been told for years that they are not good at reading. The Edge explanations of each comprehension strategy fit students’ funds of general knowledge and facility with everyday strategic thinking. In Edge, students see how the strategies they already use outside of school apply to their reading comprehension strategies inside of school. This practice permits students to believe they can succeed; it encourages students to begin applying their everyday strategies to their academic reading.

Students are also motivated by the Essential Questions (EQs) that are at the center of every unit. The EQs and the meaningful reading selections in Edge which speak to adolescents have been shown to engage youth in sustained reading. They provide superb contexts for explicit, direct instruction in the components and processes of reading. Because EQs have no single simple answers, they require students and teachers to take on new roles. Students become active agents in their learning, and teachers become part of the inquiry, too. The generative discussions about the EQs and reading selections contribute much to the notable improvements in comprehension, motivation, and engagement youth have demonstrated with Edge. improve reading achievement (Faggella Luby and Deshler, 2008).

Applying the Research Edge is based on instructional principles derived from the top research in adolescent literacy. Furthermore, effectiveness research has shown Edge to lead to substantial growth in language, reading comprehension, and vocabulary. Throughout this innovative language arts program, older students with LD find unmatched supports that can improve their reading and develop their motivation to be lifelong readers and learners. Language and Vocabulary Instruction Edge provides comprehensive vocabulary instruction that is appropriate for older readers with LD.

The program provides rich and varied language experiences that embed multiple opportunities for word study and vocabulary development. Edge explicitly teaches critically important academic vocabulary along with strategies for learning such words. The program regularly promotes word consciousness as well, so students will be motivated to develop vocabulary incidentally. To help teachers bring best practices into their classrooms, Edge provides Daily Vocabulary Routines.

These routines can be part of daily instruction. They expose students to targeted vocabulary multiple times, a practice that is very important for struggling readers with LD. In addition, Edge presents numerous opportunities for students to read targeted vocabulary words in context and to reinforce their understandings through various experiences. Along with the vocabulary routines, Edge provides Daily Oral Reading Fluency Routines such as timed repeated readings. Various routines are presented so teachers can select different ones over time and keep their fluency instruction fresh. Edge also features the Online Coach.

The Online Coach’s structured supports give struggling readers with LD a private, risk-free way to improve pronunciation.


When proficient readers get confused or off track, they realize this right away then consciously shift mental gears and apply appropriate strategies. They might identify the source of the confusion, reread it, and then explain it to themselves. They might knowingly make connections to fill in what the author leaves unsaid. And they might record important ideas and information, form sensory images, or ask themselves questions. Adolescent readers benefit from robust, general strategies that can be applied to a range of situations (Alexander & Jetton, 2000).

Along with having a repertoire of general strategies, proficient readers know how to adjust these strategies according to the particular texts and tasks at hand. For instance, readers continually make inferences to comprehend texts, but the specific types of inference vary (RAND Reading Study Group, 2002). When reading imaginative fiction, readers make inferences to interpret characters’ motivations; when reading scientific exposition, readers make inferences to link technical details. Edge presents seven general strategies known to promote adolescents’ reading comprehension. The strategies are ones that proficient readers use regularly and across a wide variety of texts:

  • Plan and Monitor: controlling one’s mental activities; it is metacognitive in nature, centering about readers’ awareness and control of their comprehension. When engaged with this strategy, youth are taught planning skills—how to preview texts and how to set a purpose for reading and make predictions. They are also taught how to clarify ideas by using fix-up strategies and how to clarify vocabulary by using context clues and other word-level fix-up strategies.
  • Determine Importance: identifying essential ideas and information. This is the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff in text. Youth are taught how to identify stated and implied main ideas, how to summarize texts, and how to note the personal relevance of ideas and information.
  • Ask Questions: interrogating texts for a variety of purposes, such as checking one’s understanding, querying the author about his or her writing, and discerning relationships among ideas and information within a text
  • Make Inferences: linking parts of texts that authors did not link explicitly. Using what one already knows to form links across sentences and paragraphs. Often known as “reading between the lines.”
  • Make Connections: using what is known to enrich authors’ meanings; taking what has been learned from one’s own life experiences, other texts, and cultural and global matters to deepen understandings of what the author presents. Otherwise known as “reading beyond the lines.”
  • Synthesize: putting together ideas from multiple sources; deciding how ideas go together in a way that is new; figuring out how what one is reading and learning fits together in a way not thought of before. Youth are taught how to draw conclusions, form generalizations, and make comparisons across texts. • Visualize: forming sensory and emotional images of textual contents, especially visual images. This strategy also includes an aspect specifically for teens who don’t consider themselves to be readers: the strategy of recognizing that one is having an emotional response while reading and to identify what the author did to invoke that response.

This set of seven is based on the reading comprehension strategy research that has been reviewed at length since the early 1990s (Gersten, Fuchs, Williams & Baker, 2001; National Reading Panel, 2000; Pearson, Roehler, Dole, & Duffy, 1992) and especially the research that embraces adolescents (Alvermann & Moore, 1991; Alvermann, Fitzgerald, & Simpson, 2006). There is striking agreement that low-achieving adolescent readers improve their comprehension performance when they learn to apply strategies. This improvement has been demonstrated among adolescent native English speakers as well as adolescent English language learners who struggle with reading (Short & Fitzsimmons, 2007).

Best Practices for Teaching Strategic Reading

The International Reading Association’s Commission on Adolescent Literacy stated succinctly, “Continual instruction beyond the early grades is needed” (Moore, Bean, Birdyshaw, & Rycik, 1999, p. 3). Getting readers off to a good start certainly is crucial in the early grades, but ongoing instruction in the later grades is necessary for maintaining and, in many cases, accelerating readers’ growth. Comprehension strategies are vital components of adolescent literacy instruction. The comprehension strategy instruction in Edge was designed with the following principles and practices in mind.

  1. Direct, Explicit Instruction

Effective comprehension strategy instruction for adolescents includes direct, explicit teaching (Biancarosa & Snow, 2004). Such instruction calls for teachers to scaffold students’ learning by guiding them to a particular strategy then openly and plainly describing it. Teachers model, or demonstrate, the strategy—frequently thinking through the process aloud—to show it in action. On every Before Reading page in Edge, the “how to” of each reading strategy is explicitly modeled, using the actual text to be read. Strategy questions during and after reading provide additional scaffolds, allowing teachers to gradually release responsibility for the use of the strategy to students, so that they can make it their own.

