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From the PublisherThe Topics and instructional practices included in the book are certainly appropriate for the intended audience." (Childhood Education, Annual Theme 2004)
"Highly Recommended." (Choice, May 2003)
"An important compendium of first-class information. It is a valuable instructional guide at a time when classroom teachers are under unprecedented pressure for the nationwide move to standard-based reform and high stakes testing. Rather than continuing the myth of the 'good old days' of reading instruction, this book ensures that comprehension will become an integral part of the nation's literacy agenda."
— from the Foreword by Gerald G. Duffy, professor emeritus, Michigan State University
"Educators interested in an up-to-date account of comprehension research will appreciate the many and varied chapters in Improving Comprehension Instruction."
— Jane Osborn, Education Consultant, University of Illinois
"A rich resource for all interested in improving comprehension instruction. The specific 'close-ups' of good illustrative lessons and programs provided by the authors enable us to think deeply about instruction and visualize the possible. Taken together the chapters stimulate reflection about both the commonalities and differences in these research-based applications!"
— Donna Ogle, past president, the International Reading Association
"Highly Recommended." (Choice, May 2003)
Anne P. Sweet and Catherine Snow
In this chapter we discuss reading comprehension from a perspective that reflects the work of the RAND Reading Study Group (RRSG). This study group was formed in the year 2000, after the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) asked RAND to examine ways in which OERI might improve the quality and relevance of the education research funded by the agency. In response to this call, RAND convened study groups in the areas of reading and mathematics education to develop long-term programs of research in the two fields. The RRSG sets forth a framework for a program of research in reading comprehension that serves as a starting point for a major discussion among researchers, practitioners, and policymakers of needed research and development related to reading comprehension. We view the report as a "living document" that should be regularly revised over the course of the program.
In its revised report (RAND Reading Study Group, 2002), the study group formulates a proposal concerning the research issues that the community of reading researchers most urgently needs to address over the next ten to fifteen years. The proposal is an invitation to join a conversation about an area of great practical importance: reading developmentand reading instruction. It attempts to map the fields of knowledge relevant to a major educational goal-improving reading outcomes-and to identify some key areas in which research would help us reach that goal.
The proposed research agenda builds upon a number of recent efforts to summarize the knowledge base in the field of reading. These efforts include the National Research Council report titled Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998), the National Reading Panel (NRP) report Teaching Children to Read (2000), and the recently published edition of the Handbook of Reading Research (Kamil, Mosenthal, Pearson, & Barr, 2000). Given the availability of these and older sources, the RRSG did not attempt an exhaustive synthesis of the knowledge base concerning reading and its implications for instruction and assessment of the general population; in many cases the study group exemplifies its claims rather than documenting them comprehensively. The study group argues that major challenges in the area of reading include understanding how children become good comprehenders, how to design and deliver instruction that promotes comprehension, how to assess comprehension, and how to prevent comprehension failure.
The RRSG is composed of fourteen experts representing a range of disciplinary and methodological perspectives on the field of reading. This group functioned as an expert panel over two years (2000-2001) to establish a convergent perspective on what is known about reading, what the most urgent tasks in developing an integrated research base are, and what needs to be done to improve reading outcomes. The study group decided early in its deliberations to concentrate on the issue of promoting proficient reading, with a focus on the development of comprehension and the capacity to acquire knowledge through reading. This is a field in which the accumulated knowledge base is limited to particular areas and to particular populations of students. The RRSG recognizes the need to develop a more coherent model of reading comprehension. It began this task by attempting to lay out where the most urgent gaps in our knowledge are. The study group also recognizes two needs: (1) to develop networks of communication among researchers currently working in several different research traditions relevant to comprehension and (2) to work with teachers and teacher educators to build rigorous knowledge bases about both research and practice that are mutually accessible and usable. It laid the groundwork for this process by initiating a conversation with researcher and practitioner communities about its preliminary draft report published on the RAND Web site and by presenting at numerous professional association conferences during 2000 and 2001.
What is the core problem within the field of research on proficient reading? At one level the core problem is the construction of a unifying theory of reading comprehension that acknowledges its complexity and is informed by the multiple perspectives (including educational, cognitive, linguistic, sociolinguistic, discourse analytic, and cultural) that have been brought to bear in the design and conduct of literacy research. Considerable research has been directed at issues of reading comprehension, but these research efforts have been neither systematic nor interrelated. At another level the core problem presents itself in a practical form when a sixth-grade teacher turns to research with the question "What should I do with my students who don't understand their history texts or can't learn from reading science texts?" Teachers with such questions encounter only a partial knowledge base. That knowledge base typically does not sufficiently acknowledge the exigencies of the classroom, does not attend simultaneously to the demands of reading to learn during content area instruction while the student is still learning to read, and may not be relevant to the reading profiles of many students in a diverse class. Given the enormous educational importance of promoting reading comprehension and learning among elementary and secondary students, we need to organize what we know about these topics, define what we need to know, and pursue the research that will help the most in improving teacher preparation, classroom instruction, and student achievement.
