S3 Ep 11 - Are Comprehension Strategies Still a Thing?

Reading a Book, Following with Finger

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Hello, hello and welcome to this episode of the Structured Literacy Podcast. My name is Jocelyn and I am so pleased to welcome you to this episode recorded here in Pataway, Burnie, on the lands of the Palawa people. In 2022, I wrote a blog post about my impressions of the English component of Version 9 of the Australian curriculum and we'll link to that in the show notes. There is much to be celebrated in the updates that came, including the removal of references to predictable texts and three cueing strategies. These were really important changes to the curriculum in support of moving to a more explicit and structured approach to reading instruction based on evidence. In reading through the content descriptors, however, and I compared them from Version 8.4 to Version 9, one by one I went through every content descriptor I was a little disappointed to see that comprehension strategies remained described in the same way as they had so it says, such as visualizing, predicting, connecting, summarizing and questioning to understand and discuss text listened to, viewed or read independently. This was almost identical to Version 8.4. It would be so great if there was a short guide provided as part of the curriculum to outline what research indicates to be the current understanding of most effective practice, but sadly that is not included in our curriculum documents. I was disappointed because it gives us a little bit of a misrepresentation of the role of these strategies in reading instruction and in understanding texts.


Comprehension strategies in and of themselves are not to be shunned. They are still a thing, but it can be tricky to nail down exactly what they are and how we should be teaching our students to use them in the classroom. Many of us have heard that teaching comprehension strategies is not great, but probably don't really understand why or what we should be doing instead. Firstly, it's important to note that the words "strategies and skills are often used interchangeably when referring to comprehension, and this is a problem. The language around this teaching changed in about the year 2000; the word "skills switched to strategies, but the actual teaching did not. We were still, and we are still, treating the strategies themselves as if they were skills. As a result, many of us have a skewed idea of what the term comprehension strategies means and perhaps are not teaching what we think we are teaching. So, let's start by unpacking these terms to help us have a better idea of what we're talking about.


Strategies are intentional and metacognitive; that is, they involve thinking about thinking and multi-step. We use strategies when we monitor our own comprehension while we read. Skills, on the other hand, develop to be automatic with extensive practice and can be transferred from one learning situation to another. So we can think about decoding in this way: we have a lot of practice, we learn to decode automatically and we can do that now across a range of learning contexts.


The challenge with applying the idea of skills to reading comprehension is that there's no evidence that those generic comprehension skills in inverted commas, even if we're calling them strategies, are actually transferable. Each text is unique and it requires a different level and type of background knowledge or domain-specific knowledge, as a different vocabulary, and is structured slightly differently. All of this is heavily dependent on the context in which we are using the text, and a child's capacity to comprehend what they read will largely be determined by background knowledge of the content, including vocabulary. All of this adds up to the realisation that reading comprehension is not a skill that can be transferred from one text to another. Teaching inference every Thursday or spending a term focusing on summarising in standalone lessons using a series of short texts is not going to help our students better understand the text we are presenting for them in reading assessment or the novel we choose for text study. No amount of strategies instruction will help the students if they don't know what the words mean or they don't have knowledge of what the text is about. So we've talked about what strategies are, let's talk about what their role is.


To answer that question, it's helpful to further define what we mean by comprehension strategies. These are cognitive processes that we can teach children to use to understand what they are reading. Good readers create a mental model of what the text means. They don't memorize everything word by word. We see this when a student can retell a story in their own words or can answer inferential questions by drawing on their background knowledge to fill in unstated information. The purpose of instruction that involves strategies is to help children create these mental models and think about what they're reading so that they can connect with the text. They are plans for constructing meaning.


It's also important to think about what components of instruction actually lead up to comprehension. When we teach children background knowledge and vocabulary, we're influencing comprehension. I think most of us are familiar with that idea. What we may not be as familiar with is the idea that when we teach morphology and syntax, we're also helping build students' comprehension. When we teach about text structures and text features and how texts work for different purposes, we are helping to build comprehension.


So comprehension doesn't come from just one thing, as we've been told. It's not just from strategy instruction. Comprehension comes about through learning a whole range of areas; they're like roads that lead to a common destination. The role of strategies, then, is to be the vehicle to help students engage with the text. In terms of which strategies are most valuable to focus on, research does give us some answers. The National Reading Panel from the United States from the year 2000 examined 16 comprehension strategies and reported that seven of them appeared to have a scientific basis for improving comprehension in non-struggling readers. And these were in alphabetical order, not the order of importance.


Comprehension monitoring, first up, that's paying attention to when meaning breaks down so that we can stop what we're doing and go back. The second one was cooperative learning; great for upper primary. It involves the scaffolded discussion or engagement with texts in small groups. Now, small groups doesn't need to mean that a group of four children sits with a text and has an independent conversation. Small groups could be partners. It could be a group of four children on the mat and talk about this question I'm about to ask you based on the text we were just reading. But talking about text has been shown to lead to great outcomes. Graphic and semantic organisers, which is illustrating concepts and relationship between concepts in a visual format, helps improve students' comprehension.


Question answering, including a range of questions not just the literal stuff, but a range of questions that ask children to think deeply have also been shown to lead to good outcomes. On the flip side of that, so has question generation. Asking students to come up with questions of their own about a text once they are familiar with it. Finally, summarising, which is determining what is important and expressing it in their own words, is valuable and evidence-informed in terms of helping children engage with text and understand it. So it's not the strategies that are the problem; it's how they've been applied.