  1. Show, Don’t Tell

An important part of direct, explicit instruction calls for teachers to demonstrate and explain why particular strategies are useful as well as how and when to use them (Biancarosa & Snow, 2004). In Edge, every strategy has explicit step-by-step explanations of how to perform the strategy. The explanations are tailored to fit youths’ funds of general knowledge and facility with everyday strategic thinking. In every instance the explanatory steps contain model responses so youth actually see an example of what is being emphasized; no step is merely mentioned.

  1. Connect Reading to Students’ Lives and Their Out-of-School Literacies

We know that youth come to school with substantial funds of everyday knowledge acquired from their families, communities, peers, and popular culture (Moje, et al., 2004). In effective secondary schools, teachers regularly form webs of connections between this knowledge and the lesson being taught (Langer, 2002). Teachers overtly point out these connections and invite students to make their own.

 Every strategy introduction begins with an inductive learning experience, in which students are able to connect the skills and processes involved in the reading strategy to something they already know how to do in their everyday lives. “Connect Reading to Your Life” shows students who may have negative opinions about their abilities as readers that they really do have valuable cognitive abilities that they can bring to bear on texts.

  1. Focused Instruction

Focusing comprehension strategy instruction—one strategy at a time—guards against overwhelming students (Nokes & Dole, 2004). A noteworthy feature of Edge is its focus on a single reading strategy in each unit. Throughout each unit students have multiple, varied opportunities to develop expertise with a particular strategy.

  1. Promote Transfer Across Genres

 A time-honored finding among researchers is that the characteristics of various genres present readers varying challenges (Jetton & Alexander, 2004; Moore, Readence, & Rickelman, 1983; RAND Reading Study Group, 2002). Strategies for reading fiction in an English/language arts class do not travel well to reading algebra in a mathematics class.

Students should meet recurring commentaries on one This pairing helps students understand, for example, that the way that they relate main ideas and details in expository nonfiction is both similar and different than the way that they do it with poetry. Explicitly teaching how the same reading strategy works across genres helps students truly own the strategy and apply it independently to whatever reading they do in the future. particular strategy along with multiple opportunities to perform it with different genres and passages. Every main reading selection should be paired with a secondary, or adjunct, selection with which the targeted reading strategy is also taught.

  1. Encourage Cognitive Collaboration

Bringing students together to work through comprehension tasks is another effective practice (Applebee, Langer, Nystrand, & Gamoran, 2003; Greenleaf, Schoenbach, Cziko, & Mueller, 2001). Youth team with others, mixing perspectives and insights to solve problems. They converse in the form of a dialogue, with speakers responding to what one another said. Thinking is aloud/allowed. Among other things, youth think and talk about the ways they apply comprehension strategies to particular texts

Improving Reading Rate to Improve Comprehension

Researchers have explored the extent to which improving reading rate causes better comprehension. Because accurate oral reading frees up processing resources for text comprehension (Ehri, 1995; Jenkins et al., 2003), fluency should act as a bridge toward comprehension that first helps students to translate printed words to speech, which enables them to use their understanding of oral language to assist with reading comprehension. Perfetti and Stafura (2014) refer to this bridge as word-to-text integration, in which students begin to recognize words and make sense of short sentences in text. With experience, students process printed words faster and gradually shift from oral to silent reading comprehension in the later grades (Rasinski, 2012). Failure to develop sufficient rate to enable silent reading comprehension is one of several “pressure points” in reading development identified by Perfetti and Stafura.

A strong test of the rate–comprehension relationship would require generalized rate improvement that can be demonstrated in new passages students read only once, along with measures of comprehension before and after rate improvement. Markell and Deno (1997) suggested that rate improvement may need to be large (e.g., gains of 20 words per minute or more) to improve comprehension of text, and most experimental studies of the rate–comprehension relations have been too brief to generate rate improvement this high. Studies that have focused on improving generalized reading rate have documented that it takes considerable time—often 6 to 8 weeks or more of practice with feedback (O’Connor, White, & Swanson, 2007; Therrien, Wickstrom, & Jones, 2006)—for this generalized rate improvement to be reliable. Moreover, gains in fluency with intervention tend to be stronger for younger than for older students in the elementary grades (O’Connor et al., 2013; Vadasy & Sanders, 2008, 2009).

With the current focus on rate as a measurement tool to assess reading progress in elementary school, some teachers consider improvement in reading rate as an end goal of instruction (O’Brien, Wallot, Haussmann, & Kloos, 2014), which loses the thread of theory that ties reading rate to reading comprehension (Rasinski, 2012). It seems obvious that recognition of printed words is necessary for comprehension of written sentences and passages; what is less well understood is how automatic that recognition must be, especially when students have difficulty across multiple reading components, as do many students with RD. Perseverating on low-level reading skills past the point they facilitate text comprehension denies students opportunities to learn the more advanced skills needed for success in content area learning (Claessens, Engel, & Curran, 2013).

Depending on students’ reading ability and history, studies have found distinct differences in relations among components formerly believed to develop concurrently. For example, Shankweiler et al. (1995) found students with adequate comprehension and poor word reading ability and fluency. Ferrer, Shaywitz, Holahan, Marchione, and Shaywitz (2010) used the Connecticut Longitudinal Study (Shaywitz et al., 1995) to measure several aspects of cognition and reading over time in a sample that included typical readers, compensated readers (i.e., students who were poor readers in the primary grades but later became good readers), and persistently poor readers. Although the relations among measures for typical readers were robust and bidirectional, with reading and cognitive skills sharing mutual facilitation, for students who read poorly cognitive ability and reading skills uncoupled and the relation was both weaker than for typical readers and decreased over time. Compensated readers improved their reading skills such that by ninth grade, their reading comprehension was in the average range; nevertheless, their reading rate—despite adequate reading comprehension—remained significantly below average, calling into question whether rate should be in the average range for adequate comprehension of text. Walczyk et al. (2007) suggested that slow reading rate can provide a compensatory mechanism for students with reading difficulties, in which they read text at a rate that enables their comprehension. They use compensatory-encoding theory to explain how nonfluent skills can combine with compensation to improve reading comprehension. As did Sabatini et al. (2014), they suggest that reading at too fast a rate can interfere with reading comprehension.

