Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Improving Comprehension: Using Routines or Strategies

There are many ways to think about instructional approaches to reading comprehension. One approach is to distinguish between Content-based approaches and Strategy-based approaches. Content-based approaches use varied activities to focus student attention on the content or meaning of the text. For example, previous posts on 'Sketch to Stretch', 'Reader Response' and 'Map Making' are very much content-based. There are many other approaches that try to help readers understand the content of a text and demonstrate this by recalling lots of information, being able to summarise the passage, answering varied questions and so on.  I also use some of the above as part of what many would call strategy-based approaches that was the focus of a lot of research in the 1980s. So using categories to describe comprehension is tricky.

The approach commonly referred to as 'Strategies' involves teaching children procedures or routines that can be re-used and applied in varied tasks by the reader or writer.  This approach arose from the work of psychologists like Ann Brown and Annemarie Palincsar and was related to the study of 'Metacognition' (a term first used by James Flavell in 1976).  In simple terms, metacognition is thinking about thinking, including mental activities like reading comprehension. Taylor (1999) has defined metacognition as “an appreciation of what one already knows, together with a correct apprehension of the learning task and what knowledge and skills it requires, combined with the agility to make correct inferences about how to apply one’s strategic knowledge to a particular situation, and to do so efficiently and reliably”.

As a result of metacognitive research a number of researchers began to explore the type of strategies that could be taught to children that would improve reading, writing and learning.

Reciprocal Teaching

'Reciprocal Teaching' developed by Palincsar and Brown (1984) was an early example of a strategy-based approach (Annmarie Palincsar's photo opposite). It involves teaching students four key comprehension strategies: prediction, questioning, seeking clarification and summarising. This technique has some basic steps:

Step 1 - The teacher begins by discussing the topic of the reading or study and calls for predictions of the content based on the title. If they have read it before the teacher (instead of the initial prediction) asks the students to recall the main points of the material read last time.

Step 2 - The teacher breaks the class into pairs (although you could use groups of 3 or 4) and then assigns one of the students to the role of teacher. They then read the first paragraph silently. After this, the student assigned as the teacher poses a question about the passage and then tries to answer it themselves. He or she then predicts what might be going to happen next or seeks clarification from others if confused or if they need help. Students then take turns as teacher or student for about 30 minutes.

Step 3 - The students then seek to clarify their understanding. This involves helping each other or asking questions of each other. At any stage, if the student in the 'teacher' role is having problems, the classroom teacher can intervene to offer support. As the lesson proceeds the students are reminded that the strategies that they are using (questioning, summarising, predicting and seeking clarification) will help them to understand what they are reading.

Step 4 - Students are finally encouraged to summarise or make sense of what they have learned. This step requires the reader to decide what was important and what was not.

The above is just one example of an approach that attempts to model strategies, teach them to readers and then have them apply them to real reading and study. What distinguishes Reciprocal Teaching is its highly structured nature and the way the teacher scaffolds support and effectively trains the students to think about the way they think about (and process) text, and use this understanding in future independent reading activities.

An approach that I've used

Once you have a framework in mind you can vary the nature of the tasks within each of the steps. Here's how I have used a strategy approach based on a piece of literature with children aged 9-12 years.

I always commence by demonstrating a full cycle of the strategy lesson to the class. Using a text that all students can see, I put myself in the role of the reader.  I would then explain each of the following steps. Once this has been done once I repeat it again with at least 2 other examples, inviting student help as we work through the process as teacher/reader. Here is the framework I have used. To make it more relevant I have based it on the hypothetical use of the picture book 'Fair's Fair' by Leon Garfield. I will share the first paragraph to give a greater sense of how the process works.
Jackson was thin, small and ugly, and stank like a drain. He got his living by running errands, holding horses, and doing a bit of scrubbing on the side. And when he had nothing better to do he always sat on the same doorstep at the back of Paddy's Goose, which was at the worst end of the worst street in the worst part of town. He was called Jackson, because his father might have been a sailor, Jack being a fond name for a sailor in the streets round Paddy's Goose; but nobody knew for sure. He had no mother, either, so there was none who would have missed him if he'd fallen down a hole in the road. And nobody did miss him when he vanished one day and was never seen or heard of again. It happened when Christmas was coming.....
Step 1  'Prediction based on prior knowledge' - Using, cover image, title, and/or the first paragraph of the text predict what it might be about. At this stage the reader uses the title 'Fair's Fair' to predict what it might be about; then considers the cover, and finally the first paragraph. Demonstrate how readers ask questions of themselves to gain some sense of what this book might be about.

Step 2  'Generating questions' - Demonstrate how even just the cover, title and first paragraph can generate many questions. What might 'Fair's Fair' mean? Where might this boy come from? Where is the boy going? What might it mean, "he had no mother"? Why might he have vanished?

Step 3  'Seeking to remove confusion' - The reader then moves on. Read the next paragraph or two and refer back to some of the questions generated above. Your audible thinking might go like this: "It happened when Christmas was coming.." and it's snowing (!), so it's not Australia where it's summer at Christmas. He's sitting on the doorstep and a "big black dog" comes, "Oho", what's it going to do? Is he after his pie? Where did he get the pie anyway? Jackson tells him to 'Shove off!' and then he notices something.  'Hullo! You got a collar on! You must belong to somebody. Hullo again! You got something under your collar. What you got?' What has he got? And so on.

Step 4  'Stimulating imagery' - A well written story will be stimulating imagery already just through the power of the language (e.g. the dog was "Huge: as big as a donkey, nearly, with eyes like street lights and jaws like and oven door..."), but sometimes I try to give this a push by getting children to draw (see 'Sketch to Stretch'), talk, write or (with younger children) dramatise the scene.

Step 5  'Generating more questions' - at this point I will often use questions again to predict what might be coming next. What might happen with this do? What could the key be for? Whose key is it?
Step 6  'Summarisation, recall or response' - Depending on the text type I might complete the strategy cycle with summarising (verbal or in writing), free recall (remember all you can) or probed recall (where you use prompts or questions to encourage recall), or maybe just use a variety of response formats (e.g. drawing, mapping, semantic webs etc). All these are designed to recap or summarise understanding of the text, to go over the meaning they have comprehended as part of the process.

The above cycle is not strictly consistent with the metacognitive approaches that researchers like Brown, Palincsar, Pressley and Paris pioneered, but it has worked for me in varied contexts. In trials with readers aged 10-12 years I have found greatly increased recall of texts when compared with traditional question and answer strategies.

References and other resources

Taylor, S. (1999). Better learning through better thinking: Developing students’ metacognitive abilities. 'Journal of College Reading and Learning', 30(1).

Peirce, W. (2003). Metacognition: Study Strategies, Monitoring and Motivation.

All posts on comprehension (HERE).

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