Theory and Related Research
Introduction Research Question Efforts to Solve the Question Exemplary Practice
Theoretical Underpinnings Background in Using the Exemplary Practice Definition of Key Terms Justification


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Research supports that the teaching of comprehension strategies develops and enhances understanding, resulting in a deeper meaning of the text.   The ultimate goal of comprehension strategies instruction is for readers to take over their own reading and thinking.   Empirical evidence supports that consistent strategy instruction over long periods of time results in an internalization of active cognitive processing during reading (Pressley, 2006).


Although educators and researchers are in agreement that there needs to be a balance of explicit instruction, independent reading, and student conversation, this balance is infrequently demonstrated in the elementary classroom (Pressley, 2006).  Explicit use of linking talk moves is necessary for developing a common language and more effective interaction within the group.  Teachers must carefully guide discussions so that verbal contributions build upon one another.  Classroom discourse, which includes reflecting and examining your own thoughts, listening to others, and questioning the knowledge of others, is positively connected to reading comprehension development. In order for students to expand their thinking and knowledge, teachers need to increase the use of strategies such as probing and reformulating questions (Wolf, Crosson, & Resnick, 2005).  


“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, 2002, p. 236).  Employing the instructional strategy of Questioning the Author (QtA) (1996) assists the reader in recognizing or assembling logical relationships among the ideas presented in the text.  This strategy differs from many other comprehension strategies in that discussions, which construct meaning and point out the fallibility of the author, take place during rather than after reading.


Research Question


Among grade-four students achieving average oral reading fluency scores, will teacher intervention of critical thinking strategies increase comprehension as measured by the Group Reading Assessment and Diagnostic Evaluation (GRADE), Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA), student surveys, and documented teacher observations?


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Efforts to Solve the Question


During the past three decades, there has been a significant amount of research on the explicit teaching of specific strategies to develop comprehension skills.  Some of the most well known are the reciprocal teaching strategy (clarifying, questioning, summarizing, and predicting) developed by Palincsar and Brown in 1984, the mental modeling strategy developed by Duffy and Roehler in 1984; in which the teacher modeled the application of a strategy by thinking aloud; and Pressley’s transactional strategies instruction (TSI), a demonstration of the dynamic interaction between teachers and students as teachers introduced strategies (predicting, questioning, mental imagery, clarification, and summarizing) through direct explanation, modeling, and scaffolding (Pressley, 2006).  This researcher had used all of those strategies in the classroom in various degrees and with several adaptations.  Explaining, modeling, and scaffolding strategies used by mature readers were implemented on a daily basis in both small group and whole class reading instruction.  Students were also employing reciprocal teaching strategies independently in groups.  Despite these interventions, student responses consistently hovered more on a literal rather than a critical level of thinking, prompting an examination of additional strategies that demanded a more critical analysis of the text.  One of the strategies reviewed, Question Answer Relationships (QAR), reseached over two decades ago (Raphael & McKinney, 1983; Raphael & Pearson, 1985; Raphael & Wonnacott, 1985), offered a foundation for comprehension instruction especially for those students from diverse backgrounds who tend to receive a significant amount of instruction, in lower level skills and very little instruction in higher level thinking and comprehension skills.  QAR was presented as a long term commitment rather than a quick fix, which could be used to address four needs of those lower achieving students: a shared language, an organization of questioning and comprehension skills,  a whole-school reform model focused on higher level thinking, and a means of preparing students for high stakes testing (Raphael & Au, 2005).  The population in the researcher’s study consisted of students with average fluency scores who are not from diverse backgrounds.  Although this strategy could have been adapted to fit the population, the researcher found another strategy that more appropriately matched the population in the study.  First implemented more than a decade ago, Questioning the Author (QtA) (Beck, McKeown, Sandora, Kucan, & Worthy 1996) was found to be a strategy in which both teachers and students are asked to analyze text from a different perspective, challenging both the text as well as the author’s fallibility in order to develop a deeper understanding of the material.  QtA moved students away from the literal, one answer response, to a more critical analysis of the text through a series of queries and moves, questioning the validity of the author’s intent or point of view in the written work.   QtA was not specified to be used with any one type of student but rather its goal was to help all students deal effectively with text.