Knowledge of Common Text Structures

Descriptive research of the 1980s helped us understand that students with learning disabilities possess limited knowledge of the different types of textual organization and structure. In particular, they displayed a limited knowledge of the differences between narrative text structure (stories) and expository text structure (designed to inform or explain). Narrative Text Structure Children without disabilities develop a sense of how stories are typically structured, which aids in their comprehension. Much of this knowledge is developed before students learn to read, and once they begin reading on their own, they expect stories to unfold in certain ways. When they begin to read expository material, they more easily develop a set of expectations for what the structure might be like than do students with learning disabilities. Research suggests that knowledge of text structures leads students to ask relevant questions about the material they are reading as they are reading it. For example, when students know story grammar, the basic text structure for narrative texts, they recall more of the information representing major story-grammar categories than other information in the story (Hansen, 1978; Weaver & Dickinson, 1982; Williams, 1993). They also recognize which story events are closely related to the basic causal chain in a story (Wolman, 1991). In other words, story grammar knowledge helps students discern what is likely to be most relevant for understanding the story.

Students with learning disabilities typically develop this knowledge of narrative text structure at a much slower rate than their peers. Using a story-production task, Cain (1996) found that students with learning disabilities showed less knowledge of story structure than did younger children matched on comprehension skill. Many interventions addressing comprehension of narrative text have been devoted to (a) building this structural knowledge of stories and then (b) teaching students how to use their knowledge of text structure to analyze the stories they read (e.g., Gurney, Gersten, Dimino, & Carnine, 1990; Idol & Croll, 1987). We discuss these studies further in the section of this article regarding interventions for narrative text.

Expository Text Structure The comprehension difficulties of students with learning disabilities may be explained, in part, by their limited knowledge of expository text structures. Seminal research by Meyer, Brandt, and Bluth (1980) found that readers who are unaware of text structure do not approach text with any particular plan of action. Consequently, they tend to retrieve information from the text in a seemingly random way. Students aware of text structure, on the other hand, tend to “chunk” or organize the text as they read. When examined by researchers, the chunks retold by proficient readers reveal the text structures used to organize the text. They differ dramatically from the rather idiosyncratic retellings of less proficient readers. Anderson and Armbruster (1984) identified six major structures for organizing expository material:

(1) description (of characteristics, traits, properties or functions),

(2) temporal sequence of events,

(3) explanation (of concepts or terminology),

(4) definition-example),

(5) compare- contrast, and

(6) problem-solution-effect. It is important to realize that few texts are written exactly according to any one of these six formats.

Most chapters in content area texts, for example, would be considered a hybrid of several of these structures (Armbruster, Anderson, & Meyer, 1991; Dimino & Kolar, 1990). However, authors do rely on these structures as they develop passages or segments in chapters in books. Proficient readers are aware of them as they approach expository text. They use these structures for “building internal connections” or making “logical connections among ideas from the text” (Mayer, 1984, p. 32).

The empirical literature provides the basis for three major conclusions concerning text structure and comprehension of expository text. First, awareness of text structure is acquired developmentally (Brown & Smiley, 1977; Danner, 1976; Englert & Hiebert, 1984). Second, some text structures are more obvious and easier for readers to comprehend (Englert & Hiebert, 1984). Third, skill at discerning text structure—and then using it—seems to be important for comprehension of expository text (Hiebert, Englert, & Brennan, 1983; Taylor, 1980; Taylor & Beach, 1984; Taylor & Samuels, 1983).

Research shows clearly that students with learning disabilities have little awareness of narrative or expository text structures, or both, and consequently experience difficulties using them as aids in comprehending text (Taylor & Williams, 1983; Wong & Wilson, 1984). For example, Wong and Wilson showed that, compared to normally developing children, students with learning disabilities were less aware of passage organization (i.e., text structure) and had more difficulty reorganizing disorganized passages than were students without learning disabilities. Both Englert and Thomas (1987) and Taylor and Williams (1983) demonstrated that children with learning disabilities have more difficulty comprehending what they read than do children without disabilities, even when the level of decoding ability is controlled. These students could not distinguish between essential and nonessential material and tended to have difficulties formulating reasonable hypotheses based on what they read (Englert & Thomas, 1987). Often their hypotheses did not show comprehension of the interrelationships communicated by a text, (i.e., the text structure). Corroborating evidence suggests that capacity to comprehend expository text may be related to the complexity of the text structures used by the authors, as well as students’ capacity for using text structure to generate questions and hypotheses (Wilson & Rupley, 1997).

In extending this work, Englert and Thomas (1987) demonstrated that students with learning disabilities not only lacked sensitivity to basic text structures, but also that this unawareness affected their capacity to understand expository material. Students with learning disabilities performed less well in formulating hypotheses about upcoming details based on interrelationships communicated by the text; they could not distinguish between essential and nonessential material, as Taylor and Williams (1983) had earlier found. Furthermore, the students with learning disabilities in both of these studies seemed unaware of their inability to comprehend. These effects were replicated even when the text was read aloud to the students with learning disabilities, in an effort to forestall comprehension problems stemming from decoding difficulties.

Wong (1980) also demonstrated the limited abilities of students with learning disabilities to organize information on their own. She found that they recalled as many main ideas as their peers did when questions were used to prompt responses. However, they performed significantly more poorly when not provided with prompting questions. Hansen (1978) found that, compared with their normal achieving peers, students with learning disabilities did not recall as much main idea information (although the two groups performed comparably well in the amount of detail information they recalled). Both studies provide important insights that have helped guide instructional research. These studies help illuminate the relationship between knowledge of text structures and ability to read strategically.

Importance of Vocabulary Knowledge

Students with learning disabilities also have difficulty with much of the vocabulary used to communicate academic concepts. Understandably, comprehension depends not only on the readers’ general background knowledge regarding the topic at hand, but also on their familiarity with the terminology and vocabulary used in the text (Anderson & Pearson, 1984; Bos & Anders, 1990). Students with learning disabilities typically bring less of this knowledge to the reading task than do those without disabilities, and their comprehension suffers accordingly.

The relationship between reading comprehension and vocabulary knowledge is strong and unequivocal (Baumann & Kameenui, 1991; Paul & O’Rourke, 1988; Stanovich, 1986); and although the precise causal nature of the relationship is not completely understood, it does seem to be largely reciprocal. In other words, vocabulary knowledge contributes to reading comprehension (Stanovich, 1986) and grows through reading experiences (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998). It is important to note that this relationship holds true for readers at all skill levels. Even weak readers’ vocabulary knowledge is strongly correlated with the amount of reading they do (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998).

It may be somewhat surprising to learn that most researchers agree that although students do learn word meanings in the course of reading connected text, the process seems to be fairly inefficient and not especially effective (Beck & McKeown, 1991). Beck and McKeown state that “research spanning several decades has failed to uncover strong evidence that word meanings are routinely acquired from context” (p. 799).

