Reading & Literacy

RAND: Don’t Let Basics Obstruct Comprehension Strategies

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — March 06, 2002 3 min read
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Recent efforts to improve early-reading achievement through skills-based instruction could be undermined unless a greater emphasis is placed on teaching children reading-comprehension strategies throughout their academic years, an upcoming federal report concludes.

Read the report, “Reading for Understanding: Toward an R&D Program in Reading Comprehension,” produced by the RAND Corp. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.) You can also order the report from RAND for $20.00.

What is needed, the report says, is a more systematic and sustained research effort on how readers extract meaning from various types of text, what are the most effective methods for nurturing skillful readers, and how teachers can best assess students’ reading proficiency.

“Marshalling all our forces to ensure that all children are reading at the 3rd grade level is only the first step in promoting proficient reading,” says the report, “Reading for Understanding: Toward an R&D Program in Reading Comprehension,” set for release in printed form later this month. “Some of those good 3rd grade readers will progress on their own to proficiency in reading, but many will not.”

The report sets out an ambitious agenda for research that could be readily applied in the classroom and that addresses three specific areas: the reader’s ability, knowledge, and experience; features of the text; and the purposes, processes, and consequences of a particular reading activity.

More study is also needed to determine the impact that assessment—particularly standardized tests that do not adequately test comprehension—has on curriculum and instruction, according to the report.

“We can’t postpone comprehension instruction until 4th grade,” said Catherine Snow, a Harvard University education professor who chaired the 14-member panel that wrote the report. “We really have to think about how to combine teaching word-reading skills in the 1st and 2nd grades with teaching vocabulary and comprehension simultaneously.”

‘4th Grade Cliff’

The 160-page report was produced by the RAND Corp. under a contract with the office of educational research and improvement of the U.S. Department of Education. The independent research organization, based in Santa Monica, Calif., organized a study group made up of reading researchers, a school administrator, and experts in educational psychology and human development to review existing research and recommend an agenda for future study.

The group found that the current knowledge base is “sizeable but sketchy, unfocused and inadequate as a basis for reform in reading comprehension instruction.”

OERI is currently soliciting proposals for research topics based on the report’s recommendations.

The study group’s emphasis on the need for explicit instruction in reading comprehension for all students addresses the concerns of many teachers and researchers who say that recent state and federal initiatives to boost reading achievement have focused too much on basic skills. Those efforts, they say, seem to take for granted that most children who become fluent readers will naturally understand what they are reading.

Effective teachers, however, coach students on strategies for interpreting complex reading assignments. Students, for example, are encouraged to summarize passages they are reading, identify themes, jot down notes and questions in the margins, and talk about the texts with classmates.

Many experts blame the lack of attention to comprehension in the early grades for what is commonly called “the 4th grade slump.” The phrase refers to the large numbers of students who master initial reading skills but are challenged by the more complex tasks required of subject-area texts introduced in later grades.

“The 4th grade slump is becoming the 4th grade cliff that kids are falling off” because of an overemphasis on phonics and phonemic awareness, said P. David Pearson, the dean of the graduate school of education at the University of California, Berkeley. “I don’t see kids engaging with the big ideas ... all those things that literature is all about.”

Mr. Pearson, a former co-director of the Center for Improvement of Early Reading Achievement at Michigan State University, was critical of the group’s initial draft of the report. He contended that it ignored the impact on comprehension that variations in children’s texts have.

The final report, however, hits all the right points, he said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as RAND: Don’t Let Basics Obstruct Comprehension Strategies


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