Showing posts with label Reading comprehension. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Reading comprehension. Show all posts

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Should I Set Reading Purposes for My Students?

            For nearly a century, leading educators and school textbooks have encouraged teachers to set a purpose for reading. Sometimes these purposes are called “motivation” or they might be stated as questions, “What is a population?” or “What is the major problem the main character faces?”

            It makes sense. We want our kids to be purposeful and such purpose-focused reading leads to higher comprehension, right?

            Not exactly. Researchers (e.g., Richard Mayer, John Guthrie) have shown that, indeed, if you set a specific purpose for reading, students will do a better job of accomplishing that purpose. So far so good.

            However, despite more kids getting correct answers, their overall reading comprehension tends to be depressed.

            How can that be? Well, when you focus so specifically on a particular idea you are likely to get it, but that leads you to ignore the rest of the text message—lowering overall comprehension. You learn what you focus your attention on, but focusing on only a part of the text distracts attention from the rest.

            I was reminded of all of this while doing a French lesson this week (I’m finally taking a class). The assignment required me to listen to a series of audiotaped messages and to pay special attention to the numbers in the various messages (e.g., prices, addresses).

            I’m struggling to understand French by ear, so what I found myself doing was focusing so heavily on recording the correct numbers, I wasn’t comprehending the messages at all. I’d know they were talking about 10 somethings, but I honestly had no idea what. Frankly, I didn’t need to know 10 whats, I just had to know 10, so I found myself losing track of everything else.

            I suspect that if this happened to me when I was in elementary school, I probably would have been fine with it. Ignoring the message is the fastest and most certain way to accomplish the assignment—though it isn’t great for learning language or reading.

            To truly be a successful comprehender, I needed a different mental set for this activity. I needed first to try to understand the messages, and then to try to remember or go back to figure out the numbers. When I took a breath, ignored the numbers for the moment, and just tried to understand what the French speakers were telling me, I did much better. (And, at my age, since I really do want to learn French, I did just that even though it took longer. I’ve learned a thing or two since I was 12).

            My successful, but foolish, initial approach to this comprehension assignment made me wonder how common such purpose setting is in reading lessons. I typed purpose setting and reading comprehension into Google. There were some irrelevant pieces that talked about different purposes for reading (entertainment, learning, etc.), but for the most part there was an extensive amount of guidance advising teachers of the importance of either setting specific purposes for reading or teaching kids to set their own specific purposes. Clearly, these experts haven’t read the research on this misguided instructional practice.

            If you want kids to skim a text to locate a particular answer and you don’t care whether they understand the story, article, or chapter, then, by all means, give them specific purposes for such searching. However, if you are giving a purpose to guide reading comprehension, then be as non-specific in your purpose setting as possible (e.g., read to find out what happens in this story, read to find out what this author has to say about global warming, read to see if you can retell this later).


            Yes, it is a big mistake to give a reading assignment that includes completing the comprehension questions at the end of the chapter—unless you don’t care whether the students read the chapter or not. Kids tend to aim at efficiency—getting the assignment done as quickly and with as little effort as possible—not learning. Don’t be surprised if they accomplish what appears to be the teacher’s purpose: coming up with answers to those questions rather than reading the text to try to understand the author’s message.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Teaching Reading Comprehension and Comprehension Strategies

Teacher question:  In terms of teaching comprehension to grade 3-5 students, what is the best way to help the readers transfer the strategies they are taught so they can be independent, self-regulated readers?

Shanahan's response:  If you want to teach reading comprehension strategies to on-grade level students between the ages of 8-10, we have a pretty good idea of how to do that successfully. The teaching of strategies is a good focus as well, given the large amount of research showing that strategy instruction can be beneficial.

