READING COMPREHENSION INSTRUCTION
Admittedly, I have always been somewhat skeptical of some of the commonly asserted notions regarding the explicit teaching of reading comprehension, specifically as to the idea that young students should be receiving an equal amount of comprehension instruction, to fluency, decoding, and vocabulary, instruction. While I would say I am generally a fierce advocate for explicit teaching strategies, I think explicitly, teaching someone how to understand a text, is a strangely un-intuitive idea. If someone can fluently read a text, knows the meaning of each word, and still does not understand the explicit ideas of the text, I remain skeptical of the idea that the student just needs more comprehension instruction. However, I will make four disclaimers to this statement.
Firstly, that is not to say that if a student is slowly decoding a text and does not comprehend the text that this is not something that can be helped via instruction. Students who are still in the decoding stage of reading, often struggle to comprehend the meaning of a text, because they are focusing so much on just reading the individual words. However, I would argue that this is not really a comprehension issue, but a fluency issue. Secondly, when I say fluent readers should naturally be able to comprehend the explicit meaning of a text, I am not referring to any complex, symbolic or abstract ideas. In my experience, students absolutely need direct instruction to help develop their ability to interpret abstract and implicit concepts within texts. However, if a student fluently read a story, understood the meaning of the words, and did not comprehend the basic events of the story, then I remain dubious, that these students require specific direct instruction. Rather I would assume, there is likely some type of cognitive delay, as students should naturally be able to comprehend the basic events of texts they can fluently read. Lastly, I will state that this is not to say that some students will not need practice, basic instruction, and examples; however, I think this is more of a reflection of students needing to develop their communication skills than their comprehension skills. For example, if a child reads the story of the three little pigs and understood all the words, they in most scenarios should naturally understand the events of the story.
Again, while I would argue that the direct instruction of comprehension strategies for the purpose of helping students to better understand the explicit meaning behind a text, I can admit that students do need comprehension instruction for the implicit and abstract meaning behind a text. For example, I would argue that most students struggle to understand symbolism and theme and require a large amount of instruction and practice to master these concepts. However, I do not see the validity in teaching these concepts at an early age, in equal proportions to basic reading instruction. If a student has not mastered decoding, why would we want them to be interpreting themes? This is not to say that there is no value in ever, in covering these ideas for younger students, however, rather than when students are still learning to read, their instruction should be focused on basic reading skills, IE: decoding, fluency, and vocabulary.
While researching this topic, I wanted to find a meta-study or at the very least a quantitative study, however, despite my best efforts I could not find such a study on this specific topic. Instead, I found an article by the esteemed Dr. Timothy Shanahan, who immediately started his article out by stating that there is no real academic evidence on the topic. Moreover, I was relieved to find that Dr. Shanahan, essentially came to the same conclusion that I did. He suggests that early primary instruction should focus on phonics and vocabulary, so as to build the basic reading skills required for reading comprehension at later stages of the reader’s development (Shanahan, 2019).
While researching this topic, I tried to find at least a reading comprehension strategy that was well evidenced in the literature. One reading comprehension strategy that caught my eye, when researching this topic was Reciprocal Teaching. This teaching strategy involves the direct instruction of a meta-cognition strategy for reading comprehension that involves, explaining, modeling, group practice, and solo practice. A study by Barak et al, demonstrated it to have an impact size of .88, making it an incredibly high yielding strategy. John Hattie has also previously evaluated it at an ES of .74, according to his meta-analysis. That being said I do have a couple of reservations about reciprocal teaching. Firstly, it does sound like a very tedious practice for students to use continuously over a long period of time. Secondly, the practice of describing, then modeling, then having students practice in groups, and lastly having students practice on their own, sounds like an incredibly effective strategy in itself, which leaves me wondering, if it is the reciprocal teaching that is so effective or if it is the instructional method and the increased time of instruction, which is effective?
While there is less academic research on the efficacy of reading comprehension strategies than I would like.
I would still make a few suggestions for practical takeaways. Firstly, the instruction of reading comprehension for the purpose of teaching students how to understand the explicit events of a story should be limited and should completely end by secondary school. Secondly, the instruction of reading comprehension for the purpose of teaching students how to understand implicit and abstract concepts should be very minimal in primary grades, occasional in junior grades, somewhat frequent in intermediate grades, and be a primary focus in senior grades. Lastly, I am not comfortable recommending any one specific, reading comprehension strategy. However, if I had to pick one, I would choose Reciprocal Reading. That being said, this is not something I use in my own practice.