A few studies have helped illuminate the effects of learning the meaning of words through normal reading activities. For example, Jenkins, Stein, and Wysocki (1984) found that students learned the meaning of words after encountering them six or 10 times within a text. However, if students were told the definitions before reading the passage, two encounters were sufficient to produce positive effects. Jenkins and colleagues also investigated the impact of various vocabulary interventions on both word knowledge and comprehension of passages among students with learning disabilities. Pany, Jenkins, and Schreck (1982) compared several treatments that varied in the amount of direct instruction provided. Students read sentences containing target words and synonyms, read definitions of target words, and practiced using target words in sentences. Results indicated that practice was critical to optimum learning. When students practiced using the target words, they learned more synonyms and their sentence comprehension improved, demonstrating transfer of learning.

However, Pany et al. (1982) found that on two general measures of passage comprehension (a cloze test and a story-retell test), vocabulary instruction had no effect. Attempting to explain these discrepancies, the authors raised an interesting possibility. They noted that if the content of the passage is familiar to the student, knowing the meaning of every word may not be crucial. General understanding of the topic and knowledge of the text structure used in the story may help compensate for limited vocabulary knowledge.

The Role of Reading Fluency in Comprehension

Cunningham and Stanovich (1998) eloquently articulated the interrelationships between reading fluency and comprehension:

Slow, capacity-draining word recognition processes require cognition resources that should be allocated to comprehension. Thus, reading for meaning is hindered; unrewarding reading experiences multiply; and practice is avoided or merely tolerated without real cognitive involvement. (p. 8)

 The rationale for building reading fluency skills is that when too much attention is allocated to low-level processes such as word recognition, not enough attentional resources are available to accomplish the higher-order processing involved in comprehension (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974). High correlations between oral reading fluency measures and standardized measures of reading comprehension support the logic of this position (Deno, Mirkin, & Chiang, 1982; Fuchs, Fuchs, & Maxwell, 1988; Jenkins & Jewell, 1993).

Early research by Jenkins, Barksdale, and Clinton (1978) with students who have learning disabilities showed that although an intervention designed to increase reading rates led to greater reading fluency, it had no impact on comprehension. The authors also found that comprehension instruction, although effective in increasing comprehension, did not lead to concomitant increases in oral reading fluency.

Later studies have been somewhat more promising. In Armstrong’s (1983) more elaborate study, for example, boys with learning disabilities were given a one-page story at an easy reading level and another at a more difficult reading level. (The levels had been predetermined for each student individually, based on the number of words read correctly per minute.) The students read the stories both aloud and silently, and then they answered comprehension questions. Reading rate was higher and comprehension was superior on the easy story. This study suggested that oral reading measures and reading comprehension performance are indeed linked, a conclusion that has also been reached by many other researchers.

Another technique to build fluent reading—having a student read a text multiple times—has been given a great deal of attention. This technique, called “repeated readings,” was introduced by Samuels (1979). Repeated readings result in a virtually automatic decoding of a passage, and the improved accuracy and fluency lead to improved comprehension. It is, of course, more of a challenge (and more important in terms of adopting this technique in actual instruction) to demonstrate that such training, with repeated readings, will lead to improvements in the reading of passages that have not been practiced.

Rashotte and Torgesen (1985) showed that, for students with learning disabilities, such generalization from one passage to another depends on the number of words the passages have in common. When passage overlap was minimal, there were no greater effects from four readings of the same passage than from reading each of four different passages once.

Sindelar, Monda, and O’Shea (1990) compared the effects of repeated readings for students with learning disabilities and students without disabilities matched on reading ability. Screening measures were reading rate, errors made in oral reading, and story propositions retold (as a comprehension measure). Participants read third-grade stories at one of two difficulty levels—either a mastery level (faster than 100 words per minute) or an instructional level (between 50 and 100 words per minute). They read them either once or three times and the screening measures were repeated at posttest. Both reading rate and recall were better after three readings than after one reading, and the effects of repeated readings were comparable for both readers with and without disabilities. Also, repeated readings were effective for students reading at both the mastery and the instructional levels.

Overall, it is clear that a strong relationship exists between reading fluency and comprehension. However, the exact nature of the relationship is unclear. Research sometimes—but not always—demonstrates that interventions that increase reading fluency also enhance students’ comprehension abilities. In fact, it may be essential to teach comprehension directly, and the use of repeated readings as part of a complete instructional program may be a reasonable approach.

A major problem identified in descriptive research studies is that, when compared with students without learning disabilities, students with learning disabilities have limited background knowledge for reading most texts. Knowledge gaps in history, geography, and science interfere with how well students with learning disabilities understand the material they are expected to understand. Most contemporary approaches to reading comprehension instruction (e.g., Bos & Anders, 1990; Klingner & Vaughn, 1996; Palincsar & Brown, 1984) include an assessment of students’ background knowledge and encouragement of students to ask peers or the teacher when they lack relevant background knowledge (Klingner & Vaughn, 1996).



The Importance of Active Reading and Task Persistence

Reading is a complex activity. It requires the successful selection, application, and monitoring of multiple strategies (Wixson & Lipson, 1991), and children with learning disabilities have great difficulties acting on these requirements. More than 20 years ago, Torgesen (1977) identified such students as “inactive learners.” This conceptualization was supported by a study in which students were taught specific techniques to increase retention of material read (such as how to underline). Even with such techniques, students with learning disabilities displayed erratic improvements in reading performance, unlike their peers without disabilities (Torgesen, 1982). It is important to note that many comprehension strategies are capacity demanding and may seem daunting (especially for younger children). Thus, students must be taught, coaxed, and encouraged to use strategies that they are only beginning to master (DeWitz, 1997; Pressley & McCormick, 1995).

 Indeed, one characteristic of students with learning disabilities that hinders reading comprehension is their limited task persistence. This characteristic was highlighted in a large observational study by McKinney, Osborne, and Schulte (1993)

Motivation and persistence affect performance in all academic areas and are clearly related to students’ developing a sense of failure and frustration in the presence of academic tasks. The accumulation of repeated unsuccessful efforts to solve academic problems decreases their motivation to work hard at learning. In the context of reading, Stanovich (1986) suggests that students soon begin to select environments that minimize academic engagement with reading activities at school (e.g., avoiding classes that require large amounts of reading), as well as after-school recreational reading.

Special education research has emphasized techniques to enhance task persistence through

  1. reinforcement (extrinsic motivators),
  2. intrinsic motivation, and
  3. increased rates of interaction with peers regarding instructional matters (i.e., peer-mediated and socially mediated instruction).

