How do kids learn to comprehend?

  • 23 January, 2010

For many years, reading comprehension wasn't taught at all. American students read text aloud for much of the 19th century without a lot of discussion. Early in the 20th century, Thorndike found that if readers were asked questions about what they had read, they understood and remembered more. Soon after, publishers created teacher’s guides (an innovation of the ‘20s and ‘30s), and they all included questions for teachers to ask to facilitate comprehension.

  Things began to change again in the 1960s: the idea that we could guide students to think about text more effectively, not just by rehearsing after reading (e.g., answering questions), but by predicting or asking your own questions. Literally hundreds of studies showed that we could teach readers to do these kinds of things in ways that would improve reading comprehension.

  Obviously many kids in the 1800s understood what they read, without much, if any, teacher guidance. And it is just as obvious that plenty of kids learned to comprehend when their teachers were doing nothing more than asking questions.

  Recently, Moddie McKeown and Isabel Beck published a study that examined the effectiveness of a kind of enhanced discussion plan and the preliminary results showed improved children’s understanding of what they were reading (sort of like Thorndike’s original results on asking questions). They stripped the typical core program guided reading lesson down to its essentials: (1) they had the students doing the reading of the story or article; (2) they had the students stop at predetermined points that they thought to be potentially confusing or particularly challenging; (4) they limited the questioning and discussion to make sure the kids were understanding the text (no side talk about word recognition, vocabulary meaning, etc.). The idea of this approach is to help students to develop clearer, more coherent mental representations of the text.

  It is clear that this approach does a better job of helping kids understand the story they are reading, but its long term benefits, if any, are yet to be determined. We do know that strategy teaching has good long term benefits because studies show that kids taught in this way do a better job of reading other texts. However, as useful as strategies are, teachers do not spend every guided reading lesson teaching them, and so it seems pretty clear that the McKeown/Beck style lesson makes a great deal of sense. When we guide students to read a story or chapter, we should help them to develop a clear and coherent and complete understanding of the text.


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How do kids learn to comprehend?


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