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Lack of Comprehension Skills Traced to Oversimplified Texts

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Washington--Children who master basic reading skills, but then fall behind in the middle grades, may do so because they receive little instruction in essential techniques of comprehension. And they learn to read from materials that are often boring at best and incomprehensible at worst, according to researchers from the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois.

Last week, the center's director, Richard C. Anderson, and some colleagues brought their research results to Washington, where they met with representatives of educational organizations. The meeting, sponsored jointly by the American Educational Research Association (aera) and the International Reading Association (ira), was part of an effort to alert educators and policymakers to the center's findings, and also to suggest ways that the situation can be corrected.

The center's reading research, carried out over a five-year period, was funded by the National Institute of Education.

Multiple factors contribute to the problem, the researchers said. In part, the responsibility lies with the reading curriculum materials--and their publishers--many of which emphasize word recognition at the expense of comprehension skills; rely primarily on a "fill-in-the-blank" format; and have been so "simplified" that children find them boring, according to studies sponsored by the center. Mr. Anderson emphasized, however, that the use of phonics and word recognition are vital parts of reading instruction and should not be eliminated.

'Poor Advice' Given to Teachers

The texts' deficiencies are compounded in the teachers' manuals that accompany the readers, according to Dolores Durkin, a researcher from the center. From the manuals, she said, "Teachers receive poor advice on what to teach."

Hence, another part of the researchers' campaign involves working with publishers to help them develop materials that better meet the needs of students and teachers, according to Mr. Anderson. Next spring, the re-searchers will hold a similar meeting with chief state school officers and superintendents of large districts.

The researchers offer considerable evidence to support their claims. In a recent attempt to "define the kind and amount of comprehension instruction offered in grades three through six," Ms. Durkin visited 39 classrooms in 14 school districts. Each teacher was observed for three successive days, and Ms. Durkin recorded everything they said and did. She observed the teachers for a total of 17,997 minutes.

Reading Teachers Observed

Of the 11,587 minutes spent observing teachers teaching reading, Ms. Durkin found that only 45 minutes were spent teaching students to comprehend, or figure out the meaning of, the text. The 45 minutes, Ms. Durkin noted, were divided among 12 instances; the average length of time spent on comprehension was 3.7 minutes per episode.

A second study, conducted by Bertram C. Bruce of Bolt Beranek and Newman Inc., a Boston-based research firm, and the center, examined the texts used to teach reading. The research, Mr. Bruce said, "suggests that constraints placed upon publishers by special-interest groups, and, most unfortunately, by the over-extension of some previous research findings, have led to school texts that are difficult to read for all the wrong reasons and are not fully adequate for teaching children to read."

The authors and editors of the texts rely heavily on "readability" formulas, which require simple words and short sentences for beginning readers. In many cases, Mr. Bruce said, the texts are often choppy, disconnected, and incomplete. "Many skilled readers have trouble figuring out what's going on," he said.

Moreover, Mr. Bruce said, "The stories used in school to introduce children to reading are bland and colorless; they have little or no conflict; they give little insight into characters' thoughts and feelings; and they are predominantly 'authorless'--that is, there is no explicit narrator and the author's voice is impersonal."

The implications of these findings go far beyond the classroom, the researchers agreed. Not only do students fail to learn comprehension skills that are extremely useful in all situations, they also miss out on the pleasure that reading can bring. Changing the emphasis of reading instruction will require a lot of effort, the researchers said. "We shouldn't leave the impression that all the problems are solved," Mr. Anderson said. "They aren't."

Several Approaches Suggested

Mr. Anderson and the other researchers suggested several approaches that educators can take to improve the situation.

Poor readers and young children, Mr. Anderson said, do not make inferences or work to get the general point of the material they are reading. "Explicit instruction to summarize and question yourself will get dramatic improvement," he said.

It is also important that educators who would like to change the materials used to teach reading convey their opinions to publishers. Publishers are responsive to consumers, Mr. Anderson said, but until they know that new materials will be adopted, "We can't ask them to commit financial suicide."

Educational organizations can help by providing teachers with information on how to teach comprehension. Some districts, including one in Manhattan and one in Kalispell, Mont., are already successfully using the center's research to modify their curriculum.

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