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Reading comprehension is defined as the level of understanding of a writing. For normal Reading speeds (around 200-220 words per minute) an acceptable level of comprehension is above 75%.[How to reference and link to summary or text]
Proficient reading depends on the ability to recognize words quickly and effortlessly.  If word recognition is difficult, students use too much of their processing capacity to read individual words, which interferes with their ability to comprehend what is read.
Many educators in the USA believe that children need to learn to analyze text (comprehend it) even before they can read it on their own, and comprehension instruction generally begins in pre-Kindergarten or Kindergarten. But other US educators consider this reading approach to be completely backward for very young children, arguing that the children must learn how to decode the words in a story through phonics before they can analyze the story itself.
During the last century comprehension lessons usually comprised students answering teachers' questions, writing responses to questions on their own, or both. The whole group version of this practice also often included "round robin reading," wherein teachers called on individual students to read a portion of the text (and sometimes following a set order). In the last quarter of the 20th century, evidence accumulated that the read-test methods assessed comprehension more than they taught it. The associated practice of "round robin" reading has also been questioned and eliminated by many educators.
Instead of using the prior read-test method, research studies have concluded that there are much more effective ways to teach comprehension. Much work has been done in the area of teaching novice readers a bank of "reading strategies," or tools to interpret and analyze text. There is not a definitive set of strategies, but common ones include summarizing what you have read, monitoring your reading to make sure it is still making sense, and analyzing the structure of the text (e.g., the use of headings in science text). Some programs teach students how to self monitor whether they are understanding and provide students with tools for fixing comprehension problems.
Instruction in comprehension strategy use often involves the gradual release of responsibility, wherein teachers initially explain and model strategies. Over time, they give students more and more responsibility for using the strategies until they can use them independently. This technique is generally associated with the idea of self-regulation and reflects social cognitive theory, originally conceptualized by Albert Bandura.
Teaching reading comprehension
The U.S. National Reading Panel conducted a comprehensive literature search on teaching reading comprehension. They concluded that (1) vocabulary knowledge, (2) reading comprehension instruction based on reading strategies, and (3) teacher professional development on effective comprehension practices were critical to effective reading comprehension teaching.
Several theories of vocabulary instruction exist, namely, one focused on intensive instruction of a few high value words, one focused on broad instruction of many useful words, and a third focused on strategies for learning new words.
The idea of focusing intensely on a few words was popularized by Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan in their book for teachers called Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (2002). They argued that words occur in three "tiers," the lowest (tier 1) being common words such as eat and fish, the top (tier 3) being very content-specific words such as photosynthesis and geopolitical. The tier 2 words were what they considered general academic vocabulary, words with many uses in academic contexts, such as analyze and frequent. Beck et al. suggested that teachers focus on tier 2 words and that they should teach fewer of these words with greater intensity. They suggested that teachers offer multiple examples and develop activities to help students practice these words in increasingly independent ways.
The method of focusing of broad instruction on many words was developed by Andrew Biemiller. He argued, contra Beck et al., that more words would benefit students more, even if the instruction was short and teacher-directed. He suggested that teachers teach a large number of words before reading a book to students, by merely giving short definitions, such as synonyms, and then pointing out the words and their meaning while reading the book to students (Biemiller & Boote, 2006). The method contrasts with the Beck et al. approach by emphasizing quantity versus quality. There is no evidence to suggest the primacy of either approach.
The final vocabulary technique, strategies for learning new words, can be further subdivided into instruction on using context and instruction on using morphemes, or meaningful units within words to learn their meaning. Morphemic instruction has been shown to produce positive outcomes for students reading and vocabulary knowledge, but context has proved unreliable as a strategy and it is no longer considered a useful strategy to teach students. This conclusion does not disqualify the value in "learning" morphemic analysis" - prefixes, suffixes and roots - but rather suggests that it be imparted incidentally and in context. Accordingly, there are methods designed to achieve this, such as Incidental Morpheme Analysis (Manzo, Manzo, Thomas, 2004, p.163-4).
Before the 1980s, little comprehension instruction occurred in the United States (National Reading Panel, 2000). Palinscar and Brown (1984) developed a technique called reciprocal teaching that taught students to predict, summarize, clarify, and ask questions for sections of a text. The technique had positive outcomes. Since then, the use of strategies like summarizing after each paragraph have come to be seen as effective strategies for building students' comprehension. The idea is that students will develop stronger reading comprehension skills on their own if the teacher gives them explicit mental tools for unpacking text (Pressley, 2006).
There are a wide range of reading strategies suggested by reading programs and educators. The National Reading Panel identified positive effects only for a subset, particularly summarizing, asking questions, answering questions, comprehension monitoring, graphic organizers, and cooperative learning. The Panel also emphasized that a combination of strategies, as used in Reciprocal Teaching, can be effective.
Today, most reading comprehension programs teach students explicit reading strategies using teacher direct instruction with additional student practice.
Comprehension through discussion involves lessons that are "instructional conversations" that create higher-level thinking opportunities for students. The purpose of the discussions are to promote critical and aesthetic thinking about text and encourage full classroom involvement. According to Vivian Thayer, class discussions help students to generate ideas and new questions. (Goldenberg, p. 317)
Professional development for teachers
The National Reading Panel noted that comprehension strategy instruction is difficult for many teachers, particularly because they were not taught this way and because it is a very cognitively demanding task. They suggested that professional development can increase teachers' willingness to use reading strategies but admitted that much remains to be done in this area.
- Adams, Marilyn Jager. Beginning to Read:Thinking and Learning about Print, MIT Press, 1990, p. 27.
- Pressley, M. (2006). Reading instruction that works: The case for balanced teaching. New York: Guilford Press.
- Pressley, M. (2006). Reading instruction that works: The case for balanced instruction. New York: The Guilford Press.
- Vocabulary Instruction and Reading Comprehension - From the ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading English and Communication.
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