The purpose of the RRSG, then, has been to summarize the state of research and research-based practice in the field of reading comprehension, in order to generate a well-motivated agenda for future research that will inform practice in this area. Because the study group did not undertake the kind of extensive, expensive, exhaustive review that informed both Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998) and Teaching Children to Read (NRP, 2000), relying instead on consensus and on the distributed knowledge base of its members, the reader should see the study group report as a stimulus to discussion rather than a summative statement.
Issues Motivating the Report
The proposed research agenda is motivated by a number of overarching issues of concern to the research and practice communities.
The demand for literacy skills is high and increasing. Higher levels of literacy are associated with a wide range of outcomes, including higher levels of health, leisure reading, political participation, and reading to children (Smith, 1998). Moreover, ensuring advanced literacy achievement for all students is no longer a luxury but an economic necessity.
The level of reading skills is remaining stagnant. Reading scores of high school students, as reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, have not improved between 1970 and 2000.
There are multiple sources of difference in the reading comprehension process and outcomes. Comprehension is affected by differences in the construction and context of the reading task, often socially and culturally influenced, by differences in reader capacities, in texts, and in the reading activity.
Reading comprehension instruction is often minimal or ineffective. Materials in middle school and secondary classrooms are often too difficult or uninteresting for many students to read. Moreover, comprehension instruction tends to be emphasized less in subject-matter classrooms, where teachers focus on content.
The achievement gap between children of different demographic groups persists. The large and persistent gap in reading achievement in the later elementary and secondary grades relates to differences in achievement in other content areas and to differences in high school dropout and college entrance rates.
High stakes tests are affecting reading comprehension instruction in unknown ways. There are very few data on the impact of high stakes tests on student achievement overall; in particular, we do not know how poorer comprehenders deal with the test demands.
The preparation of teachers does not adequately address children's needs for reading comprehension instruction. Teacher preparation and professional development programs are inadequate in the crucial domain of reading comprehension, in part because the solid, systematic research base that should undergird teacher preparation does not exist.
Making good on the federal investment in education requires more knowledge about reading comprehension. The fourth-grade slump in reading achievement is a well-documented phenomenon (Chall, Jacobs, & Baldwin 1990). The recent federal investment through the Reading Excellence Act and its successor programs, Reading First and Early Reading First (totaling more than $5 billion over the next five years), in improving early reading achievement will not ensure long-term gains without further development of our knowledge base concerning reading comprehension.
What We Know
Although these various overarching issues may make the task of developing a research agenda that would contribute to the improvement of practice seem formidable, we are encouraged by the recognition that we already know a good deal about addressing the practical challenges of improving reading comprehension outcomes.
First, we know some of the prerequisites to successful reading comprehension. We know, for example, that reading comprehension capacity builds on successful initial reading instruction and that children who can read words accurately and rapidly have a good foundation for progressing well in comprehension. We know that children with good oral language skills (large oral vocabularies, good listening comprehension) and with well-developed stores of world knowledge are likely to become good comprehenders. We know that social interaction in homes and classrooms as well as communities and the larger sociocultural context influence motivation and participation in literate communities and help construct students' identities as readers, thus influencing their access to text. We know that children who have had rich exposure to literacy experiences are more likely to succeed. We know about several instructional practices that are related to good reading outcomes, although such knowledge is much more extensive for initial than for later reading. Finally, we know that instruction based on an appropriate and well-articulated alignment between curriculum and assessment can improve performance in reading as well as other areas.
We also know several approaches to education and to reading instruction that do not work. We know, for example, that many approaches to compensatory education for socially, economically, and educationally disadvantaged groups do not promote success in reading comprehension. We know as well that identifying children as learning disabled, without tailoring specific instructional treatments to their individual needs, fails to generate reading comprehension gains. We know that current approaches to teaching second-language learners, whether in English as a second language (ESL), bilingual, or all-English settings, often do not address the particular challenges of reading comprehension. We know that the enormous complexities of teaching and the brevity of teacher education programs have the unfortunate consequence that the majority of novice teachers are ill prepared to engage in practice that reflects the existing knowledge base about reading. We know this situation is particularly critical for special education, ESL, and bilingual teachers who, although they need an even deeper understanding of reading, language, curricula, and instructional practices than the mainstream teacher, in fact have even fewer opportunities in their preparation programs to acquire this expertise. We know that preservice preparation and professional development in the domain of early reading instruction are improving, increasingly incorporating information from research about the characteristics of good instruction, but that such is not the case for reading comprehension instruction in the later elementary grades. We know that a frequent consequence of failure on high stakes assessment-namely, retention in grade-does not improve long-term reading achievement without specialized instruction. Finally, although we have a fairly long list of instructional strategies that are effective in targeted interventions or experimental settings, we need to know how to implement these teaching approaches on a large scale, into a coherent reading program that spans the elementary, middle, and high school grades.