However, before we get to strategies, I’d like to take a couple of (what I hope will be useful) detours. For example, lots of times kids in the upper elementary grades are struggling readers. Research suggests that the vast majority of those kids will require additional phonics. I might only be willing to invest a small amount of instructional time in phonics with on-level readers during these grade levels, but if I don’t with the strugglers, they’re screwed. For those kids, a focus on reading strategies is okay, too, but only in the context of those kids getting the instructional support they need (obviously if they can’t read the words easily, they won’t have the cognitive space to focus on text meaning.

What else do we need to worry about with kids in this age range? I would invest in fluency instruction—having kids reading and rereading relatively difficult texts aloud to make them sound like English. Many schemes for doing this have students answer some questions at the end of each reading, and I think that’s a reasonably good idea. Either way, that kind of fluency practice can have a big impact on reading comprehension.

I would also invest a lot of time in vocabulary learning. The research is pretty clear that we can teach high value words effectively enough to improve comprehension and the same can be said for teaching morphology (the meanings of the roots and combining forms, suffixes, and prefixes). Build up kids’ knowledge of word meanings and you’ll usually improve their comprehension.

The same can be said for some other aspects of language. Teaching kids how sentences work; activities like sentence combining and sentence reducing can help kids work out sentence meaning. And, teaching kids how to recognize and make use of cohesive links is powerful, too (like getting kids to figure out what the pronouns refer to).

Anything else? Indeed. I would make sure kids are doing a lot of reading in the classroom. That can be in the reading books, but it can also be in social studies and science materials as well. The point is kids need to read a lot and there should be more to this than just “dumb practice.” It matters if the texts focus on valuable information, and that we make sure kids learn that information. The more they know about their world, the better they are likely to do in reading.

Finally, I would make sure that kids were writing about what they read. In the grade levels that you asked about, research suggests that having the kids write various kinds of summaries is a pretty powerful way to build reading comprehension.

Those lengthy detours aside, in that context, I would definitely teach comprehension strategies. The way I think of strategies most basically is that give readers some tools they can use independently to make sense of what they read.

Several strategies confer an advantage: teaching kids to monitor their comprehension and if they are not understanding a text to take charge and try to fix it; teaching kids to read text and to stop occasionally to sum up for themselves what the text is telling them (and to go back if they aren’t getting it); teaching kids to ask themselves questions about what they are reading and to go back and reread if they can’t answer those questions (kind of a discussion in the head); teaching them to look for a text’s structure to figure out what the parts are and how they fit together (story mapping is the most common example of this support). There are some others but those are the ones with the most research support and the biggest payoff. (And, teaching kids more than one strategy makes a lot of sense too—apparently different strategies help students to solve different problems, so having multiple strategies is beneficial).

Research suggests that the best way to teach these strategies is through a gradual release of responsibility approach. That is, the teacher starts out explaining the strategy and what its purpose is, then demonstrating it or modeling it for the kids (show them how—explaining it as you go).

After a demo or two, then have the kids try to use the strategy under your supervision. For example, tell the kids that you want them to practice summarization. Ask the what kinds of things you did in the demo—when you stopped, what kind of information you tried to include, what you did when you couldn’t remember something important. Initially, the teacher does much of the work, with the kids mainly following teacher directions. “Read the first two pages. That’s a good place to stop because on page 3 there is another section.” Then when they get there, perhaps asking some questions: “What was this about?” What was the most important thing the author told you? What other information is important?”

Once kids can answer those questions, it is a good idea to start to withdraw support (this is the real “we do it”). “We’re going to read this chapter. What would be a good place to stop and sum up? Why that point? When we get to this point, what do I usually ask you?”

As kids take over more of the process, you might have them work in smaller groups, with the teacher sporadically moving around the groups to monitor their success and to remind them of the steps. Perhaps you could give kids different responsibilities (one child might lead the discussion of stopping points, another might be responsible for asking the group members to remember the most important point, etc.).

Finally, have the kids try this out individually. They can take notes on the process and then engage with the teacher in a discussion of how well the process worked. Of course, if kids struggle with any part of it, you can go back to earlier steps to make it successful. Some programs do this with multiple strategies, all at one time, and others teach the strategies one at a time, adding them together as you go (both approaches work—but I find the latter to be simpler and easier to teach). You can usually teach a strategy well in 3-4 weeks if you have students practicing with lots of different texts.


