If You Really Want Higher Test Scores: Rethink Reading Comprehension Instruction

  • Text complexity Reading comprehension
  • 05 November, 2017
  • 15 Comments

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) began testing fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-graders in 1970 to find out how well American kids could read. NAEP was to evaluate national reading performance twice a decade. The idea wasn’t to provide an estimate of how well each child could read, but simply to index the level of American literacy. In fact, back then NAEP wasn’t even allowed to describe how the individual states were doing; and, at that time no states were evaluating reading.

Boy, have things changed.

In the early 1990s, NAEP expanded to permit state comparisons—meaning that more students had to be tested to provide adequate samples from each individual state. Instead of a twice per decade look, NAEP now monitors reading every other year.

In the early 1970s, Michigan established its own testing scheme—based on the NAEP model—and by 2000, every state had adopted such a regimen.

Now state testing is much more ambitious. No longer limited to NAEP-style sampling estimates, now most kids at most grade levels are tested, and sometimes with high-stakes outcomes for the kids (e.g., retention, summer school).

And, that doesn’t even scrape the surface of what individual districts and schools have been doing: screening and monitoring, diagnosing and dip-sticking, benchmarking and “using the data.”

What’s the purpose of this ten-cent history lesson?

Not just to point out how ubiquitous testing has become in the reading lives of most teachers and students. That’s well known.

My contention is that this massive testing effort has led teachers to an unfortunate conception of reading comprehension.

Simply put: Reading is NOT the ability to answer certain kinds of questions about a text.

Reading is the ability to make sense of the ideas expressed in a text; the ability to negotiate the linguistic and conceptual barriers or affordances of a text.

Students who can make sense of a text’s ideas will be able to answer any kind of questions about that text. While students who fail to scale those linguistic and conceptual barriers will struggle with the simplest of questions.

Our job as teachers is to teach kids to read text successfully.

Not how to answer knowledge, comprehension, analysis, synthesis, or evaluation questions.

Not how to answer “right there,” “think and search,” “author and me,” or “on my own” questions.

Not how to answer main idea, detail, inference, out of context, logical structure, or author’s tone questions.

What does it mean to teach kids how to read text effectively?

Initially, it means making certain that they can decode proficiently; so proficiently that they can decode the words without much conscious attention. With really simple texts (e.g., “Look, Dick, look”), decoding is usually sufficient to enable understanding. With such texts, there isn’t much language demand (in terms of vocabulary, syntax, cohesion, text structure), there isn’t much memory demand (only three words), and there isn’t much conceptual demand either (these ideas are pretty concrete and likely to be within most kids’ experience, so decoding is the main barrier here).

That’s why decoding isn’t enough. Texts are going to place increasing demands on students’ linguistic abilities, memories, conceptual analysis, logic, and knowledge of the world. Those demands—not question types—are the potential barriers to kids’ comprehension.

The teaching of reading comprehension and learning from text should focus on how to make surmount these cognitive, linguistic, and intellectual barriers. Rather than having kids practice answering particular kinds of questions, comprehension instruction should be aimed at teaching students:

  • Word meanings and the meaningful parts of words (morphology).
  • How to infer word meanings from context and structure.
  • How to untangle the complex syntax of sentences.
  • How to interpret the cohesive links across a text.
  • How to identify and interpret the organizational plan or structure of a text and how to use this organization as a memory aid.
  • How to interpret an author’s tone.
  • How to use (and not overuse) one’s knowledge to help make sense of a text.
  • How to summarize text information effectively.
  • How to monitor one’s comprehension—recognizing whether understanding is taking place and taking appropriate action if it is not.
  • How to rehearse text information so that it is remembered/learned.
  • How to interpret the graphic elements of texts (e.g., illustrations, charts, graphs, tables).
  • To develop the reading stamina required for understanding longer texts.
  • To recognize what a text says and what it does not.
  • How to compare and combine information appropriately from multiple texts.

  My claim isn’t that this list is everything, beyond decoding, that readers need to master in order to comprehend. But the point should be obvious: major attention needs to be spent on reading and making sense of texts rather than upon answering particular types of questions about texts.

Many of the items in this list could be practiced on worksheets and whiteboard exercises. It would be best, however, if they were confronted with extended texts that students are trying to make sense of.

Text choices matter greatly in this kind of teaching. If one was working on tone, for instance, it might be sensible to read a series of texts: starting, perhaps, with some in which the author is explicit about his or her attitudes (the kids would just need to find examples of the explicitly stated viewpoint), followed by other texts with an unstated but easily discerned tone, to texts with more subtle and even ambiguous tones or that communicate tone in different ways.

