Comprehension Instruction: Research-Based Best Practices
Cathy Block, Michael Pressley
Guilford Press, 2002
by Kendra Wagner
Block and Pressley's book can act as a compass for the profession in teaching comprehension in the 21st century. Comprehension Instruction: Research-Based Best Practices, (Guilford, 2002) is a groundbreaking, 400-page book, presenting crisp summaries of 25 years of comprehension research, by 40 contributing authors, as well as specific questions that need further research.
In the last decade the term "being strategic" has emerged, when referring to reading comprehension. This goes a step beyond what was previously defined as gaining meaning. This concept of "active processing" has invited analogies to sports, driving and even musical proficiency. We now know, from extensive research, that proficient readers use a variety of strategies, up to as many as 30, to gain meaning from fiction and non-fiction material. These are as simple as re-reading a long sentence (or one that you were interrupted from while reading) or as complex as filling in a mental "cause and effect" graphic organizer while reading about the various causes of the Civil War. Like any accomplished skill, most of these steps in the process are unconscious, so as not to interfere with the pleasure or efficiency of the task. Our students need instruction in how to make these conscious. To unveil, model and teach how these work in the brain can make a difference to some low-functioning or unengaged readers.
As teachers, we must pay close attention to this evidence, for it is our non-proficient readers that need instruction in how to fill in their gaps with these tools. We also must pay close attention to our own mental processes while we read. This term, metacognition, surfaces quite often in the book. The first time I heard this concept was in the early 80's, in reference to math problems on the state test I was preparing my students for. They were to "show their work" and describe their thinking, which was something new then. Now we are hearing the same concept used in reading instruction. Is it possible to teach students to monitor their comprehension, "unpack their brain" while reading, learn and identify strategies employed before, during and after reading, and then verbalize these processes? According to the book, yes, with an excellent and trained teacher.
Block and Pressley begin with a brief historical overview of comprehension instruction, and present the reader with a mindset and purpose for reading, part of which is to attend to the past, present, and future of teaching students how to derive meaning from text. By bolstering our background knowledge and establishing a reason for reading, they exemplify modeling pre-reading strategies for us in the first chapter!
In the following chapter Pressley reflects on the success of Keene and Zimmerman's book, Mosaic of Thought (Heinemann, 1997). He covers several pages on the pluses and minuses about their popular book, concluding that it broke new ground by introducing seven strategies, but is missing a roadmap of how it would look in a classroom. He also feels that the authors oversimplify the endeavor that comprehension instruction truly is, and leave out other equally vital pieces of the comprehension equation, such as fluency and vocabulary. Had Harvey and Goudvis' Strategies That Work (Stenhouse, 2000) been published, his criticisms may have been answered about "how it looks in action".
In the introductory and concluding chapters, a sad tone infuses Pressley's words when revealing just how little comprehension instruction is actually being done in classrooms, despite the wealth of knowledge we have about what works. This is due to several factors, according a few of the contributing authors: 1) Most teacher-certification programs do not yet include comprehension instruction "how-to". Only several states require a course in reading that is more than an overview. 2) The research implies that this is not information that can be siphoned into a purchase-able program. 3) Assessment, planning, fortitude and creativity on the part of each teacher is required. 4) Teachers do not feel confident, as readers, in their own metacognitive abilities. 5) Staff development which provides a place where teachers can hone their abilities or try out new methods, is sketchy, or missing altogether, 6) Teachers need a wide variety of texts available to them, both in ability level and genre, for modeling and student practice.
In the other 23 chapters the authors develop a common thread about the importance of following a classroom framework that spirals through the following steps, no matter what the age level: a) presenting explicit models of gaining meaning, (often these are mental models --"brain unpacking"), b) guided student practice, c) multiple opportunities for students to practice -- ultimately independently. Teaching these in the context of a structured Reader's Workshop is ideal. The authors also agree that helping students become self-regulated comprehenders is hard work, and such methods will likely take more than a year for most teachers to master. Eight chapters are directed towards Pre-K through 5th grade instruction, and three are directed towards middle school through college. Every chapter, however, is worth reading, because even the tips in the college chapter will help a 2nd grade teacher devise lessons on what it takes to be a good reader. The ingredients, the items in the tool kit, are essentially the same. And being flexible with those tools is an essential component to being a good reader.
Much like the research on teaching writing, which proves it takes an avid writer to be a good writing workshop facilitator, it also requires a proficient and introspective reader to be a good reading workshop facilitator. This means modeling and "over teaching" certain comprehension strategies that students need to acquire. It is hard work. But it is a journey I am willing to tread, for the joy of hearing a student say. "I made an inference just then, didn't I?