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Effective Practices for Developing Reading Comprehension

Nell K. Duke, University of Michigan and P. David Pearson, University of California Berkeley

Reading comprehension research has a long and rich history. There is much that we can say about both the nature of reading comprehension as a process and about effective reading comprehension instruction. Most of what we know has been learned since 1975. Why have we been able to make so much progress so fast? We
believe that part of the reason behind this steep learning curve has been the lack of controversy about teaching comprehension. Unlike decoding, oral reading, and reading readiness, those who study reading comprehension instruction have avoided much of the acrimony characteristic of work in other aspects of reading.

As it should be, much work on the process of reading comprehension has been grounded in studies of good readers. We know a great deal about what good readers do when they read:
• Good readers are active readers.

• From the outset they have clear goals in mind for their reading. They constantly evaluate whether the text, and their reading of it, is meeting their goals.

• Good readers typically look over the text before they read, noting such things as the structure of the text and text sections that might be most relevant to their reading goals.

• As they read, good readers frequently make predictions about what is to come.

• They read selectively, continually making decisions about their reading—what to read carefully, what to read quickly, what not to read, what to reread, and so on.

• Good readers construct, revise, and question the meanings they make as they read.

• Good readers try to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words and concepts in the text, and they deal with inconsistencies or gaps as needed.

• They draw from, compare, and integrate their prior knowledge with material in the text.

• They think about the authors of the text, their style, beliefs, intentions, historical milieu, and so on.

• They monitor their understanding of the text, making adjustments in their reading as necessary.

• They evaluate the text’s quality and value, and react to the text in a range of ways, both intellectually and emotionally.

• Good readers read different kinds of text differently.

• When reading narrative, good readers attend closely to the setting and characters.

• When reading expository text, these readers frequently construct and revise summaries of what they have read.

• For good readers, text processing occurs not only during “reading” as we have traditionally defined it, but also during short breaks taken during reading, even after the “reading” itself has commenced, even after the “reading” has ceased.

• Comprehension is a consuming, continuous, and complex activity, but one that, for good readers, is both satisfyingandproductive.

(See Pressley and Afflerbach 1995 and Block and Pressley 2001 for reviews of much of the research on good readers’comprehension. The intellectual ancestor to this chapter is “Developing Expertise in Reading Comprehension” [Pearson, Roehler, Dole, & Duffy, 1992] in the second edition of What Research Has to Say About
Reading Instruction; this piece also provides a good overview of the work upon which this characterization of good reading is based.)

Given knowledge about what good readers do when they read, researchers and educators have addressed the following question: Can we teach students to engage in these productive behaviors? The answer is a resounding yes. A large volume of work indicates that we can help students acquire the strategies and processes used
by good readers—and that this improves their overall comprehension of text, both the texts used to teach the strategies and texts they read on their own in the future.

Here we will describe some proven instructional techniques for helping students acquire productive comprehension skills and strategies. As you will see, there is a large if not overwhelming number and range of techniques that work, yet the use of even one technique alone has been shown to improve students’ comprehension. Teaching what we call collections or packages of comprehension strategies can help students become truly solid comprehenders of many kinds of text.

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