Improving Comprehension Instruction: Rethinking Research, Theory, and Classroom Practice
reviewed by Susan Benner - 2003
Title: Improving Comprehension Instruction: Rethinking Research, Theory, and Classroom Practice
Author(s): C.C. Block, L.B. Gambrell and M. Pressley (Eds)
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0787963097 , Pages: 423, Year: 2002
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Improving Comprehension Instruction: Rethinking Research, Theory, and Classroom Practice, edited by Block, Gambrell, and Pressley is a much-needed addition to the literature because it specifically addresses reading comprehension instruction. Contained within its 17 chapters is a compilation of research on reading comprehension from the past 30 years accompanied by guides for the application of this research in the classroom. The editors intend for the book to provide a coherent synopsis of: 1) research and theory, 2) principles essential for understanding the nature of teaching students to comprehend reading material, 3) suggestions for applying knowledge to technology, and 4) recommendations for continued professional advancement of reading comprehension. They hope that the volume will help reduce the distance between what we know about the positive benefits of reading comprehension instruction and the extent to which it is actually offered in the classroom.
Block, Gambrell, and Pressley specify that one of the book’s objectives is to address the challenges regarding comprehension instruction identified by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement within the Department of Education, the RAND Reading Study Group (RRSG), and the National Reading Panel. They note that the book differs from others on the subject because it includes research-based instructional lessons, presents alternative methods for less advanced students and multicultural populations, addresses how to teach comprehension as processes with interrelated components, helps students use comprehension processes automatically and habitually, and demonstrates how teachers can have more time for comprehension instruction. To some extent they do offer each of these five components in a single volume. However, the book’s greatest contribution lies in the reiteration of reading comprehension research findings and connections to classroom experiences for children.
In addition to contributing the introduction, conclusion and individual chapters, the editors took on the challenge of coordinating the work of 32 contributors who offer a diversity of interests, points of view, and scholarship. Overall, they do a worthy job delivering the promised connection between research, theory, and practice. However, certain chapters contribute more to this end than others. A number of chapters contain a thoughtful blend of research, theory, and application, while others offer less balance. In some instances, the authors present well-written, informative chapters that do not necessarily fit the stated purpose of the editors or match the designated topic. These chapters, though worthy in their own right, do not contribute to the cohesiveness and power of the volume as a work on reading comprehension.
In the preface, Block, Gambrell, and Pressley define seven themes evident in the body of knowledge available on reading comprehension. They indicate that throughout the book, contributors elaborate on these themes, connecting them to specific instructional suggestions and examples. The themes include the need for: comprehension instruction to occur through many text genres; direct teaching of cognitive and metacognitive processes to aid comprehension; awareness and evaluation of published programs on comprehension; integration of multistep teaching that include modeling, scaffolding, and practicing; assessments that include student internalization and use of comprehension strategies; reduction of teacher talk and increased active student participation and discussion; and direct instruction on transferring processes to new content. In the first chapter, Sweet and Snow reiterate the essence of these themes in their stimulating chapter on the need to reconceptualize reading comprehension instruction. However, I was disappointed that the themes were not formally used in the organizing structure of the text. Individual chapters related back to these themes in some instances, but there was no systematic direct establishment of connections between these themes and chapter contents.
While the reader of individual chapters would not likely notice, I found the overall structure and organization of the book inconsistent. In the introductory section, Gambrell, Block, and Pressley identify three broad themes that they say appear throughout book: creating a motivational context for comprehension instruction, providing interesting and appropriate texts for comprehension instruction, and teaching research-based comprehension strategies. They build a strong case for these themes and the need for educators to draw their attention to them, but do not offer any structural mechanisms throughout the text to remind us of them. Most chapter authors do provide thoughtful lesson plans and activities in sufficient detail to demonstrate how to teach comprehension strategies. However the coverage of the other two themes is far less consistent, and far less evident. It is up to the reader to look for these themes as well as the seven themes from the body of knowledge mentioned in the preface. By omitting an introduction to each of the four parts, Block, Gambrell, and Pressley miss an opportunity to find the themes throughout the book, integrate the material within each part, and address inconsistencies from chapter to chapter. However, the editors seem to have instructed the contributors to end their chapters with three recommendations. For some, these recommendations are worthy connections to the aims of the book, related to directions of research, moving research into the classroom, and disseminating fresh ideas about comprehension strategy instruction. For others, they are so limited in scope and thought as to have no value. Perhaps the editors would have better chosen to write their own recommendations at the close of each section of the book.
