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What does comprehension instruction look like for struggling readers?

Posted by Freddy Hiebert on 13 June 2006

In a recent conversation, an educator said that the topic of this year’s Institute (Comprehending and Thinking with Text) wasn’t appropriate yet because the school system was still working on the “third and fourth” domains of Reading First — fluency and vocabulary. I wanted to respond immediately with the statement that has become a mantra in reading pedagogy texts: “Reading to learn” doesn’t wait until students have learned to read.

I didn’t make this response because this person’s comment brought to the surface a nagging worry of mine. What does comprehension instruction look like for the millions of American students who aren’t fluent readers? The concern isn’t an hypothetical one. The number of middle and high schoolers in this situation is high (e.g., Rasinski et al., Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 2005). Even middle and high schoolers who are lucky enough to be in effective fluency interventions will still be faced with texts that will be challenging to comprehend.

I believe that the answer to this situation may be the same as to the question that I posed last week (but didn’t answer). For students who are beginning readers (where the texts don’t warrant extended application of strategies or discussion of content) or for older, struggling readers, the key to developing a strong stance toward thinking with text comes from discussions. Young children can participate in Beck and McKeown’s Questioning the Author when an outstanding text (with content to think about) is read aloud. Rigorous curricula for middle and high school students are also required where there are texts that they experience through listening, followed by discussion. For older students, Dick Anderson’s Collaborative Reasoning came to mind. Dick and his colleagues have been studying something they call “collaborative reasoning.” In Collaborative Reasoning, students are taught various argument stratagems. Students could participate in these discussions even if they have experienced the texts through listening or have read an accessible article on the main topic.

I realized, also, that Ian Wilkinson who will be reporting at the Institute on different frameworks for discussion (including collaborative reasoning) will address this issue head-on. David (Pearson) was way ahead of me on this issue (which is understandable — after all, he’s the one who has been studying comprehension for almost four decades). David was so adamant that we invite Ian to the Institute (after David had heard Ian discuss preliminary findings at the IRA Research Day in 2005).

All of this brings up a new and perplexing question—if too much is done through listening to text (digitally, teacher, or peers), is it possible that students never develop in their fluency? This question I can answer! The consistent, frequent opportunities for fluency need to be alongside the thinking/comprehension strand of the program. And it also doesn’t mean that there is nothing to comprehend in the fluency sessions. Texts that provide students with background knowledge—e.g., on the topics that are the focus of the comprehension strategy and discussions—can support fluency and comprehension.