Beyond Decoding: The Behavioral and Biological Foundations of Reading Comprehension

reviewed by Sarah E. Scott - November 23, 2009

coverTitle: Beyond Decoding: The Behavioral and Biological Foundations of Reading Comprehension
Author(s): Richard K. Wagner, Christopher Schatschneider, and Caroline Phythian-Sence (eds.)
Publisher: Guilford Press, New York
ISBN: 1606233106, Pages: 301, Year: 2009
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The idea for Beyond Decoding: The Behavioral and Biological Foundations of Reading Comprehension emerged at a conference on reading comprehension funded by the Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR). In the literacy community FCRR, established in 2002, has developed a reputation for conducting rigorous research on reading assessment and the diagnosis of reading difficulty. This volume is well aligned with FCRR’s mission and reputation.

Beyond Decoding is organized into four sections which each provide a different perspective on the foundations of reading comprehension: cognitive, developmental, individual differences, and biological based. The fact that these diverse perspectives on reading comprehension exist in the same volume is itself an accomplishment that should be lauded, as these literatures don’t always speak to one another. As Radach, Schnitten, Glover, & Huestegge observed, these different theoretical and methodological traditions “are still largely in a state of friendly coexistence” (p. 77).

Within each section of the volume, the chapters provide readers with the opportunity to develop a research-based understanding of one or more aspects of the terrain of reading comprehension including assessment, instruction, diagnosis, and intervention. Much of the research is focused on foundational constructs intended to increase understanding of how individuals make meaning from text and the potential sources of comprehension breakdown. This particular volume emerges at a key turning point for the field of reading comprehension. Currently, issues such as the inability of U.S. students to negotiate complex texts, the diagnosis of reading difficulty, and the importance of improving reading comprehension instruction in classrooms stand at the forefront of federal, state, and local policy concerns. Teachers and researchers concerned about reading comprehension are being urged to interrogate our own assumptions about reading comprehension instruction, assessment, and intervention.  Basic research such as the research presented in this volume plays an important role in challenging current thinking; as van den Broek, White, Kendeou, and Carlson aptly note, “It is essential that we understand the processes that lead to successful reading comprehension and the ways in which these processes can fail. Such understanding can have far-reaching implications for educational practice, specifically with respect to assessment, diagnosis, and intervention for both good and struggling readers” (p. 107).

One of the strengths of the volume is the presentation of research in the area of diagnosing reading difficulty. The research challenges teachers and researchers to refine and expand their understanding of the sources of comprehension breakdown. Identifying the factors that contribute to impaired comprehension has been a persistent challenge for scholars who study reading comprehension; contributors to this volume confront this challenge head on. Across numerous chapters readers are reminded of two dilemmas related to diagnosing comprehension breakdown: that a low comprehension score on a passage comprehension measure does not identify the underlying factors that contribute to this low score, and that readers with quantitatively similar scores on diagnostic measures likely differ when one considers the reason for comprehension breakdown. While the authors don’t solve these dilemmas, their research underscores the need for diagnostic tools that allow educators to explore the range of reasons why comprehension fails. As I read across the chapters focused on understanding sources of comprehension breakdown, I was excited by the possibility that scholars across various research traditions and research foci could work synergistically to develop a robust battery for diagnosing reading difficulties. Such a battery would offer insight into specific, targeted sources of comprehension breakdown and could also inform the design of interventions for struggling readers.

The authors in this book repeatedly note that researching reading comprehension is an interpretive quagmire. For example, in eye movement research, what does a regression or fixation mean relative to reading comprehension? Does skilled oral reading translate to skilled silent reading? Methodological concerns are broached. For example, in chapter four, the authors note that for children in the elementary grades, reading is often assessed via oral reading and the results on an oral reading assessment are then used to generalize the child’s reading ability. The authors question the validity of generalizing reading skill from oral reading measures, especially given the language production component required in oral reading that is not required for silent reading.

Chapter eight, which focuses on reading comprehension and vocabulary, addresses the methodological challenge of establishing causality or developmental primacy in terms of what comes first: a comprehension deficit or a vocabulary deficit. In chapter five, the utility of mixed methods approaches is foregrounded. Van den Broek et al.’s study of struggling and proficient readers utilized both eye movement data and think aloud protocols; this mixed methods approach allowed for both quantitative and qualitative aspects of online comprehension processes, giving researchers a glimpse of how one might assess both the quantity and quality of children’s representations of what they read. The range of methodological approaches, along with a critical stance towards these methodologies, results in a rich compendium of perspectives on reading comprehension research with ideas for how the field can continue to refine its understanding of what it means to comprehend text.

It has been long established that reading comprehension involves the orchestration of a number of complex, integrated processes, from basic vision to complex linguistic understandings. This means that the number of research areas implicated in a text focused on research Beyond Decoding is vast. The book’s strength – that it introduces readers to a wide range of topics from fluency and vocabulary knowledge to embodiment theory, eye movements, gene–environment interactions, and neurobiology – also poses some challenges to readers in terms of meaningfully connecting the discrete chapter topics into a coherent understanding of the field more broadly. If this text were utilized in a graduate class on reading comprehension, the course instructor would likely have to work to help students make meaningful connections across chapters and to situate the text in the landscape of research on reading comprehension.

While the purpose of this volume is not to focus specifically on instructional approaches to reading comprehension, much of the basic research that is included has important implications for the development of interventions and instructional approaches that support the development of reading skill. For example, the findings of the studies presented in chapter three suggest that interventions such as reciprocal teaching are appropriate for certain types of struggling readers but not others. The research presented in chapter seven identifies unique factors that contribute to comprehension, including the ability to make inferences, monitor comprehension, and understand story structure, and raises questions about how readers come to know these component skills while still building “an integrated and complete model of the text as a whole” (p. 170).  The authors of chapter five suggest that work on oral comprehension in preschool education might be just as important as the traditional code emphasis that typically forms the heart of the preschool literacy curriculum.

Taking basic research, such as the research presented in this volume, and applying it to the design of classroom instruction and interventions, is no small task. This volume, which brings together researchers across a range of research traditions and orientations, is an encouraging step toward the sort of dialogue that is going to be necessary if we are to improve reading comprehension outcomes in the United States.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 23, 2009 ID Number: 15844, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 11:33:25 AM

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