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 Exemplary Practice


Questioning the Author (QtA) was developed after many years of researching text-based comprehension and its effectiveness (Beck & McKeown, 2006; Beck, McKeown, Sandora, Kucan, & Worthy 1996).   With text coherency as a significant concern, Beck and McKeown analyzed and reviewed their own research on text revision.  As revisers, they had been 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, they sought to creatively enhance a discussion strategy in which the students’ role would parallel that of revisers as they actively engaged with text to uncover its meaning.   In implementing the QtA strategy, it is the teacher’s role to pose queries that scaffold students’ construction of text meaning and activate discussion during the reading instead of questioning for understanding after the reading.  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 with text that is purposefully segmented into smaller units.   Probes discourage the passive gathering and retelling of information by encouraging students to become aware of and make connections with the text.  Clark and Graves (2005) contend that through verbal scaffolding, the teacher is able “to structure and orchestrate the reading experience so that students can optimally profit from it” (p. 574).   The QtA strategy sanctions a unique teacher/student collaboration allowing them to develop innovative ideas during the reading process and challenge the author’s fallibility as they struggle with the realization that text is merely someone’s ideas put into writing, and that it may at times be biased or unclear (Beck & McKeown, 2006). 


Since QtA is implemented with a discussion format, many educators have expressed concerns of assessment and accountability.  The purpose of QtA is not to determine which answer is “right," but rather to foster comprehension and critical thinking of teachers and students as they both grapple with ideas to extend a deeper meaning to the text.  QtA has been proven as a challenging, powerful, and untraditional but effective instructional strategy which enhances critical thinking as well as improves comprehension skills (Beck & McKeown, 2006).


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Theoretical Underpinnings


It has been well over a century since Emile Javal (1879) prompted the scientific study of reading, when he determined that the eyes quickly jump across the text on the page in between much longer fixations on print.  Much later, in 1959, Gilbert determined that reading speed was comprised of a brief amount of time to see the print, and a significantly longer amount for the information to process from the retina to the long term memory (Singer, 1985).   These findings were some of the basic components of the earliest foundational concepts upon which current fluency theory is built.


Huey’s (1908) seminal work proposed the challenge of identifying how the reader constructs meaning from text (Ruddell & Unrau, 2004).   At that time, one of Huey’s main contentions was that as readers matured, they identified text in longer units. (Singer, 1985).  In 1917, less than a decade later, Thorndike defined reading in terms of reasoning.  He stated that comprehending a passage was analogous to solving a mathematics problem.  Reading passages, like mathematical problems, many times required a formula such as problem-solution or question-answer, enabling students to envision the relationship between ideas. (Singer).   This researcher perceived Thorndike’s observations as a definite precursor to the strategy instruction theory which evolved more than a half century later. 


In 1921, Gates contended that the components of comprehension and speed in reading are two separate but related functions.  Both speed and power of reading should be measured, thus recognizing that speed plays a role in comprehension.  One year later in 1922, Buswell established that as beginning readers develop in reading proficiency, their fixations are less frequent and last for shorter periods of time.   For this reason they perceived more and their reading speed increased (Singer, 1985).  These findings were seminal in setting the groundwork for the value of fluency instruction and paving the way for the LaBerge-Samuels’ (1974) model of automatic information processing, which explained why fluent readers can easily decode and comprehend text, while a beginning readers, who lack automaticity, experience difficulty (Samuels, 2004). 


