What is Reading Comprehension? Three Points of View
Dr. Kathryn S. Hawes
Cognitive psychologists, English literature professors, and reading methods professors debate the issues of comprehension's definition, process, and product. Although remedial and developmental readers lack background knowledge, instructors can increase this knowledge with lessons similar to the constructive theory of literary analysis promoted by Louise Rosenblatt and to college whole language learning recommended by David Caverly.
What is Reading Comprehension?
Three Points of View
Comprehension is invisible. Its definition, its process, and its product continue to be elusive. Cognitive psychologists, English literature professors, and reading methods professors debate these issues, resulting in a confusion of materials and methods for college developmental reading instructors.
Cognitive psychologists argue that comprehension is the result of innate intelligence; a student is just born "smart." This view is related to Thorndike's statement that com-prehension is the manipulation of memories (Thorndike, 1917). Professors in college English departments perceive comprehension along the lines of literary analysis. Their major debate is the source of interpretation. At one end of the continuum are those who feel the analysis should focus on the writer (objective). At the other extreme are the professors who believe the comprehension of the piece of literature
lies in how the reader feels about the text (subjective). Reading methods professors have seen reading comprehension from other points of view that run along a continuum from a synthetic skills approach (built on the theory of phonics) to a holistic approach.
Louise Rosenblatt (1938), an English literature professor, became frustrated with this polarity of theories and contended that comprehension of literature is constructed from a dialogue between writer and reader (constructive). Vygotsky (1978), a linguistics professor, expanded this idea of construction of meaning to include the input of others and the environment (social construction). The result is the class discussion in which the students and professor learn about the writer's background, style, and attitudes in order to interpret the selection in light of what the message contributes to the participants today.
For example, students may read James Baldwin's story "Tell Me How Long the Train Has Been Gone" (1967). The experiences of the main character, a boy named Leo, reveal Baldwin's attitudes toward prejudice and segregation as felt during an era of political contention over civil rights laws and the Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court decision declaring "separate is not equal." Therefore, how the reader constructs meaning of the story is critical.
The whole language approach integrates learning in a unit of study in which the student experiences many relevant subjects. For example, many elementary school teachers develop a popular unit around the Laura Ingalls Wilder novels about life on the prairie. The unit includes the geography, history, culture, and science of the era and of the location along with the reading of the popular novels. Thus, comprehension is enhanced with background knowledge the students did not have available as prior knowledge.
Caverly and Peterson (1996) promote a similar whole language approach to expository text for college developmental readers. They guide students through a task with authentic text chapters so the students become aware of the nature of the task and gain control of it. The instructors draw the learners into the task with the students' own personal experiences in a social setting in which students learn from each other. Caverly and Peterson scaffold the task with informative resources including the Internet until they gradually release the students to full responsibility for the task. They ask students to use word processing to keep a journal in which they write about their prior knowledge before they read, write about their new knowledge after they read, and add a post-journal entry about their developing understanding after they interact with the material and with others. The students also use an outlining software program to learn text structure. Additionally, they communi-cate through e-mail with students at a college in another state about their sustained silent reading.
College instructors of de-velopmental reading comprehension face a challenge from these three groups - cognitive psychologists, professors of literary analysis, and teacher educators. What is best for these pre-college level readers?
Most colleges use norm-referenced, standardized, multiple-choice reading comprehension tests to place students in a remedial or developmental level class. In order to make a college level score, they need more background knowledge and more logical analytical skills than other students taking the same test. However, they cannot tap into prior knowledge that does not exist. It is almost impossible for students to make textually and scriptally implicit (inferential) decisions when they don't know about the content and don't know the meanings of the words. Consequently, these students need knowledge of content and of strategies.
An illustration of this problem is found in the following lines from the lyrics of "Deuce & A Quarter" by New Power Generation (2002):
In my deuce and a quarter feelin' funky funky fine...
And money talk, pusher walk and sleepin' on the politics...
A-havin' it, grabbin' it, tastin' it...
And when U step off, I finally rub your face in it...
So we revert 2 committin' dope, many brothers get hurt
By another brother who don't like salt in his dirt
Trying to answer the following questions about this passage reveals the confusion of not having enough prior knowledge: a) What is the subject? b) What is the main idea? c) According to the author, what is it the problem? d) What is "salt in his dirt?" e) What is a "deuce and a quarter?" f) What is it like to feel "funky fine?" g) Does the author suggest that politics will help solve the problem?
Reading instructors probe to activate prior knowledge so that the readers will relate the new information to what they already know. However, activating prior knowledge is often not enough for college remedial and developmental level readers because they lack the specified area of background information. In addition, students often do not recognize the vocabulary even though they can sound out the words. Fisher (2001) noted that teachers who initiated a broad change in instruction in an attempt to improve standardized test scores decided they had to include vocabulary instruction because the students scored lower on vocabulary than on any other area of the tests. In other words, they lacked the background knowledge to think and respond to the test items.
Achievement for All, a RAND research and development program, quotes from Dole, et. al. (1991), from Graves, Cooke, & LaBerge (1983), and from Langer (1984) to say that if students lack the background knowledge to fully understand the text, teachers may use a variety of instructional techniques such as building the necessary background knowledge, introducing key concepts, and clarifying vocabulary.