Throughout that entire process it is important to vary the texts. Summarizing a newspaper article is different than summarizing a story, and both are different than a science chapter. Make sure that the students are learning not only the strategy, but the content of the texts too. Finally, remind the kids from time to time to use their strategies or engage them in strategies discussions.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Close Reading and the Reading of Complex Text Are Not the Same Thing

          Recently, I was asked to make some presentations. I suggested a session on close reading and another on teaching with complex text. The person who invited me said, “But that’s just one subject… the close reading of complex text. What else will you talk about?”

          Her response puzzled me, but since then I’ve been noting that many people are confounding those two subjects. They really are two separate and separable constructs. That means that many efforts to implement the so-called Common Core standards may be missing an important beat.

          Close reading refers to an approach to text interpretation that focuses heavily not just on what a text says, but on how it communicates that message. The sophisticated close reader carefully sifts what an author explicitly expresses and implies, but he/she also digs below the surface, considering rhetorical features, literary devices, layers of meaning, graphic elements, symbolism, structural elements, cultural references, and allusions to grasp the meaning of a text. Close readers take text as a unity—reflecting on how these elements magnify or extend the meaning.

         Complex text includes those “rhetorical features, literary devices, layers of meaning, graphic elements, symbolism, structural elements, cultural references, and allusions.” (Text that is particularly literal or straightforward is usually not a great candidate for close reading). But there is more to text complexity than that—especially for developing readers.

          Text complexity also includes all the other linguistic elements that might make one text more difficult than another. That includes the sophistication of the author’s diction (vocabulary), sentence complexity (syntax or grammar), cohesion, text organization, and tone.

          A close reader might be interested in the implications of an author’s grammar choices. For example, interpretations of Faulkner often suggest that his use of extended sentences with lots of explicit subordination and interconnection reveals a world that is nearly full determined… in other words the characters (like the readers) do not necessarily get to make free choices.

          And, while that might be an interesting interpretation of how an author’s style helps convey his meaning (prime close reading territory), there is another more basic issue inherent in Faulkner’s sentence construction. The issue of reading comprehension. Readers have to determine what in the heck Faulkner is saying or implying in his sentences. Grasping the meaning of a sentence that goes on for more than a page requires a feat of linguistic analysis and memory that has nothing to do with close reading. It is a text complexity issue. Of course, if you are a fourth-grader, you don’t need a page-long sentence to feel challenged by an author’s grammar.

          Text complexity refers to both the sophisticated content and the linguistic complexity of texts. A book like, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a good example of sophisticated content, but with little linguistic complexity. It is a good candidate for a close reading lesson, but it won’t serve to extend most kids’ language. While a book like “Turn of the Screw” could be a good candidate for close reading, but only if a teacher is willing to teach students to negotiate its linguistic challenges.

         The standards are asking teachers to do just that: to teach kids to comprehend linguistically complex texts and the carry out close reads. They definitely are not the same thing.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Fluency Instruction for Older Kids, Really?

School Administrator Question:  Dr. Shanahan...for grades 3-5 does it make sense to use classroom time to have students partner read? If our ultimate goal is improving silent reading comprehension, I wonder at this age level if we are not using time efficiently.

Shanahan's response.:
I get this question a lot. Since our kids are going to be tested on their silent reading comprehension, why should we bother to have them practice oral reading? The purpose quite simply is that oral reading practice has been found to have a positive impact on students’ silent reading comprehension. The National Reading Panel reviewed 16 experimental studies in which students practiced their oral reading with a partner (e.g., parents, teachers, other students, and in one case, a computer), with rereading (they should be reading texts that are relatively hard, not ones they can read fluently on a first attempt), and with feedback (someone who helps them when they make mistakes). In 15 or the 16 studies, the kids who were engaged in this kind of activity ended up outperforming the control students in silent reading comprehension. There have been many additional studies since that time—across a variety of ages, with similar results.

