Comprehension instruction is the bridge that guides a child from the world of learning to read into the world of reading to learn. This literature review begins by discussing the connection between fluency, one of the final stages of learning to read, and the development of comprehension skills as the child works toward reading to learn. Subsequently, a variety of comprehension strategies and studies are presented, all of which address the metacognitive processes involved in the construction of and interpretation of a text’s meaning. The review culminates with an in-depth examination of the strategy that was chosen for this study.
Fluency has been conferred a wide variety of definitions in the realm of reading. Harris & Hodges (1995) have simply stated that fluency is “the ability to produce words or larger language units in a limited time interval” (p. 85). Another definition by Pressley (2006) maintained that fluency is “accurate and fast reading at the word level, with good prosody” (p. 195). Hudson, Mercer, & Lane (2000) included the characteristics of accuracy, speed, and prosody, but they also added comprehension (as cited in Moats, 2005). Accuracy, speed, and even prosody are insufficient if they do not result in understanding of the text. Good readers read reflectively: clarifying, questioning, predicting, and summarizing as they read. Their prior knowledge is related to ideas in the text as they attempt to determine the author’s purpose (Pressley). Fluency is definitely the precursor to comprehension, but unfortunately comprehension does not always result from fluent reading.
In the reading process, both decoding and comprehension occur in the short term memory which has a very limited capacity. The nonfluent reader’s efforts are focused at the word level, using much of the available short term memory to think about individual sound/symbol relationships and the consequent blending of those sounds to decode individual words. LaBerge and Samuels (1974) have contended that for the non-fluent reader, the remaining short term memory capacity available for comprehension at any level (passage, sentence or even word) is minimal (as cited in Pressley, 2002)
Using this theory as a springboard, Tan and Nicholson (as cited in Pressley, 1997) performed a study with children ages 7-10, who were experiencing reading difficulties. Subjects were required to practice reading words until they were automatic and could be read without hesitation. The researchers’ examination of the connection between word recognition and comprehension offered strong evidence that at the word level, fluency practice promotes better understanding of text than instruction focused on in depth discussion of word meaning (Pressley, 2002). By focusing their efforts on establishing word fluency, students were able to free enough short term memory for comprehension to occur.
Hirsh (2003) concurred with and then added to these findings in his report which identified three scientifically supported principles that have strong functional implications for comprehension improvement. The first was that fluency permits the mind to focus on comprehension. If there is no automaticity, and the decoding does not occur rapidly, individual words will be forgotten before they can be processed with others as a meaningful unit. Practice with different kinds of text, knowledge of the conventions of language, and vocabulary use all enhance fluency. The second was that a broader, more diversified vocabulary increased comprehension as well as facilitated further learning. Parallels have been made with robust vocabulary knowledge and strong comprehension skills. Developing vocabulary by relying on learning words and word meanings from independent reading is inadequate. Readers, especially the below level readers, are not experiencing enough text or enough diversity in text to build vocabulary. It has been suggested that the explicit instruction of about 400 vocabulary words per year can be of immeasurable importance to all children, especially those who are disadvantaged or lower achievers (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002). This explicit vocabulary instruction is recommended with words that are of high frequency for mature language users and that can be used universally across a variety of subject areas. Those words that are domain or subject specific would not be included in this instruction. In his third and most recently established principle, Hirsh stated that prior knowledge increased fluency, expanded vocabulary, and promoted a deeper comprehension. Empirical evidence provided by a number of researchers in the 1990s ( Fletcher, 1994; Kintch, 1998; McKoon & Ratcliff, 1992; van den Broek, 1994, as cited in Pressley,2006) indicated that reading requires inferencing. Background knowledge is paired with the individual word connotations in the text to generate a more meaningful interpretation. A portion of a reader’s prior knowledge can be attained through personal experiences; however, much of it must be purposefully and strategically introduced, developed, and connected through teacher modeling and explicit instruction. This background knowledge is crucial to afford meaning to text containing complex sentence structure and literary devices such as similes, metaphors, and idioms (Hirsh, 2003).
