Sunday, August 26, 2012

In a reading state of mind: Comprehension monitoring

The below flow chart is modified from In a Reading State of Mind by Fisher, Fry and Lapp. It demonstrates the steps in comprehension monitoring in a way that may be usable to students if they are taught the various strategies. Importantly the reader needs to implement these strategies independently and efficiently in order to become a good reader. Direct instruction needs to include identifying when a comprehension fix up strategy is warranted and which one is appropriate. The length of the passage to be read before checking for comprehension depends on many things, including the level of knowledge the individual needs to have. If someone is scanning a newspaper for details about a particular event he is merely curious about, the attention to detail may be quite low. If someone is trying to learn the processes and regulations for filing a report with the FCC, he needs to check very frequently because the details matter a great deal.

As we try to introduce more complex reading material to students, it becomes increasingly important that they have comprehension monitoring skills. They need to be able to go back when they missed something or when something is unclear. Without monitoring their comprehension, they cannot engage in this essential process. In my experience, poor readers are especially bad at comprehension monitoring. They skip difficult material, do not realize when the words stopped making sense, and are consequently content to be done, regardless of whether they got it or not. Since they do not have effective monitoring or fix up strategies and the task is often seen as tedious at best for struggling readers, rereading to improve comprehension does not happen.

In my mind, if we want to improve upper level students reading skills, we must teach them strategies to approach these complex readings, but start with readings they can master. At the elementary level we talk about the five finger test. A student is asked to read a page in the text, keeping track of errors with the fingers on one hand. If he makes five errors or more, the reading is too difficult and the child should choose a different book. As we move to older students we tend to ignore the guideline. Students are given "appropriate" books and told to read them. Without ensuring that there is reading at the child's reading level, the child will not master strategies for conquering more complex material. Yes, they need the harder material as well, but strategy instruction is premised on the fact that the material on which the strategy is initially learned is accessible. Once it is internalized, then you can move to material above the student's reading level.

This means that schools need to have content material at a variety of reading levels for students to practice skills on. It can be the introductory lessons in a unit providing an opportunity to preteach improtant vocabulary or concpets that will be looked at in greater depth as the unit progresses. For example, to teach a unit on cells, the teacher might first give students one of three or four readings on cell theory, each geared to individual reading levels. With that text, students might be expected to monitor comprehension based on vocabulary, highlihgting new or poorly understood terms that the reading or glossary will help them to understand better. A homework assignment might echo this task. Once students were successful with reading at their independent reading level, you could move to the next step. An article from Science which is written above grade level might be introduced and the students might be asked to use the same techniques in pairs using their reading, texts and each other to help understand the critical vocabulary. After a number of uses at grade level or higher material, the students could be asked to demonstrate the skill on a homework assignment. Moving too quickly will only result in the students not mastering the skill. Patience is important. Furthermore, struggling readers may master the technique in one subject but not realize they can apply it in other. Generalizing across the curriuclum is important. Talking with the other professionals working with the same students and planning such strategies together, means an increased opportunity for students to master strategies for approaching rigorous material- a Common Core goal.

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