Although oral reading practice improves oral reading that isn’t the reason we do it. We want students to practice making the text sound meaningful—which means reading the authors’ words accurately, reading with sufficient speed (the speed of language—not hurrying or racing through a text), and with proper expression or prosody (putting the pauses in the right places, making the text understandable to English speakers). As they learn to do that with increasingly complex texts, their ability to do that with silent reading improves.

Teachers are often told to stop this in the primary grades, and the Common Core standards only include fluency teaching through grade 5, but by 8th grade, oral reading fluency differences still explain 25% of the variance in reading comprehension. In other words, if you could make all the 13-year-olds equal in fluency, you’d reduce the comprehension differences by 25%.

It’s not an either/or, of course, I prescribe both fluency instruction and comprehension instruction and the latter would definitely include silent reading of the texts. You could also argue for additional silent reading comprehension practice in social studies and science reading. However, if you only have kids practicing their silent reading, then you are slowing kids’ progress and sacrificing achievement points.


Do as you please, but as director of reading of the Chicago Public Schools, I mandated fluency instruction at those grade levels and would do so again if I still had that responsibility.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Spirit is Willingham, but the Flesch is Weak

Teacher’s Question:
I have read a few articles and books by Daniel Willingham in the past, and I wonder if you are familiar with his work. I recently read an article (attached) about reading comprehension strategies and am curious to know what you think of his ideas. He says that focusing heavily on reading strategies isn’t really necessary.

(I often question the need for so many reading strategies, particularly when they take away from reading being a pleasurable activity. I can understand the importance of visualizing, using prior knowledge, and maintaining focus, but teaching the other “strategies”, in my opinion, is confusing the issue. I realize there are many studies to say otherwise, but, I just can’t be convinced.)

Anyway, again, just wondering what you think of Willingham’s paper.

Shanahan's Response 
Thanks. This is the second time in two weeks I’ve been asked about Daniel Willingham’s writing on comprehension strategies. I don’t know Dr. Willingham, but I’ve read his vita.

Daniel Willingham is a cognitive psychologist with a good research record—on topics other than reading education. Although I know of his book, it is written for lay audiences—and the short excerpts or off-shoots that have come to my attention, suggest to me that he hasn’t actually read much of the research that you are asking about. But he has read some appropriate summary pieces about the subject and/or talked to some respected experts).

In my opinion, he is kind of right. 

What is the good Doctor W right about? He is right that comprehension strategies (e.g., summarization, questioning, monitoring) are effective. There are a number of research reviews of this work, both focused on individual strategies and strategy teaching overall, and they are consistently positive. Teaching comprehension strategies appears to improve students’ reading comprehension, and it doesn’t matter if the review is somewhat comprehensive (NICHD, 2000) or highly selective, only including in the highest quality studies (Shanahan, et al., 2010); the answer is the same.

And, he is especially right to raise the issue of, “How much of this kind of teaching is needed?”

But that’s where my answer would deviate from his, and where reading the actual studies instead of the reviews can make a big difference. He claims students learn everything they need after 2 weeks of strategy instruction, and that we should limit such teaching to that extremely limited duration.

I think that claim is on very thin ice and it ignores a lot of issues and a lot of studies (remember the National Reading Panel reviewed more than 200 studies on the topic).

I say three cheers for Dan Willingham for questioning the amount of strategy instruction and I give him the raspberries for then answering his question that two weeks of strategy teaching is appropriate.

One thing that originally shocked me in reading the studies in that research literature was how brief the interventions were. Most studies focused on 6 weeks of instruction or less (though there were a few longer studies). That such brief interventions are potent enough to impact standardized reading tests is good. That we have no idea whether stronger doses have any added benefit is a serious problem. That’s why I agree with the notion that we are probably overdoing the strategy teaching. The only evidence we have on amount of strategy teaching is correlational and it is weak at best.

