Essential Elements of Teaching Reading and Comprehension

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Authors: Nell K. Duke, P. David Pearson, Stephanie L. Strachan, and Alison K. Billman

If learning to read effectively is a journey toward ever-increasing ability to comprehend texts, then teachers are the tour guides, ensuring that students stay on course, pausing to make sure they appreciate the landscape of understanding, and encouraging the occasional diversion down an inviting and interesting cul-de-sac or byway. The evidence for this role is impressive. In one study, some teachers of first-grade students in a high-poverty school district got 80% of their students to grade level in reading comprehension by the end of the year, while others in the same school district got only 20% of their students to grade level (Tivnan & Hemphill, 2005). In another study, Taylor, Pearson, Peterson, and Rodriguez (2003) found that second through fifth graders showed dramatically different rates of growth in reading comprehension over the course of the school year, depending on their teacher and the specific practices in which he or she engaged. Teachers can even overcome disadvantages in reading comprehension that students bring to school. For example, Snow, Barnes, Chandler, Goodman, and Hemphill (1991) found that students whose home environments were poor with respect to promoting reading comprehension development nonetheless made adequate progress in reading comprehension if they had strong teachers of reading comprehension for two consecutive years. If otherwise similar students had a strong comprehension teacher for only one year, only 25% made adequate progress, and none of the students who experienced two years of poor comprehension instruction overcame the effects of poor support for reading comprehension development at home. In sum, teachers matter, especially for complex cognitive tasks like reading for understanding.

So, what makes successful teachers of reading comprehension successful? What goes into reading comprehension instruction that works for a broad range of students? In this chapter, we focus on 10 essential elements of effective reading comprehension instruction that research suggests every teacher should engage in to foster and teach reading comprehension: 1. Build disciplinary and world knowledge. 2. Provide exposure to a volume and range of texts. 3. Provide motivating texts and contexts for reading. 4. Teach strategies for comprehending. 5. Teach text structures. 6. Engage students in discussion. 7. Build vocabulary and language knowledge. 8. Integrate reading and writing. 9. Observe and assess. 10. Differentiate instruction. These practices should be implemented within a gradual release of responsibility model, incrementally turning over responsibility for meaning-making practices from teacher to student, then cycling back through this release with increasingly complex texts, while simultaneously employing instructional approaches that include several essential elements of effective comprehension instruction. To understand why these 10 elements are essential to fostering and teaching reading comprehension, we must understand the nature of reading comprehension itself. We must understand how skilled comprehenders construct meaning, so we can help students learn to construct meaning in the same way. Thus, the first section of this chapter discusses theory and research about the nature of reading comprehension. Next, we address each of the 10 essential elements, providing specific examples of how each can be enacted in classrooms and identifying the research base that supports those enactments. Finally, we end with future directions for research and development in reading comprehension and a tool for evaluating your own fostering and teaching of reading comprehension.

How Skilled Comprehenders Construct Meaning Over the past 20 years, cognitive psychologists have reached broad consensus on the nature of comprehension. Of all the current models of comprehension, Kintsch’s (1998, 2004) Construction–Integration model is recognized as the most complete and fully developed. His model shares a lot in common with the older but more popular schema theory model (see R.C. Anderson & Pearson, 1984), in that both models carve out a central role for readers’ prior knowledge in the comprehension process. In both schema theory and the Construction–Integration model, a virtuous (the opposite of a vicious) cycle drives the process: We bring knowledge to the comprehension process, and that knowledge shapes our comprehension. When we comprehend, we gain new information that changes our knowledge, which is then available for later comprehension. So, in that positive, virtuous cycle, knowledge begets comprehension, which begets knowledge, and so on. In a very real sense, we literally read and learn our way into greater knowledge about the world and greater comprehension capacity. The two terms in the name of Kintsch’s (1

The two terms in the name of Kintsch’s (1998) model, construction and integration, are both crucial in the comprehension process. When we read, we use our knowledge along with our perceptions of what we think the text says to literally build, or construct, mental representations of what the text means. Once those representations are constructed, we can merge, or integrate, the information in those models with the knowledge stored in our minds. When we achieve that integration, we call it learning; we literally know more than we did before the reading.

Steve Hiles

I am a retired military and elementary school teacher living in Tennessee. I am an avid reader and love to write. I am very passionate about helping teachers. I hope you find my educational tips and strategies useful,and enjoy hearing about my personal journey.



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Steve Hiles

I am a retired military and elementary school teacher living in Tennessee. I am an avid reader and love to write. I am very passionate about helping teachers. I hope you find my educational tips and strategies useful and enjoy hearing about my personal journey. Thanks for visiting!

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