It's worth noting that the research examined by the National Reading Panel was focused on the upper primary. Early years teachers should remember that the major factor in early reading comprehension is decoding ability. Doesn't mean that we're not going to engage children in these things in the early years, but the teacher is probably going to retain the role of the reader, as in the one lifting words from the page, for a time, so that children are not put in a situation of being asked to decode or read text they're not ready for. So please remember, when children are reading books for themselves, the major focus on comprehension is decoding in the early years. The role of decodable text is not about comprehension, it is about decoding. When we want to boost students' comprehension or teach comprehension in the early years, that's what a robust text-based unit is for. If you are a Resource Room member, you have access to robust, gradual release of responsibility, explicit text-based units for across the primary school.


It's worth unpacking a couple more points about comprehension strategies instruction. Number one: there are alternatives to extensive comprehension instruction. Beck, McKeown and Sandora suggest that while strategies instruction has a place, it should not drive comprehension instruction overall. Their two-year study involving Year 5 students found that students who had experienced a content model of instruction, that was built on knowledge and discussion, had higher levels of independent recall of a text than those who experienced a strategies instruction approach. Number two: when we do engage in direct teaching of comprehension strategies, keep it brief, and once your students know what the thing is and have started to learn to use it, don't feel compelled to allocate comprehension strategy time in your teaching timetable. Instead, it lives within your text-based unit.


Number three: the point of the strategies is to help students engage better with text, so put them to work, as I've said, as part of your text-based units in English. Have another look at the curriculum content descriptors and you'll see that it says use comprehension strategies. Our goal is to put the comprehension strategies to work within our lessons that involve rich picture books, information text, short stories and novels. In the old instruction, the strategy was the main focus and the text was incidental. Now what we want to do is make the text central and make the strategies a tool. Number four: the use of comprehension strategies isn't improved by practice, as is the case of decoding. We support students' development in their use by engaging in a gradual release of responsibility with increasingly complex text as children make their way through the primary school years. This can be a point of differentiation in your classroom, where some students are provided with a fully adult-led comprehension monitoring task and others have less support because they can do it on their own. Everyone's working with the same rich text, but the amount of support provided is adjusted.


The fifth point here, background knowledge and vocabulary knowledge are critical for overall reading comprehension and students cannot infer without it. So prioritize instruction that builds both of these over spending large amounts of time on strategies. The final thing I want to say to give you a little bit more guidance, to hopefully share some nuance about exactly what to do, aside from those things that I've talked about. Build background knowledge, teach vocabulary, teach morphology, syntax, text structure and features. Yes, there is indeed more. To guide you to the general capabilities in literacy from the Australian curriculum. These general capabilities, which used to be called progressions, provide us with some more specific guidance about what children need to be able to do to demonstrate that they're comprehending. Remember, no reading assessment, no matter where it comes from, will align with grades or necessarily tell you what to teach next. So the curriculum from whatever state or territory you're working in, combined with the literacy general capabilities, are going to give you detail. For example, under point five in the progression in the understanding text section, point five is said to be where we want Year 2 students to be, it says: to demonstrate comprehension, the students read and view simple text independently. Now when they say simple text, in the end of the document there's a list of criteria for the different levels of text complexity. They don't mean that it's necessarily a decodable text. It says that the student locates directly stated information; reads and views the content of texts and describes new or learned information; expresses an opinion or preference for a topic or text; draws obvious inferences by integrating print, visual and audio aspects of simple text, for example, uses images and keywords to infer a character's job; identifies some differences between imaginative and informative texts. These things here all live within your text-based unit work. You don't have to have text-based unit work over here and comprehension work over there. It all lives together.


For Year 3, we're looking at point number six in the capabilities document, and it says: student scans text to locate specific information in elementary print text, so remember, there's different levels of text complexity; recounts or describes the most relevant details from a text; tracks ideas or information throughout the text; identifies main idea by synthesizing information across a simple text and there's the synthesizing bit; makes connections between texts, so compares two versions of a well-known story and says how they're the same or different.


Now this section of the general capabilities document is divided into three sections: comprehension, processes and vocabulary. So if you're really scratching your head and thinking, well, if we're not teaching the comprehension strategies program anymore, what precisely am I supposed to do to teach comprehension? This document can really help you out with some nuance about the sort of things that you want students to be able to do. And when we are designing text-based units, this is precisely what we're looking at. We're looking at the Australian curriculum and we're looking at the general capabilities in combining that with information from other sources so that things are appropriate for the grade.


To sum up, comprehension strategies remain part of the Australian curriculum, but it doesn't mean that we should spend large amounts of time teaching them in standalone lessons. A little bit of direct, explicit instruction or strategies can be useful, but the main use of them is to help students engage with text in the context of our lessons involving rich text. When it comes to comprehension overall, decoding, background knowledge and vocabulary have a much larger part to play and should be prioritised in instruction across the school. Thank you so much for being here with me everyone, I hope that this episode has helped to give you some direction in where to find information about precisely what strategies can do for us, what they can't do for us and how we can work to help children understand and comprehend texts. I'll see you in the next episode. Bye.


Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (2022) General Capabilities: Literacy. 

Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Cheryl Sandora. (2020) 'Robust Comprehension Instruction with Questioning the Author - 15 years Smarter'. The Guilford press. 

(NICHD) Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, NIH, DHHS. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read: Reports of the Subgroups (00-4754). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

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