My conclusions:
(1)  Strategy instruction is effective when the instruction is concentrated. In all of the studies, students were given daily ongoing instruction of and practice with strategies. Programs that give occasional doses of instruction in various strategies may be effective, but there are no studies of that kind of practice.
(2)  Strategy instruction can be effective at improving reading comprehension scores at a variety of grade levels, including the primary grades. This surprised me, too. I was pretty sure that comprehension strategies made sense with older students, but not so much with younger ones. That’s not what the research has found, however.
(3)  Strategies are not all equal. There is a greater payoff to some strategies than to others, so I would definitely put my instructional nickel on the ones with the big learning outcomes. The most powerful strategies by far are summarization (stopping throughout a text to sum up) and questioning (asking and answering your own questions about the text). The weakest: teaching students to think about how to respond to different question types (effect sizes so small that I wouldn’t waste my time).
(4)  Strategy instruction can be effective with about 6 weeks of teaching and practice. Here I’m going with the modal length of strategy studies. Perhaps the effects would have been apparent with fewer weeks of instruction, per Willingham’s contention, and, yet, this hasn’t been studied. Weaker dosages may work, too, but with so little evidence I’d avoid such strong claims. 
(5)  Even more strategy instruction than this may be effective, but, again, with so little research no one knows. We do have studies showing that 3 years of phonics instruction are more effective than 2 years of phonics instruction, but we don’t have such studies of reading comprehension teaching, so let’s not pretend. 
(6)  You raise a question about the value of different strategies, Willingham does not. The research reviews show that the teaching of multiple strategies, either singly in sequence or altogether, is beneficial—with stronger results than from single strategies. Multiple strategy teaching may be better because of the possibility that different strategies provide students with different supports (one strategy might help readers to think about one aspect of the text, another might foster some additional insights or analysis). Teach multiple strategies.
(7)  The Willingham claims fails to consider the outcome measures. Strategies are good or bad, but he doesn’t focus on what they may be good at. His focus is on motivating readers, but the studies of strategy teaching do not focus on this outcome. I think we overdo the strategy thing, and yet, I’d be surprised if an overemphasis on strategies is why kids don’t like reading. The whole point of strategy teaching is to make students purposeful and powerful, focused on figuring out what a text says. Those kinds of inputs usually have positive motivational outcomes.
(8)  It is great that comprehension strategies improve performance on standardized reading tests, but their bigger impact has usually been on specially designed instruments made for the research. Thus, summarizing usually helps students to summarize a text more than it builds general reading comprehension. I think the best test of strategies would be to give two groups a really hard text—like a science textbook—and have them read it and see who would do the best with it (passing tests, writing papers, etc.). I suspect strategies would have a bigger impact on that kind of outcome than passing a test with fairly short easy passages, multiple-choice questions, in a brief amount of time. If I'm correct about that, then strategies would worth a more extensive emphasis. Willingham apparently hasn't read the studies so he is considering only what they have found, not what they haven't considered.
(9)  Most students don’t use strategies. Though we know strategies improve comprehension, they are not used much by students. I suspect the reason for this is our fixation on relatively easy texts in schools. The only reason to use a strategy is to get better purchase on a text than one would accomplish from just reading it. If texts are easy enough to allow 75-89% comprehension (the supposed instructional level that so many teachers aim at), there is simply no reason to use the strategies being taught. Teachers may be teaching kids to use strategies, but their text choices are telling the kids that the strategies have no value.
(10)   Willingham is trying to reduce the amount of comprehension strategy instruction so that kids will like school better. I doubt that he spends much time in schools. He hasn’t been a teacher of principal or even a teacher educator and his own research hasn’t focused on practical educational applications. I’ve been conducting an observational study of nearly 1000 classrooms for the past few years, and we aren’t seeing much strategy instruction at all. There definitely can be too much strategy teaching, but in most places any dosage, not overdosage, is the problem.