Rosenblatt (1938) was decades ahead of her time when she wrote Literature as Exploration.  In it, she claimed that meaning existed in neither the head of the reader nor on the printed page, but rather it was created in the transaction between the reader and the text (Pearson & Stephens, 1994).  As they read, readers adopt a stance either consciously or unconsciously which reflects their purpose.  The stance, which is developed during reading, falls on a continuum between efferent, where the principal focus is predominantly factual, and aesthetic, which centers on perception through the senses, intuition, and feelings.  Metaphorically comparing the efferent-aesthetic continuum to a stream of consciousness, Rosenblatt (2004) described consciousness as “a stream flowing through darkness”  and stance as “a mechanism lighting up- directing attention to- different parts of the stream, selecting out objects that have floated to the surface in those areas and leaving the rest in the shadow” (p. 1374). Thus, stance activates specific portions of our consciousness, conjuring particular aspects of public and private meaning, while leaving unattended those aspects of the text that do not fit into the mode of the chosen stance.  A reader’s stance may make swings across the continuum at any given time, but it generally remains fixed on the reader’s intent or purpose (Rosenblatt, 2004). 


In 1955, Rudolph Flesch published Why Johnny Can’t Read-And What You Can Do About It, which accused the then recognized look-say reading instruction method as a contributor to the reading problems experienced by many students across the nation.  Flesch’s seminal work cited research that supported phonics-based techniques over the whole word approach (Alexander & Fox, 2004). A little more than a decade later, Chall (1967) published Learning to Read: The Great Debate, which reiterated the need for phonics instruction as the foundation for learning to read.  This document supported Flesch’s allegation, endorsing the shift from the look-say approach of the 1950s to the use of controlled vocabulary readers and emphasis on phonics of the following decades (Alexander & Fox, 2004).   The research of Flesch and Chall were foundational in exposing the struggling reader’s need for a more structured, systematic, explicit approach to build accuracy and fluency. (Moats, 2005).


Piagetian theory (1970) purported that children under 8 years of age were egocentric and unable to view a perspective different from their own (as cited in Pressley, 2006).  His 1970 theory of cognitive development consisted of four components:  maturation, environmental experiences, social experiences, and the most fundamental factor, self-regulation.  Piaget contended that the importance of social interactions was determined by how well self-regulation is controlled during the cognitive conflict.  His theory concerning the social factors of development conferred more importance on peer interaction than on adult-child interaction, and for this reason much of the research on collaboration has had a Piagetian based perspective. (Forman & Cazden, 2004).   


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In 1978, Vygotsky alleged an individual’s “zone of proximal development” to be the difference between a child’s actual level of development, which involves independent functioning, and the child’s potential level of development, which involves adult or peer guidance (Harris & Hodges, 1995).  This implied that children would be able to reach a higher level of functioning with help than they would if working independently (Forman & Cazden, 2004) and concluded that acquired skills are primarily the result of thinking that is internalized after practice with another individual and are critical to a child’s cognitive development. (Pressley, 2006).


Although the philosophies of both Piaget and Vygotsky have deep roots in cognitive theory, it is the Vygotskian point of view that demonstrates the positive implications of collaborative experiences which require the generating, assembling, and management of data.  Experience in social regulation can result in children viewing the solution as a part of the whole process, enabling them to reflectively select the sequential actions by which they can effectively and independently solve the problem (Forman & Cazden, 2004).  Vygotsky’s work was seminal in that it inspired educators to teach cognitive skills, which were at the farthest tip of a child’s zone of proximal development.  With adult support, even those cognitive skills not fully developed, like comprehension strategies, could be effectively addressed with adult support (Pressley, 2006).


Supported by Vgotskian theory that cognitive development is enhanced from participation in social groups, Palincsar and Brown (1984) conducted a revolutionary study on reciprocal teaching, which was instrumental in laying the groundwork for comprehension strategy instruction.   The researchers purported that consistent practice in the four strategies of reciprocal teaching: clarification, questioning, summarizing, and predicting leads to eventual  internalization and independent application. 