Part One, New Directions in Comprehension Instruction, includes an introductory statement and five chapters on reading comprehension instruction. In the introduction, Gambrell, Block, and Pressley make a strong case for the importance of comprehension and its close relationship to the characteristics of good readers identified by the RAND Study Group. They offer a brief discussion of what reading comprehension is along with effective strategy instruction and its outcomes, emphasizing the value of transactional strategies between teacher and student, such as clarifying ideas, summarizing, making inferences, interpreting, evaluating, solving problems, and thinking creatively.
In their chapter on reconceptualizing reading comprehension, Sweet and Snow, explore the meaning of reading comprehension, dimensions of reading (the reader, the text, and the activity), and interactions that influence reading within a broad sociocultural context. Within their thoughtful discussion of the meaning of reading comprehension, they consider the reader, the text, and the activity, address many interesting ideas about variability. Sweet and Snow point out that although researchers have typically focused on the student as the cause of his or her own failure to read successfully, many other aspects of the reading activity could also be a source of reading failure. They present ten principles from reading comprehension research somewhat similar to the seven themes from the body of knowledge presented by the editors in the preface. In addition to the research findings regarding effective reading comprehension instruction, there are principles linked to characteristics of teachers who are effective in teaching reading comprehension, and mention of the insufficiency of typical reading comprehension strategy instruction in spite of consistent research findings that document the efficacy of such instruction.
Overall, Sweet and Snow have written a chapter that is easy to follow, broken down complex ideas so well as to make them appear simpler than they are, and drawn on a mixture of historical and recent research to support their ideas. The chapter also provides a summary of reading comprehension research that reflects the RRSG report. Since so much emphasis has been placed on other aspects of this report, it is important to get these ideas about reading comprehension instruction on the table. It would have been worthwhile to have some of the other contributors read this chapter and make connections back to it in their own writing.
Of the remaining four chapters in this part, three contain specific models and classroom approaches. In Chapter Two, Block and Johnson present the thinking process approach to comprehension development. They begin by exploring two bodies of research—one having to do with the need to teach comprehension strategies and the other related to using the characteristics of effective comprehenders to plan comprehension instruction. Their rationale is similar to that used in giving students multiple strategies for decoding words. The approach is based upon three critical student opportunities: the time and opportunity to read alone, uninterrupted and without prompting; the chance to explain when and why they used specific comprehension strategies; and the receipt of instruction in new comprehension processes. As promised, Block and Johnson provide detailed examples of how to implement the approach in the classroom, making a bridge between research theory and application.
Dunston explores conceptual thinking about reading comprehension in her chapter on what teachers can do to develop and encourage students’ thoughtful literacy. She offers an interesting discussion of the benefits and flaws of student discussion groups, but does not offer any resolution for any of the flaws that she notes. Consistent with the spirit of the editors’ intention to offer perspectives directed toward the future of reading comprehension, Dunston adopts a broad definition of text, including email, CD inserts, lyrics, and Web sites. However, the addition of supporting examples to connect research to classroom practices is more of an afterthought for Dunston, as she tacks on an example at the very end of the chapter without any discussion or explanation. Otherwise the chapter is written well with supporting research citations.
Somewhat out of place, but thought-provoking nonetheless,
The chapter by Pinnell meticulously guides us through a guided reading lesson. She focuses much of her discussion of decoding, sustaining reading, vocabulary development, and traditional basic reading comprehension strategies. Block, Gambrell, and Pressley have argued effectively that comprehension strategies can and should be taught. Block and Johnson and others contribute their ideas about how to go about teaching comprehension strategies. However, Pinnell opines that “readers do not learn reading strategies one at a time in a linear way, nor can the teacher plan a series of lessons that ‘covers’ them as a curriculum.” (p. 112). Although she clarifies this statement by noting that decoding and comprehension must occur simultaneously, she does not clarify what she means about the teacher’s inability to teach reading strategies. Even in her detailed examples of guided reading lessons, Pinnell departs from the spirit of much of the rest of the book. There is more rigidity in the format of instruction than described in other chapters—more of a cookbook approach. She speaks of the teacher’s goals for the students, whereas student goals for themselves are stressed in examples provided by other contributors.
In Part Two, New Comprehension Lessons Across the Curriculum, the emphasis shifts to content learning. However, the first chapter is actually about meeting the needs of diverse students within classrooms and would be more suitably located in Part Four. Although the chapter is full of practical, specific suggestions for the classroom, and makes a worthy contribution to the book, it is not likely to be found by those who might be interested in its content. Neither its placement in the book nor the chapter title, “Differentiating Reading and Writing Instruction to Promote Content Learning” give a hint to its actual content. Wood does blend research and classroom application with detailed examples, offering material suitable for middle and secondary level classrooms.
