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Handout: Enhancing comprehension

Two key characteristics of good readers are that they (1) read for a purpose and (2) actively monitor whether that purpose is being met (RAND 2002). If skilled readers come across words or ideas in a text that do not match their background knowledge or that are confusing, they take steps to “clarify their understanding,” such as rereading or reading ahead. They may also summarize what they are reading from time to time to make sure they understand it.

Recommendations for effective instruction

Good “comprehenders” also use strategies that help them retain, organize, and evaluate the information they are reading. Teachers can show students these strategies but should understand that the strategies work best when teachers explain that they will help comprehension (RAND 2002). Some of the strategies include:

  • Identifying the big ideas in a text
  • Concept mapping
  • Using graphic depictions such as Venn diagrams, which illustrate the relationships between and among ideas that share something in common
  • Generating or answering questions, including those that require elaboration
  • Summarizing or paraphrasing text
  • Story mapping—that is, identifying and representing the structure of a story

Reading, writing, and discourse

As texts become more complicated at the middle and high school levels, linking discussion and writing to literacy instruction becomes increasingly important to support comprehension and develop vocabulary (Rand 2002; International Reading Association 2007). Teachers should use assignments that take advantage of the “mutually supportive” relationship between reading, writing, listening, and speaking, recognizing that such classroom activities can help develop vocabulary and aid comprehension.

Lee (2007) acknowledges how challenging it can be to coordinate student discussions, yet she notes that participatory activities promote “metacognition”—the understanding of one’s own thinking. In-class discussion also helps students recognize where their comprehension has broken down, she adds.

From a student’s standpoint, lectures are not as engaging as discussion, debate, and group projects (Center for Evaluation and Education Policy 2005). In this national survey of high school students, more than 80 percent said discussion and debate are exciting and engaging, but only 52 percent said the same of teacher lectures.

 


This research review was prepared for the Center for Public Education by freelance writer Eileen M. O'Brien with additional editorial contributions from Sally Banks Zakariya. Much of O'Brien's work has focused on access to quality education for disadvantaged and minority populations. She has a master of public administration from George Washington University and a bachelor of science degree in psychology from Loyola University of Chicago. Zakariya, a free-lance writer based in Arlington, Virginia, is former editor-in-chief of American School Board Journal and director of publications for the National School Boards Association.

Posted: March 6, 2009

©Center for Public Education

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