The Need for a Definition of Reading Comprehension
The larger agenda that concerns us and the RRSG is the promotion of proficient reading. We see achieving reading proficiency as a long-term developmental process; "reading well" is different at different points along the individual's developmental trajectory. The endpoint, proficient adult reading, encompasses the capacity to read with ease and interest a wide variety of different kinds of materials for varying purposes and to read with comprehension even when the material is neither easy nor intrinsically interesting. Adult reading involves reading for purposes of pleasure, learning, and analysis, and it is a prerequisite to many forms of employment, to informed participation in the democratic process, and to gaining access to cultural capital.
Our focus is on reading comprehension as it is traditionally conceived within educational settings. Teachers think of reading comprehension as what students are taught to do in reading instruction during the early school years and the capacities they are expected to display throughout the middle and high school years. Reading comprehension is usually a focus of instruction in the postprimary grades, after students have largely mastered word recognition skills, though comprehension of text should be an integral part of reading instruction with beginning readers as well; and instruction in oral language, vocabulary, and listening comprehension should be a focus starting in preschool and throughout the elementary grades.
The first task in formulating this research agenda was to define reading comprehension. A useful definition would generate a map of what we know and what we need to know about the process and development of skilled reading comprehension.
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Tables, Figures, and Exhibits.
Foreword (Gerald G. Duffy).
Part One: New Directions in Comprehension Instruction.
Introduction: Improving Comprehension Instruction: An Urgent Priority (Linda B. Gambrell, Cathy Collins Block, and Michael Pressley).
1. Reconceptualizing Reading Comprehension (Anne P. Sweet and Catherine Snow).
2. The Thinking Process Approach to Comprehension Development: Preparing Students for Their Future Comprehension Challenges (Cathy Collins Block and Rebecca B. Johnson).
3. From Good to Memorable: Characteristics of Highly Effective Comprehension Teaching (Ellin Oliver Keene).
4. The Guided Reading Lesson: Explaining, Supporting, and Prompting for Comprehension (Gay Su Pinnell).
5. Instructional Components for Promoting Thoughtful Literacy Learning (Pamela J. Dunston).
Part Two: New Comprehension Lessons Across the Curriculum.
6. Differentiating Reading and Writing Lessons to Promote Content Learning (Karen D. Wood).
7. Parsing, Questioning, and Rephrasing (PQR): Building Syntactic Knowledge to Improve Reading Comprehension (James Flood, Diane Lapp, and Douglas Fisher).
8. Using Writing to Improve Comprehension: A Review of the Writing-to-Reading Research (Bena R. Hef.in and Douglas K. Hartman).
9. Research-Based Comprehension Practices That Create Higher-Level Discussions (Janice F. Almasi).
10. Goose Bumps and Giggles: Engaging Young Readers' Critical Thinking with Books from the Teachers' Choices Project and Graphic Organizers (Kathy N. Headley and Jean Keeler).
Part Three: Integrating Technology and Innovative Instruction.
11. Using Technology to Individualize Reading Instruction (David Rose and Bridget Dalton).
12. Computers, Kids, and Comprehension: Instructional Practices That Make a Difference (Linda D. Labbo).
13. Out of This World: Cyberspace, Literacy, and Learning (Victoria Gentry Ridgeway, Chris L. Peters, and Terrell Seawell Tracy).
14. Reading in the Digital Era: Strategies for Building Critical Literacy (Lisa Patel Stevens and Thomas W. Bean).
Part Four: Overcoming Comprehension Challenges.
15. Hitting the Wall: Helping Struggling Readers Comprehend (D. Ray Reutzel, Kay Camperell, and John A. Smith).
16. At-Risk Students: Learning to Break Through Comprehension Barriers (Lynn Romeo).
17. Helping Struggling Readers Make Sense of Reading (Irene W. Gaskins, Sally R. Laird, Colleen O'Hara, Theresa Scott, and Cheryl A. Cress).
Conclusion: Improving Comprehension Instruction: A Path for the Future (Michael Pressley).