Comprehension teaching shouldn’t be aimed at ensuring that kids have sufficient practice answering tone questions, but making sure they have had sufficiently thorough and varied experience with the issue of tone in interpreting text meaning. Since different texts communicate tone in different ways and since tone plays a varied role in interpretation (very important in literary and history reading, not so much in science and math), it is critical that kids learn to handle the concept across those different reading situations.

  As Yoda (yeah, the Star Wars' guy) might say: When it comes to teaching comprehension, the questions it is not, the texts it is.

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Darci
Nov 05, 2017 08:15 PM

"Initially, it means making certain that they can decode proficiently; so proficiently that they can decode the words without much conscious attention.

A couple of questions:

-do you feel that the majority of today's K-3 teachers are prepared to teach kids how to decode proficiently?

-I'm from an area where F&P Guided Reading, balanced literacy has a such a strong hold. Do you feel this approach is an approach that can teach proficient decoding?

Kathy Nall
Nov 05, 2017 10:07 PM

How does Wonders support this ki d of comprehension?

Freya
Nov 06, 2017 01:19 AM

Thank you. I always hated what we called "QAR" (question-answer relationships). It didn't help students answer a question even if they understood what "type" it was if they couldn't make meaning from the text!

Timothy Shanahan
Nov 06, 2017 03:22 AM

Darci— there are still too many school districts that aren’t making sure there students get a sufficient amount of high quality decoding instruction.

Timothy Shanahan
Nov 06, 2017 03:56 AM

Kathy--

Wonders, by providing kids a varied collection of high quality texts that are arrayed to challenge kids with difficulty and then back down to something easier and then raising the difficulty level provides kids with an ideal regimen of text complexity that gets gradually more difficult across a school year. Additionally, with its "level up" feature, it allows kids to take on a text that is relatively easy for them, and then to take on related texts that have features that are more complex--using the easier reading to scaffold the more difficult. Additionally, the ACT feature provides professional support for the teacher in the scaffolding to be provided (dealing with issues like vocabulary, syntax, grammar, structure, cohesion), etc.

No program can teach comprehension, that is up to individual teachers. But Wonders provides more support for teachers to provide this kind of instruction than any other program.

Timothy Shanahan
Nov 06, 2017 03:58 AM

Freya--

There is research showing that QAR gives a learning advantage, but it is especially and consistently small. That is definitely no where I would place my instructional effort. Perhaps your kids are such good readers that this kind of instruction would be sufficient, but for most kids, the effect sizes of that kind of teaching just aren't worth the investment.

Jose Reyes
Nov 06, 2017 04:49 AM

"Rather than having kids practice answering particular kinds of questions, comprehension instruction should be aimed at teaching students:
Word meanings and the meaningful parts of words (morphology).
How to infer word meanings from context and structure.
How to untangle the complex syntax of sentences.
How to interpret the cohesive links across a text.
How to identify and interpret the organizational plan or structure of a text and how to use this organization as a memory aid.
How to interpret an author’s tone.
How to use (and not overuse) one’s knowledge to help make sense of a text.
How to summarize text information effectively.
How to monitor one’s comprehension—recognizing whether understanding is taking place and taking appropriate action if it is not.
How to rehearse text information so that it is remembered/learned.
How to interpret the graphic elements of texts (e.g., illustrations, charts, graphs, tables).
To develop the reading stamina required for understanding longer texts.
To recognize what a text says and what it does not.
How to compare and combine information appropriately from multiple texts."

But how do you teach students these without asking particular types of questions that "get at" these particular domains (most of which are tied to particular reading standards--I'll concede that things like "[h]ow to monitor one's comprehension" aren't directly tied to the standards)? Or, to quote Yeats, "How can we know the dancer from the dance?"

I agree that answering certain types of questions should not be the sought-after end. But if the end is helping students become better readers, I'm not sure how you accomplish this without asking students questions (or give them tasks) that are aligned with particular reading standards.

To put it another way, let's say my instruction tends to focus on a lot of the above bullets. But without my knowing, the majority of the what I focus on or ask questions about is to have students "recognize what a texts says and what it does not" (broadly speaking, this falls under Reading Standards 1-3). Then my friend tells me, "Well, I notice that the majority of your questions and assessments tend to fall under the Key Ideas and Details standards (R1-3). You're not really giving students the opportunity to think about the author's craft and structure (R4-6)." And let's say that as a result, I ask students to pay more attention to (through instruction and questioning) author's rhetorical choices and effects.