These findings concurred with those of Pressley (2000) who contended that comprehension required lower order processes of decoding and vocabulary at the word level, as well as the higher order processes of automatically relating the text content to prior knowledge and conscious, regulated processing. Pressley discussed the results of a study he performed with Peter Afflerbach in 1995, which analyzed and summarized more than 40 published think-aloud studies of reading and determined that mature readers fluidly employ a variety of processes as they read texts. Results indicated that mature readers are aware of their purpose for reading; overview text to determine relevance to their purpose; read selectively; make associations between ideas in the text and prior knowledge; evaluate and revise hypotheses they make during reading; revise prior knowledge which does not align with events in the text; determine the meanings of unknown words in context; underline, reread, make notes or paraphrase to assist in recall of details; make interpretations which may involve imaginary conversations with the author; evaluate text quality; review text after reading; and consider future application of learned information. Pressley, therefore, asserted that instruction intended to improve comprehension skills should be multicomponential. The development should be considered long term with the mastery of word level processes as a prerequisite to mastery of the higher order processes employed by mature readers. In developing the higher order strategies, students must be encouraged to read extensively, question why the ideas in the text make sense, and be taught self-regulated use of comprehension strategies such as activation of prior knowledge, question generation during reading, creating mental images of events in text, summarizing the text, and analyzing stories into grammar components. Pressley concluded with the hypothesis that if children were to be developmentally instructed in these skills, their comprehension would improve.
Previous to this study, Marks, Pressley, Coley, Craig, Gardener, DePinto and Rose (1993) had researched adaptations to the reciprocal teaching model originally developed by Palincsar and Brown in 1984. The hypothesis was that as long as the four components of reciprocal teaching (clarification, questioning, summarizing, and predicting) remained in tact, the modified version of reciprocal teaching would remain a valuable comprehension tool. The three variations differed in the interpretation of the teacher’s role and the nature of the scaffolding. The conclusions drawn from the study included the finding that in all three classrooms, the teachers assisted students as needed more often than in conventional classrooms. The researchers also generated new theories about the use of the reciprocal teaching strategy that they suggested might be evaluated in subsequent investigations: reciprocal teaching as a postreading discussion, a focus to get beyond the literal level of the text, and the use of question frames or sentence stems to enhance questioning. As a result of this study, one final hypothesis that was formed proposed that the adaptations made to the reciprocal teaching model in this study might be more favorable to teachers than the conventional strategy developed by Palincsar and Brown.
In 1993, Pressley, El-Dinary, Gaskins, Shuder, Bergman, Almasi, and Brown also expanded upon the reciprocal teaching model by incorporating activation of prior knowledge and a transactional component, whereby the individual responses of group members were deemed dependent upon each other. A study was conducted in order to formally compare transactional strategies instruction (TSI) to more conventional instruction methods. The hypothesis was that TSI builds the foundation for true self-regulation in comprehension. The TSI students outperformed the comparison group students in both subtests of the Stanford Achievement Test. They also exhibited a greater awareness of strategies and reported a greater use of strategies than did the comparison students. Conclusions indicated that although one year of TSI exhibited greater growth in underperforming students, they are still far from displaying self-regulation (Brown, Pressley, Van Meter, & Schuder, 1996).
Self regulation is just one of the higher order processes that are evident in the strategies good readers use naturally as they read. Duke and Pearson (2002) described good readers as active readers with clear goals, who constantly evaluate the text and their reading of it by reviewing the text before they read, questioning and making predictions during reading, and evaluating and processing after they read. Good readers use context and prior knowledge to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words as well as to develop and enhance their domain knowledge. They think about the author and the type of text that they are reading. Purporting that students can be taught to engage in these constructive behaviors through balanced comprehension instruction in a supportive classroom environment, the researchers presented an instructional model which included explicit strategy description; student and teacher modeling; collaboration; guided practice; and after gradual release of responsibility, independent practice. They described six comprehension strategies to be introduced and implemented separately using the instructional model: prediction/prior knowledge, think-aloud, text structure, visual representations, summarization, and questioning. These comprehension strategies closely paralleled most of those that were identified by the National Reading Panel Report (2000). “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” ( Duke & Pearson, p. 236). Duke and Pearson maintained that once the strategies had been successfully learned individually, they should then be incorporated into comprehension routines, that is, an integrated set of practices that could be applied to a variety of texts. Undoubtedly, the researchers of the past decade have presented a plethora of evidence to support the positive effect that explicit strategy instruction has upon enhancing comprehension skills.