The work of Anderson & Pearson (1984), which was instrumental in establishing the importance of background knowledge in comprehension, purported that prior knowledge strongly influenced the depth of meaning the reader took from the text (Pressley, 2006).   In 1993, Pressley, El-Dinary, Gaskins, Shuder, Bergman, Almasi, and Brown 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 (Brown, Pressley, Van Meter, & Schuder, 1996).


About the same time, Beck and McKeown (2006) were also researching effective ways to develop strategies that would assist teachers in supporting students’ comprehension.  Their research focused on three sources: the textbooks that were read by students, the text-based lessons planned by teachers to guide students, and the students themselves.  Questioning the Author (QtA) (Beck, McKeown, Sandora, Kucan, & Worthy, 1996) was developed after more than a decade of exploration.   Its design encouraged effective text comprehension instruction through the implementation of teacher directed discussion moves and queries with both teachers and students critically examining and interpreting the meaning that the author was trying to convey in each passage. 


As educators, we must make an effort to move away from the literal, one answer response and engage our students with a more critical analysis of text.  Although this has been to some extent facilitated for a number of us in the teacher editions of the more recently published reading/language arts programs, this strategy can be successfully implemented by using QtA across the curriculum.  We can access prior knowledge as well as generate cooperative, constructive discussions by employing questions such as: “What is the author trying to tell us?”  “What is the author talking about?”  “Does that make sense?”  “Does that connect with what the author has already told us?”  “Is that explained clearly?”   This type of questioning enhances comprehension by actively engaging students to collaborate with the teacher and each other, inspiring a deeper insight into author’s purpose and text meaning.



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Background in Using the Exemplary Practice


This researcher had used a variety of comprehension strategies instruction such as reciprocal teaching, mental modeling, and TSI, both as original models as well as several adaptations.  During the research process, many books, articles, and studies were read on the topic of critical literacy.  The strategies of QtA were discussed in a number of the selections.  QtA appeared to be somewhat unique in its attempt to incorporate comprehension strategy instruction with the principles of critical literacy.  After reading the theory and practice book written by the authors of QtA, a final decision was made to implement the QtA  as the strategy in this study.


Definition of Key Terms


Comprehension – the cognitive process by which the reader uses prior knowledge to interact with and construct meaning from the text (Harris & Hodges, 1995) in an attempt to determine the author’s intent and purpose in writing (Beck & McKeown, 2006)

Critical thinking – “thinking which perceives reality as a process, as transformation, rather than a static entity – thinking which does not separate itself from action” (Freire, 2005, p. 92), exploring worldly problems despite the risks involved

Fluency - the ability to produce words in larger language units in a limited amount of time (Harris & Hodges, 1995) accurately with prosody or intonation (Pressley, 2006) and understanding (Moats, 2005)

Prosody – the reading of text with pitch, loudness, and rhythm that conveys appropriate meaning (Harris & Hodges, 1995)

Strategy – a well thought out and monitored systematic plan implemented to improve learning performance (Harris & Hodges, 1995)


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Although they do not ultimately ensure comprehension, both word recognition and fluency are the building blocks with which the foundation for comprehension is constructed; success in reading is unquestionably dependent upon both of them.   Rasinski (2003) contends that many readers who experience difficulties with these foundational elements of reading, will consequently experience difficulties in comprehension and overall reading proficiency.  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.   To date there has been no strong evidence to associate fluency, even fluency with prosody, as either a cause or effect of comprehension (Pressley, 2006).


A study performed by Brown, Pressley, Van Meter, and Schuder (1996), however, provided powerful evidence that weak readers can become better readers through the teaching of comprehension strategies.  Prior research of Pressley and Afflerbach in 1995 had analyzed and summarized more than 40 published think-aloud studies of reading and concluded that mature readers fluidly employ a variety of processes as they read texts.  As a result of these findings, Pressley (2000) asserted that comprehension strategies should not be taught individually but rather incorporated into a plan that is multicomponential, simulating the same kind of conditions experienced naturally by mature readers.


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