Rethinking Reading Comprehension
reviewed by Linda Akanbi - 2004
Title: Rethinking Reading Comprehension
Author(s): Anne Polselli Sweet and Catherine E. Snow (Editors)
Publisher: Guilford Press, New York
ISBN: 1572308923, Pages: 224, Year: 2003
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The book, Rethinking Reading Comprehension, edited by Anne Polselli Sweet and Catherine E. Snow, represents a splendid compendium of timely and important topics pertaining to reading comprehension including variables relating to the process of learning to read, approaches to reading comprehension instruction, reading comprehension development and instruction of English Language Learners, adolescents and their multiple literacies, text factors relating to reading comprehension, individual differences, comprehension assessment, reading hypertext, and professional development, to name a few. Contrary to its promising title however, this book really offers nothing new on the topic of comprehension. The book is largely based on the report of the RAND Reading Study Group (RRSG) which desperately tried to formulate a new definition of comprehension. In this definition, presented in the opening chapter of the book by the editors, Anne Sweet and Catherine Snow, comprehension (which I think all would agree is the essence of reading) is described as “the process of simultaneously extracting and constructing meaning” (p. 1). According to the RAND Reading Study Group, this process entails three elements: (1) the reader who is doing the comprehending, (2) the text that is to be, and (3) the activity in which comprehension is a part. The authors state further that these three dimensions occur within a larger sociocultural context that both shapes and is shaped by the reader (p. 2).
However, when one considers this definition, one can see that all of its elements are familiar, as well as the sum of its parts. It is not different from the conception of reading as an interactive process which is neither print driven (“bottom-up”) nor hypothesis driven (“top-down”), but rather, a combination of these two processes. In this simultaneous analysis, according to schema theory, “as a person reads, an interpretation of what a segment of text might mean is theorized to depend both on analysis of the print and on hypotheses in the person’s mind” (Anderson, 1994, p. 243). Reading has also been previously described as a transaction involving an exchange among the reader, the text, and the reading situation (Rosenblatt cited in Hittleman, 1988, p. 2). Hittleman goes on to state that this transaction involves several factors, which are not inherent in the text nor the reader, including the purposes for which something is being read, the types and formats of the material being read, the situations and contexts in which the reading occurs, the means by which understanding is determined or measured, and the reader’s skills, abilities, and experiences, (1988, p. 3). In my opinion, this definition is more encompassing than the one put forth by the RAND Reading Study Group.
Regarding the influence of the sociocultural context on comprehension in the definition, here again, this is not a new thought, although the authors go to great lengths in their explanatory notes to convince the readers that their use of the term is unique in its application. What is interesting is that the authors never quite define sociocultural context in this introductory chapter, which is supposed to set the tone for the rest of the book. They just give examples of it. However, all of their examples fit within a sociocultural theory of literacy as described by Perez. According to Perez (1998), all literacy users are members of a defined culture with a cultural identity, and the degree to which they engage in learning or using literacy is a function of this cultural identity (p. 4). Perez goes on to say that “the construction of reality is also situated within the cultural context where the environment and purpose help shape the meaning” (p. 5), which is basically what is stated above in the extended definition of comprehension proposed by the RAND Reading Study Group.
In the brief chapter on comprehension instruction focusing on adolescents (Chapter 2), there is a section on teaching students to read critically. Although the authors (Donna Alvermann and E. Jonathan Eakle) highlight the importance of teaching this skill, they offer no specific guidelines for doing so. However, this chapter does offer direction for several future studies in comprehension. For example, the authors suggest teaching comprehension in culturally and linguistically relevant ways to English Language Learners and providing support to teachers with little or no second language training as fertile areas for future investigations.
Chapter 3, “The Reading Comprehension Development and Instruction of English-Language Learners,” continues the discussion of issues related to linguistic diversity in the classroom. The chapter concludes with several instructional recommendations for native language, ESL, as well as all English settings. It is a well-written and very informative chapter, especially considering the fact that research in this area is still somewhat limited.
Chapter 4, “Individual Differences as Sources of Variability in Reading Comprehension in Elementary School Children,” is a very worthwhile chapter, providing a comprehensive review of factors within the reader that affect comprehension. More importantly, it establishes the research base in the areas underlying reading competence, and charts an instructional sequence for teaching comprehension. Reader variables are considered further in Chapter 8, “Taking Charge of Reader, Text, Activity, and Context Variables,” in which the author, Irene Gaskins, describes a reading comprehension program used at the Benchmark School that teaches students strategies that are consistent with the reading comprehension construct developed by the RAND Reading Study Group, of which she was a part. It is also in Chapter 8, that sociocultural context is finally given an adequate definition.
A separate chapter (Chapter 6) is devoted to collaborative approaches to comprehension which include the familiar strategies of Reciprocal Teaching (RT) and Questioning the Author (QtA), which have also been around for a while.
Chapter 7 brings together what is known about cognitive strategies and direct systematic instruction for all comprehension strategies in a very promising approach called Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction (CORI). This approach utilizes the activation of prior knowledge, questioning, searching for information, organizing graphically, and structuring, as cognitive strategies. In addition to defining these cognitive strategies, the chapter carefully delineates all aspects of explicit systematic instruction. This chapter also gives a clear and very useful explanation of scaffolding.
Chapter 9 focuses on the unique skills of reading hypertext, and it provides supportive research as well as classroom implications. This chapter is very timely in view of the widespread use of computers and multimedia technologies.
Guidelines for professional development in general, and reading comprehension in particular, are given in chapter 10. Professional development in teaching reading comprehension was also one of the recommendations of the National Reading Panel (2000) for improving comprehension. The chapter entitled “A Research Program for Improving Reading Comprehension” (Chapter 12), which is also the final chapter in the book, extends this topic by providing a glimpse of current studies whose findings will aid the classroom teacher in the future.
Chapter 11 looks at issues related to comprehension assessment such as having an adequate construct for comprehension, preferably the one based on the RAND Reading Study Group’s definition of comprehension, and choosing developmentally appropriate assessment tools that are valid and reliable. The influence of the No Child Left Behind legislation on assessment is also considered.
In sum, although this book gives the informed reading educator very little new information to think about regarding reading comprehension, it would be very beneficial as either a primary or supplementary text for experienced classroom teachers enrolled in a graduate course dealing with contemporary issues in teaching reading.
Anderson, R. C. (1994). Role of the reader’s schema in comprehension, learning and memory. In R. B. Ruddell, M.R. Ruddell, & H. Singer (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (Fourth Edition). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Hittleman, D. E. (1988). Developmental reading, K-8: Teaching from a whole-language perspective (3rd ed.). Columbus: Merrill Publishing Company.
National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health
Perez, B. (ed.). (1998). Sociocultural contexts of language and literacy. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.