Embracing the same philosophy but looking to take a more prescriptive stance to comprehension instruction, Applegate, Quinn, and Applegate (2004) performed a study to identify distinct profiles or categories of comprehension deficits. It was the contention of the researchers that if specific comprehension issues could be isolated and defined, direct explicit instruction could be determined to remediate the deficit. They were concerned that teacher assessment of student reading comprehension was primarily based upon questions requiring factual recall. Using The Critical Reading Inventory, they tested more than 300 students ranging from grades 1 to 12, who represented different socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as varying levels of reading, and a variety of different school settings including public, private, urban, and suburban. After analyzing thousands of student responses to questions which required them to think about, react to, and respond to text, the researchers identified, labeled and defined eight different profiles of comprehension: Literalists (answers to all questions are stated in the text), Fuzzy Thinkers (provide vague or ambiguous answers), Left Fielders (ideas have no real connection to the text), Quiz Contestants (logically correct answers that are disconnected from the text), Politicians (use slogans or platitudes that sound meaningful but have no connection), Dodgers (change question and then respond), Authors (create own story lines and details), and Minimalists (provide no elaboration of response). Asserting their theory that effective comprehension instruction must be matched to the reader, they consequently developed corresponding suggested interventions to implement for each profile. Their conclusion was that by removing some of the specific obstacles that children encounter while reading, teachers can offer more opportunities for their students to become thoughtful, engaged, mature readers.
Williams (2002) developed a program with a single comprehension strategy focus that was not individually prescriptive but that addressed the needs of learning disabled students by introducing them to theme concept, identification, and real life application. With the implementation of five basic steps: prereading discussion, reading the story, questioning, theme identification, and application to life experiences, this program concentrated on the specific needs of students by presenting comprehension instruction that integrated meaningful, personal experience through the explicit instruction of teacher explanation and modeling as well as guided and independent practice. In the prereading discussion, theme was defined as a lesson which you can learn from the story. The story was then read aloud by the teacher while the students followed in the text. The questions which the teacher asked were targeted at helping the students make connections between their own knowledge and the information in the text. Important story information was discussed through specific questions about the main character, central event, and outcome, in order to develop a theme concept. The final two questions asked the students to make a judgment if what happened was good or bad and to explain why. Teachers then modeled the theme by using two generic statement frames: “(Main character) should have (should not have)…” and “We should (should not)…” In the last step of each lesson the theme was then applied to real life experiences. Many students who are learning disabled are never given the chance to experiment with higher order thinking. The results of the studies completed with this program proved that explicit, systematic instruction can improve the comprehension skills of learning disabled students. A very significant instructional component of this program was that the teacher read the material to the students as they followed along. Emphasis here was not on decoding but rather on developing comprehension skills through specific strategy instruction. It is, however, crucial to stay cognizant of the reality that no one program fits all students, and remember that program or strategy choice must fit both the instructional objectives of the teacher as well as the needs of the student.