Using varied learning activities enhances knowledge of content. Instructors should search the professional journals and conference presentations for these activities. For example, a class can read The Diary of Anne Frank, gather information about World War II, and search for materials about the Jewish communities, economics, and culture in Europe. These students may learn more than the simple ability to retell the story of Anne Frank.
Instructors can search the Internet for web sites devoted to course units that provide new knowledge related to the text. Two excellent sites are WebQuest and The Voice of the Shuttle. They provide links to sample lessons and to sources of information about authors and about topics.
Students can search the Internet for information related to an assignment. One student reading an essay titled "The Exercise Fix" searched Google.com and found a whole web site devoted to exercise addiction. Another student reading an essay about government and health care written by Malcolm Forbes, Jr., found web pages about Forbes that helped him understand Forbes' point of view on health care.
Vocabulary, taught in context, enhances knowledge. Concept mapping is an especially successful tool for social construction of knowledge. Students focus on a word and brainstorm definitions, descriptions, examples, features, and other aspects as they contribute from their personal prior knowledge. Then some students search the dictionary for definitions, roots, prefixes, and suffixes while others search the Internet for applications and elaborations of the concept. The group must then study the concept map and refine it to be relevant to the essay (text).
Other students may simply keep their personal vocabulary journals related to the essays. They identify unknown words, seek a relevant definition and pronunciation, and incorporate the word in a sentence applicable to the essay.
Building a Student Reading Strategy
Jessie Jackson's article "The Dream, the Stars, and Dr. King" (1995) is about affirmative action and civil rights including schools, jobs, housing, and medical care, and suggests that if citizens ignore these issues, the government will also. To enable students to comprehend this article, the instructor must build background and vocabulary. Then students take control. First, they must keep a dictionary within reach. Since this is an essay, a good strategy is to skim by reading the introduction, the first sentence in each paragraph, and the conclusion. The purpose is to determine the subject, the thesis, and the pattern of organization. The next student strategy is to read to mark the details that support the thesis; i.e., Jackson's use of interesting brief events such as the changes in school integration, housing patterns, the professional glass ceiling for minorities, and the careless comments of politicians. To get all this firmly organized in the mind, a group may summarize by social construction of a concept map.
The narrative genre suggests a slight variation of the same strategies. However, the instructor still needs to build background of the era and of the author. For example, students who read "The Black Cat" by Edgar Allan Poe should consult a dictionary for unfamiliar words. The common pattern for a story is somewhat similar to that of an essay with an introduction (of the main character, the setting, and the problem), a body (the sequence of events), and a conclusion (the resolution of the problem). Poe startles the reader by telling the end of the story first, but then he goes back in time to tell how the main character is in jail facing the death penalty.
Because skimming may produce confusion in a story, students should read strategically; i.e., they should read a page, then stop and write a brief notation at the bottom of the page. These marginalia later provide a resource for designing a flow chart of the events in the correct order.
Instructors definitely can prepare the underprepared when they make the assumption that ability to succeed in college is not innate; it is learned. As stated in the College Entrance Examination Board's Academic Preparation for College (1983), instructors can guide students in learning "what college entrants need to know and be able to do” to succeed in college (p. 1). Also, instructors can increase background knowledge with lessons similar to a modified whole language approach in which students learn about the selection instead of just enough to retell it. Finally, instructors can promote the learning of new related vocabulary and increase use of generic strategies that are learned with enough repetition and success that these strategies transfer to other courses. Our college graduates are there to prove the case.
Baldwin, J. (1967). Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone. New York: DialPress.
Caverly, D. C. & Peterson, C. L. (1996). Foundations for a Constructivist, Whole Language Approach to Developmental College Reading. NADE Monographs. Retrieved November 11, 2002, from http:// www.nade.net/ documents/Mono96/mono96.5.pdf
Dole, J. A., Valencia, S. W., Greer, E. A., & Wardrop, J. L. (1991). Effects of two types of prereading instruction on the comprehension of narrative and expository text. Reading Research Quarterly, 26, 142–159.
Fisher, D. (2001). We're moving on up: Creating a school wide literacy effort in an urban high school. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 45(2), 92 - 101.
Graves, M. F., Cooke, C. L., & LaBerge, M. J. (1983). Effects of previewing short stories. Reading Research Quarterly, 18, 262–276.
Jackson, J. (1995). The dream, the stars, and Dr. King. In J. Maker & M Lenier (Eds.), College Reading with Active Critical Thinking, Book 2 (pp. 438-440). Belmont:Wadsworth Pub-lishing Company.
Langer, J. A. (1984). Examining background knowledge and text compre-hension. Reading Research Quarterly, 19, 468–481.
New Power Generation (2002). Deuce & a quarter. Retrieved November 11, 2002, from http://www.reallyrics.
RAND (2002). Achievement for All. Reading for Understanding: Toward an R&D Program in Reading Compre-hension. Retrieved November 17, 2002, from http://www.rand.org/ multi/ achievementforall/reading/readreport.html
Rosenblatt, L. (1938). Literature as Exploration. New York: Appleton-Century.
Thorndike, E. (1917). Reading and reasoning: A study of mistakes in paragraph reading. Journal of Educa-tional Psychology, 8, 323 - 332.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
For further information please contact Dr. Kathryn S. Hawes. l The University of Memphis l Memphis, Tennessee 38152 l Phone (901) 678-5110 l firstname.lastname@example.org