Isn't what you're saying a more deductive approach and my friend's an inductive one, both of which will lead to the same place?

Tim Shanahan
Nov 06, 2017 03:34 PM

Jose-
First, there is nothing wrong with asking questions, just don’t ask questions aimed at giving kids practice answering certain kinds of questions. Focus on the texts, not the question types.
Second, there is more to comprehension instruction than just answering questions. Guiding the kids to interpret or negotiate the text barriers.
Good luck.
Tim

Georgia
Nov 09, 2017 02:56 AM

Hi,
I am new to your website and found your article interesting about comprehension. We are in the first year of the 1.5 million dollar Ohio State Literacy Collaborative and I find it extremely frustrating because it lacks scope and sequence, decoding/phonics etc... It seems to emphasize Interactive read aloud , their version of teaching comprehension. Am I way off base being frustrated with this expensive program. Our scores on tests are dropping and we are lacking direction. The Fountas and Pinelle books are overwhelming and hard to follow. The majority of teachers are desperate for a more comprehensive curriculum. Am I missing something ? Is this program of Ohio State Literacy Collabotative the end all be all, or are they just getting richeroff of us?
Georgia

Tim Shanahan
Nov 09, 2017 04:46 PM

Georgia-

That does sound like the wrong direction to me. If your test scores are dropping for real (not just rhetoric or a change in tests or something like that) then you have the evidence that what you are doing is a bad idea. You should at least be using approaches and programs that are consistent with asic research findings.

Tim

Ruth Nathan
Nov 10, 2017 02:50 AM

What's crucial to understand is how we learn. There are theories out there that address different aspects of this question and they're all important. For example, Kintsch and others speak about how we construct and integrate meaning. To do this we have to understand the text on page, which involves making text-based inferences, from simple ones like understanding to whom pronouns refer or connecting words across sentences that have the same meaning within the context of the text. It's also important to understand how texts are organized, since the way a text is organized affects comprehension. Some organizations are easy to follow, like sequence, but others are complex. It's very important that we teach this, which goes back to what you are saying about interpreting the organizational plan(s). Importantly, we have to construct what the text says, often using inferences to do so. Lastly, we might understand a text at its local or global levels, for sure, but until we integrate that knowledge into what we already know, the information will be lost. And that's what Kintsch means when he talks about "integration." And, so far, this is just on theoretical approach. We also believe that our long term memory is organized, which some theorists call our "schemas." As we read, we had to our conceptual knowledge and through networks, and this plays out in our comprehension. Think, too, about how we interpret texts given the social world we live in. I can't go on, but it's import hat that well-thought out theories lead the way into our instructional planning. Much of what I've mentioned could link to the list Tim has, above. Think about each idea and hook it to a theoretical approach. Very important.

S. Jackson
Nov 14, 2017 11:07 AM

Oh the dilemma of teaching literacy. So much to try to help students accomplish in such a short amount of time! I'm interested in strategies for helping students better learn "how to untangle the complex syntax of sentences", how to monitor comprehension, develop reading stamina, and compare and combine information appropriately. I have tried to emphasize comprehension strategies , and yet I do see students slip as I try to teach them how to answer complicated open response questions that they must face knowing how to answer. Trying to teach a step by step process in answering the question to include textual evidence seems to often lead to loss of understanding what they read or concentration on a question answering strategy then producing an answer that doesn't make sense.
Still I feel compelled to teach them how to answer these boring , complicated questions because I want them confident when they face them which in today's educational world is often!
Truth: students that navigate through these complicated tasks do much better when they have developed a love for reading and do a lot of it on their own.
Fostering a love and desire to read by exposing them to good literature is probably the most important thing we do. It is so easy to get lost in the mountain of "things" we need to teach.

Marie
Nov 16, 2017 02:12 AM

Tell me more, this is such an important topic! I want to use what works for kids.

Carla
Nov 17, 2017 11:50 PM

How do you encouraging teachers to spend more time with effective contextual word learning.

Janice
Nov 18, 2017 06:03 PM

How do you implement these strategies with dyslexic students (in Canada, it's referred to as a Learning Disability)? These students often have low working memory and are just gaining confidence in decoding and word recognition. I want to teach my students higher level thinking about text, but how do I do this? Where do I start?

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If You Really Want Higher Test Scores: Rethink Reading Comprehension Instruction

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