The Question, Connect, Transform (QCT) designed by Richards (2006) was another program developed to help underperforming students. Although to date formal studies with this strategy have not been executed, the author purports that this strategy helped students to expose and question (Q) the presence of ethical and moral issues in historical fiction, to connect (C) story events to personal life experiences, and to consider how they might work to transform (T) the unfairness and injustices that are portrayed in historical fiction. The strategy is introduced by teacher modeling. After reading passages from a piece of historical fiction, the teacher demonstrates each of the three components of the QCT method individually as they apply to that selection. Modeling includes providing specific questions (Q) and thoughts that the teacher might have concerning the issue, personal connections (C) that demonstrate specific feelings and details of an event that might parallel the selection, and the possible steps to be taken to transform (T) the unfairness or unjustness presented in the text. Once the students developed their critical literacy abilities and were able to independently implement the QTC strategy, they worked together with partners or in small groups first with historical fiction selections, then expanding to experiment with multiple literacies. Students demonstrated questioning through poetry, writing a letter to the author, or developing a script. Connections were exhibited through a variety of modalities: photos, drawings, videos, diagrams, and dioramas, dance, musical compositions, and dramatizations. Observing students as they apply the QTC strategy offered an alternative means to assess students, documenting progress in both critical literacy as well as cooperative skills.
The four resources model of coding competence (decoding words and their meanings), semantic competence (comprehension of text meaning), pragmatic competence (learning the uses for a variety of texts), and critical competence (understanding an individual’s relationship with social reality) developed by Freebody and Luke (1990) was another program that was used with underperforming students to enhance comprehension by providing quality instruction in decoding and text analysis (as cited in Rush, 2004). After determining a specific topic of interest, reading selections were chosen collaboratively by the researcher and the student. Selections were read independently followed by student and researcher discussions centered on the comprehension and critical analysis of the chosen reading materials. Success in this program has demonstrated how teachers can employ critical thinking strategies to empower all students to take giant steps and move from a literal meaning to a much deeper inferential understanding of the text.
More than a decade later, Raphael and Au (2005), still concerned with the quality of instruction afforded to underperforming students, asserted that these students, especially those of diverse backgrounds, tend to receive a significant amount of instruction in lower level skills and very little instruction in higher level thinking and comprehension skills. With this in mind, they used Question Answer Relationships (QAR), a strategy developed and researched by Raphael more than two decades ago, as a foundation for comprehension instruction to assist teachers in guiding students of all abilities and backgrounds to higher levels of literacy. QAR was used as a springboard to address four major problems that impede the movement of students to elevated literacy levels. These four needs are: (1) a shared language to be used as a means communication between students and teacher; (2) a foundation for organizing question activities and comprehension instruction within the school setting; (3) a whole-school reform model for literacy instruction focused on higher level thinking; and (4) a way of preparing students for high stakes state and national testing that includes higher level thinking skills. The belief of the researchers was that consistent QAR instruction in all subject areas throughout the academic years served as a strong base for the improvement of reading and listening comprehension. QAR instruction enabled the teacher to provide students with strategies that foster the higher level thinking needed to result in adequate performance.
As indicated by the previously mentioned programs, critical thinking strategies can be implemented through a variety of texts, especially in the content areas. For this reason, Kragler, Walker, and Martin (2005) conducted a study in which they examined a variety of science and social studies text books at each primary grade level. Results overwhelmingly indicated that teacher editions offered very little support in comprehension instruction, concentrating instead on assessing or monitoring understanding. Although these results are very discouraging, there has been positive research as well.
Critical literacy experts McLaughlin and DeVoogd (2004b) have written a number of articles as well as a text in which they present their four Principles of Critical Literacy: (1) focus on issues of power, promoting reflection, transformation, and action; (2) focus on the problem and its complexity; (3) dynamic strategies which adapt to the concepts in which they are used; and (4) disruption of the commonplace by examining it from multiple perspectives. These principles are the core of many practical ideas and adaptable lessons that they have developed to promote critical thinking. Their innovative critical literacy strategies have introduced many readers to an intriguing intellectual world outside of the classroom by assisting them in developing a reflective, active, multi-perspective stance that can be practiced daily in all aspects of life (McLaughlin & DeVoogd, 2004a).