I found the chapter by Flood, Lapp, and Fisher far more old school comprehension than the reconceptualization offered by Sweet and Snow. The examples seemed to reflect the comprehension instruction equals question asking formula. No strategy development accompanied their questioning approach illustrated in the example. However, the authors do make a strong distinction between decoding and comprehending and the need for teachers to create a bridge between the two before loosing students.
Heflin and Hartman attempted to isolate research that used writing as a means of improving reading comprehension. Although there was a limited amount of research that fell within their criteria, they were able to glean some valuable information. They observe that there are a number of writing to reading approaches in literature that have not been researched, just presented as good ideas. They offer a cautionary observation that is well worth remembering for much of the research in education, “a study or two can create an impression of certainty and conclusiveness about an approach, when in fact the conditions under which practitioners use the approach and the effects it creates can vary widely from one application to another” (p. 215). While the chapter carries a postmodern tone, offering far more scholarly writing than some other chapters, Heflin and Hartman fulfill the promise to articulate authentic examples of how writing and reading can merge for classroom instruction.
Almasi explores the research and use of peer discussions to achieve higher order thinking and metacognitive awareness. It is another case of there being strong research evidence to support a practice that is not being implemented widely in the classroom. She notes that students need the social skills required for peer discussions and teachers seem to fall back on teacher-directed discussions rather than resolve to teach students how to engage in peer discussions without interrupting or talking over one another. Almasi offers a well-documented review of research. However, the contents of the chapter would be more accessible with less dense writing and more elaboration and explanation.
Part Three, Integrating Technology and Innovative Instruction, contains four chapters that promise to connect reading comprehension instruction with advanced technology and computers in the classroom. In the first chapter Rose and
In their chapter, Ridgeway, Peters, and Tracy offer detailed information about WebQuest, an inquiry-based activity that requires learner to think critically. They suggest that WebQuests engage students in a level of literacy that involves reading between and beyond the lines, analysis and synthesis of information, an awareness of the ways that texts are constructed, and an awareness of the ways that text constructions position readers. The bulk of the chapter contains detailed directions on conducting WebQuests, with information about search engines, not particularly well suited for this book.
Stevens and Bean argue in Chapter 14 that critical literacy needs to become part of the definition of comprehension, not just for students deemed proficient at decoding. They draw a distinction between critical literacy and being a critical reader, which refers to skill-based tasks, such as distinguishing fact from opinion and recognizing propaganda in text. Using critical literacy, the reader looks behind the text for hidden agendas. Although the chapter is short, Stevens and Bean present a scholarly discussion that includes a classroom scenario to bring their ideas to life. However, in spite of the chapter title,
The final part, Overcoming Comprehension Challenges, is supposed to contain three chapters focused on reading comprehension instruction for students who find reading to be difficult, and Pressley’s conclusion of the book. Generally speaking, this part of the volume is a disappointment. There are only three chapters, and none of them address the topic of reading comprehension for struggling readers as well as the chapters by Wood, and Rose and
In the final chapter, Gaskins, Laird, O’Hara, Scott, and Cress start with the premise that struggling readers do not need different goals, standards, or methods, but do need greater intensity through low student-teacher ratios, ample time, and qualified professional instruction and long-term instruction. They launch into a discussion of the program at their school without any orientation to the school, leaving me with numerous questions about the school and its students—since most students enrolled are behind in reading is it a special school of some sort, is it in a high poverty area or an exclusive private school with high tuition rates? Perhaps their premise holds some truth for students at this school, but such a statement flies in the face of other chapters within the text, not to mention our understanding of students with disabilities or other special needs. They place a heavy emphasis on intensity of reading instruction as the critical factor that enables their students to achieve success. While the argument can certainly be made that the absence of intensity of reading instruction is often a contributing factor to a child’s difficulties in learning to read, it is not the universal solution for all children struggling to read. Their restricted understanding of this diminishes the value of their vision for improved instruction in reading comprehension for struggling readers.
The volume brings to the table the research findings of the RRSG that emphasize reading comprehension. Many of its contributors use various lists of the characteristics of effective readers to support their ideas. The critical point that is made over and over again throughout the volume is that reading comprehension instruction can and does make a difference in teaching children to read. The organizational flaws and occasionally disappointing chapter are more than offset by the substance of this work. Overall, I found it to be informative, well written, and well documented. I encourage teacher educators to help get this volume into the hands of practicing teachers, as they are truly the best audience for the book.