According to the research compiled in Put Reading First, text comprehension cannot wait until students have mastered “the basics” of reading (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborn, 2001).
The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) reviewed this research and put together a guide of recommended best practices for improving comprehension in the primary grades. They found that comprehension instruction should:
1. Begin with engaging texts that support comprehension,
2. Guide students through focused discussion about text meaning, and
3. Teach a variety of strategies for working with complex text (WWC, 2010).
“Students who read with understanding at an early age gain access to a broader range of texts, knowledge, and educational opportunities, making early reading comprehension instruction particularly critical.” (What Works Clearinghouse, 2010)
Choose Engaging Texts that Build Comprehension
This recommendation has two parts. First, teachers should choose texts that young children will find engaging, because “students must actively engage with text to extract and construct its meaning” (WWC, 2010).
Second, comprehension instruction should focus on a variety of high-quality literary and informational texts, as “early exposure to different types of text builds the capacity to understand the large variety of reading material that students will encounter as they move from grade to grade” (WWC, 2010). High-quality texts provide “rich content, strong organization, and variation and richness in word choice and sentence structure” (WWC, 2010). In short, they give students ample opportunities to grapple with complex content, structure, and meaning. Challenging texts are most appropriate when used during activities where teacher support is available, such as read-alouds (WWC, 2010).
Active Discussions that Focus on Meaning
High-quality, focused discussions help students develop a deeper understanding of what they read (WWC, 2010). According to Drs. Beck and McKeown, the effectiveness of discussion depends on the quality of interplay between the teacher and students. The teacher should act as a co-collaborator in building new meaning while the students work together to connect ideas about text meaning.
During this process, the teacher can help children develop useful strategies for thinking about text by pointing out specific features of text, modeling their own thinking, and guiding children as they begin to apply new skills on their own (WWC, 2010).
”Research shows that ’it is thoughtful talk about the important ideas in a story that is key.’” (McKeown & Beck, 2006)
From the earliest grades, “the objective of reading instruction is to give young readers the tools they need to understand increasingly sophisticated material in all subjects from elementary through later years of school” (WWC, 2010). However, the strategies that benefit young readers are not the standard comprehension skills and activities provided in most basal reading programs.
Drs. Beck and McKeown found that for children to truly understand and work toward comprehension growth, it was important to get them thinking and talking about the stories as they are read aloud. Using open queries, children are encouraged to talk about what’s important and how ideas and actions fit together within a text.
"This method of interspersed reading teaches children how to digest a text a little at a time, noticing new ideas as they go and how the ideas might relate to other ideas in the text. The open queries extend discussions beyond the surface-level questions and one-word answers and challenge children to explain, elaborate, and connect their ideas” (McKeown & Beck, 2006). This also allows children to share ideas and model thinking for each other, which aids the comprehension of all students.
Comprehension Instruction that Works
Core programs do a lot of things well, but they can't do it all. In failing to provide the type of best practice comprehension instruction that has been proven to work, hard-working teachers are left to work even harder.
1. Reading and synthesizing decades of best practices research.
2. Creating new lessons that effectively drive instruction.
3. Searching for instructional tools to support the delivery of these hand-crafted lessons.
Even for an experienced teacher, the above tasks come at a cost—lost time and instructional inconsistency across classrooms to name a few.
With time at a premium, wouldn't it be better to add a consistent, daily dose of research-based comprehension instruction through a supplemental solution that works?