One of the fundamental components of many of the previously mentioned strategies has been that of the active participation of conversation. Ketch (2005) purports that retelling assists in the higher level skill of synthesizing which involves a synchronization of retelling, analyzing, evaluating, summarizing, inferring and linking back to personal experience. Through it all, the reader is applying fix-up strategies such as rereading; self focusing by pointing to the difficult parts while reading; reading out loud, looking back to clarify; or confirming information with the illustrations. These strategies are far too complex for students to effectively monitor and regulate reading on their own. Ketch claims that “conversation can be the vehicle through which children learn and practice the cognitive strategies” (p. 9). Employing these strategies with the tool of conversation allows children to think critically as they comprehend and affords them an authentic means by which to make use of these strategies continuously, simultaneously, and meaningfully. Students need to be given the opportunity to develop these strategies through practice in order to consciously own and use them. Some of the different conversational formats that were suggested to support these strategies are literature circles, book clubs, whole class and small group discussions, partner conversations eventually shared with the larger group, and individual teacher–student conferences. With these strategies and formats, even the most at-risk students can be given the opportunity to search for meaning and become reflective thinkers.
The strategy that was chosen for this study, Questioning the Author (QtA), encourages students to interact with the text on both a public and private level as they critically analyze what the author has written and share their thoughts in classroom discussions. Initially implemented in a year long study by Beck, McKeown, Sandora, Kucan, and Worthy (1996), QtA attempted to provide an instructional technique to encourage students to become active, engaged readers with a simple approach that could be used with a variety of texts and a minimum of equipment or supplies. During the study’s implementation, teacher instruction shifted from literal questioning to class discussions, which typically began with an open-ended question. These discussions led to cooperative and constructive conversation in which both teachers and students contributed to the building of ideas. The data collected through these observations indicated that teacher talk both increased in quality and decreased in quantity. Student discussion was noted to be collaborative and engaging with more complex questioning as the study progressed. At the culmination of the study, students were interviewed,and teacher journals were reviewed. The information gathered from these sources provided the researchers with a springboard to develop future studies on this intervention.
QtA was developed after many years of researching text-based comprehension and its effectiveness (Beck and McKeown, 2006; Beck, McKeown, Sandora, Kucan, & Worthy 1996. With text coherency as a significant concern, Beck and McKeown analyzed and reviewed the research that they had done on text revision. As revisers, they were required to make text understandable and did this by evaluating and interpreting the meaning that the author was trying to convey in each passage. In developing QtA, their goal was then to create a method by which they could assist students in assuming the role of a reviser, actively engaging with text to uncover its meaning. Beck and McKeown present their program in an informative teacher’s guide to support teachers in implementing QtA in the classroom. Queries, sometimes referred to as probes, are the fundamental tools of instruction for QtA discussions and are strategically presented by the teacher through a series of discussion moves, encouraging students to become aware of the text and make connections with the ideas, thus discouraging passive receiving and reporting of information. Text is carefully broken down into portions with an emphasis on verbalizing a clear understanding of what the author is attempting to convey in each individual section. Students are made aware that authors are not infallible and that text is merely someone’s ideas put into writing. Therefore, the text may, at times, be biased or unclear. Because QtA is implemented with a discussion format, educators who have read about or taken workshops on the strategy have expressed concerns of assessment and accountability to the authors. “Good things happening in class… (are) not always reflected in higher scores on traditional tests such as multiple choice formats” ( Beck & McKeown, 2006, p.283). The purpose of QtA is not to determine which answer is “right," rather the interactions incurred during QtA foster comprehension and critical thinking as the basic underpinnings of meaning generation. To facilitate aligning QtA with current report card requirements, Beck and McKeown included the following assessment suggestions: modifying test formats to include more essay type questions, which allow students the opportunities to communicate understanding rather than identify text details; recap understanding through periodic journal entries; or verbally assess recall of major ideas from classroom discussions through individual conferencing. Research has proven QtA to be a challenging, powerful, and untraditional but particularly effective approach of explicit comprehension instruction (Beck, McKeown, Sandora, Kucan & Worthy, 1996; Sandora, Beck, & McKeown, 1999).