This is an important emphasis because cognitive research increasingly stresses that above and beyond knowledge of learning strategies, task persistence is a major element in comprehension for all students, especially for expository text (DeWitz, 1997). In other words, a major movement in the field of comprehension has been to develop teaching approaches that actively encourage students to persist in figuring out what the text is saying (e.g., Beck, McKeown, Sandora, Kucan, & Worthy, 1996).

Bearing in mind the results of the foregoing studies, we devote the remainder of this article to a review of instruction intervention geared toward building comprehension strategies in students with learning disabilities so that they can independently read with understanding. The review is divided into two sections—narrative and expository—and is followed by a discussion of unresolved issues in instructional research on this topic. First, we describe the procedures we used to exhaustively review the relevant literature and determine which studies would be included.

Improving Comprehension of Narrative Text

The Nature of Narrative Text Generally, narrative text is easier to comprehend and remember than expository text. The two primary reasons for this are (a) the content of a narrative, what it talks about, is usually more familiar than the content of an exposition; and (b) the structure of most narrative text is simpler than the structure of most expository text. For these two reasons, stories (narratives) are ubiquitous in beginning reading instruction. When children start to learn to read, the first texts they encounter are likely to be narratives.

A narrative depicts sequences of events involving characters and their actions, goals, and feelings. Such event sequences correspond in many ways to the sequences of events that children experience directly and that constitute the core content of their world knowledge. More abstract forms of knowledge (e.g., taxonomic and causal reasoning) are constructed from event knowledge. Language plays a large role in building up knowledge: Children hear other people talking about events, they watch television and movies, and they describe and justify their own experiences. In these ways, they vicariously gain knowledge about the world.

 The stories given to children in the early grades offer a natural transition from oral to written language (Westby, 1985) and provide opportunities to gain knowledge that is more wide ranging than could be gained from personal experiences alone. Stories not only help develop important basic academic skills but also other cognitive and social skills.

A story is structured in a particular way: It describes a temporal sequence of events concerning one or more characters, and it reflects the goals of the characters. A general outline of the structure of a story would include the setting, the characters, a goal (sometimes called the problem), a series of actions presented in episodes, internal reactions of the characters, and a resolution or outcome. Researchers call such outlines story grammars and have shown that having some knowledge of the basic structure of a story aids comprehension and recall. Note that this is an aspect of world knowledge, too: knowledge of the way in which stories are organized.

It is not surprising that a great deal of research has been conducted on narrative text. Much of this work has focused on story structure as an organizing framework. Even preschool children use story structure. For example, when a story is presented in scrambled form so that the components of the underlying story grammar are not in their typical order, preschool children remember less of it (Mandler & Johnson, 1977). This early ability to use knowledge of story structure to aid comprehension continues to improve with age (Trabasso & Stein, 1997). Older children are better than younger children at identifying important story information, such as characters and goals and such subtle story events as the feelings of the characters (Beach & Wendler, 1987; van den Broek, 1997). They also are better able to make inferences (Oakhill, 1984; Oakhill & Garnham, 1988) and to identify story themes (Lehr, 1988; Williams, 1993).

Teaching Strategies for Reading Narrative Text

Given the low performance in reading comprehension among students with learning disabilities and the reasons advanced to explain why performance is low, what steps are being taken to try to improve it? Over the last 12 years, a good deal of intervention research has been dedicated to this question. Table 1 lists the relevant studies, which we review as follows.

 Chan, Cole, and Barfett (1987) taught a cross-referencing technique to 11-yearold students with learning disabilities and eight-year-old regular-education students matched on word-recognition level. The students were asked to detect internal inconsistencies in adventure stories in which two anomalous sentences had been inserted. One instructional condition, the task of monitoring text for inconsistency, was demonstrated. However, the teacher did not explain why particular sentences were inconsistent. In the explicit instruction condition, the teacher provided an explanation of why certain sentences were inconsistent. During instructional sessions students were actively involved in deciding which stories contained anomalies. It is important to note that explicit strategy instruction did not benefit students without disabilities. However, it did help students with learning disabilities both in detecting anomalies and in improving their general comprehension of stories. The explicit training provided instruction in the use of the strategy. It also provided a clear explanation of the criterion task. The fact that only a small amount of training (on two passages) was given, however, suggests that the students had the cognitive ability before the study but that they could not use that ability without support.

Using a different strategy, Idol-Maestas (1985) developed an advance organizer called “tells fact or fiction” to orient students with learning disabilities before they read. Her advance organizer (a comprehension-probing exercise) was designed to encourage students to pay attention, activate students’ prior knowledge, and incorporate teacher guidance. She formulated the organizer into an acronym on the basis

of previous works showing that acronyms are effective in reminding adolescents with learning disabilities of the required steps in a strategy (e.g., Schumaker, Deshler, Alley, Warner, & Denton, 1984). Idol-Maestas’s strategy, “TELLS,” consisted of the following steps: (T) study story titles; (E) examine and skim pages for clues as to what stories are about; (L) look for important words; (L) look for difficult words; (S) think about the story settings and decide whether stories are “fact or fiction.” Idol-Maestas (1985) worked with four elementary school students with learning disabilities, ages 8 to 12. She used an experimental single-subject design with a multiple baseline. On each day of baseline, students read a story aloud of at least 100 words taken from a basal reading series. After each story, the researcher asked the students 10 comprehension questions, including questions requiring inferences; she also assessed reading accuracy. Likewise, in the intervention phase, the students read stories and answered the same types of questions; additionally, they completed the tell fact or fiction advance organizer. Students first read each probe (e.g., What is the title? Does it give a clue as to what the story is about?) and then responded. The teacher offered guidance if needed. When a stable pattern of at least 80% correct comprehension was established, participants were returned to the initial baseline condition and were told that they could use the tell fact or fiction strategy if they wished. All four participants improved their performance on the comprehension questions during interventions, and when the interventions were removed, performance declined. The students also improved their grade-equivalent scores on the Gray Oral Reading Test (reflecting accuracy and rate), as measured before and after the study, and three of the four students also improved on a test of listening comprehension.

In another study, Jenkins, Heliotis, Stein, and Haynes (1987) taught students in grades three to six to restate in their own words—and in writing—what happened in each paragraph of a story as they read. The authors evaluated the intervention by pairing 32 students on the basis of pretest scores and assigning those pairs randomly to the intervention or to a control condition. Working with a text that replicated the training conditions—that is, students were explicitly directed to use the restatement procedure—the restatement intervention group recalled more story information than the control group did. They also answered more comprehension (recall) questions. In a near transfer test, the students read a story in normal format (no lines for writing restatements), and they were given an additional sheet of paper but no directions for its use. Of the 16 instructed students, 13 spontaneously used the restatement procedure, and the intervention group showed performance superior to that of the control group. In a remote-transfer text condition, in which students read a story in a normal format without additional writing materials, the intervention group retained its superiority. This finding suggests that they had adopted a covert form of the restatement procedure.

