Using the quilt of reading instruction practices: Thoughts about effective ways to teach reading comprehension by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Using the quilt of reading instruction practices: Thoughts about effective ways to teach reading comprehension by Dr. Sam Bommarito

We suggest a metaphor of quilting might more aptly describe the realities of most learning experiences. Cambourne and Crouch

The response to last week’s blog was overwhelming. Over 1500 reads in the first 72 hours. People especially liked the idea of replacing the Great Debate/Reading wars metaphor with the metaphor of quilting. Cambourne and Crouch developed that metaphor. See this link for details LINK.  In this blog entry, I will discuss an important piece that needs to be present in any kind of reading instruction. That is the comprehension piece. Lately, there has been talk of teaching fewer comprehension strategies and replacing the time spent with building background instead. For some, this translates into not teaching comprehension strategies at all. That latter position is one that I think is a fundamental misunderstanding of the implications of the work of Willingham, the work that rekindled this focus on background knowledge. BTW I agree with Shanahan that Willingham is kind of right LINK (but only kind of right!).

In this post, I will make a case for making the teaching of reading strategies an important piece in the overall quilt of reading instruction. In the mid-1980s, Pressley, Pearson and others began exploring the issue of teaching reading comprehension. They were inspired by the work of Durkin. Through extensive systematic classroom observations, Durkin found that while teachers spent up to 20% of their time on comprehension, only 6/10 of 1% of that time was actually spent teaching comprehension. The remainder of the time was spent practicing comprehension. That would be something like a baseball hitting coach asking hitters to practice hitting without giving them any advice on adjusting their swing et al. The predictable result of such an approach would be that good hitters would get even better. Hitters that need instructions about effective swinging methods would further cement their use of ineffective practices. This is obviously not the desired approach.

Pressley, Pearson, and other researchers in the 80’s looked at what successful readers were doing to develop their comprehension. The findings of those studies about comprehension turned into what usually constitutes the reading strategies we try to teach today. Duke has done research over a couple of decades on the circumstances for the teaching of those reading strategies to be effective. The key to her findings is this: the strategies need to be taught using a gradual release model. When that happens, significant reading gains are made. Simply put- teaching students about comprehension strategies is not sufficient. Teaching reading strategies so that students internalize them and use them is.

That is why I am a strong advocate of spending time teaching reading strategies making sure that the instruction is done using a gradual release model. Having students name strategies or practice strategies with no instruction on how to use them is not effective. I know that Willingham has posited that the key to comprehension is making sure readers have the background knowledge needed. This has led to some of his followers forwarding the notion that all that is needed for teaching comprehension is developing reading background.  They say that comprehension instruction should focus mainly on building background knowledge.

On the one hand, I have to agree that developing background knowledge is crucial. That’s one of the reasons I advocate for allowing readers to do wide reading LINK. Wide reading in self-selected texts is an excellent way for readers to develop background knowledge.  On the other hand, as decades of research by folks like Pressley, Pearson, and Duke demonstrate, teaching comprehension strategies using a gradual release method will create handsome payoffs in terms of student reading performance.  Let me restate that teachers should teach the strategies in a way that allows the students to actually internalize and use them. Once again, I find myself saying, look at ALL the research. That means looking at both the research of Pressley, Pearson and Duke and the research of Willingham before deciding what the best course of action is around the issue of teaching comprehension strategies. By the way, I found Serravallo’s book about teaching reading strategies a particularly useful resource for creating effective lessons that actually teach students how to USE reading strategies. In some of those lessons, she even has students talk about how they use the strategies as part of the overall lesson. In addition, Burkins and Yaris’s book Who’s Doing the Work, is a great resource on how to organize overall reading instruction. I think following the ideas outlined in that book does result in strategies being taught in a way that students learn to use them. I mention using resources like these because I strongly feel that some folks are finding weak results for teaching reading strategies because they only have students name them, describe them, and practice them. That is not sufficient. I’ll make the point one last time, teaching so the students actually internalize and use the comprehension strategies is the key to the effective teaching of comprehension strategies. Teaching comprehension strategies without using gradual release is not a good use of teaching time.

In addition to making contributions to the rather large body of research around teaching comprehension, Duke has lately developed what I think is a more complete view of the reading process.  Readers are invited to read more about that model in my previous blog, LINK.  They should also be on the lookout for the special edition of The Missouri Reader, which is taking a deep dive into the topic of how to best teach reading. That issue should be released the last weekend in June.

In the upcoming blog posts, I’ll be talking about other things that I think should be present on the quilt of reading instruction. As I indicated in my previous blog, I think the best level to make decisions about which pieces of the quilt to use with children is at a district level. Districts ought to be free to make the choices.

So, until next week, this is Doctor Sam signing off

Happy Reading and Writing!

Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka, the guy in the middle, happily taking flak from all sides)

Copyright 2021 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization

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