An important aspect of the study is that students were taught to answer two generic questions (“Who?” and “What’s happening?”) to be used as guides in formulating their restatements. The purpose of this procedure, as explained by the researchers, was to enhance students’ active processing of the text; therefore, it qualifies as comprehension monitoring. However, the questions also served as an organizational guide to the structure of narrative text, albeit much more simplified than the guides used in most studies focusing on text structures.

As those three studies show, students with learning disabilities can be guided to improve their comprehension of narrative text, including the ability to draw inferences by using a prereading strategy that activates attention and prior knowledge or by on-line activation of strategy use. This does not necessarily mean, however, that improvement will be maintained when the teacher’s guidance is removed. Indeed, as previously stated, most researchers agree that a major reason for the poor performance of many children with learning disabilities is failure to read strategically and spontaneously monitor understanding of what is being read. This view has led to a major focus on remediation. Can such a deficiency be overcome by intervention that explicitly teaches these strategies?

Much research has been devoted to instructional approaches centering on acquisition of the cognitive and metacognitive abilities needed for successful reading. These approaches address the two components of metacognition:

  1. awareness of the skills, strategies, and resources necessary for success; and
  2. control of those skills, strategies, and resources so that effective performance is achieved.

An essential component of reading with understanding, then, is the ability to reflect on a task and to examine and evaluate how well it is being carried out. To teach this means teaching knowledge, making students aware of the state of their comprehension, and providing them with repair strategies when they determine that they are not understanding the text adequately. This is typically called “comprehension monitoring,” and the next series of studies we describe focuses on this topic.

Comprehension Monitoring of Narrative Text

Comprehension monitoring studies demonstrate the potential for strategies that activate prior knowledge to enhance comprehension before reading or that teach students to use ongoing strategies to help process tests as they read. For example, Chan and Cole (1986) worked with 11-year-old students with learning disabilities in the fifth and sixth grades and eight-year-old regular-education students in the third grade. The two groups were matched on reading level. They were given training in how to remember what they read; a toy robot was used as a motivational device and to demonstrate the strategies. Short passages consisting of descriptive information in story form were used.

Students were assigned to one of four experimental conditions. In the first condition, students were taught to generate questions about the content of each paragraph they read. In the second condition, they were taught to underline two interesting words in the passage and then explain why they were interesting. In the third condition, both the self-questioning and the underlining techniques were taught. The fourth condition was designed to control for the additional instructional time spent on each paragraph; students in this group reread the story. After each passage, students were given multiple-choice questions and were provided with feedback about their answers.

Results demonstrated the usefulness of metacognitive training for students with learning disabilities. Students in all three groups who were taught strategies performed at higher levels on the reading comprehension test than did those in the control group. This indicated that the students needed explicit training because those in the control group, without training, did not use strategies that would have helped them understand the text. However, for the students without disabilities, there were no differences between the three conditions in which strategies were taught and the control condition. This suggests that the children without disabilities used some sort of cognitive strategy even when they were not explicitly taught to do so. The finding that strategy instruction helps students with disabilities, but does not necessarily help students without disabilities, has also been noted by Wong (1979) and Wong and Jones (1982). In these studies, the researchers found that teaching questioning strategies to students with disabilities can be effective but teaching these same strategies to normally achieving students is usually superfluous.

There are important implications that no significant differences among the three experimental conditions were found. Chan and Cole (1986) suggested that improvement had accrued not because of the specific strategies taught, but because students in these conditions had been experienced active interaction with the texts. This active interaction triggered the use of strategies that the students possessed, but which as inactive learners they did not normally use.

Despite these impressive findings, it is important to know whether students continue to use the strategies in their classrooms and outside of school after instruction concludes. Chan and Cole (1986), therefore, later asked the students to read another two passages, without mentioning the robot or the strategies they had learned. Only the students in the underlining-only group used that strategy, and their performance on the multiple-choice questions was superior to that of the other three groups. The authors speculated that underlining may have been easier than generating questions. The students also enjoyed underlining, which was done with fluorescent markers. Overall, however, these results are disappointing, or at best mixed, regarding the potential for maintenance of metacognitive strategies. Indeed, this conclusion about problematic maintenance seems to hold true even for populations other than students with learning disabilities (Kenney, Cannizzo, & Flavell, 1967; Ringel & Springer, 1980).

 In addition to highlighting the potential problems with maintenance of strategies, research of Paivio’s (1971) dual-coding theory, which asserts that learning may be either verbal or visual, has been invoked as a foundation for the development of visual imagery training. In a study by Rose, Cundick, and Higbee (1983), elementary students with learning disabilities read stories, presented to them one paragraph at a time. They next answered comprehension questions after undergoing one of three mnemonic teaching conditions. In the first condition, “verbal rehearsal,” they were instructed to talk aloud to themselves, as needed, after every few sentences. In the second condition, “visual imagery,” they were instructed to close their eyes after every few sentences and take mental pictures or movies about what they were reading. In the third condition, “unaided recall,” the students were told simply to concentrate. Both strategy groups outperformed the unaided recall group, but the visual imagery group performed no better than the verbal rehearsal group did. Over the years, interest in visual imagery as a metacognitive strategy has waned, largely due to the lack of promising findings and because children report that imaging requires considerable cognitive effort during reading (Rose et al., 1983).

Improving Comprehension of Expository Text

Obviously, as readers progress through school, the demands and expectations placed on them change. For students in the early grades, teachers rely heavily on stories for reading instruction (Nichols, 1995; Wilson & Rupley, 1997). However, when children enter the fourth grade, they are increasingly expected to work with expository material—i.e., material about history, science, geography, social studies, and other disciplines (Wilson & Rupley, 1997). In fact, most reading beyond the primary grades involves expository text, as does most reading that adults find necessary to succeed at work and everyday life (Stanovich & Siegel, 1994). Science, technological knowledge, and information about basic economic and social science principles are acquired, for the most part, by reading expository material. Such written material becomes increasingly important as American society becomes technologically more advanced (Lapp, Flood, & Ranck-Buhr, 1995). Unfortunately, however, expository text often is so dense with information and unfamiliar technical vocabulary that students must perform fairly complex cognitive tasks to extract, summarize, and synthesize its content (Lapp et al., 1995).

Indeed, research shows that the comprehension of expository material, more often than not, poses greater challenges for readers than narrative material does (Hidi & Hildyard, 1983; McCutchen & Perfetti, 1982). This is true for at least three reasons. First, as Bereiter and Scardamalia (1987) note, expository text involves reading long passages without prompts from a conversational partner. This contrasts not only with narrative text, wherein dialogue is interspersed frequently throughout the text, but also with children’s oral language experiences. Second, as Stein and Trabasso (1981) suggest, the logical-causal arguments typical of expository text structure are more abstract than are the events that characterize narratives. The third reason, which receives the most attention in the field of reading comprehension, is that expository texts use more complicated and varied structures than do narratives (Kucan & Beck, 1997).

 Most narratives use some variant of the story-grammar text structure. However, a single chapter from an expository text may use several different text structures. Thus, attempts to use text structure knowledge to improve the comprehension abilities of students with disabilities have been fraught with problems (Anderson & Roit, 1993; Armbruster, Anderson, & Ostertag, 1987; Beck, 1997; Pressley, 1997).

As previously noted, the preponderance of research suggests that knowledge of text structures leads students to ask themselves relevant questions about the material they are reading. We also noted that research clearly shows that students with learning disabilities are less able than their normally achieving peers to use the strategies that underlie effective comprehension of expository text. In light of these findings, it is not surprising that children with learning disabilities have more difficulty learning about basic text structures such as compare-contrast and cause effect. Nevertheless, as Wong and Wilson (1984) demonstrated, when provided with appropriate opportunities, students with learning disabilities can learn to sort disorganized sentences into coherent clusters around selected subtopics, and with instruction, they seem to understand what constitutes an organized paragraph.

Although it is clear that students with learning disabilities require careful guidance when learning how to extract relevant information from expository texts, conventional instruction rarely provides such guidance (Englert & Thomas, 1987). In the following section, we explore and evaluate interventions designed to improve students’ strategic reading skills. The major method investigated for enhancing student comprehension of expository text is strategy instruction, which assumes that readers must cope with a broad range of texts. Rather than circumvent, modify, or supplement text, the focus of strategy instruction is to improve how readers attack expository material, to become more deliberate and active in processing it. In discussing research on this method, we first present investigations of single strategies and then examine studies of multiple strategies.

Before proceeding, however, we want to clarify the scope of our discussion. Text structure and readers’ strategic behavior are only two factors associated with the comprehension of expository text. Two other major contributors to students’ understanding of expository text—

  • prior knowledge, that is, the general knowledge and pertinent topic information they bring to the material, and
  • decoding—have been addressed earlier.

Single Strategies

Numerous single-strategy interventions to enhance students’ comprehension of expository text have been studied. Interventions include the use of passage organization training, self-questioning procedures, a mapping organizer, an elaborative interrogation strategy, SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review [Robinson, 1941]), generalization induction, summary skills training, and instruction on question-answer relationships.

In an early investigation, Wong and Wilson (1984) taught, to 21 fifth- and sixth grade students with learning disabilities who had demonstrated difficulty with disorganized passages, a multistep strategy for reorganizing expository text. The multistep strategy required students to sort the sentences, check the sentences, put the sentences in the right order in each paragraph, and then get ready to tell the story. After the experimenter demonstrated this strategy, the students applied it to two practice passages, and the experimenter provided corrective feedback. The students then reorganized, studied, and retold one disorganized passage. The students not only reorganized this final passage to criterion levels of performance, but also retold more compared with their own previous retellings with organized and disorganized passages. The effects were clear. However, the study was conducted in a laboratory-like setting within a short time frame, involved a measure only indirectly connected to reading, and included no demonstration of classroom applicability or maintenance over time.

 In a related study, Wong and Jones (1982) examined the effects of a self questioning procedure. After eighth- and ninth-grade students with learning disabilities were taught the main idea, they were assigned randomly to either a self questioning group or control group. The self-questioning group followed a five-step procedure: Identify why this passage is being studied, find main ideas and underline them, think of a question for each main idea, answer these questions, and review the questions and answers to see how they provide more information. Training was delivered in two 2-hour sessions. On a series of passages administered over four days, trained students answered more questions correctly but did not do better on retelling. This seminal study demonstrated the promise of self-questioning techniques. It is unfortunate that little information was provided on how students achieved mastery of the main idea concept—a potentially challenging task, which reportedly was accomplished in a single one-hour session.

In a more robust test of a single strategy applied under laboratory-like conditions, Swanson, Kozleski, and Stegink (1987) examined the effectiveness of a mapping organizer on the strategic reading behavior and reading comprehension performance of two adolescents with learning disabilities. Students were instructed to take notes, using a mapping strategy during tape-recorded presentations of passages. The purpose of this generic visual-spatial aid was to guide learners in building a coherent outline of the text. Outcomes included an analysis of the students’ strategic behavior, recall performance on training passages, and answers to short questions related to novel passages. With training in the mapping strategy, students’ strategic behavior improved, although the nature of the enhanced strategic behavior did not correspond specifically to the treatment. Moreover, although recall performance on the trained passages increased, no effects were demonstrated on the transfer passages.

Boyle (1996) also investigated the effects of a cognitive mapping strategy with middle school students. In his study, two thirds of the sample were students with learning disabilities; the remaining one third were students with mild mental retardation. A mnemonic provided the first letter in each step of the mapping procedure, which students were taught to apply first with below-grade and then with instructional-level material. Feedback was provided only on initial practice. Later, sessions were used for outcome measurement, on which students in the experimental group outperformed students in the control group. Unfortunately, on more distal outcome measures, there were no significant differences. These findings echoed those of Swanson et al. (1987).

In another laboratory-like investigation, this time looking at an elaborative interrogation strategy, Mastropieri, Scruggs, Hamilton, Wolfe, Whedon, & Canevaro (1996b) taught seventh- and eighth-grade students with learning disabilities to “reason actively through information presented in each sentence” (p. 1). At the end of each sentence within passages on facts about vertebrate animals, students were told to ask themselves, “Why does that make sense?” In individual sessions, the experimenter modeled self-questioning and coached the students through several examples. After this introduction, the students were instructed to apply the strategy as they read. Students in the experimental group produced significantly more correct explanations of information than did students in the control group but did not recall more information from those passages. The authors concluded that more intensive, direct coaching, prompting, and guided practice would be necessary to realize intended effects.

 Chan’s (1991) findings corroborate this possibility. Fifth- and sixth-grade students with reading disabilities were taught in small groups to ask themselves three to five questions for four different topics: deleting redundant information, deleting trivial information, locating topic sentences, and identifying main ideas. Half of the children participated in a standard instructional condition, in which they were provided with a demonstration of how to ask themselves the designated set of questions while reading a passage and how to look for answers. Then the children practiced the strategy on their own. The other half of the students was in a generalization-induction condition, which incorporated cognitive modeling, overt external guidance, overt self-guidance, faded self-guidance, and covert self-guidance.

In line with Mastropieri et al.’s (1996b) hypothesis, more extensive teacher modeling of the strategy and extensive teacher guidance of how students actually used the strategies exerted an important effect on students’ capacity to identify main ideas independently. Although students in both conditions improved their identification of the main ideas when prompted to do so, students in the generalization-induction condition performed better than those in the standard instruction condition during unprompted sessions. Unfortunately, because no control group was used, we do not know whether students performed better than comparable students might have performed as a function of simple practice.

 In accord with Mastropieri et al.’s (1996b) views and Chan’s (1991) findings, four additional studies of single-strategy instruction incorporated greater teacher modeling and extensive supervision of students’ as they practiced using the strategy. Two of the studies demonstrated greater success than the others.

Darch and Kameenui (1987) contrasted two methods for helping students with learning disabilities to detect invalid arguments in text. Both treatments were delivered in 40-minute lessons for 12 consecutive school days. One treatment incorporated direct teacher modeling of use of the specific rules and strategies to detect faulty arguments; the other relied less on teacher modeling, with discussion and workbook activities as the predominant mode of presentation. Most outcome measures were linked directly to the task of detecting faulty arguments; one measure, however, also incorporated more general comprehension questions. On the faulty argument detection tasks, students in the direct-instruction group outperformed contrast students. Yet, this skill at detecting faulty arguments failed to translate into differences on the comprehension question measure; moreover, the newly acquired critical reading skills failed to transfer to untrained but related tasks.

Examining a potentially more generalizable treatment, McCormick and Cooper (1991) incorporated into their study teacher-directed lessons of SQ3R, a well-known and strongly advocated study approach for expository text. SQ3R involves surveying passages; formulating questions about titles and subheadings; reading, reciting, or restating the details found under each subheading; and reviewing by self testing one’s own memory of the information contained in each subheading. Despite teacher-directed lessons that ensured student application of the strategy, SQ3R failed to effect superior recall among high school (adjudicated students with learning disabilities. The authors concluded that SQ3R might not have been sufficiently powerful to counter difficulties with the text structure of expository material. Employing the combination of a comprehensive teacher-support structure and potentially more robust treatments, Nelson, Smith, and Dodd (1992) examined the effects of a summarization strategy on five elementary-age special education children within the context of a summer remedial program. They documented positive results. These researchers taught children a two-component, nine-step summary skills strategy in conjunction with a summary writing guide that visually organized students’ application of the strategy. Importantly, teachers (a) taught students to use this strategy carefully, emphasizing its purpose and importance; (b) described the steps in the strategy and the reason for each step; (c) modeled the strategy’s use; and (d) provided students with opportunities to describe and practice it.

In every instructional session, the teacher followed a three-part teaching script, reviewing and modeling every step of the strategy. Then they provided guided practice. To engage students actively, the teacher used self-instruction statements, encouraged students to help the teacher, and often discussed the importance of thinking to themselves while reading and completing summaries. In this single-subject design study, students generated summaries and completed short reading comprehension tests at the end of each session. As with McCormick and Cooper (1991), the data were collected in conjunction with the instructional sessions. In contrast to McCormick and Cooper or Darch and Kameenui (1987), the data persuasively demonstrated improvement on both types of outcomes as a function of the training.

In a similarly promising way, Gajria and Salvia (1992) relied on direct instruction of five rules for summarizing text to improve the reading comprehension of students with learning disabilities in grades six through nine. Thirty students, characterized as adequate decoders but poor comprehenders, were assigned randomly to experimental or control treatments. With experimental students, small instructional groups incorporated a mastery-learning paradigm that guaranteed acquisition of the rules. After a rationale for learning the summarization strategies was presented, the first summarization rule was described and modeled, and students were provided paragraphs for applying this rule. They practiced until a mastery criterion was achieved. After each rule was mastered in isolation, students received instruction and guided practice in the combined use of the five rules. Gradually, students assumed increasing responsibility for applying and checking application of the rules.

 As in the Nelson et al. study (1992), which taught a broadly applicable summarization strategy using systematic, explicit instruction, effects were positive. Experimental students outperformed their contrast counterparts, as well as normal comparisons, on summarization and factual questions. In addition, experimental students made impressive gains on the Gates-MacGinitie Comprehension Subtest.

The study of single strategies with perhaps the greatest external validity (Simmonds, 1992) examined the utility of the Question Answer Relationships (QARs) strategy. Students were taught to categorize three levels of comprehension questions as Right There (text explicit), Think and Search (text implicit), and On My Own (script implicit). Twenty-four special education resource teachers used the QARs strategy to teach students the three types of questions; contrast teachers used traditional methods to provide instruction on distinguishing among the question types. Four 45-minute lessons conducted over two weeks, with one additional week devoted to maintenance, incorporated systematic fading of teacher support with immediate, corrective feedback.

Results showed that experimental students performed better than students in comparison groups on question-answering and maze tasks constructed by the teacher using actual classroom social studies material. The treatment was conducted by the teachers themselves in naturally constituted groups, with more than 400 students with learning disabilities. The effects were consistent across measures, which were only distally connected to the treatment. Consequently, the findings were impressive, and the study design supported external validity

What can we conclude from these investigations of single-strategy instruction? One pattern in the database suggests that careful teacher modeling of strategies and monitoring of strategy use is potentially important. This approach to teaching comprehension makes overt the process of applying a strategy and gives students carefully structured practice opportunities, with systematic fading of teacher support and monitoring of student mastery. In fact, the most persuasive effects in the database, demonstrated by Nelson et al. (1992), Gajria and Salvia (1992), and Simmonds (1992), may have occurred because of teacher modeling and monitoring of strategy use (sometimes referred to as teacher mediation). Unfortunately, three features of the database make it difficult to interpret overall effects. First, Nelson et al.’s addition of a generic visual-graphic aid also may have helped students apply the strategy. They also demonstrated effects only on measures that were related proximally to instructional sessions. Second, specific instructional strategies differed across the relatively successful set of studies. Third, findings provide limited information about maintenance and transfer effects.

Consequently, the database on single-skill strategy instruction for students with disabilities is small (i.e., 11 studies dedicated to expository text). This limited database provides tentative support for the potential importance of careful teacher modeling and monitoring of strategy use. It does not, however, persuasively demonstrate the capacity to achieve maintenance or transfer effects.



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